PENTECOST 14, A – September 14, 2014

 (Rev. Bill Meyer)

SCRIPTURES – Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

 

THEME: Forgiveness from the Heart

Point:  that we might practice forgiveness as well as profess it

Problem: because of our hurts, anger or fears, we fail/refuse to forgive

Power: as God was moved to forgive us, God can so move us by his Spirit to forgive       others

 

 

The other day I stumbled into a situation where one of my friends just learned that a colleague had said some very unkind things about her. Her face was red and she was filled with anger, “After all I’ve done for her; this is the last straw; we are finished!” She felt sinned against, and she said this problem had happened before. But never again.

 

In our Gospel lesson, Peter asks, “If my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive him? Seven times?” Now this was no academic question because Peter did have a brother, Andrew. And he may have been asking the question out of anger or frustration. He too may have been thinking, “This is the last straw; never again”

 

I think it’s safe to say you all know what I’m talking about. Either you’ve been there before, or you’re there right now. We know what it means to be hurt by what others say or do, sometimes repeatedly. We know what it means to get angry, I mean really angry. We also know what it means to be afraid that our feelings are going to be trashed again in the future.

 

Then we come to church and hear about “forgiveness”. It sounds so simplistic, so impractical, so stupid. And yet, we recognize our personal need for forgiveness from God. “Forgive us our trespasses” we pray to God, and we really mean it. But there’s a second part to that prayer, “ Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”. We know how to ask for and profess forgiveness, but how do we practice forgiveness as well? That’s not just the theme of my sermon, but a challenge for Christian living every single day.

 

Forgiveness remains a challenge because it has to do with feelings. Someone says or does something and those words or actions can hurt. The closer the person is to us, the deeper the hurt. And so we react – either by withdrawing and isolating ourselves for protection, or by retaliation, “don’t get mad, get even”. You all know what I mean – you’ve been there too.

 

God has been there too – something we rarely think about. God also has feelings. When we sin, he is hurt, he becomes angry and is inclined to punish us as we deserve. But God has another feeling, a feeling that reveals God’s more dominant character: love and mercy, as reflected in Ps 103:8-12: The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far he removed our transgressions from us.

 

These very same characteristics are illustrated in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus tells the story of a man with an unbelievable debt. Like combining the indebtedness of all our mortgages and credit cards together – payable now. As impossible as his situation was, he begged for time, for mercy; said he would work things out. Instead of punishing him, the king had mercy and forgave him the entire debt. Slate wiped clean.

 

This story mirrors our spiritual situation. From God’s perspective, the amount of our collective sins is huge – like the national debt – an impossible situation. We’re inclined to beg simplistically, “Give us some time and we’ll work it out”. But God replies, “I’ve worked it out for you through the death and resurrection of Jesus  Your debt is paid in full”. Slate wiped clean. That’s love; that’s mercy; that’s Jesus.

 

And how do we respond to God’s gracious forgiveness? Hopefully not like the fellow in the story who, when dealing with someone else, forgot the mercy he just received and would not forgive!

 

We can do better! For Jesus’ sake, we must do better. We can practice forgiveness as well as profess it. Jesus made it very clear: you and I must forgive our brothers/

sisters from our heart.

 

Just why is practicing forgiveness so important?

 

For one thing, forgiveness changes people. Forgiveness breaks down walls of stubbornness and defensiveness. It changes lives. I should know, it happened to me. When I was a senior in high school, I did something very stupid; very wrong. The worst part was telling my father what I had done.  My Dad was hurt; I could see the pain on his face. I was prepared to “do time” – take my punishment like a man and get on with my life. But I was not prepared for forgiveness, but that’s what he said, “I love you, Bill, and because I love you, I forgive you.” That’s what he said, and that’s what he did.

 

“Aren’t you going to ground me? Take away my driving privileges? Cancel some of my plans?” I was prepared for anything he might say, but I was not prepared for forgiveness. Yet I can tell you that moment some 60 years ago – those words,  that action – changed me and changed my life forever.

 

In a sense, we are all “changed people”. We all have a heavenly Father whose heart aches because of what we do to Him and to one another. But our heavenly Father loves us so much that he is willing to forgive us our sins – he sets them aside – he wipes the slate clean. And He seals this forgiveness with the blood of his Son Jesus, who died and rose again that we might be reconciled to God. Yes, because we stand under the cross of Christ, we are a changed people. And because of this cross, we have no other option than to deal with others as “changed people”. We can practice forgiveness, just as we profess.

 

Secondly, although forgiveness changes some people, not all people experience change. Some don’t want it. Some resist love and would rather remain spiteful, and may well seek to hurt us again. What should we do? Christ calls upon us to forgive others, just as God in Christ keeps on forgiving us. Your willingness to forgive may never change the other person, but it will permit you to be changed, and healed, and you will find peace.

 

Failure to forgive can have serious repercussions. The world teaches us, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and we learn that lesson very well. It’s easy to dig in one’s heels and keep the grudge alive. Yet that spirit will become a cancer within us that can destroy us completely. I know, because I’ve been there too.

 

Several years ago a member of my extended family did something that hurt me greatly. I was angry and wanted to retaliate. Even though we lived in different parts of the country, I avoided this person whenever “family” got together.  She had not changed over the years and just her name caused my stomach to churn. Years past but I did not forget. I prayed to God to help me, but I wouldn’t let the matter go. I finally spoke with someone and told him the whole story. Told him that I kept tripping over the phrase “as we forgive those who trespass against us” whenever I recited the Lord’s Prayer.  Told him how guilty I felt whenever I read Bible stories like our Gospel today.

 

He listened patiently and then said, “Bill, do you have any idea what you are doing to yourself? Your anger has not changed her, but it has changed you. And it will destroy you unless you leave the entire matter at the foot of the cross. You are sinning against God and against yourself – and only God can forgive you – and give you peace.” He was right. By focusing on the wrong done by the other person, I was ignoring the wrong within myself. Once I recognized this and confessed it before God, I felt peace. In fact, I was with this person not too long ago, but did not feel the same anger as before, that same desire for revenge. I was finally at peace. I had begun to understand something Paul once wrote: Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good!

 

I do not stand before you as a paragon of virtue today – far from it. I still struggle with my need to forgive others, and sometimes I still fail. In those times when I have been successful, it is because God changed my heart, and he has done so with his love and mercy.

 

And God can do this and more for you. He really can! He not only forgives your sins but can also help you become a changed person – changed by the ongoing love and mercy of God. A changed person -  one who is able to forgive others from your heart. As we just sang moments ago, Today your mercy calls us to wash away our sin. However great our trespass, whatever we have been. However long from mercy, our hearts have turned away. Your precious blood can wash us, and make us clean today! This is our hymn; this is our prayer!