Sermon for the 22nd Sunday After Trinity
Philippians 1:3 | Matthew 18:21-35
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost - Amen
HereÕs a quick synopsis of how a typical play date runs for the Cochran family. We show up at a family memberÕs home or they arrive at ours, and at first the kids are absolutely ecstatic to see their cousins. They run around and for a little while they play together some game whose rules only they know. Eventually though they each notice a different toy or book or something shiny, and one by one they wander away from the group. My daughter is especially independent and usually avoids all the reindeer games - and this frustrates our oldest, Ethan, to no end.
Then, somewhere within the first hour or so, it happens. One of the kids - ours or my in-lawsÕ - notices that well hey isnÕt that a pretty interesting thing my sister or cousin has found, and gosh wouldnÕt I like to give it a try. And then with an earnest shout of Ōshare!Ķ they take it. The original owner is understandably upset and perhaps he or she strikes the would-be thief in retaliation. And then the crying begins and in wanders us, the clueless parents who have to piece together the mystery of who did what to whom relying on very unreliable eyewitnesses, and ultimately we just end up telling ALL the children to say theyÕre very sorry and hug each other.
And hereÕs the most interesting thing. These kids say sorry, they hug and kiss, and then they go right back to playing as if nothing ever happened - all the tears are gone in an instant! Stranger still is that throughout the afternoon - for hours! - this cycle will happen again and again - the robbery, the retaliation, the ŌIÕm sorryĶ, again and again - once, twice, seven times... and seventy times seven.
Before St. Peter asks Jesus this morning about just how often we are to forgive our brother, Jesus has just finished teaching that Ōunless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heavenĶ. Very young children like those at our play dates, it seems, have quite a capacity to forgive and forget, but somehow as we get older, it gets harder to let go of someone taking our toys or hurting our feelings.
There are those of us in the church who have suffered unimaginable trauma and abuse at the hands of family, those they trusted, and, unfortunately, even church leaders. I canÕt imagine how hard it must be for them to struggle with this fundamentally Christian command to forgive others.
Like anyone else, though, I have had my fair share of bruises as from time to time I have felt slighted or taken advantage of in life, but never as acutely as I felt just over a year and a half ago when I felt betrayed by those I considered good friends as well as co-workers. Looking back now it was hardly the trespass against me I felt it was at the time, but I remember clearly how painful a time it was -- and yet at the same time I seemed unable to just let it go. I held onto my grudge tightly for several months, feeding it with my growing anxiety and angry thoughts, and desiring a justice that didnÕt seem would come - and the more I dwelled on it, the angrier and angrier I got. My wrath limited my words and attitude to the worse kinds, it dried up my prayer, and dampened every other relationship I had.
Then when it seemed beyond bearing - and when Lisa graciously told me she had had quite enough of my tantrum - I decided seemingly at random one night to attend evening prayer at church near our house. And there I found myself in tears while praying through that eveningÕs Psalm that exalted the goodness, justice, and mercy of God.
Since then IÕve come to firmly believe that it is important we regularly pray through the Psalms because there is no better expression of someone who, while facing these struggles in life - betrayal, anxiety, despair, and pain - still has full faith in God and will rely on Him to vindicate and make all things right. And the more we make it a habit to dwell on the unwavering faithfulness of God to bring justice to the nations and set even the cosmos itself to rights, the more His providence over our relatively paltry grievances becomes a joyful promise of the great day to come.
One such Psalm is 133, which goes, ŌBehold, how good and joyful a thing it is, for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, that ran down unto the beard, even unto AaronÕs beard, and went down to the skirts of his clothing. Like as the dew of Hermon, which fell upon the hill of Sion. For there the Lord promised his blessing, and life for evermore.Ķ
Oil and water have obvious sacramental connotations, especially when presented here with Aaron, the high priest. In this short Psalm we hear the Holy Spirit telling us that our unity is not only just good - it is like a priestÕs anointing oil and the best, purest water - that is to say, it is a blessing from the Lord that descends on us, His People.
In his commentary on Psalm 133, Matthew Henry writes, ŌGod commands the blessing; man can but beg a blessing. Believers that live in love and peace, shall have the God of love and peace with them now, and they shall shortly be with him for ever, in the world of endless love and peace. May all who love the Lord forbear and forgive one another, as God, for Christ's sake, hath forgiven them.Ķ
God commands the blessing; man can but beg a blessing. This morning both of the servants in the parable begged their master for a blessing of forgiveness from their debts, but we know that the king who was owed a very great debt, was in the right when he expected the first servant to forgive his fellow servant who owed such a relatively smaller amount. In todayÕs language we might call this paying it forward, but this parableÕs message goes much, much deeper than that.
This is a great theological truth and revelation about God that we should always remember. It goes like this: every blessing that God has ever given His people has a greater purpose, and that is to be a blessing for the whole world.
Consider Abraham. He was chosen and called into a covenant relationship with God in order that he might leave the land of his father and go where God sent him. God promised Abraham that He would bless him and make him great Ōso that you, Abraham, will be a blessingĶ and God promised to give him a great family so that Ōin you, Abraham, all the families of the earth shall be blessedĶ.
Likewise the nation of Israel was rescued from Egypt in order to be a testimony to the nations of the world of GodÕs revealed character as the Faithful One who delivers and redeems. And so we too as followers of Jesus Christ are not only those whom God has saved and will be faithful to save until the day of Christ - as we heard Paul write this morning - but more importantly we are presently this very day part of the Body of Christ through whom God will bless the world and set all things right even while being faithful to His original promises to Abraham.
What does this have to do with forgiveness? Forgiveness received in Christ is the greatest blessing of all. And the blessings bestowed by God, including and especially forgiveness, are all for more than just our own sake. Jesus clearly wants his followers to know what is expected of those who desire this blessing.
Forgiving those who trespass against us is in itself a spiritually good and healthy thing - and in no way optional for those who seek to follow Christ - but it also benefits those to whom we show forgiveness. Some of these whom we forgive - even if they can be found at church - may not as of yet have experienced the greater forgiveness of God. Our faithful obedience to JesusÕs teaching to show continuing mercy to those who wrong us and pray for even our enemies can be the means through which the Spirit draws them finally to Christ.
Forgiveness - and the reconciliation that results from it - run thematically through everything we celebrate as Christians. In our Anglican-Catholic rule of life we practice the sacrament of penance by making confessions throughout the year. Coming from an evangelical background this was a difficult thing at first for me. Do we really need to make a confession to Fr. Neil in a closet in order to be forgiven by God?
No, Jesus is our only mediator, but our gospel lesson this morning in Matthew chapter 18 does sit right in the middle of JesusÕs teaching on church discipline where JesusÕs disciples are being charged with authority to deal with the earthly presence of sin - even as Jesus is preparing obediently to go and offer once and for all an oblation of himself for that sin.
As spiritual yet physically embodied creatures who first experience through our natural senses the spiritual truths we hold to in faith, we will benefit greatly when, after feeling earnestly convicted of our wrongs, we are told in person by our priest whose presence reminds us of ChristÕs that we do have full assurance of GodÕs blessed forgiveness - once, twice, seventy times seven. And at the same time we stand accountable to work out that salvation with fear and trembling.
Consider for a moment whether the prodigal son truly would have understood the merciful forgiveness of his father if he had not first been physically embraced, dressed in robes and rings, and brought to a feast?
When we make our confession - together in the liturgy or in private with our priest - we receive grace to continue with the assurance of our undeserved forgiveness - so that we can carry out the forgiveness we have experienced - from the confessional booth and out into the world, as ministers of reconciliation.
As we move closer to Advent and the start of the new liturgical year, I encourage you to take advantage of this amazingly edifying practice of confession if you havenÕt already. While we donÕt need to make a confession to be forgiven, according to the gospel this morning we do need to be able to forgive others, and the sacrament of penance as a part of our overall life of prayer helps us live up to this vocation.
The day after that fateful evening prayer I was walking down the hallway at work and knew I would soon be confronted with those who I felt had wronged me. Again I felt anxiety and anger begin to well up, but then almost immediately I experienced a strong conviction: No, Sean, this isnÕt how this works. You donÕt get to give all this over to God AND also hold onto it. Just as sudden the heavy load of my own making was gone, and with that I knew I had truly forgiven my friends.
It was one of the most difficult ordeals IÕve experienced in my life; one I hope I never have to experience again, and yet our Lord Jesus asks that each of us do this very thing for each other again and again, seven times seventy times. God commands the blessing; man can but beg a blessing.
IÕd like to close with two more quotes. The first has been written a number of ways by different authors, and IÕve always liked it: Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past. This has a special meaning for Christians. GodÕs people will be vindicated in the future, the Day of Jesus Christ that Paul wrote so joyfully about in his letter to the Philippians. That should be our focus. For St Paul, the life of holy living is seeking for that day to come, living in present anticipation of the glorious future of the world to come.
Finally, the first lesson from the daily office this morning is from Ecclesiasticus, and it summarizes all of this so well this morning:
Anger and wrath, these also are abominations,
and the sinful man will possess them.
28 He that takes vengeance will suffer vengeance from the Lord,
and he will firmly establish his sins.
2 Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done,
and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.
3 Does a man harbor anger against another,
and yet seek for healing from the Lord?
4 Does he have no mercy toward a man like himself,
and yet pray for his own sins?
5 If he himself, being flesh, maintains wrath,
who will make atonement for his sins?
6 Remember the end of your life, and cease from enmity,
remember destruction and death, and be true to the commandments.
7 Remember the commandments, and do not be angry with your neighbor;
remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook ignorance.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost - Amen