Come praise the eternal God!
Let all that is within us—
body, emotions, mind, and will—
praise God’s holy name!
Despite our failures, He forgives and releases us.
More than any doctor, He heals our diseases.
When we are famished and weak,
He fills us with good and beautiful things,
satisfying our needs, and restoring our strength.
Come, praise the eternal God!
Sing songs from a grateful heart,
and remember all that He has done for us.
You are our forgiveness,
not because you should,
but because it is what you desire:
to offer us that compassion
which welcomes all
who have been tossed aside.
You are our justice,
Brother of the forgotten,
welcoming all those
weakened by oppression,
hungering for hope,
who have been judged but never heard.
You are our healing,
Spirit of comfort,
bringing peace where
we would do violence;
offering hope to all
we choose to despise;
we have forgotten.
God in Community, Holy in One,
our Forgiveness, our Justice, our Healing,
hear us as we lift our prayer today. Amen.
PRAYER OF ILLUMINATION
Spirit of God,
who danced at Creation’s birth,
dance with us now,
as we hear the Word read and proclaimed, that we may be changed,
and empowered for mission,
SCRIPTURE Matthew 18:21-35
21Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
I live with a literature teacher who is always challenging her students to find the theme in books, poetry and articles. A few of the most popular literary themes are:
- Love – think “Romeo & Juliet”
- Death – think “Harry Potter”
- Good vs. Evil – think “The Chronicles of Narnia”
- Coming of Age – think “Little Women”
- Power and Corruption – think “The Hunger Games”
- Survival – think “Lord of the Flies”
- Courage and Heroism – think “Percy Jackson”
- Prejudice – think “The Hate U Give”
- Individual vs. Society – think “The Giver”
- War – think “A Farewell to Arms”
The list of themes from literature probably could include many other ideas. Also, there are themes that run through Story-telling, Cinema and Song, and I would add sermons. Pastor Alex Evans once said that there are probably really only seven or eight basic themes for sermons. If that is true, forgiveness has to be one of those themes.
Jesus speaks often about forgiveness, and he does so as strongly as anything he says. Forgiveness is at the center of the Lord’s Prayer–“forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Forgiveness is central to so many parables and stories of Jesus.
In this particular chapter of Matthew, Jesus has been teaching about how to live together as God’s people. He has just given instruction about what to do when you have a conflict with someone. You go and you confront them, striving for restoration and community. And then Peter asks Jesus, “So, if someone sins against me, how many times must I forgive? Seven times?”
Peter knows that forgiveness is part of faithful life. Indeed, forgiving seven times seems quite extravagant. Surely that has to be enough–enough faith and love, enough forgiveness to please God.
But Jesus says, “NOT seven times, but seventy-seven times,” which is a way of saying forgiveness is absolutely essential to faithful life, and even calculating it, trying to count it, is out of bounds for faithful people. Forgiveness is meant to be our way of life. Disciples forgive and forgive and forgive. That is Jesus’ strong and continuous message.
Here is the deal–most of us accept the premise–that this is supremely important to Jesus, that Christians should forgive. What we struggle with is how to practice it.
How do we move from where we often find ourselves–hurt, angry, victimized, abused, alienated–to where we say, “I am more than that! God calls me to more than that”? How do we get our minds and hearts from thoughts of anger and hurt and revenge to sincere forgiveness from our hearts? That is what Jesus wants from us!
In order to move us from where we often find ourselves–hurt, alienated, angry, vengeful–to where we are called to live–boundless forgiveness–Jesus tells a great story about a king and a slave. This story is filled with circumstances so exaggerated in order to make his points.
Could a king be so extremely generous is forgiving such massive debt from a lowly slave? Well, the point is clear–that is how much God forgives each of us.
Could a slave, forgiven so extravagantly, then be so harsh with a fellow slave who had meager debts? Could someone actually walk out of the king’s palace on a road paved by freedom and grace and then act with such cruelty to fellow slaves in debt? Well, the hyperbole makes the point–in fact, that is how we often live when we do not forgive.
There are two tools that Jesus uses to motivate us here. There is grateful response. God forgives so much; we are called to forgive. Goodness intends to lead to goodness. Grace intends to evoke gratitude and then more grace from us. But it does not always happen like that. So, there is another motivator–punishment. When the slave fails to respond to generous forgiveness, there is the threat of torture: “So my Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive.”
Which motivator most speaks to you? Some of us are motivated by positive news that calls forth our very best toward the kingdom of God. In Jesus” story, we have been given immense grace just like the slave of the king. Then some of us seem to be motivated by fear and punishment–look, forgiveness is so central to life, and if we like the idea, but fail to implement forgiveness into our heart and life as disciples–well, we are promised torture and suffering. Jesus wants to motivate us to faithful lives as disciples–lives that actually practice forgiveness–not sometimes, not seven times, but always and endlessly. What Jesus wants is “forgiveness from our hearts.” Not ideas like, “Well, I can forgive, but I cannot forget.” That is not forgiveness from your heart. Or we say, “I know I am supposed to love him, but that does not mean I have to like him.” Well, that’s not forgiveness from your heart.
Perhaps we might find our way toward real “forgiveness from the heart” in this way.
First, always we have to REMEMBER the context in which we live. We have to REMEMBER that we belong to God. God’s love covers us. God’s grace and forgiveness–as with the slave in the story–intend to form the backdrop of everything about our lives. We REMEMBER all that God gives us and we REMEMBER what Jesus expects of us–forgiveness intends to be central to life. Some call this “remembering rightly.” What we tend to REMEMBER is the wrong that was done to us. What we tend to REMEMBER is the hurt we feel or the betrayal that we experienced. We tend to REMEMBER how we were victims of the wrongs done to us. And when we REMEMBER only those things, we start signing on to the ways of the world, NOT GOD. When we remember only the evil that was done to us, we move NOT toward redemption and discipleship. We participate NOT in the emerging reign of God but in the struggling world that Jesus came to redeem.
Jesus calls us to another kind of REMEMBERING–the larger realm of God, the grace that covers us and sustains us. Forgiven so extravagantly, we are to be people who forgive. This is not just a good idea. This is to be our way of life.
Second, we have to work at CHANGING OUR THINKING and CHANGING OUR FEELINGS. When we find ourselves betrayed, angry, hurt, abused, our tendency is to react rather than respond. We tend to be full of vengeance and aggression instead of forgiveness, to hold grudges instead of living with grace. Jesus encourages us to not just react with aggressive thoughts and negative feelings. Jesus encourages us to respond in such a way that another, faithful, moral fabric emerges, a new realm takes shape. The cycle of evil and hatred is broken by love and forgiveness. The cycle of revenge and abuse is broken by new thoughts and feelings that actually free us for life closer to God’s heart.
I am reminded of that old saying about anger and hatred. To nurture our anger and hatred is like drinking poison hoping that it is going to kill the other person. And yet all it does is kill us and separate us from God’s love. Seventy-seven times! We forgive and forgive.
To forgive does not mean we condone what was done to us. To forgive does not mean we acquiesce or deny justice. To forgive means to refuse to let what happened destroy us and alienate us from God and from one another. It demands hard work and vigilance, but it is the way to life and discipleship and to God.
Jesus invites us to “forgive from our hearts.” May we go that way as faithful disciples. Amen.
70 X 7 + 1
(inspired by Matthew 18:21-22)
written by Cheryl Lawrie
They always said
that what he really meant
was a figure so unimaginably large
there was no way
anyone would reach it
that what he was really saying was
you had to forgive
an infinite number of times
and then still more
who could need forgiving that often?
So I forgave
and forgave again
of everything that mattered
and made me me.
and forgave again
and the names
the threat of the slap
and the bruise of betrayal.
I forgave the life that got sucked out of me
and forgave again
although I didn’t have it in me
although it used up every ounce of love
I had for him
and for me
and the world
until there was none left
And still I forgave again.
when I had lost count,
when I had passed all the numbers I knew
and couldn’t add a single one
I had the faith
to the voice that says
Don’t do this forever.
You count too much.
Commentary provided by Alex Evans, Eric Barreto, Scott Hoezee, Karoline Lewis, Stanley Saunders, Cheryl Lawrie, David Lose,
THE PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE & THE LORD’S PRAYER
THE LORD’S PRAYER
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
Whether we believe or whether we struggle,
we are God’s.
Let us go out to welcome
the doubters and disciples around us.
Whether we live or whether we die,
we are the Lord’s.
Let us go to embrace all
who have been abandoned by the world.
Whether we are brave or quake at the knees,
we are the Spirit’s.
Let us go to encourage
our sisters and brothers who struggle.