SCRIPTURE: Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21; Matthew 18:21-25
In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen!
A little girl wrote a letter to God: “Dear Mr. God. How do you feel about people who don’t believe in you?” She signed it, “Jennifer Long, age 10. p.s.: “I’m asking for someone else.”
There was a cartoon from several years ago, showing a church sign outside the church announcing the minister’s sermon topic for Sunday. It read, “Is There a God?” Two construction workers, stood looking at the sign, and one said to the other, “I wonder what would happen if the preacher said no?” What would we do if we suddenly decided there was no God?
The Old Testament passage this morning is a ringing, singing affirmation of God. Called the “Song of the Sea”, Moses sings the verses, and his sister Miriam sings the refrain. After reading this scripture you can get a picture of the sense of freedom that the Israelites experienced as they left Egypt. God has brought them out of slavery from Egypt, and helped them through the Red Sea. The army of Egypt was drowned. They celebrated, praised God because they were a free people. As leaders of the people, Moses and Miriam give a wonderful positive example. However, the people’s response stands in marked contrast, which I will mention more about that next week.
Israel had not done anything to merit God’s grace. God had heard their cries while they were in slavery and freedom. Israel believed they had been taken into slavery because they had done wrong, because they had sinned. They hadn’t changed their ways --- their freedom was solely the gift of God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness leads to freedom. The two are intimately intertwined in our lives, and always evoke ringing praise to God. This is what the Song of the Sea celebrates.
In the New Testament scripture, Peter asks Jesus, “How many times do I have to forgive?” Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly. He gives a multiplying factor and a parable, neither of which is to be taken literally. But they awaken Peter’s attention and curiosity, and ours as well.
Jesus knows if he gives Peter a direct answer, Peter will start notching his fishing pole, keeping account. So also, dear friends, would most of us. We would keep count how many times, we’ve been slighted, and by whom. The list may not be in your desk; but it is in your heart. And we know those to whom we ought to go and beg forgiveness, because we keep count of that as well.
The parable Jesus tells is of one who has been forgiven much – but who has an unforgiving spirit which imprisons him. It is a though this person doesn’t understand all he has been given, and he squanders it grasping for more.
A parallel story from early American literature comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.” Aylmer is a great man of science and a noted surgeon, widely known and idolized. He has so much, including a beautiful loving wife, Georgianna. Yet he wanted more. He wanted to have a small blemish on her cheek removed. She ends up dying by his hand. He who had so much, was unforgiving of a single blemish. He is imprisoned by his unforgiveness of one single blemish in all his life.
Our culture is unforgiving of blemishes such as age, weight and hairstyle (or perhaps no hair at all). But these are only symptomatic of deeper unforgiveness. Like the characters in Jesus parable and in Hawthorne’s story, we too fail to see and appreciate all we have, and are imprisoned by our unforgiving spirits.
I have a book that I would like to mention. It is called Abraham by Bruce Feiler. It is an interesting book that describes the relationships among Jews, Christians and Muslims, historically and in the present. Bruce Felier is Jewish and writes that each of the great monotheistic traditions sees the relationship between God and Abraham as foundational for its tradition, and grounded in grace.
Feiler also points out each tradition has tried to co-opt Abraham to be exclusively its own, and to claim they are the only true heirs of Abraham. Feiler writes, “There was a human failure to see that there is enough love in God to choose again and again.” We have been given so much – but in our greed we have imprisoned ourselves.
That is so very clear today, on this fifteenth anniversary of September 11, 2001. We Christians, Jews and Muslims, all children of Abraham, are imprisoned in a terrible web of suspicion, hatred and violence. Look at the terror that is yet about us, and the fear in which so many people live. It is clear today we live in unforgiveness. We have so much, but we focus on that which we do not have. We are imprisoned in our attitudes, not just between faiths, but between fellow citizens as well.
It has been years since Andrea and I have skied. We really used to enjoy skiing. Did you know that a ski is designed to glide across the surface of the snow? The friction of the ski melts the snow just enough to create a thin film of moisture. Without this film the ski has trouble sliding. This is true for both cross-country and down-hill skiing.
There are several situations that prevent this film from forming. If you hit a patch of snow that has begun to melt and turns to slush, the water on the ski begins to freeze, it blots up patches of snow. The moist patches of snow in turn gather more snow, until the resulting buildup makes the ski feel as though it is made of lead. The skier has to plod heavily through the woods. The experienced skier recognizes the reason for the added weight and bulk. They stop, take off the skis, scrapes them thoroughly, puts them back on and now moves with much greater ease down the trail.
Isn’t that a parable for our lives? In our personal lives we frequently experience “buildup” as we slog through the day. We have an argument with a neighbor, run into our child’s stubbornness (not ours, of course), or receive a mean-spirited comment from another. We let these experiences cling to us and build up. So we feel weary and weighed down. We, the tripartite children of Abraham, have experienced this buildup between each other for generations, in our communities and in our homes. We need to scrape all that off, and begin again. That is what is called forgiveness!
Jacob’s son, Joseph, certainly didn’t have a smooth glide through life. If anyone could have carried a lot of weight around with him, it was he. His brothers did him wrong in a monumental way, selling him into slavery. He could understandably have let their cruelties “build up” to where he could have been a cold, icy, unforgiving person. The destructive repercussions could have been not only familial but international.
Yet Joseph lived a “frost-free forgiveness” that didn’t allow his hurt to snowball and his spirit to freeze up. Somehow he was able to scrape it all off; and his attitude kept a family, and nations, together in the face of a great crisis. We face a great crisis in our world today. What will bring us together --- if not forgiveness?
What a contrast is Pharaoh, whose hardness of heart points in the direction of being imprisoned by an unwillingness to forgive. Both the Old and New Testaments make it clear that to be unforgiving is a needless burden that encumbers, impedes progress and, worst of all, and freezes the soul. Forgiveness has a warmth to it, a de-icing effect, and is necessary if we are ever to glide gracefully through any part of life.
Peter asked Jesus, how many times do I have to forgive this person? By the very question it is clear the kingdom of God has not come to Peter’s heart as yet. Neither has it come to our time, as shown by the way we live. Jesus tells us of two people, one forgiving, and the other imprisoning himself in unforgiveness. The choice is ours. Just remember this: how much we have already been given. That will make our way clear.
If we realize how much grace and freedom we have received, our lives will be songs of praise to God. Our actions and our words will strengthen others; will help others to experience grace, forgiveness and freedom. We will truly be walking in the way of Christ. The love Jesus talked about will shape all we do. Frost-free forgiveness will be a part of who we are, and our gift to others.
Let me close with these words from Reinhold Niebuhr, an American Theologian, ethicist and author of the Serenity Prayer:
Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime, we must be saved by
Nothing true of beautiful or good makes complete sense on any
immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore,
we are saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or
foe as from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final
form of love, which is forgiveness.
Thanks be to God.
The original “Serenity Prayer” authored by Reinhold Niebuhr.
“Father, give us the courage to change what must be altered,
serenity to accept what cannot be helped and the insight to know
the one from the other.”
MAY THESE THOUGHTS GIVE YOU STRENGTH