Sunday, September 14, 2014

Pentecost 14, 2014: Forgiven and forgiving

Lectionary: Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Preacher: The Rev Dr Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

I shared an article with the vestry at our last meeting as our teaching last week and I’d like to share it with you today. The title is, “You’ll find what you’re looking for” and it’s by Joseph Yoo. It’s a midrash. Yoo talks about a midrash about the story we read from Exodus today which we read today. And here it is: 'As the Israelites were walking across the Red Sea, two of them noticed that now it was safe to walk at the bottom of the sea but it wsn’t completely dry. In fact, it was muddy.

"Ugh," muttered the one. "What in the world is this muck?" And the other said, "There’s mud everywhere. Ugh. This is just like the slime pits of Egypt." And the two grumbled and mumbled all the way across, and because they never once took the chance to look up they never understood why on the distant shore, everyone was singing songs of praise.'

So Yoo concludes: “You’ll find what you’re looking for. If you seek to find negativity, you will surely find it. If you seek to find mistakes, you will definitely find them. If you focus on blemishes, you’ll only find blemishes.”

In our story in Exodus, God said to Moses, the leader of the people: “Stretch out your hand.” Unclench it, open it to receive the gift I’m giving you. Go where I lead you, even if it’s into the muck first, for I have promised to lead you to the Promised Land. Take my people with you. Some are going to grumble. God says to Moses, ‘Do as I tell you even though you can’t imagine why… (remember our discussion last Sunday about trusting God).

There are some who can look up and see the miracle going on all around them. Some who know why there’s singing on the far shore. Those are the spiritually mature, the “strong” as St. Paul calls them. Then there are those who can’t look beyond the mud sticking their feet to the ground. Those are the spiritually “weak” or immature. And Paul said the spiritually weak and the strong will coexist in the churches. One of our purposes as a church community is to live together and journey together into spiritual maturity.

Welcome all, St. Paul says, but not so that you can quarrel over your opinions. Stick to the good news: the good news that on the far shore they’re singing praises and there’s a reason why; the good news that Jesus reconciled the whole world to himself by the forgiveness of our sins - and that’s no small thing.

We are forgiven – something we know best when we repent and our hearts are filled with the grace of God’s mercy and the joy we know when that happens within us is what compels us to go out and forgive others so that they too will know that same joy of entering into the mercy of God.

We are forgiven - and we must forgive as well. Remember how Jesus taught us to pray: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us…”

A couple of things about forgiveness: The repentance of the sinner isn’t relevant to our choice to forgive. They might. They might not., Sometimes offering our of forgiveness may be what breaks the bonds that keep them from owning their sin; bonds of shame and guilt. There are times, we simply have to let it go and trust God to keep God’s promises to us; promises of justice and redemption – for them and for us.

Forgiveness sets us free, and also sets the one who sinned against us free – free to enter into the mercy of God. God will work out all the details. We must remember that God seeks to reconcile with the sinner – who in the end, is all of us.

We all sin. We all need to be forgiven. We all need to be forgiving.

Jesus makes this plain in the story of the wicked slave in the gospel. The slave-owner (God) forgives the slave who begs for mercy on the debt he can’t pay. Then that same slave goes out and cruelly and violently punishes those who owe him.

When the slave-owner learns about this, he gets angry: You wicked slave! I forgave you all your debt ... “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he could pay his entire debt” which, according to the amount of the debt was never. So this was punishment for eternity.

Then Jesus gets real with his listeners: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart." That’s a serious admonition and we really should take it seriously.

Forgiving from the heart isn’t just speaking the words followed by back-biting and shared resentment-building among your clique later, somewhere outside. This kind of forgiveness takes Christian maturity. It requires us to look up from the muddy muck in which our feet are presently stuck, and see the miracle going on all around us, and go toward that far shore where praise is being sung.

This kind of forgiveness seeks the best for the offender and those hurt by the offense. Both are worthy of grace; both are worthy of love.

Redeemer knows what is required for forgiveness from the heart. We’ve been given lots of opportunities to practice this and grow in our collective spiritual maturity. Some individual members have done that more than others. But as St. Paul says, we must neither despise nor judge one another for we are all moving into our maturity, each at our own pace, each being led and directed by the Holy Spirit.

We can’t change the past but we can forgive it, we can let it go and be free – free from the pain, the hurt, the anger, and the desire for revenge. When we forgive we let go our need to be right, our habit of complaining, and our justification to hate. It doesn’t matter whether everyone, or even anyone, agrees with our memory of the past and it doesn’t matter how well we can explain why we hurt or attacked someone else.

What does matter is what we do in this present moment. Do we choose to hold onto our anger whether or not it’s righteous, and our betrayal? Do we choose to stay stuck in the mud and smother our present lives under the weight of old guilt or resentment?

Or do we choose freedom? We can all choose freedom. It’s as simple as that – making a choice.

Our own Archbishop Desmond Tutu says: “Forgiveness is a choice we make, and the ability to forgive others comes from the recognition that we are all flawed and all human. We have all made mistakes and harmed someone. We will again. It is always easier to practice forgiveness when we can recognize that the roles could have been reversed. Each of us has the capacity to commit the wrongs against others that were committed against us.”

And so we work to forgive anyone who has hurt us, harmed us, betrayed us, angered us, ignored us, made us feel ugly or worthless or embarrassed. We work to forgive those who shut their eyes and cover their ears to the truth – to our truth – whether it’s because they can’t hear it or because they won’t hear it. We work to forgive those who should have known better, and should have loved us better, but didn’t – or couldn’t.

Each of us will need to be forgiven at some point in our lives, and each of us will need to forgive someone – from the heart. When we make the choice to forgive, I commend this poem from Mpho Tutu, Desmond Tutu’s daughter. It’s called “I will forgive”

“I will forgive you.
The words are so small, but there’s a universe hidden in them.

When I forgive you, all those cords of resentment, pain, and sadness
that had wrapped themselves around my heart
will be gone.

When I forgive you, you will no longer define me.
You measured me, and assessed me,
and decided that you could hurt me,
that I didn’t count.

But I will forgive you because I do count.
I do matter.
I am bigger than the image you have of me.

I am stronger. I am more beautiful.
I am infinitely more precious than you thought me.
I will forgive you.

My forgiveness is not a gift that I am giving to you.
When I forgive you,
my forgiveness will be a gift that gives itself to me.”


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