Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
One day as I was cleaning out my desk in my former parish in Marine on St. Croix, I found a manila folder marked Call Committee. It was a little awkward. I was sure the folder was mistakenly left there, but I was also very curious about its contents. Finally, after a few moments of internal debate, I decided to open it. The truth is, there was nothing more than a few unimportant notes regarding the future pastor. But there was one sheet title “The Perfect Pastor” which caught my fancy. It read:
“The perfect pastor preaches exactly 10 minutes. He condemns sin roundly but never hurts anyone’s feelings. He works from 8 AM until midnight and is also the church janitor. The perfect pastor makes $40 a week, wears good clothes, drives a good car, buys good books, and donates $30 a week to the church. He is 29 years old and has 40 years of experience. Above all, he is handsome. The perfect pastor has a burning desire to work with teenagers, and he spends most of his time with the senior citizens. He smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his church. He makes 15 home visits a day and is always in his office to be handy when needed. The perfect pastor always has time for church council and all of its committees. He never misses the meeting of any church organization and is always busy evangelizing the unchurched.”
No doubt 2020 will be remembered as the year when everyone awkwardly discovered a forgotten manila folder in their file drawer, causing them to wonder whether they were really qualified for the job they are doing. One thing is certain. Not one person in 2015 got the answer right in their job interview, when they were asked, “What do you see yourself doing in five years?”
Of course, there is no perfect candidate for the work they are doing. We all have our strengths, our weaknesses and our idiosyncrasies. No, no one is perfectly suited to the work they are called to do- not even Jesus’ own closest, hand-picked disciples. Jesus had just told them their assignment was to forgive sin, and immediately they asked. “How many times?” He said, “Truly, I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth with be loosed in heaven.” It is the same task that you and I have been given. But it seems as if there is no greater challenge and stumbling block for Christians in this world today than to forgive. We just do not feel perfectly qualified to do this work.
My friends, as the church, you and I have been called to forgive sin, to reconcile ourselves with one another, and to restore human relationships. It is a task that is truly God like and holy. It is it life affirming and life giving. For the church, it is not a choice. It is not an option. Not even a strong suggestion. Forgiveness is the very nature and essence of the church Christ established. And it is the work we imperfect Christians have been called to do. So where do we begin?
In this morning’s gospel the disciple Peter raises the age-old question, “How many times must I forgive my neighbor?” This was not the first time that the disciple had been challenged by Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. It happened as Jesus was seated with his disciples sitting on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee together with thousands of other listeners. It was the occasion that would be known as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus quoted from the Torah and said, “It is written, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemies.’” Peter nodded with all the others in affirming agreement, but then Jesus went on to say, “But I say unto you, love your enemies. Bless those who curse you. And then you will be children of your Father in heaven.” After Jesus had finished and the crowds had disbursed, Peter did not rush up to his master and congratulate him on a noble sermon. Instead, he simply thought to himself. “Does this mean that I am to love the Samaritan, or the Roman soldier? Am I supposed to love the Gentile nation which has enslaved my land? Or worse yet, am I to love and forgive the neighbor down the street who has said such terrible things about me?
Frankly, it’s the way we all approach the topic of sin and forgiveness. We all know that there is no perfect pastor, church or person, but we also know that they are the same people, often the ones we love, disappoint us again and again. They beg for forgiveness, but it doesn’t seem authentic. We want to see some deed, some act, some changed behavior to merit the gift of our forgiveness. Ever since the beginning of time, men and women have asked, “But really when is enough, enough?’
And so Peter came to Jesus asking. “How many times shall I forgive my brother?” Mind you, Peter didn’t wait for an answer. He already had one. He said, “Seven times?” He knew what the Rabbis taught. You had to forgive a man three times and then you could retaliate. So Peter thought to himself, “Well, I’ll just double that and add one.” And Jesus answered Peter, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” In some translations that is 70 times 7. Peter couldn’t believe it. Did Jesus truly mean that forgiveness was to be unlimited?
Jesus then told the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. A servant owed his master, the king the equivalent of the $10 million dollars. It was a debt impossible for either the man or his family to pay. Surprisingly, when the servant pleaded with the king to have patience, the king was moved and stunningly forgave the debt, and allowed the servant to go free. Moments later that very same servant, who had experienced such a grand gesture of grace and mercy, came upon a fellow servant who owed him the sum of just a single day’s wages. He grabbed him by the neck and demanded he pay his debt. When he begged him to have mercy, the first servant threw him to prison. Needless to say, the other servants were shocked, and they reported this act of disrespect and pettiness to the king. Though the servant had once been freed from his debt, he suddenly discovered that the king had changed his sentence, and he was now imprisoned and tortured.
No doubt, for most people, the parable teaches them that it is important to forgive others as they themselves are forgiven by God. But my friends, what if the lesson is more complex? What if the parable is really meant to teach us that God will forgive any sin he can and chooses, but he will not forgive those he “cannot.” The parable, you see, teaches us that God has given the injured person a power to forgive and reconcile that he withholds from himself. It is at the heart of the Jewish teaching of forgiveness. Only those who are wronged can right it and forgive Only those who have suffered; are entitled to forgive. Sins between God and man, God can forgive, but sins between man and his neighbor, cannot be forgiven until that person appeases their wronged neighbor.
In our world today, we are overwhelmed by the political, racial and social injustice which is woven into our society. Indeed, we can be so easily overwhelmed by the sins and crimes of others, that we feel there is nothing we can do. Let me remind you that God can and will forgive the sins he chooses to forgive. But there are sins he cannot forgive. Why? Because he has given our humanity alone the power to forgive them, to be reconciled and to move forward. That is where you need to focus your attention. Unfortunately, our problem is that our human imperfection often cannot tell the difference.
There were two Jewish men who came to their Rabbi to ask advice about the sins they had committed. One had committed a great sin for which he was sure God would never forgive him; the other man was less worried. He had never been guilty of anything so grave, but only of the normal collection of lesser sins. The Rabbi told the two men to go out to a field and collect stones corresponding to the size and number of their sins. Later, they were to return to the field and scatter the stones. When this done, they came back to the Rabbi and he said. “Now go to the field once more, and pick up the stones you scattered. Then bring them to me.”
The man who had committed the one big sin knew at once which was his stone, and brought it to the Rabbi. The other, however, had scattered so many little stones that he could not be certain of identifying them again. He had difficult time in finding his stones and bringing them to the Rabbi. The Rabbi then told them: “Your deeds are like your stones. You who brought one large stone, committed a grave sin. But you were conscious of what you had done, and with a determined effort at repentance you could be forgiven by God. But you, whose sins were many and small, like those of most human beings, have found how hard it is to catch up with one’s minor lapses. And no repentance of yours can possibly be effective until you realize that small things matter. Isn’t that the case for all of us? Aren’t we all just a little concerned with the great stone of someone else’s sins, than the small stones that we have gathered and scattered?
Now you may be wondering, since none of us is perfect, where are we find the strength to forgive- especially if we can’t find it within ourselves? My friends, you must begin by walking that well-worn path to the place beneath the cross of Calvary. Only a handful of Jesus’ followers heard his voice that long, Friday afternoon. They watched as he was crucified, and suffered on the cross. They saw Jesus’ lips begin to tremble. Suddenly, the crowd was silent. They were trying to hear what he was mumbling. “Is he cursing us?” shouted the High Priest. “Is he begging for mercy?” laughed one of the Roman soldiers. “Maybe he is calling on his heavenly Father to send down lightning bolts from heaven to strike us all dead,” sneered one of the Pharisees. But they were all mistaken. For Jesus was neither cursing, begging nor threatening. What he was saying was, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Forgiveness is the task that God has chosen to share with our broken humanity. You may not be perfect or perfectly suited for the task, but God knows that you can make a difference. For “Truly, I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth with be loosed in heaven.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.