September 17, 2017 Sermon

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017, Lectionary A, Proper 19


The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.+ Rector                                      Scripture: Matthew 18:21-35

“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30


Let us pray.  Heavenly, merciful Father, send now the Holy Spirit to empower us to forgive those who have hurt us, so that we might know the immensity of your love for us through Jesus Christ our Lord who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen.

There has been so much bad news here recently that the following story may have escaped your attention.


Reuters – “A student carrying two guns opened fire at his high school near Spokane, Washington on Wednesday of this past week, killing one classmate and injuring three others before he was apprehended by a staff member, the local sheriff said. The slain student was trying to convince the shooter, whose first gun had jammed, not to carry out the morning rampage when he was shot dead, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich told reporters.


The gunman then fired on three other students in a second-floor hallway of Freeman High School in Rockford, Washington. The surviving victims, who were in their mid-teens, were listed in stable condition, a local hospital said.  Knezovich declined to identify the suspect or discuss what may have motivated the gun violence in detail but said: ‘It sounds like a case of a bullying-type of situation.’”


We really don’t need to be reminded, but yes, people do bad things to other people, perhaps not as bad as killing and shooting students in a school, but nonetheless bad.  The bombing in London this past Friday had not happened when I first began this sermon.


If I were to ask for a show of hands as to whether any of us have been harmed, not necessarily physically, but certainly not to be precluded, by someone —a rejection, a mistreatment, a betrayal—I would imagine that there is not one of us here who has not suffered in that respect.  Someone we know usually, though not necessarily, has done us harm, perhaps serious harm, even abuse.  We have been wounded to a greater or lesser extent by someone with whom we have relationship—a spouse, parent, child, friend, or acquaintance. Our trust has been violated and we are left with anger, pain, hurt, or disappointment. In other words, we have suffered some kind of loss to ourselves, to the ones we love, or what we own because someone was either intentionally harmful or negligent.  No, that harm may not have been as severe and as devastating as the loss of a child from a school shooting or a terrorist bombing, but no less destructive to ourselves.


In today’s gospel from St. Matthew we hear St. Peter ask Jesus that question we have heard before:  “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”   Peter curiously asked the question within the context of the church, which at that time did not, exists.  Pentecost was yet a future event.  Regardless, his questions still holds not only for him but for us.  How many times should we forgive someone who has sinned against us, hurt us, or even killed someone we love?  How many times, if at all, should a wife or husband forgive her or his spouse for infidelity?


Today’s gospel follows on the heels of last week’s.  There we heard Jesus say, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. [. . . ] and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Is Jesus contradicting Himself?  From last week’s reading, Jesus suggests there is a limit to forgiveness—“treat them as a Gentile” (that is an outcast, in rebellion against God).  In today’s gospel, however, Jesus’ call for forgiveness seems to have no limit—seventy times seven, He tells Peter.  What is going on?


One observer asks, “What exactly did Peter have going on inside when he asked his question of Jesus about how many times he should forgive? Only rarely do we ask this kind of question in the abstract. We usually ask the kind of question Peter asked when we have a specific issue hanging over our heads. Did Peter find himself in the predicament we often face? Had a specific person rubbed Peter’s nerve raw? We might go to Jesus when we have reached the magic number of seven, hoping He would tell us we can quit now. Whew! Thank you, Jesus!”


When we take a moment to reflect, we realize that daily living, from the moment we get up until we go to bed at night, is itself a matter of forgiving.  The person who is late, forgets to return our call, or takes our parking place, these people we may have to forgive.  Marriage, tell me that is not a matter of forgiving.  We know our preferences and our spouses have his or hers.  What of our children?  What slight have they recently inflicted upon us and vice versa?  When did they last call or come by to see us?  What slight have we inflicted upon them?  Are we treating our adult children as children? Should we, should they not forgive us?


Truthfully, how could we be in relationship at all if we did not forgive? Failing to forgive stops the flow of love.  It stops the relationship if not entirely, then on some level.  Yes, from time to time we all get like the forgiven, but unforgiving debtor in today’s gospel.  Remember the last time we felt righteous anger.  How justified we felt, growling all the way.  The question must be asked.  What is it exactly that has been done to us that requires us to forgive?  What is the offense?


We may think it is merely analogy that Jesus uses in His response to Peter’s question about the number of times to forgive.  “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.”  In other words, because the indebted man had not paid back what he owed, he was stealing; he had taken something that belonged to the king.


This is to say that when we look closely at the injury inflicted upon us, we discover that injury is, in fact, a matter of someone having taken something from us. That person may have taken his or her love, support, trustworthiness, or confidence from us.  That person has stolen something precious from us and it hurts; it wounds; it maims; and even destroys.    In other words, forgiving someone means loving someone who has taken something from us.  The marriage relationship is a clear example.  What does an unfaithful spouse take from his or her marriage partner? Security, trust, love, well-being to mention but a few!


If we do some additional reflection on this idea that being hurt by someone is a matter of someone having taken something from us, we might be surprised to realize, in respect to the Ten Commandments, that all ten have to do with taking or stealing something from someone.  The first three are a matter of stealing from God.  The fourth, keeping the Sabbath, is a matter of stealing from ourselves.  The last six are a matter of stealing from others—honoring one’s parents, not committing murder, not committing adultery, not stealing, not bearing false witness, and not coveting.  They all have to do with taking what is not ours.  Indeed, if we go back to the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden, there, too, it boils down to not stealing.  The serpent, the devil, convinced Eve that it was alright for her take (steal) what was not hers but God’s, and so she ate of the tree knowledge of good and evil.


How then might the wounded, the one stolen from, how might we find it within ourselves to forgive the one who has done the wounding, the taking?  A broken arm can lift no weight.  Can a broken heart be expected to do so?

DEAR ABBY: I have been married for 15 years and love my wife very much, but we drifted apart. Then I went and did something really stupid and had an affair. It lasted only a few weeks, and I regret it. My now-ex-wife and I are still working on our relationship. Yes, it was the wrong thing to do, but because of the affair, we have grown closer than we have ever been.


My problem is her parents. She’s worried how they will react. They dislike me intensely now and would run me over with their car if they got the chance. They have also trash-talked me to our children. (My parents have never said anything bad about her and never would.)  It has been a year, and her parents don’t know we are working on staying together. They keep trying to set her up on dates. I feel like I’m a secret. Help!  Signed, Working It Out in Iowa    .


DEAR WORKING IT OUT: I’m sorry you didn’t explain more about how you and your ex are trying to work things out. From where I sit, her parents are not the problem. The problem is her reluctance to talk to them like the adult she is and tell them your — and her — intention to reconcile. It’s natural that they are angry with you for cheating on their daughter and are trying to introduce her to eligible men now that she’s divorced. The two of you should enlist the help of a licensed marriage and family counselor, not only to help you reconcile, but also to repair the breach with her family” (Savannah Morning News, 9-16-17).


Well, Abby’s column did not help out much, did it?  Like Abby we would have liked to have known how this couple seemingly had entered into a process of reconciliation, of the wife forgiving her husband for his unfaithfulness.  We might ask then, is intention and love enough to bring us to a place where we can forgive someone for the harm that person has done us or is there something about ourselves, the one injured, that we first have to understand?


Jesus gives us a hint when He says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).  In other words, it is that unpleasant notion of “dying to self” that makes it possible for us to forgive the one who has done us harm.  This may seem strange at first, but have you ever noticed how you were able to forgive someone for some offense against you when you realized that you, too, had committed a similar offense against someone.  In this instance we have died to some notion that we are better than someone else.  That is one slice of dying to self, but there are others.


If we reflect further on the couple in the “Dear Abby” column, if  we recall when we, too, have struggled in a relationship, gone through a divorce even, then we know that part of the process of forgiving or at least making peace is realizing that neither side is perfectly right, nor is either side perfectly wrong.  That, unpleasantly, takes a lot of “looking in the mirror” self-honesty where we see ourselves for who we are and for who we are not.  It requires us to seriously consider what we value in our lives (are attached to) and how by those attachments we have come to identify and yes limit ourselves. Will we continue to grow as Christian individuals or hold onto that which quite frankly in time will not last because of age or death?


When we think about it, this is one dimension to understanding how Jesus bought forgiveness for us on the cross.   He of all people was entitled above all people, but did not justify himself.  He allowed Himself to be all the wrong we ever have done or will do.  He took the blame for you and me.  He allowed everything to be taken from Him, everything.  He totally died to self.  This reality, though a mystery, reaches into the very core of our hearts.   It plumbs into that place, where when we lie awake in the early hours of the morning, we see ourselves looking back at ourselves, but would never dream of telling a soul.  There with us, though, is Jesus. He sees all of us and yet bled, died for us.  How in all honesty could we ever say no to such forgiveness, such love unless we really want to continue disliking ourselves while all along calling it being ourselves?


Yes, this is deep.  It pumps where our hearts do.  We would rather laugh and look at the bright side, ignoring the life-side, the struggle-side, and the price of gaining true freedom side, which God our Creator gifted and gifts to us.


The king in today’s gospel reading is, of course, God Himself.  He has shown mercy toward us by the gift of His Son Jesus, who died for us, so that we might be forgiven.  It is a great gift—this forgiveness.  It knows no limits except that which we may wrongfully impose on it.  You see,     when we fail to forgive, it is not that God hands us over to be tortured, but we ourselves who hand ourselves over to be tortured.


Yes, it can be very difficult to forgive, especially when the crime against us is so horrendous, so devastating, and so de-humanizing (i.e., a lot has been taken from us).  Think of the parents whose child was killed or wounded at Freeman High School in Rockford, Washington this past week. When we can’t forgive, we need to ask God to forgive us and empower us to forgive others. Then we will know the cool salve of forgiveness and love.  As the Lord’s Prayer reminds us, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

I don’t know whom you need to forgive; you may have forgiven them before (Jesus says from the heart), but forgive that person(s) again. It may be a parent, a child, a spouse, a relative, a friend, or even me. The peace we will exchange in a few moments is about forgiveness, and not merely saying good morning.  We can forgive whomever, whether here or not, deceased or not, at this time.  It may hurt to do this, but the blessing on the other side will make it worth it.


It has been some time since I told this story, but it is illustrative, encouraging, and instructive when it comes to forgiving someone.  Some twenty-five or better years ago, before Emily and I went to seminary, our home parish had recently called a new rector.  He was a good preacher, but seemed to be stepping on people’s toes, including my own.  I had reached a point of always being upset because of this new rector.  I was angry, hurt, discouraged, and disappointed.  It was becoming a crisis for me. I was in torment, being tortured if you will.


Another Sunday morning rolled around.  The time was rapidly approaching to go forward to receive Communion, yet here I was with all this anger toward the new rector.  I knew what the Prayer Book said with words from Jesus: “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (BCP p. 376).  With those words  loudly chiming in my head, I determined that what I would do was when this priest placed the Communion wafer in my palm, I would then gently squeeze his palm with my thumb—a kind of embrace if you will.  In other words, this would be my gesture of forgiving him.

As this priest placed the wafer into my palm, that is exactly what I did.  I gently squeezed his palm with my thumb.  Suddenly, the most incredible thing happened.  From the other side of the altar rail came a blast (I don’t how else to describe it) of God’s love toward me, for me.  I was overwhelmed, dismayed, at peace, and free, free from anger, free from hurt, and free from bitterness—no longer tortured.  Why was that?  This is what I suspect. When we forgive someone we actually enter into the very nature of God Himself, His forgiving nature which is eternal life, life abundant.  Need I say more?  Be encouraged, therefore to forgive.  You will be blessed.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.