First Congregational Church
September 17, 2017
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 18:21-35 & Romans 14:1-12
"Is Limitless Forgiveness Even Possible in Our World?"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
This week I ran across a question that read, “Why is the number six so scared?” And the answer is “Because seven eight nine!” I also read that 6 out of 5 people have difficulty with fractions and that 63.7% of statistics are wrong. Upon further study, I discovered that math is made of 50 percent formulas, 50 percent proofs and 50 percent imagination. I also discovered that there are three types of people in the world, those who can count and those who can’t.
Numbers can be really frustrating and really fascinating. Balancing a checkbook can bring one to their knees in exasperation and contemplating the numbers that describe the universes can astound us. And then there’s the symbolism of numbers, particularly as it relates to Christianity.
The number one signifies unity; both the unity of God and the unity of members of the Church. The number three is a sacred number in Christianity as it represents the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Four can represent the Four Evangelists (authors of the Gospels), the four corners of the earth, or the four seasons. Five symbolizes the five wounds Christ suffered on the cross (hands, feet, and side), and by extension represents sacrifice. Six represents creation, because God created in six days, or it represents imperfection, because it falls short of the perfect number seven.
And then there is seven. Seven is the number of perfection. God rested on the seventh day, Paul lists seven gifts of the Spirit and Jesus spoke seven utterances from the cross. The number seven is especially prominent in the apocalyptic Book of Revelation, in which there are seven seals, seven churches and many other things numbering seven. Ten symbolizes completion, since there are Ten Commandments, Ten Plagues, etc. One hundred usually denotes completeness or plenitude, since it is ten times ten. And one thousand represents a very large number, infinity or eternity.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:
“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’” 12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
Thank you, Julie and Paul. It’s rather interesting that the lectionary brought these two passages together. In fact, if you look at them for a bit, they don’t really seem to have much to do with one another, except that both passages deal with the heart. Matthew’s passage coaches the heart when we have been wronged while the Roman’s passage advises our hearts when we are perhaps feeling rather righteous. Beyond that, these two passages speak to a way of life. From our passages this morning, forgiveness is our lifestyle because it was Jesus’ lifestyle. And whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord, so it behoves us to act like it.
That being said, I will be the first to admit that sometimes, forgiveness and therefore - grace - can be mighty hard. There are times when revenge would feel oh, so good. Except that while we can wrap our heads around the idea of forgiveness, getting our hearts to that place can be a little tougher.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I could be a better forgiver if I could just say some magic words or wave a magic wand and there would be that right feeling. The problem is that the issue of forgiveness keeps coming up again and again, mostly because the human brain has this double-edged sword called memory.
Then there is perception, because when one can perceive the black and white lines of what is right and what is wrong, life is easy! Even in an age where technology can measure our speed and take a picture of a license plate at the same time, like it or not, it’s black and white. 55: speed limit. 56: over speed limit. So, if you forgive someone seventy seven times, then you should be done, right? If there still isn’t forgiveness in your heart, then you don’t have to try any more, right?
Stanley Saunders, New Testament professor at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, said, “we should resist the inclination to read the parable as a simple allegory, in which the power figure, in this case a king, represents God, and the servant who is forgiven much but refuses to forgive another stands for Israel or some other too easily vilified social group. Parables work best when they are read primarily as simple, integral stories, rather than as ciphers to be decoded in terms favorable to Christians. In any case, parables do not usually convey a simple moral point so much as they are meant to induce critical reflection and to pull the blinders from our eyes.”
Because he said it as eloquently as I would have, whoever David C. Hockett is, he said, “Forgiveness is a practice, a discipline made possible by the grace of God, not some heroic act of the will. It is something that we practice again and again, on a daily basis, until it becomes a part of who we are.”
He went on to say that “practicing forgiveness does not deny the possibility or the necessity of justice. Rather, it redefines justice, and ensures that it is God’s peculiar brand of justice we are practicing and not the retribution and retaliation that often masquerade as justice. In calling us to forgive, Jesus offers us a different kind of justice that holds open the possibility of a new future, a way through the hurt and pain that can lead to resurrection and new life. Forgiveness is about having our lives defined by the justice of God’s kingdom rather than the justice of the kingdoms of this world.”
And so, there may be that day when we come to the 78th time that we are to forgive a person. And maybe you’ve had just enough of trying to beg or plead or cajole God into giving you this feeling of forgiveness, so you can get on with life. Then what?
Scott Hoezee said that someone once said that the scariest word in the entire New Testament is that tiny little word “as” in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins AS we forgive those who sin against us.”
If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
This forgiveness thing is not some weird demand on God’s part. It’s not some hoop we must jump through to earn our salvation or to perform like some trained dog just because God enjoys watching us do tricks. The reason for the connection between God’s forgiving us and our forgiving others is because of the sheer power of God’s forgiveness.
I purposefully saved the Lord’s Prayer for this time today. And I’d like us to do it just a little differently than usual. Today, I’d like to give a phrase of it alone, and then you all repeat the phrase together, and then we’ll take a moment to dwell just on that part of the prayer. Let us take a few moments to allow this time-tested, God-given prayer soak in.
Our Father, Our Father, Who art in heaven, Who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, Thy will be done, on earth on earth as it is in heaven. as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the Kingdom, For Thine is the Kingdom, and the power and the power and the glory, forever, and the glory, forever, forever, Amen. Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.