Sunday, September 11, 2005

Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, September 11, 2005

In the name of the God the Creator, Jesus the Liberator, and the Holy Spirit the Sustainer. AMEN.

Peter has been following Jesus for awhile now. He has seen Jesus do some amazing things. He has seen healing. He has seen Jesus go against the religious leaders of the time. He has seen Jesus associate with people most think Jesus should be avoiding. And he has heard Jesus tell some amazing stories that have challenged his own understanding of what it means to be a Jew. I sometimes wonderful if Peter has been thinking of how he might impress Jesus just a little bit. So Peter comes to Jesus with what is a startling and an obviously generous offer in his mind. In fact, in my own mind it is an exceedingly generous proposal. “If my sister or brother offends me, how often am I to forgive,” Peter asks. How about seven times Lord, is that a good enough offer? I tell you, if I was Jesus I would have jumped on this generous offer. To find a person willing to forgive an offender seven times would have been quite a find in my experience. Imagine the patience and love that would be demonstrated in a willingness to forgive a person seven times. To me it seems an offer above and beyond the call of a Christian to make. And yet Jesus does not even think twice about it. Jesus dismisses the offer and gives an even greater challenge. The answer that Jesus gives is not about numbers however. Jesus answer is about a willingness to not even count how often we forgive. It is never easy to forgive. It is even harder to forgive if you have to do it a few times. But it is almost unbearable to think that we have to forgive a brother or sister time after time after time after time. That is just too much! And yet with no apology that is the answer Jesus gives to poor Peter.

This answer is based in part in the words found in the reading from the Psalm today. The Psalmist describes for us the mercy of God. It is a mercy that is not at all like the way we humans deal with one another. When we are in a relationship with God we are treated by a God who cares for us as a father does for his children. Jesus’ answer to Peter is also found in the words of Paul when he asks “Why do you pass judgment on your brothers or sisters? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?”

To be honest, I don’t think I could forgive someone seventy-seven times. I think for me even the seven times Peter was trying to offer would be a stretch. And so I know that at many levels I fall short of what God calls on me to do. The question is what should I do about it. Do I throw up my hands and give up? No, that would not be what God would have of me. God wants me to work on the areas I find in need of improvement. True, it would be easier for me just to give up. But that would constitute an even greater failure on my part than my unwillingness to forgive.

Instead I need to work on gaining a greater ability to forgive others more in my own life. It is too easy to be like the person described in Ecclesiasticus. Wanting to be vengeful and hold on to anger and wrath seems to be a human preference. But the writer of Ecclesiasticus also warns us of the dangers of that attitude. When we hold on to anger and wrath and judgement against others, we invite it in on ourselves as well. In fact, beyond forgiveness Ecclesiasticus tells us to even overlook the faults of others. That is a concept that truly requires Christian love.

God wants us to treat each other as God treats us. But that can sometimes be a tall order. Overlooking faults and forgiving others seventy-seven times would seem to be beyond human abilities. They both require help from God to accomplish them. The more we give ourselves over to God the closer we will be able to come to achieving those goals.

Perhaps one way to judge our walk with Christ is in looking at how close we are able to follow in those things that God calls us to do. Our ability to show compassion, mercy and forgiveness is directly related to our walk in faith.

So the lessons for today are a great challenge to me. They are a challenge for me to examine my life and see how well or poor a job I am doing in conforming to my call to follow Jesus. The Gospel lesson drives the point home in a way that no one could fail to miss. Jesus tells us in this passage a story about the man who owes the king literally a fortune he could never, ever repay even if he worked every day for the rest of his life and gave every cent to the king. And yet, even owing an amount he can never repay he asks the king for time to raise the funds. The king to the amazement of all, probably most of all to the amazement of the servant, forgives the unrepayable debt. Then this same servant, after receiving such a great gift of forgiveness happens upon another who owes him a much smaller debt. Still a large amount, but definitely repayable with time. And what does he do? He tosses the guy in jail for not paying up. Of course, justice is given in the end as this terrible wrong reaches the ears of the king and things are set right with the unappreciative servant. He receives his punishment for his failure in forgiveness. And then Jesus gives the listener a warning. His warning is that we need to forgive our sisters and brothers from our hearts if we expect God to forgive us.

When I think about the times in my life I have not wanted to forgive someone I am frustrated with myself. When I think about the times I savored being angry, mad or vengeful, well, it makes me glad that God has a greater storehouse of forgiveness than I do. God can forgive me a debt so much greater than I can ever imagine. God can forgive me the debt that is so great that I could never repay it. And yet God expects me to do my part. I need to learn to forgive what are actually very small and trivial debts compared to the debt God has forgiven me. On the surface it would seem like a rather easy task. And yet I struggle with it. Part of me does not want to give it up to God. Part of me likes being able to choose. Part of me likes to be able to judge another and find them wanting and deserving of condemnation.

But God’s ways are not my ways. My Christian calling is to transform my life closer to the way that God calls me to live. And that means learning to forgive, as many times as I’m called on to do so. It means learning to forgive without counting the number of times.

The lessons for today give us a long list of attributes to work for in our faith walk. Not being angry with our neighbor. Overlooking others faults. Not judging each other. And finally, forgiving each others sins. Perhaps each of us should take the scripture insert home today and highlight those things God is calling us to do. Then take one or two and start working on them in our life. That would have the dual benefit of pleasing God and making each one of us a better Christian.

I had this sermon finished before I took off this weekend to the Standing Committee meeting. I didn’t want to have to rush when I got back. But some discussions at our meetings have caused me to extend my message. I want to end where I started. I started by talking about a generous proposal. So I want to end with a discussion about the spirit of generosity because it ties in directly to the idea of forgiveness. The Diocese is, like St. Peter’s, facing significant financial difficulties. We engaged in a long discussion about giving, about tithing and about how we can inspire parishes in this diocese to start meeting their financial obligations to the Diocese. We at St. Peter’s have committed ourselves to meeting that obligation although because of financial difficulties of our own, we are currently way behind. But our discussion finally turned to the fact that that answer is not to be found so much in berating people about tithing. It is even not about convincing them that tithing is a blessing. Instead we need to start thinking and developing a spirit of generosity in ourselves. This same spirit can inspire both forgiveness and greater leaps of financial support to the parish and diocese.

We need to continue to make all of you aware of the financial situation of St. Peter’s. But each and every one of us must examine our own hearts in light of that information. We must examine our hearts and not our pocketbooks. It is in our heart that the spirit of generosity flows from.

My prayer is that all of us together will work on our own issues of generosity in all areas of our life. We all need to develop generosity of love, generosity of forgiveness, generosity of service, generosity of give. Each of us needs to develop an overwhelming generosity in every area of our life. I firmly believe that God will bless that.

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