St. Luke's Episcopal Church - Homily
Heidi Edson / 13 Sept. 2020
Pentecost 15 Proper 19
"Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Sound familiar? We pray these words in the Lord's Prayer at least once a week. But is that what we really want? Sure, we want God's forgiveness, but what about that second part, the part that prays: "...as we forgive those who trespass against us."
If we're honest, we know that we're not nearly so quick to forgive others as we hope and pray God forgives us. Unlike God, we're not so "slow to anger and of great kindness" as the Psalmist writes in Psalm 103:8 (alternate Psalm for today).
Turning to our NT passage from Romans, Paul is writing to a divided Christian community comprised of both Jews and Gentiles. Paul is writing that, if the young church movement is to survive, both these groups would need to get past their differences and come together as one in Christ.
The issue at hand was over food- which kinds of food were acceptable before God and which weren't. The newly converted Jewish believers still followed the Jewish dietary law that forbade most kinds of meat. On the other side of the aisle, the new Gentile converts, having had a more pagan upbringing, enjoyed a whole variety of foods.
Paul names the Jews and the Gentiles "weak" and "strong" members of the church. The "strong" members (Gentiles) tended to see themselves as more enlightened in their faith than their counterpart, the Jews, who still clung to their old traditions. The "weak" members (Jews) in turn were passing judgment on the "freedom-loving" Gentile believers who didn't feel obliged to have to adopt the Jewish rules and traditions.
Here we see that both groups of the church membership were "in the wrong" when it came to their particular biases and opinions. Both the Jewish and the Gentile believers needed God's forgiveness for their judgmental attitude passed on against the other group. But even more importantly, both Gentiles and Jews needed to forgive the other. That was the harder part.
"Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." In our Gospel passage from Matthew, Peter goes to Jesus and asks Jesus: "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" I imagine Peter thought he was being quite generous with the number "seven" in his forgiveness question. An ancient rabbinic tradition says one should forgive perhaps up to four times.
Seven times is pretty generous! That's a lot of times to have to forgive the same person who keeps on wronging you. Peter might have been thinking the same thing. But Jesus answers Peter: "No, not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times." (Also interpreted as "seventy times seven times.").
Whatever the number of times, the point is that, for Peter and also for us, that's an impossible feat! As human beings, we simply cannot quantify forgiveness, especially when it comes to God's forgiveness for our own sins and wrongdoings. Receiving God's forgiveness ourselves, wouldn't we want to forgive others? Easier said than done.
Jesus shares with Peter a parable about a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants who were in debt to him and also to their fellow servants. The king forgave the first servant's debt of 10.000 talents (approx. $150.000 U.S. dollars annually).
What a huge weight now lifted from that first servant's shoulder! But what does that same servant do in turn? He refuses to forgive his fellow servant his debt to him. Instead of forgiving him, that first servant he goes to his fellow servant and demands that he pay him the 100 denarii owed him (approx. $297,- U.S. dollars). Why couldn't the first servant release the second servant from his debt?
In looking at ourselves today, we come to learn how things work in this world: we give our money or goods to another and then we expect to receive something back in return. When someone asks us for a favor, we think, "What's in it for me?" Jesus' response to Peter's question upends our transactional world altogether. that's because God's forgiveness is so great. It is beyond all measure and any one person's ability to put a number on it. That is what the grace of God is for us!
And this where the church sometimes misses the mark. Similar to our world, we carry these same values but translate these for the church. We fall into thinking that God is pleased with our piety and works done for God. Indeed this may bring glory to God and a reward for our faith. However, from God's viewpoint, no faith or outward deed is or will ever enough. Hence grace!
Whereas we may see parts of each other, God sees all of us (warts and all!). God knows everything we say and do and have ever said and done. Before a holy God, none of us, neither the saint nor the sinner among us has a leg to stand on. In Romans 3:23, Paul writes: "...since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
"Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." It's true that, for some of us, the wrong we received from someone else is really hard to heal from. It's something etched into the memory that will not be forgotten.
On Moloka'i there was a woman in the church who was finding it very difficult to forgive someone who had caused her a great deal of harm. I could hear the pain in her voice as she asked me how she could forgive her offender. I shared with her that forgiveness was about releasing her offender back to God. We can do this in prayer: "I release this person back to You, O God."
When we choose to forgive another, the burden is lifted from off our own shoulders and given back to God. We forgive because we, ourselves, are forgiven sinners saved by God's loving grace! "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us!" And the People say: "Amen"!