Proper 19 A
September 11, 2011 Matthew 18:21-35 The Rev. Benton Quest
St. Swithin's in the Swamp
It has been a weird week for me. My usual pattern for writing sermons is on the Monday before I am to preach, I look at the scripture readings and just let them sit in my mind. Then, as the week unfolds, I often find themes emerging which usually find their way into the sermon.
Well, this week, all the themes seemed to be quite troubling. The gospel reading for today has to do with forgiveness; forgive, forgive, forgive! God has forgiven us and we are to forgive others. Even when we think we have forgiven enough, we are to forgive some more. Forgiveness, this is one of the basic tenets of Christianity! Christ came to the world to bring us forgiveness from our sin. Forgiveness is one of the things we profess in our creeds. We have been given the gift of forgiveness and through this gift, we are to reach out and forgive others. However, when I look at the world, it seems I see anything but forgiveness.
We seem to have become an angry society. People don’t talk to each other anymore. All that people do is point fingers and make outrageous accusations. People claim we are a Christian nation, but then these very same people go out and act in a decidedly un-Christlike manner. You would think having so many Christians around would mean that forgiveness would abound. You would think that if we claim to be a Christian nation, that we would be a nation of peace and love. If someone who knew nothing about Christianity were to look at our society, would they believe that Christ came to the world to spread forgiveness to all people? Or would they believe that Christ came to the world to make the world knuckle under and say “uncle?”
Then we throw into the mix all the talk and TV shows about the 9/11 tragedies. We see how anger and hatred can be manifested into acts that can only be described as “pure evil.” Now please her me: I am not saying that the people who participated in the events of 9/11 were evil and I am not saying that the Muslim faith is evil; I don’t believe either of these things. I do believe, however, that combined effect of these people fanatically following a fringe belief created something that was truly evil.
So this is the whole “weird” thing; we as Christians are tasked with trying to spread the joy, peace, and love that IS forgiveness while being surrounded by just about anything EXCEPT joy, peace, and love.
If we claim to be a Christian nation, why doesn’t forgiveness abound? A recent Gallup Poll places the percentage of Americans who claim to be Christian at 78%. You would think that with that many people claiming the mantle of Christianity, forgiveness would be the rule as opposed to the exception. I truly believe that the people who claim the mantle of Christ do so honestly and faithfully. But I also know that we are dealing with people; people who make mistakes, people who get caught up in the trials of life, people who forget that they are not only to say they are Christian, but are to truly be FOLLOWERS of Christ. I personally believe that Christianity is the true and perfect faith, it just happens to be professed by a whole bunch of flawed people. And with flawed people comes a flawed expression of faith. And with flawed expressions of faith comes the need for love, care, and forgiveness.
Why do we find extending forgiveness so difficult? We must assume that the only reason Peter asked how many times he needed to forgive was NOT so he could make sure he exceeded that amount but so he could be sure he did not forgive too much! We only ask questions like the one Peter asks when we are trying to avoid doing something. I can imagine someone asking how many times they really needed to floss their teeth, but I cannot imagine someone asking how many times they had to kiss their husband or wife. Forgiveness just seems to be something that is hard for us humans.
And why is that? For the most part, it really doesn’t cost us much to forgive someone. We may protest saying that is could cost us a whole lot of money, but if we take the money thing away, we still have a lot of forgiving that is not happening in the world.
You see, when we forgive, we give up our right to revenge. We have all seen this; two brothers fighting. One says, “Ok, I forgive you!” And as soon as the other turns his back, the first (and usually younger) brother proceeds to take a pot shot at his older brother. The younger brother really didn’t forgive the older one; he was just looking for the right time to get his revenge. This seems to be the state of the world today; we never really forgive anyone, we just look for the right time to get revenge. Although we don’t call it “revenge” anymore, now we call it “closure.” But whatever we call it, revenge does no one any good. It is only in forgiveness that we find peace.
Let’s go back to the fighting brothers. So the younger one takes a pot-shot. Now, if the older one does not forgive, what happens? Right! He smacks his younger brother. Then the younger brother finds his opportunity and another pot-shot is sent to the older brother. If someone doesn’t find the strength to forgive in this situation, we will soon have two bruised boys on our hands. And if allowed to really continue, the outcome could be that the brothers never talk again to each other, or worse.
We may feel that by forgiving, we are admitting weakness. But forgiveness comes out of a position of strength. Forgiveness is something that we give. And I think that is where we get tripped up; we feel that something has been taken from us, and then we are expected to forgive without any kind of revenge or apology. We feel justified in holding a grudge because in our opinion something had been taken from us.
Now, forgiveness does not say that the forgiven act was right or justified, it just says that revenge will not be sought. In the gospel reading, the master did not say that the slave was right in getting so far into debt, but in forgiving; the master was giving up his right to get repayment.
Forgiveness may not be easy, but it is what we are asked to do as Christians. We are to place our need for revenge aside and allow the love of Christ to infuse the situation. We are to put aside our hurt and move forward in the strength that we receive from God. We need to look to our Lord in faith and then move on, trusting that in Christ, all will be well.
Who do you need to forgive? Right here, right now, what revenge can you release to God? Who can you forgive? Holding this anger cannot be pleasant, so Christ tells us to let it go. You don’t need an apology. You don’t need to tell the person, “I forgive you.” Just release that need for revenge and give it to God. Know that God looks favorably on our willingness to forgive. And the more we forgive, the easier it becomes.
I think forgiveness is the gift that we give to ourselves. The anger, the betrayal, the need for revenge that we hold are those things that make us bitter and prevent us from fully living the life God has intended for us. When we let go of those thing, we release the energy we were using to seek revenge. When we forgive, we have more joy with which to celebrate the life that God has given!
Wouldn’t it be nice if we who take the title of Christian would be willing to forgive with the same forgiveness that Christ lavishes upon us? I believe we try, but I also believe the troubles of the world distracts us from our goal. And when we get distracted, it is then that we see the troubles that have been plaguing our world. But just because we can’t be totally forgiving all of the time, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Part of the reason we join together on Sundays is to remind ourselves of status as Children of God. And why we gather, is to hear the story of Christ and to be reminded of the great forgiveness we find in his life, death, and resurrection. And finally, we come together so that we can be sent out. We go out into a world that has forgotten the wonder of forgiveness; and through our actions, we bring forgiveness to our hurting world.