Sermon preached by the Rev'd Fr. Donald L. Turner, Vicar, St. Peter's-at-the-Light Episcopal Church, Barnegat Light, New Jersey, September 17, 2017 (15 Pentecost, Proper 19 - Year A).
St. Matthew 18: 21-35
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
A Sunday School teacher asked her Primary Grade children what they have to do to receive God's forgiveness. One little boy in the back of the room was quite enthusiastic about giving his answer, "I know! I know!" he said. "All right William," the teacher said, "tell us what you have to do to be forgiven." "Sin," he replied.
In our Baptist college many years ago we often sang the hymn Love Lifted Me. Its first line reads: "I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore . . . " A half dozen of us rather rebellious and irreligious scoundrels changed this: "I was sinking deep in sin . . . Wheee!"
You have heard me preach on the theme of forgiveness many times over the years. This is a subject at the core of Our Lord’s teaching, and it is no wonder because he calls into question through numerous parables how we can believe that we are forgiven our sins when we have not forgiven those who have wronged us. Once again today, one of those parables.
Since this call to forgive others is so central to the Gospel, and we’ve heard the stories so often, I have received feedback from some of you about how hard it is for you to forgive in some instances, and I think that most of us resonate with that. Some of you have also mentioned the horrendous pain and death that results from terrorism or the lone acts of deranged persons, and you wonder how anyone touched by such tragedies can forgive. You are not alone.
Do you recall the name Corrie ten Boom? She was the first licensed female watchmaker in the Netherlands, having learned the craft from her father. But that’s not why we remember her. She was a Christian who saved many Jews from the Holocaust. Her activity was finally discovered by the Germans and she, along with others involved, were sent to a concentration camp. Through a clerical error she was released some time later, and a week after that all the other women in her age group at that camp were sent to the gas chamber.
After the war she went around Europe preaching forgiveness, believing that this was the only power that could heal Europe. After one such service in Munich she was approached by a man, who, as he extended his hand to her said, "Fraulein ten Boom, I am so glad that Jesus forgives us all our sin, just as you say." She recognized the man. He was one of the guards at her concentration camp who had looked on, "contemptuous and leering," when the women in the camp were forced to take showers. "Corrie remembered. As the man reached out his hand, expecting her to take it, her own hand froze at her side." (Synthesis, 09-17-2017.)
What was she to do? In that moment she realized, that though she had been preaching about hate and forgiveness, she could not reach out to this man. There was too much pain and hate inside her. So she prayed. And I think her prayer is something we might consider when we are in a situation like hers, when we know we should forgive, but we can’t. Maybe it’s our only hope for deliverance from the pain and hate we seem to be unable to give up. She prayed, "Jesus, I can’t forgive this man . . . forgive me!" Think about that right now. Think about anyone or any event that has caused you to feel pain, a person or an event that has caused anger and hatred to well up within you. Think about that for a moment. "Jesus, I can’t forgive that person. Forgive me!" Do you feel any differently, now? How do you think you might feel about this after you leave here this morning, and have time to think about Corrie ten Boom’s prayer? "Jesus, I can’t forgive. Forgive me!"
This Gospel narrative today is the last of four teachings of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel on life in the church. Not "Church" with an upper case "C," the Church catholic or universal - but "church," lower case "c," in the sense of the local community of faith. St. Peter’s, if you will. For the Gospel writer this teaching is brought about by Peter’s question, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?" Peter really thinks he’s being magnanimous when he quickly volunteers the answer to his own question: "Seven times?" No, not seven times, but 77 times. In other words, Jesus is saying there can be no limit to the number of times you forgive a brother or sister in the community of faith who has wronged you.
We all struggle with the question of forgiveness in the face of a bitter rebuff, or an evil public incident.
But, I wonder sometimes if our difficulty has its root in our pride and arrogance. After all, it takes a substantial amount of humility to embrace the one who has caused us turmoil, or the evil one who has attacked innocent people. Yet, the parable is very clear, isn’t it? The parable tells us that the first slave owed his Lord an amount of money that exceeded the revenues of King Herod’s treasury for ten years! How can he possibly pay that back? He is forgiven his debt, and he ought to have gone out and celebrated with all of his friends - and even anyone who owed him money. But no, he runs into a man who owes him the equivalent of three month’s pay, whom he grabs by the neck as if to ring every cent owed out of him. Given time, the other slave could have paid back that amount, but the ungrateful servant isn’t willing to wait, so he has his debtor thrown into prison for nonpayment.
The king (a metaphor for God) is very angry when he hears about this. He has the man he forgave the debt tortured until he is able to pay his debt, and since he will never be able to do that I think what we have here is an allusion to eternal damnation. So consider the seriousness of the situation for you and me if we persist in our unwillingness to forgive. Jesus says, "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
If right now all we can honestly pray is, "Jesus, I cannot forgive this person," then let us be humble enough to add, "Forgive me!" That’s a right beginning. God can work wonders with that sincere plea!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
(Copies of Father Turner's sermons are always available in print each Sunday morning. He advises that it is not especially helpful to get a copy before Mass in an effort to follow him as he preaches: the sermons are delivered from memory of the manuscript. Extemporaneous remarks are frequently interjected - especially if he thinks of a good joke! You may also note that the sermons are not lengthy. Preaching time is usually 10 to 12 minutes. A professor of homiletics once told the Vicar, "If you can't strike oil in ten minutes, quit boring!")