The Rev. Peter M. Carey
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church ~ Cathedral Road
17 September 2017
Dealing with difficult situations is an important part of life. As we move through the decades of life, we are presented with more and more opportunities for joy and happiness, but also there are more and more times that we are presented with difficult choices, difficult moments, difficult times.
Jesus is sometimes characterized as a kinder and gentler sort of example of Godliness than the stories of the Old Testament. However, Jesus did not suffer fools gladly, and was, at times sharp and harsh with his words and commands. In today’s gospel, he pushes the envelope by challenging Peter and the disciples with the awesomely difficult challenge of forgiveness. Consider the difficult things that you have faced, funerals of loved ones, difficult health decisions, challenging moments in school and work, physically challenging tasks. For those who have served in the military or as a first-responder, the challenges and difficult situations are perhaps beyond even the imagination of the rest of us. In my thinking, Jesus’ challenge to Peter and his disciples in today’s gospel is right on par with the most difficult situations we have faced.
Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
When Jesus teaches his disciples and the throngs of people who embrace his loving message of hope and Good news, Jesus embraces the Godly action of forgiveness. In today’s gospel, Jesus teaches his followers that they must forgive, and not merely once, but 7 times, and even 77 times ~ which was a colloquial expression in Aramaic that meant more or less what we mean when we say “I love you tons”....he tells them to forgive “tons” - “without limit”, “to the moon and back.”
To be harmed, insulted, physically or emotionally hurt, and then find the strength and the courage to forgive is a tremendous challenge. This is really tough stuff. Whether it involves kids on a playground, teenagers in school, young professionals at work, or older adults in relationships, forgiveness is no easy task.
Every Sunday we pray the Lord’s Prayer, and we have it committed to memory, “Forgive us our trespasses and those who trespass against us.” These words roll off the tongue easily, but they are not accomplished so easily.
In today’s Old Testament reading from Genesis, we hear a part of the story of Joseph, the end of the “Joseph and the coat of many colors” story. Remember that Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, and through the love and power of God, he was able to rise to power in Egypt. Years later, his brothers come to him to beg for forgiveness, because there was a great famine in all the land, and they begged that he would help them. I imagine that they think this request is a long-shot! Perhaps they don’t think that he will forgive them, but they hope to at least be given food, for they and their household are starving.
Somehow, the miracle of forgiveness happens. Joseph find the strength in his heart to forgive them. Though they sold him into slavery, abandoning him perhaps to death, he was able to set aside the grievance, to set aside the sin, and forgive them.
“Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”
What humankind meant for evil, God transformed into good!
In Paul’s letter to the Romans we are reminded that we are, ultimately, dependent on God, and that God has given us all that we have, our very life. We are to be “accountable” to God, and not only that. In addition, Jesus died so that we would be healed, that we would be saved, and that we would be able to even more fully embrace the love that God has given us.
“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 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. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living . . . So then, each of us will be accountable to God.”
All we have is from God, all we are is from God…, and it is helpful to remember the first part of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. We we ask forgiveness...we know we have wronged others, and God forgives us, and we are to forgive others. Lord knows that we have screwed up, we are not perfect. So, who are we to NOT forgive?
What humans made for ill, God turned into Good. This is a radical notion. Remember the story of Joseph? … God takes the particularities of our story, and massages them into Good, the greater Good.
God is not merely a watcher of our world, not merely a sideline observer, not merely a coach, and not merely a referee, God is a player in the world, and God does impact the world. God is Good, and God is Love, and God’s actions move things toward the greater good.
Of course, we have free-will, and we have the ability to do good ourselves, we have the ability to live out our “image of God”...and do good in the world, but we mess up. We mess up royally at times. We are not perfect.
God is able to turn the boat to the good. God is able to tug on the rudder. God is able to shift the wind just a bit, when we are headed wrongly, God can turn things for the good.
In the story of Joseph, God moves the heart of Joseph to look beyond his own history. When Joseph forgives his brothers, he is activating the Love of God in his own life. His very action of forgiveness is the very action of God in his life.
When Joseph forgives, he is doing God’s work. Not only that, I would say that when Joseph forgives, he is doing holy and divine action. When Jesus tells his disciples to forgive not seven times, but 77 times, he is calling them into the life of the miracle of forgiveness. Jesus is welcoming his disciples into this holy and divine work.
To forgive is one of the most difficult things we can attempt to do, but when we do it, we are doing divine and holy work. God knows us, every iota, every crevass, every secret, every thought, every mistake, every error, and loves us anyway. God loves us, and forgives us. When we forgive, we are doing God’s work.
Recording of Sermon preached on 17 September 2017