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Forgiveness and Community

Matthew 18:21-35; Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18:21-35

21  Then 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?”  22  Jesus 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.  24  When he began the reckoning, one who owed

him ten thousand talents was brought to him;  25  and, 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.  26  So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have

patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’  27  And out of pity for him, the

lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.  28  But 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.’  29  Then his fellow slave

fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’  30  But

he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the

debt.  31  When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly

distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.  32  Then

his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that

debt because you pleaded with me.  33  Should you not have had mercy on your

fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’  34  And in anger his lord handed him over to

be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.  35  So my heavenly Father will also do

to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Romans 14:1-12

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over

opinions.  2  Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only

vegetables.  3  Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who

abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed

them.  4  Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own

lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make

them stand.

5  Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be

alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds.  6  Those who observe the day,

observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since

they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and

give thanks to God.

7  We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.  8  If we live, we live to

the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we

die, we are the Lord’s.  9  For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might

be Lord of both the dead and the living.

10  Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise

your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11  For

it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,

    and every tongue shall give praise to God.”

12  So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Sermon Forgiveness and Community

Good morning! The last church I served was located about 25-30 miles

southeast of Pittsburgh, in a little town called Belle Vernon, PA. One of the

reasons I chose to serve as their interim pastor was my own personal connection to

the community. A big chunk of my family was from that town. My grandmother

lived her entire life in and around that town. My dad lived most of his life there. I

even lived there for about eleven years.

Lots of people in the congregation knew my grandmother—a couple people

had even taught school with Grandma. One of my dad’s high school classmates

was on the Session. My dad had even played his bagpipes at the church. It was

really neat to feel so connected. The only problem was that this church was a little

over 40 miles from my apartment. It was a lot of driving. Especially after a three-

hour Session meeting! Fortunately, I was only required to be in the office on

Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and of course, Sundays for worship.

One of the really weird AND rewarding things about that call was officiating

funerals. I officiated a lot of services at Ferguson’s Funeral Home—which is where

many of my family were laid out, including Grandma, including my dad. I was

there for more funerals than I can count. It was a big family.

The funeral home was purchased in 1954 by Shelby Ferguson, Sr. He ran

most of my family’s funerals until the point that he turned operations over to his

son, Shelby, Jr. By the time my dad died, Shelby Sr. was completely retired and

suffering from dementia.

Shelby Sr. died while I was serving the church in Belle Vernon. His viewing

was on a Friday. I really wanted to go and pay my respects, but it was my day off.

And I was tired. And I didn’t want to drive an hour each way, only to spend 15

minutes at the funeral home.

I asked Charissa for advice. She said, “you don’t have to do everything. You

don’t have to say yes to everything.” She also pointed out Shelby Jr. was a

professional acquaintance, not a personal friend. She suggested that I write him a

note, which I did the following week.

This is what Peter is doing in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew. He

wants to know just how much he has to forgive someone who has sinned against

him. He wants a number. A number that’s easy to grasp, like seven. Instead, Jesus

comes back with a much larger number, seventy-seven. In fact, in some

translations, Jesus says seventy times seven. That’s a lot of forgiveness.

Remember, most people in Jesus’ time aren’t used to dealing with really big

numbers. The culture didn’t have the concept of zero, so multiplying large

numbers might have seemed incomprehensible. Forgiving someone seventy-seven

times might have been comprehensible, but 490 times is a bit of a stretch.

Just to drive the point home, Jesus offers a little parable about a king who

wished to settle accounts with his slaves. One slave owed him 10,000 talents, yet

the king forgave the debt. Later, that same slave met another slave, who owed the

first slave 100 denarii. The first slave would not forgive his debtor.

We get a relative sense of the amounts of debt, and that’s important. Anyone

know how much a denarius was worth? What about a talent?

A denarius was the equivalent of a day’s wages in Jesus’ time. A debt of 100

denarii is no small debt, but it is a debt that can be calculated. It’s maybe three- or

four-months’ wages.

A talent is a measure of silver. A Greek talent is approximately 26 kilograms

or 57 pounds. It would also be about one cubic foot of pure silver. As of Thursday,

when I wrote this sermon, silver was going for $27.00 an ounce or $868.05 per

kilogram. So, if a talent is about 26 kilos and the slave owed 10,000 talents, that’s

over $225 million in today’s terms.

In Jesus’ time, a talent was worth about 6,000 denarii—6,000 days’ wages.

Multiply that by 10,000 and you get 60 million days’ wages. Whether you use the

figure from Jesus’ time or whether you translate it into current values, the amount

is astounding. It’s almost incalculable. And the king is willing to cancel the debt.

Of course, this is hyperbole. Jesus is speaking in broad terms so that

everyone gets the point: God is willing and able to forgive us. And as a forgiven

people, we are called to forgive others. We have to do this if we want to live in

harmony and community with one another.

This is also the background for our reading from Paul’s letter to the

congregation at Rome. These early worshiping communities were comprised of

faithful Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and Gentiles who converted

to this new thing. Remember, they didn’t even call themselves Christians at the

time that Paul wrote this letter.

This was a really difficult situation. They weren’t sure how Gentile converts

could be invited into the congregations. Would Gentiles have to convert to Judaism

first? If so, all the men would have to be circumcised. Also, every Gentile convert

would have to adopt a kosher diet.

How many of you would be willing to give up pork and shellfish?

How many of you would be willing to give up pepperoni pizza and

cheeseburgers? Or a good meatball hoagie?

To put it another way: If I preached a sermon where I told you that you had

to keep kosher, how many of you would start looking for another church? How

many of you would ask me, “Pastor, do I really have to do that?” Or maybe you’d

be like Peter, and you’d ask me just how much penance you’d need to do for God

to forgive your petty sins.

Now I don’t mean to trivialize the struggles of these early Christian

communities. While their differences might seem small to us now, the members of

those communities had trouble seeing past their differences. If the leaders and the

members of these early congregations didn’t also have the Holy Spirit with them,

their differences might have torn them apart.

As I read Paul’s words to the Romans, I think of the divisions in our own

society. We are divided by race and ethnicity. We are divided by wealth and

income. We are divided by geography and standards of living. And very clearly,

we are divided by our politics. It’s an election year, and if you don’t think we’re

that divided, I urge you to spend five or ten minutes on social media. There’s an

awful lot of ugliness on display.

I think it’s fair to hold candidates accountable for what they say and do. I

think that anyone who runs for office needs to have thick skin and be able to roll

with the punches—even if sometimes the attacks are unfair. The candidates are

grownups and they have an idea of what they’re getting into.

However, over the last several years, I’ve seen more and more attacks on

people who vote for the wrong guy or the wrong party. This is particularly evident

on social media, where we attack people for holding the wrong beliefs. We label

people on the other side: liberals call conservatives fascists and Nazis.

Conservatives use words like “libtards.” That’s liberal retard if you’re not familiar

with the insult. I’ve also seen postings that say “Democrats hate America.”

It’s easy to say that this stuff is just part of the campaign season, that it will

go away. But we live in a world where the campaigns never end. What’s more, it’s

hard to reconcile with other people once the insults have moved from the

candidates to the voters.

The truth is, we hold on to our anger. We hold on to the hurt we feel when

we’ve been insulted. We always remember the grievances. For us Christians, this is

a theological problem. When we hold on to the hurt and the grievances over

politics, we are forgetting our identity in Christ. We are forgetting the savior who

calls us to mend the breaches and reconcile relationships. When we elevate our

racial, ethnic, or political identities, we devalue our identity as Christians. We are

and must be Christians first.

This is what Paul is talking about in the letter to the Romans. Paul is urging

the congregation at Rome to hold on to their core identity:

7  We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.  8  If we live, we

live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live

or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.  9  For to this end Christ died and lived

again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

He is urging the members of that community cling to their identity in Christ, rather

than their individual identities as Jews and Gentiles.

Still, once we’ve been hurt or insulted, forgiveness and reconciliation are

difficult. Part of the problem lies in the way we hear the word, forgive. When we

hear this word in English, we think of forgiveness as an intellectual act; we simply

forget the hurt, as if we’d never been wronged. But that’s not exactly how the

disciples, or the members of Matthew’s community, would have heard the word

aphiemi, the Greek word that’s most commonly translated as “forgive.”

When Jesus says “forgive,” people would have heard Jesus say, “let go,”

“send away,” “cancel,” “pardon,” “leave,” “give up,” “divorce,” and “abandon;”

and they would also have heard, “forgive (debts)” and “forgive (sins).” 1 According

to New Testament scholar Maria Mayo:

Forgiveness… had an active or outward character and was not only a matter

of changing one’s mind or feelings (an inward action) …. In most cases, the

verb depicts a concrete action, usually taken toward another person. In other

words, [forgiveness] is something one does (words spoken, action taken,

physical things altered) rather than something one feels. 2

To love God is to show our love through our actions; to love our neighbor is to

demonstrate that love through our concrete actions. Forgiveness, like love, is about

what we do. Forgiveness is necessary for reconciliation and it’s necessary for

communities to flourish. This is true for churches, communities, and for our nation;

to love God is to work for reconciliation of all people.

As Christians, we have to model the way forward. We have to practice love

for members of this congregation and for the larger community. We were created

in God’s divine and perfect love, so we must practice that love for everyone else,

as Jesus calls us to do.

I would also remind you that, as Presbyterians, we believe that God alone is

Lord of conscience. That means that God is acting in our lives and informing our

decisions, even as we support different political parties and policies and vote for

different candidates.

If we want to move forward, we have to stop making and amplifying

inflammatory statements. Don’t post or retweet anything that demonizes the other

side. Don’t paint with a broad brush. You’re not going to change anyone’s mind or

vote. You will, however, further harden the hearts of those who agree with you.

The next step is to reach out to your friends who agree with you and urge

them to stop demonizing the people on the other side. They may not understand

why you’re asking them to do this. They may not change what they’re doing. Ask

them to change, anyhow. We all have to work to turn down the temperature, so that

there can be forgiveness and reconciliation.

Finally, we have to work actively towards forgiveness and reconciliation

with the people in our lives and in our communities who hold different opinions.

This involves engaging with and listening to people who you believe are just plain

wrong, and listening anyhow, without trying to persuade them that they’re wrong.

As we do this, we have to remember that the other person in the conversation is

also a beloved child of God and that God is acting on their conscience, too.

We are called to build the kingdom of heaven here on earth. We are called to

cultivate God’s beloved community here on earth. People flourish were there is

community. When communities break down, people suffer. Community requires

forgiveness and reconciliation. Let us work together to restore God’s beloved

community. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Beloved, as you go forth into the world, remember that we are called to forgive and

restore and build God’s beloved community. Go forth and be instruments of God’s

peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but

know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to

everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

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