Sunday, September 11, 2005

Seventeenth Sunday in Pentecost
Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:[1-7] 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Jehovah is merciful and gracious, Slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness.

We come into this week's scriptures with the memory of last week's message that God does not desire any to perish and He has called all believers to speak God's word of forgiveness into the world that people will be reconciled to one another. This word is not meant only for a select few, but it is to bring all people into the community of believers who have been called together to live in his presence and receive Christ's blessings.

With that in mind, we look to Paul's message to the Romans which is meant for believers. Yet, in verse 11 Paul quotes Isaiah. "As I live, saith the Lord, to me every knee shall bow, And every tongue shall confess to God." This was not meant only for Israel, but was spoken to all the ends of the earth. God desires for all to be saved. He is the only God, the Creator of all things. The other gods are nothing but the foolish creations of men, fashioned out of wood or stone and useless. Praying to idols will not bring salvation.

Matters of salvation are not up to us, thankfully, because none of us is worthy to even consider the matter of eternal life for another. This brings us to the shocking and disturbing parable in today's Gospel lesson. In this story, a servant of a king owes a large amount of money. This would equal millions of dollars in today's world. As a matter of fact, the entire yearly tax income of Herod the Great's territories was between 600 to 900 talents. It would take Herod himself a dozen years if he paid every talent he received toward the debt. It was a ridiculous amount an unpayable debt, and one not likely to have been loaned to a servant. What king even had that kind of money available?

As we look at this parable, we see the mercy and grace of God as the king was moved with compassion. The servant was released and the debt forgiven. As we hear this story, we are reminded that our own debt is unpayable. We are sinners that will stand at the judgment seat of God one day with nothing to give Him in return for the incredible blessings of life which He has bestowed on each of us. He created this world, molded us in the wombs of our mothers, and granted us gifts and talents to be used for His glory. He has loved us as a father loves his children and we have returned his love with nothing but sin.

So, we look at today's scriptures through the lens of last weeks passages, realizing that we have been called together in community. But we all know that it is difficult, if not impossible to live in community. It is so much easier to worship God in our own time and way, because if you even consider changing Sunday's worship from one hour to another the entire congregation will be up in arms. It takes a dozen committees to even consider a change to the appearance of a church or to rearrange the worship service. There are always those willing to fight any change, and others willing to fight for something new. These parties will undoubtedly clash and there will be division.

So, Peter asks, "Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? until seven times?" Jesus had just finished telling them that their errant brothers should be treated like sinners and tax collectors not as outsiders, but as those on whom God desires to rain His mercy and grace, especially through the forgiveness and reconciliation that comes in the community of faith. Yet, it gets hard to forgive someone over and over again. Peter wonders, how long do I have to forgive until I do not have to forgive anymore?

Jesus says, "Not just seven times, but seventy times seven times." I've heard that there is a story about a man who took this passage literally and established a record of all the times he forgave his wife. In this play, every time the woman sinned against the man he went to a board, said "I forgive you" and placed a white chalk mark on the board. He had decided that when he reached 490 marks on the board, then he could answer her sin with "POW," whatever "POW" means.

Jesus was not limiting the amount of forgiveness we are to give to our brothers and sisters in Christ, but rather telling us that we are called to live in that community and it will mean that we will have to give much forgiveness. Should we even be counting every act of forgiveness, holding on to those acts of compassion as if they are debts that will eventually have to be paid when they've been forgiven 490 times? Is that how we continuously pay that debt of love Paul encouraged us to pay in last week's lesson?

In the Gospel story, the king is having a court of judgment with his servants. One man owes him an outrageous sum, unpayable and yet the king forgives such a debt. This would be an easy story to preach if it ended there, because we could limit our message to the mercy of God. Yet, we are not only called to live in God's forgiveness, but also to live in community. When the servant left the king's presence he found another servant who owed him a debt. This debt was certainly not as great as the first servants, but still an unwieldy sum. The forgiven servant did not have the same mercy on his debtor, throwing him in jail until he could pay his debt, even though in jail it would be impossible for him to do so.

Now we look at this story from the perspective of the other servants, those who saw what happened. They saw their brother, who'd received great mercy at the hand of the king, show no mercy to another brother. They did not deal with this situation as Jesus had just explained to the disciples. Instead of approaching their fellow servant their brother to encourage him to make it right, they went straight to the king. The king had no choice but to bind the man and throw him in prison until the debt was paid because the situation had become public knowledge. Though the king was merciful and compassionate, he was also just. If they had followed the prescription given in the previous verses one man, two or three witnesses and then the church perhaps the situation could have been resolved and all parties restored to the community. Perhaps the unmerciful servant got what he deserved, but do any of us really deserve the mercy we receive from God? Our debt may not seem as great as our neighbor, but it is still an unwieldy debt, impossible for us to pay except by the love of Christ.

The servants bound their brother's sin and took it to the king, rather than seeking resurrection between brothers. We don't have the power to force another from the body of Christ, but we do have the power to make them feel like they do not belong. Through gossip, hurtful attacks, seeds of doubt and condemnation, we can create an atmosphere in which a sinner would not be welcome. In today's epistle lesson, Paul addressed the problem of the diversity of living in the Christian community. There were Jewish and Gentile Christians in that community, and they practiced their faith differently. The Gentile Christians did not understand the Jewish laws or follow them. The Jewish Christians did not understand the dietary practices of the Gentiles.

I've seen it happen in today's church. One person, thinking about the importance of Sunday worship condemns another because they aren't in church every week. Another Christian, thinking that any alcohol is sinful considers another unsaved because they like to have a glass of wine with dinner. Whole churches condemn other churches because they have established different ways of practicing their worship of God. We all require certain debts to be paid while forgetting that we are all in greater debt to the One who granted us forgiveness for all our sins. We bind people to our rules and our laws, instead of living in thankfulness for the mercy and grace of God in all our lives.

Christ died to be Lord of both the living and the dead. He is Lord over all. All will bend their knees and confess to God. We need not worry about His judgment against others because we have our own judgment to face. We will give an account, not for our neighbor but for ourselves.

Joseph understood this. His brothers had certainly sinned against him. He had every right to demand restitution for sending him away from family and the life he knew with his father. He could have blamed them for the years he spent in slavery and in prison. They were afraid of him after their father died because they knew that he could have them killed for their actions against him. Yet, Joseph did not seek punishment. He forgave them and understood that even in the midst of sin God's grace shines through. He answered their fears. "Fear not: for am I in the place of God? And as for you, ye meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive." He did not diminish the sin, but rather accepted that his suffering came to good by the hand of God.

I've faced those Christians who are quick to condemn my faith and my practice. I've even heard from them that I couldn't possibly be a Christian and that I should repent meaning that I should be a Christian just like them. Yet, Rome was not a community of believers that all worshipped God in the same manner. Some followed the Sabbath and others did not. Some were comfortable eating meat while others could not do so. All did so to the glory of God, thanking Him for the gifts of His mercy and grace. Paul says, "For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; or whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's." We will be called before that judgment seat of God. What will He see? Will He see a forgiven sinner humble before Him or will He see one that has not lived in the forgiveness He has so freely given?

He indeed loves us with a compassion far greater than we ever deserve and He calls us to do the same for our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is how we are to deal with each other in the midst of this community of faith. Even when we fail one another, we are to forgive, not keeping a record of every sin, but rather wiping that blackboard clean each time so as to erase the debt and begin anew. Forgiveness is about restoring relationships. Any record of sin will build a wall of doubt and disunity between Christians.

God does not hold our sins against us. The psalmist writes, "For as the heavens are high above the earth, So great is his lovingkindness toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, So far hath he removed our transgressions from us." He has removed our transgressions, set us free to live in His mercy and grace. The life lived in thankfulness will not bind the sins of another, but will set him or her free to also live in God's grace. It is not easy. We know God is just and sin deserves punishment. Yet, that is not our place in this world. God will seek vengeance on those who have sinned against Him. Yet, He desires all to be set free. He desires all to be saved. He desires all to be reconciled to Him and to one another for eternity, as He originally created us to live. One day, everyone will bow. Until that day we can rest in the hope that God can, and will, use even those tragic moments in our lives like that of Joseph to bring His grace to the world. Thanks be to God.

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