Saturday, 13 September 2008

How many times?

Readings: Genesis 50 v 15-21
Matthew 18 v 21-35

Over these last few weeks, we have wandered in and out of the Old Testament story of Joseph alongside our gospel readings.
And today, we reach the end of the story as recorded in Genesis.
Joseph’s brothers, in spite of all the kindness their brother has shown them have cause to be worried again.
Their father is now dead. And they are worried that Joseph has only been kind to them for the sake of their father. So, now that he’s died, they’re busy trying to work out how to make sure their brother doesn’t decide to exact revenge for the evil they had done to him all those years ago.
The interesting thing is that all through this story, we don’t read of the brothers being sorry for what they’ve done. We only read of them working out ways where they won’t be brought to justice – avoiding payback.
And so, after their father’s death, when they think the game might finally be up – what do they do?
Do they say sorry to their brother?
Do they fall on his mercy?
They blackmail him.
They tell him that it was their father’s dying wish that he forgive them.
And it works.
I like to think that Joseph had already forgiven them anyway.
He certainly had opportunity for payback.
Opportunity that he chose not to take.
I like to think that it wasn’t just the presence of his father that stopped him getting even.
So all the scheming his brothers indulged in was unnecessary effort on their part.
Forgiveness is the theme of our readings today.
Practising forgiveness because we experience forgiveness from a forgiving God.
I’ve been reflecting on forgiveness this week, not from the angle of the person forgiven, but from the perspective of someone who offers forgiveness.
And it seems to me that withholding forgiveness in the long run causes more harm to the person who is withholding than it does to the one who goes unforgiven.
If we go on holding a grudge against someone.
If we go through life avoiding people or harbouring awful thoughts about them – In the long run, we are the ones who suffer.
Because bitterness builds up in us, affects our well being and prevents us from knowing a wholeness.
And, in my perverse way, I thought about some of the advantages of forgiveness.
Aside from protecting us from bitterness or resentment, when we forgive others who have wronged us, don’t we experience just a sense of triumph.
Don’t we, just for a while, hold the upper hand when we are able to forgive.
That last bit in the story of Joseph always makes me think:
How good must it have felt for Joseph to be able to say to his weeping brothers – its OK, I forgive you.
His brothers, coming to him in fear and trepidation.
Not actually admitting they were in the wrong all those years ago but surely knowing it deep in their hearts.
Surely it must have been quite satisfying for Joseph to take the high moral ground and pronounce his forgiveness.
There’s nothing like rubbing salt in the wounds.
Of course that’s NOT why Jesus teaches us to forgive.
But, you have to admit, it could be a spin off.
A woman with fourteen children, ages one to fourteen, sued her husband for divorce on the grounds of desertion. "When did he desert you?" the judge asked. "Thirteen years ago," she replied. "If he left thirteen years ago, where did all these children come from?" asked the judge. "Oh," said the woman, "he kept coming back to say he was sorry."
Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven."
A villager said to a wise old monk: "My neighbour slapped me. Should I forgive him?" "Yes," answered the wise old monk. "How many times should I forgive my neighbour?" the villager asked. "How many times did he slap you?" asked the monk. "Once," came the answer. "Then forgive him once," said the monk. "But what if he slaps me fifty times?" the villager asked. "Then you should forgive him forty-nine times," came the answer. "Why only forty-nine times, if I were struck fifty times?" the villager asked.The wise old monk said: "Freely accept the fiftieth slap. You would deserve it for being such a fool to allow yourself to be slapped the first forty-nine times."
Forgiveness is a really hard teaching of Jesus.
Because it goes against all the teachings of nature.
Our nature is not to take things lying down – to get even.
Forgiveness cuts across our natural instincts.

But perhaps it is important to establish what forgiveness is not:
• Forgiveness is not forgetting: deep hurts can rarely be wiped out of folks’ awareness.

• Forgiveness is not necessarily reconciliation: reconciliation takes two people, but an injured party can still forgive an offender even when reconciliation isn’t possible.

• Forgiveness is not condoning: forgiveness does not necessarily excuse bad or hurtful behaviour.
• Forgiveness is not dismissing: forgiveness involves taking the offense seriously, not passing it off as inconsequential or insignificant.

So what IS forgiveness?
This whole chapter of Matthew has loads to say about forgiveness.
Great word.
Great concept.
We all believe in it, don’t we?
There was a man who loved dogs. He served as a speaker in various civic clubs to benefit the SPCA. He was known far and wide as a dog lover. One day his neighbour observed as he poured a new sidewalk from his house out to the street. About the time he smoothed out the last square foot of cement a large dog strayed across his sidewalk leaving footprints in his wake. The man muttered something under his breath and smoothed out the footprints. He went inside to get some twine to string up around the sidewalk only to discover dog tracks in two directions on his new sidewalk. He smoothed those out and put up the twine. About five minutes later he looked out and the footprints indicated that the dog had cleared the fence, landed on his sidewalk and proceeded as he desired. The man was mad now. He trowelled the wet concrete smooth again. As he got back to the porch he saw the dog come over and sit right in the middle of his sidewalk. He went inside got his gun and came out and shot the dog dead. The neighbour rushed over, "Why did you do that?" he inquired, "I thought you loved dogs." The man responded as he cradled his gun in the crook of his arm. "I do, I do like dogs, in the abstract, not in the concrete.

Maybe that’s just where we are with our forgiveness.
We love it in the abstract, but when we really have something to forgive, we hate it in the concrete.

So how do we respond this morning to this hard teaching of Jesus?
Well, lets look at the reasons we have to forgive?
It's hard to keep hating someone, resenting someone, despising someone without it taking a toll on us.For the healing process to begin we must be able to forgive. Resentment and hatred are "useless, black feelings." Usually they do more harm to us than the person we resent.
That's the first reason we forgive: it's good for our mind, body and spirit.
We are followers of Jesus. Sometimes it is difficult to tell Christians from everybody else in society, but this is where we should be different. We should be forgivers. This is part of our witness to Christ's presence in our lives. That's what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We forgive not only because it is to our benefit to forgive. We forgive because we have been ordered by our Lord to forgive.
But there is one more reason why we forgive.
Jesus followed his admonition to Peter with one of his stories. He said the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. One servant owed about a million pounds in today's money. Since this servant was not able to pay his debt, the master ordered that the servant and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. Confronted with the threat of such severe punishment the servant fell down, prostrated himself before his master and said, "Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything." The servant's master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go.But then something amazing happened. The servant who had been forgiven this enormous debt went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred pounds or so and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, "Pay back what you owe." His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, "Be patient with me, and I will pay you back." But the servant who had been forgiven a debt of one million pounds was unwilling to forgive the fellow servant who owed him a hundred pounds. He had him thrown into prison.When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. Summoning this wicked servant, his master said to him, "I forgave you all that debt. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?" And his master, moved with anger, handed the wicked servant over to the jailors to torture him until he should repay all that was owed him. "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you," said Jesus, "unless you forgive your brother from your heart."

Jesus continually linked forgiveness for our fellow human beings with our forgiveness by God. Seventy times seven. Jesus purposely used wild exaggeration in this story to make a point: You and I have been forgiven by God for every sin, every indiscretion, for every stupid thing we have ever done. Can we not find it in our hearts to forgive others?
So today, we, who call ourselves Christians -How many times shall we forgive? That depends. Let’s ask ourselves this question: Do you need to forgive for our own peace of mind? Usually the answer will be yes.
Secondly, let’s remind ourselves of Christ's teaching and ask if we need to forgive in order to witness to Christ's presence in our life.
Finally, ask how often we have sinned against others or against God. Has God forgiven us? If the answer is a resounding yes, then isn’t it time we forgave someone else?
If we find ourselves in the club of those who find it so hard to forgive other people, chances are that we have not come to appreciate and celebrate enough the immeasurable forgiveness that we ourselves have received from God.
So, let us pray today for a deeper appreciation of the amazing love that God has shown us in Christ. It is this awareness that will make it easier for us to let others off the hook for their relatively minor offences against us.
Lets hear again the words of Jesus – YOUR SINS ARE FORGIVEN.
And lets go and forgive others – for the glory of God.

1 comment:

Theophilus Punk (PLStepp) said...

Thank you for your sermon--it blessed me, and it helped me remember a sermon illustration I'd forgotten! No small blessing when the sermon time is only 12 hours away!

And thank you for sharing your journaling, I've deeply appreciated it.

plstepp at kcu dot edu