Sermon: Doing Life Together –Forgiveness & Grace
September 17th, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passage: Matthew 18:21-35
The title for the sermon today starts with the title from last week’s sermon, “Doing Life Together” and then adds the words Forgiveness and Grace. I did that because the parable that we hear Jesus telling in today’s reading comes out of the same context of the passage that we looked at last Sunday: the context of doing life together in community, life in Christian community. Last week we looked at Jesus’ discussion with his disciples about how life together is about being humble, about being accountable and responsible for one another, and particularly about working out conflict and being reconciled with someone who has sinned against you or caused you a problem. Jesus spoke about dealing with conflict in healthy ways, not just because it is the good and right thing to do, but because Jesus himself is present! “Where two or three gather together in my name, there am I with them,” he said. Jesus is present to give courage and strength, to give wisdom and understanding, to give patience and love. So we give witness to Jesus’ presence by living together in ways that honor and respect one another, and that seek to resolve conflict and restore relationships.
As I imagine that conversation between Jesus and his disciples, I imagine that after Jesus said those things it made the disciples really start to think because some of what Jesus said was pretty shocking: he said, it’s better to be drown in the deep sea with a millstone around your neck than cause a brother or sister to fall into sin; he said, it’s better to leave 99 sheep alone to go after 1 that has strayed; he said, it’s better to make repeated efforts to work out problems in community before just breaking relationship and avoiding someone. Peter must have been mulling it all over. Perhaps Peter even began to think about specific people that were hard to live with in community. Perhaps Jesus’ words made him remember someone who had slighted him, or offended him, or maybe someone who had betrayed him or deeply wounded him. But whoever or whatever Peter was thinking of, it made him wonder about the extent of forgiveness that should be offered to the person who had sinned against him or hurt him. Peter, clearly trying to be gracious and loving in the way that Jesus was teaching, suggests that one might forgive up to seven times. It must have come as a shock when Jesus said, “No, not just seven times, but seventy-seven times” or he may have said “seventy times seven times” which is 490 times!
Poor Peter! He makes a nice try, but falls so far short. The number Jesus suggests is huge, impossible, unthinkable. It reminds of Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. On the surface it appears to be insanity. But the problem with Peter’s suggestion of 7 is that he is still keeping track. Jesus is saying this: forgive your brothers and sisters beyond your ability to keep track. A commentator on this passage wrote, “If you are keeping track, it is not really forgiveness at all. You may seem to be kind, but keeping track simply means that you are waiting for your neighbor to cross some line – generously drawn, perhaps – but a line nonetheless. Beyond the line you are no longer willing to forgive. Jesus calls into question the entire game. If you keep count, it is not called forgiveness.” (Clayton Schmit, commentary on Mt.18:21-35 at WorkingPreacher.org)
To illustrate his point, Jesus tells the parable. He again exaggerates the numbers to make the message clear to Peter. The first servant, the unforgiving servant, owes ten thousand talents – that’s millions of dollars. Each talent represented about 15 years of income, which adds up to 150,000 years of earnings, or 3000 lifetimes! A ridiculously large debt! The second man owes the first a hundred denarii. A denarii was about a day’s wage, which adds up to 3-4 months of earnings. While not miniscule, it was certainly very small in comparison.
In Jesus’ story, the first man is someone near the top of the economic pyramid, a manager at a high level, controlling a large amount of wealth and accumulating a large amount of debt. He is part of a system that funneled money and goods, power and honor to the top. We, too, live in an economy of debt. The average household carries greater debt than their income and assets combined. We also live in a pyramid-type economy where the profits from the spending of the lower and middle class funnel upwards making the wealthy even wealthier. There is a growing income gap between the poor and the rich. The whole system is based on keeping track, on counting and comparing.
The whole community is connected in this system of indebitedness, of each exploiting and drawing off of the ones below. We hear the connection between the two as they both plead with the one demanding repayment with the same words, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.” We also see the connection of the community in the other servants who are aware of the first man’s being forgiven his debt and his subsequent unwillingness to forgive a fellow servant. The community reports this to the King.
We, too, are all joined together with one another in community. Sometimes it is a community of our choosing, like the community of this congregation. Sometime it is a community that is simply a result of where we live or work. None of us live in isolation. What affects one, affects others. Certainly the King understood that, for by forgiving the manager with the massive debt the King was initiating a debt-clearing revolution, a financial amnesty that would transform the whole system. It was a jubilee – not just intended for one servant, but for everyone.
In this story, Jesus illustrates the forgiveness revolution that God has initiated. Jesus transforms the whole system of keeping track of sin at all. Ironically, it is the One telling this story, Jesus, who is going to pay the whole debt, for every person, for all time. A debt as unimaginably large as the ten thousand talents. The forgiveness revolution begins with Jesus’ payment on the cross, payment with his life. But we have a part to play in this revolution, and in the realization of the transforming amnesty.
The economic revolution the King starts is stopped short when the servant whose debt is forgiven, refuses to forgive the person indebted to him. He not only stops the spread of the amnesty, but by clinging to the old system of owing and counting, he rejects the King’s new way. Having rejected the way of forgiveness and grace, the servant can no longer participate in it. He is stuck with the debt once again and the necessity of paying it off himself. For the new kingdom to break in, each person must pay it forward, extending the forgiveness she received to the one who is in debt to her.
Of course, this story uses finances to make the point about forgiveness, one person owing another money. Many of us can celebrate that kind of amnesty and forgiveness revolution. But what happens when we put this into the social context of community. When the debt is actually a wrong that one person does against another. That’s what I imagine Peter was mulling over – not sins of unpaid financial debt, but other wrongs – other ways of taking advantage of a person, hurting them with words or with actions. Maybe instead of taking money, the sinner stole belongings, or stole innocence, or stole a life. How do we feel about a forgiveness revolution then?
It made me wonder why God started this forgiveness revolution in the first place. What is the purpose of forgiveness?
Often when we talk about debt, we use the word “burden” – the burden of debt. If you have credit cards maxed out, loan payments that consume all of your monthly income so that there is little left for daily needs, it is a huge stress, a weight that pushes down on you constantly. It takes a toll on your sleep, on your relationships, on your ability to enjoy life. The weight of sin is no different – whether it is the weight of regret over things you have done wrong in the past or the weight of anger over ways in which someone wronged you. We keep score, we compare our sin to others, we count the number of times we’ve had to overlook an offense. It is a constant burden that takes a toll. It is no way to really live.
But when a debt is paid off it is freeing! Have you ever had the experience of finally burning the mortgage papers, or cutting up a credit card after the balance is at long last paid off? Have you had the experience of making up with a friend after you had fought about something and hadn’t spoken to one another for some time? A burden is lifted. You feel as free as a bird that can fly again. The stress is relieved, irritability fades, the pain can begin to heal, sleep comes again.
That is the purpose of forgiveness. Forgiveness breaks the grip of sin. It sets us free to live as we were created to live. It allows relationships to be restored. It makes true reconciliation possible, reconciliation with one another in community and reconciliation with God. God began a revolution that ends the keeping score. It eliminates the endless burden of owing God and one another a debt for our mistakes with the festering need for payback. But this revolution is one that we can join only if we are willing to be changed by it, to participate in it – we cannot have it without doing it!
You may have noticed a small pile of acorns at the middle of each pew. I invite you all to pick up those acorns right now. Pass them along so that each person has one or two or more. Hold the acorns in your hands. These acorns represent sins, the burden of wrongs. What is it that weighs on you? Is a hard knot inside you over something someone did to you? Or are you carrying a load of regret over something you have done wrong? Think for a moment about how hard it would be to go about your daily tasks while clinging to your acorns, how awkward to prepare a meal or eat a meal, to tie your shoes or hug a child. As you hold on to your acorn is it sharp? Are you holding tight to your acorn? Gripping them hard? Or is it lying loose in your hand? What might that mean?
I declare to you now: Jesus has started a revolution of forgiveness. Whatever it is that you hold in your hands, You Are Forgiven! Whatever pain you hold, You Are Invited to Forgive! I imagine Jesus holding a big basket and saying, “Leave your acorns with me.” He will relieve the burden of the regret. He will take care of the festering wounds. Will you join the revolution? Will you receive the gift of freedom and life, of mercy and grace? Will you participate and allow the way of forgiveness to spread to others through you? It is a new way – it means giving up counting, giving up keeping score. It means trusting God – trusting God’s justice, trusting God’s compassion, trusting God’s unwavering love.
Would you pray with me? Father God, we are your children and you want the best for us. And that best is life lived free from the weight of sin – both the weight of our own sin and the weight of sins that have hurt us. You long for us to experience life lived in joyful relationship with You and with one another. What amazing grace, that You invite us to join your revolution of forgiveness by taking the burdens on Yourself. In the lightness of that knowledge, that new way, we are filled with so much gratitude that our hearts burst with praise, with song, with love for you. But Father, we know that there are many in this world, some right here in this room perhaps, cannot let go of the burdens and still cling to the hard acorns of sin. They are not ready to relinquish the need to payback or the right to be paid back. May Your Spirit move in their hearts, may You melt the hard knots, may Your gift of forgiveness bring the revolution in Your time. Enable us all to pray with sincerity, that you would forgive us our sins as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us. We pray in the name of Jesus, who faithfulness is our forgiveness. Amen.
There are some baskets up here at the front of the sanctuary. As we sing the closing song, I invite you to come up and leave your acorn in the basket if you are ready to let it go and be a part of God’s forgiveness revolution, to be forgiven and to forgive another. If you are unable to come up, or would prefer it, there are also baskets by the doors and you can leave your acorns in those baskets on your way out. Or perhaps you are not quite ready to let go of your acorn, not quite ready to give or receive forgiveness. In that case you may want to slip the acorn into your pocket and pray about it in the coming days. Talk to Jesus about it and when you are ready, you can open your back door and toss it into the yard, or take a walk and leave it in the woods. You may want to stop by the church or give me a call if it would be helpful to talk and pray with me, or seek out someone else you feel close to who can come alongside you. We are doing life together, finding grace, finding forgiveness.
Closing Song: “Your Grace Finds Me”
(Thanks also to Stanley Saunders for his commentary on this passage at WorkingPreacher.org)