Sunday, September 11, 2011

Lectionary 24A
Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:[1-7] 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Fear not: for am I in the place of God?

It is impossible to think about Sunday, September 11th without considering the ten year anniversary the bombings in 2001. I’m sure many churches are planning remembrances for services on Sunday. It was a moment that affected all our lives in some way or other, whether directly or indirectly. The attack sent many people back to church, and though it was not a permanent change for everyone, I’m sure at least a few people discovered or rediscovered the grace found in fellowship with other Christians at the foot of the cross.

In the calendar of the saints, Sunday is the saint day for two men, Protus and Hyacinth. They were martyred on September 11th most likely during the reign of Emperor Valerion. Like many of the saints, we know very little about these two men. They were likely brothers, eunuchs in the service of Eugenia, a daughter of a prefect of Egypt and a Christian. Protus and Hyacinth apparently was baptized along with their mistress, fled Egypt with her to Rome where they were captured by pagan authorities and put to death. Their remains have been found in Rome and though the stories of their deaths vary their bodies were definitely burned and laid in small tombs, to be found again in 1845. That’s all we know about these men: that they were killed for being Christian. We don’t have any stories of spectacular acts of faith, of long experiences of torture or even last words confessing faith in Christ. All we have are a few references in early writings and a few charred bones.

We lost a lot of people on September 11, 2001. I’m sure that their names are inscribed somewhere. At the very least there are lists on the Internet and they have been read every year at memorials. I’ve heard stories about individuals, especially those who made incredible sacrifices for others. Books have been written about heroism and compassion. Most of the people who died that day will at least be remembered by someone on Sunday, family, friends, and co-workers. However, most of the people who died that day will be remembered only for the fact that they died that day.

The hard part of this whole thing is the juxtaposition of our scripture texts on this day of remembrance. How do we deal with forgiveness on a day when we are remembering something so horrific and needless? 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 so that people will be reconciled to one another. This word is not meant only for a select few, but it is given to bring all people into the Kingdom of God. Can forgiveness be found in that moment that filled us with so much grief?

And what does that look like?

That’s perhaps the hardest question to answer. What does forgiveness look like? Must we forgive and forget? Must we treat the offender as if they are our best friend or most beloved family member? In yesterday’s A WORD FOR TODAY I talked about Corrie Ten Bloom and how she faced one of her persecutors, a man who’d mocked her in the showers of the concentration camp. When she saw him, she realized that she had not truly forgiven him, despite her reputation of having forgiven those who’d hurt her in the Holocaust. She prayed for God’s help and only when she recognized how much God had forgiven her could she truly forgive the man.

Would she forget? She would never forget, because the evil that happened to her in that concentration camp had made her who she was. It had changed her. Though we can’t imagine it, it probably made her a much better person because she took her pain, fear and anger, let God transform it into forgiveness, and she took her story to the world. Her story will never be forgotten because it helps others see how God’s grace can restore people to one another.

Perhaps it sounds a like ‘warm fuzzies’ but there’s always a silver lining. God can make good things happen out of the most horrific atrocities. Think about the story of Joseph. Now, Joseph was far from perfect. As one of the youngest among a dozen children, and the first born of the beloved wife, Joseph had it good. He was pampered and he thought himself a little bit better than his siblings. I don’t think he was arrogant. I think he was young and immature, not really seeing the world through their eyes, only through the rose colored glasses that he’d been given by his mother and father. But from his brother’s point of view, Joseph was a jerk. He was spoiled and ridiculous. The dream that he would rule over his brothers was just another sign of his self-centeredness.

They certainly had no right to throw him into a pit, or to pretend that he was dead. It was wrong. It was evil. There is no excuse. They knew that when it came to the time when they faced his authority after their father died. I’m not even sure they realized how much Joseph had suffered because of their deeds. Ruben, who insisted that they not kill him, might have actually made life worse for him. He was taken as a slave, imprisoned on false charges, surely beaten and abused. He was ignored and forgotten.

Yet, all this led to Joseph’s position in Pharaoh’s empire, a position that gave him power and authority. In that position, Joseph managed to save not only Egypt, but also provide for people to the far stretches of the known world. He listened to God, shared God’s word with others and it changed everything. In the midst of drought, there was food because Joseph was faithful. In the end, Joseph’s dream came true. He did indeed rule over his brothers, and his brothers recognized the authority he had over them.

They were afraid. How would Joseph respond once their father was dead? Would he final meet out the deserved punishment for all they did wrong? What they found, though, was an unexpected attitude. “Fear not: for am I in the place of God?” Joseph saw the silver lining in his suffering and recognized God’s hand in it all along. Not that God intended Joseph to suffer, but that God was able to use his suffering for something extraordinary. Joseph put it into God’s hands even though he had the power and authority to dispense justice.

How does that relate to September 11th? Should we, as a nation, let it go, forgive and forget? Should we not judge and punish those involved? What does forgiveness look like in response to the horrific and needless acts of that day? I don’t think this is the time or the place to debate the authority of the governmental response to the attack. There is a place for human judgment, and God does give authority to human institutions to meet out justice. Whether or not we have done, as a nation, what is right is a discussion for another time. In addition, we are a nation of many faiths; our laws are based on Judeo-Christian values, but they are not laws of faith but government.

What we need to consider today is how do we, as individuals of faith, respond to the horror of September 11th? Should I go out into the world meeting out our own justice? Should I punish those whom we deem guilty? Should I condemn the ones I blame for my pain and fear and anger? My grief is not nearly as deep as those who lost someone they loved on that day. The question is much harder for them. They want justice, and deserve justice. But Joseph deserved justice, too. Yet, he knew the One who can give right justice and let it to him.

So, can we live in that same attitude? Can we let God deal with the people who do us harm? Can we, as individuals, remember that God has first forgiven us and as forgiven people in the community of God we must also forgive?

The disciples wanted to understand forgiveness, too. Peter asked, “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. Yet, it gets hard to forgive someone over and over again. Peter wonders how long he has to forgive until he does 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, but rather telling us that life in this world means constant 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 the 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 forgive others. When the servant left the king’s presence he found another servant who owed him a debt. Though the debt was small compared to the debt he owed, the forgiven servant did not have the same mercy on his debtor, throwing him in jail until he could pay.

The debt God has forgiven each of us is so much greater than the debt of any person who has done us harm. When we refuse to forgive those debts, we assume a role greater than the King, putting ourselves in the place of God. God is just and faithful, He will ensure that everything will be right in the end. Will we see justice for those lost on September 11, 2001? No matter how much is done to punish those who did the crime, the people who lost someone will not gain anything. They will still grieve the loss. They will still remember. They might see punishment, but will everything ever be right? It will in God’s time and in God’s way. That’s why Joseph saw his life of suffering in such a positive way. He knew that God was able to do with pain something extraordinary. So, too, the pain we feel when we think of those thousands lost that day. God can, and will, do something incredible with it.

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 as individuals 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 to bring His grace to the world.

It is sometimes amazing how similar today’s church is to the churches we read about in the scriptures. The problems Paul and the other apostles addressed in their letters are as common for us today. There are, perhaps, some differences, but I could see Paul writing today’s passage to modern Christians. I can also see him taking this concept and replacing the problems with our conflicts. Disagreement is a fact of human life. We are different people trying to work together in a crazy, fallible world. We have a common goal, but very different visions about how to get there. By the time we get around to working together, our differences are so vast that we can’t find a way to compromise. We think compromise means giving up something that means too much to us.

Many of the Christians in Rome were former pagans. They knew that the meat that was purchased in the marketplace had most likely been sacrificed as part of the ritualistic worship of the pagan community. They did not feel they could eat that meat because they knew the source and why it had been slaughtered. They did not want to support the worship and ministry of the pagan communities, so they chose to avoid eating that meat. Paul knew that though the meat was slaughtered as part of a ceremony that the meat itself was still good and acceptable to God. He also knew that it would weigh on the conscience of those former pagans. So, he treated the issue with grace.

He called the community to join together not based on what they would eat, but on the Christ they worshipped. Eating meat or not eating meat is not a salvific issue. Instead of rejecting or judging one another, the Romans were encouraged to see Christ in their brothers and sisters and to live together in a way in which both could do the work they were called to do as a community of faith. The meat-eaters and the vegetarians all had gifts, gifts that are needed to do God’s Work. To reject or judge others means cutting off a part of the Church that Christ has called together. We tend to think the world must conform to our vision. But the reality is that God has a much greater vision in mind than any of us human beings can imagine, a vision that includes all believers using their gifts for His sake.

Matters of salvation are not up to us, thankfully, because none of us has the ability to truly put aside our own pain, fear and anger to do what is truly right in God’s eyes. That is why we should be like Joseph, and give it to God. He will do what is right. He will take care of us. He will provide the justice we deserve. We might not see it today or even in this lifetime, but in the end He will prove faithful. Our task is only to pass on the grace we received, to live as if we are forgiven and share that gift with others. Forgiveness does not mean that we have to dwell in the same house as our offender; it just means that we recognize that that offender might just be living in the same Kingdom as us.

Forgiveness means letting God decide. Can we do that? Can we be like Corrie Ten Boom and Joseph? Will we recognize the forgiveness God has first given us and pass it on in forgiveness to those who have done us harm? That is the lesson for this Sunday and perhaps that is the lesson that we, as individuals, must learn for September 11th. Then we as a nation can face the reality of human judgment with clarity and peace, judging the crime with wisdom and authority and not fear, anger and pain.

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