Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19, Year A)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on September 15, 2002. 
Based on Matthew 18:21-35, Ecclesiasticus 27:30-28-7, Romans 14:5-12 (Proper 19, Year A).

What about the 78th time? I can’t help it. The smart aleck in me just has to ask. Which is, of course, entirely missing the point. When Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive a member of the church who sins against him, he throws out a very generous number: seven. Imagine that. Someone sins against you and, fine, you forgive them. It happens again and you grudgingly forgive them. Keep in mind the text says nothing about the sinner repenting or even feeling the least bit remorseful. But again and again and again and again and again? Forget it. Maybe Jesus, maybe Gandhi. Maybe some meek soul who doesn’t mind getting walked all over and used and abused time and time again. But it’s a sign of weakness. Seven times is more than generous; it’s even bordering on the absurd. 

For Peter, ‘seven’ was probably a fairly arbitrary number. And he was undoubtedly pretty proud of himself for picking it. It’s awfully generous after all. And truth be told he was probably thinking more along the lines of two or three. But seven; ‘now that’ll make me seem incredibly gracious in front of Jesus,’ Peter may have thought to himself. ‘How proud he’ll be to know just how forgiving I am. Am I on the right track or what?’

But as often happens in the Gospels, Jesus’ answer is unnerving. He startles Peter with his response and takes us completely by surprise as well. “Not seven times but seventy-seven times.” Well that blows Peter’s generous offer of seven completely out of the water. 

And of course there is no 78th time. Jesus may as well have said 77 million times. It’s not about the number, it’s about the nature of forgiveness. The point is that with God the well of mercy and forgiveness is deep. Deeper than we can know or imagine. There may be limits to the forgiveness humans can extend to one another. At a certain point we’re likely to say ‘enough’s enough.’ So we, like Peter, may well want to keep track; to keep a running tab on the number of times we forgive one another. ‘I’ll forgive her once more, but if she doesn’t return my phone call again, that’s it.’ ‘I’ll give him one more chance, but if he so much as looks at me funny, I’m done.’ But once you start adding up and totaling forgiveness, you turn it into a commodity or a measure of your own generous spirit. And you end up in trouble.

As I sat in the church this past Wednesday, listening to acorns popping of the slate roof on that amazingly windy one year anniversary of September 11th, it struck me how easy it is to speak theoretically of forgiveness. There are loads of clichés about forgiveness: “forgive and forget,” “it’s better to seek forgiveness than permission,” “to err is human, to forgive divine,” and on and on. It’s much harder when events touch our lives in such a way that evokes tangible anger, pain, and grief. When we’re asked to forgive people who have injured us as individuals or as a nation, it’s a lot harder.

Forgiveness is not easy business. Thankfully, true forgiveness is not dictated by you or me. Forgiveness is ultimately God’s realm. And that’s good news. Because no matter what we have done or will do in this life to separate us from God, God stands with open arms, ready to receive us once again. No matter how many times we fall away.

If you listen closely to the Scripture appointed for this morning, you’ll pick up a common theme: forgiveness, yes. But it’s the forgiveness that echoes throughout the Lord’s Prayer. From Ecclesiasticus: “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.” From Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister…each of us will be accountable to God.” And Psalm 103 reminds us that God “forgives all our sins.” These all point right back to the heart of Christian prayer, the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. For Christians, it’s easy to blindly say the Lord’s Prayer and mumble along with the line “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We’ve all said it a countless number of times but when was the last time we truly heard the radical nature of that statement? Our challenge is to make sure the Lord’s Prayer does not become for us just another cliché about the nature of forgiveness.

Jesus asks us to model our prayer lives on this simple prayer given to the disciples as a means to learn how to pray. And he asks us to model the way we interact with one another on the basis of divine forgiveness. Our goal can only be to try to forgive others as best we can and to pray that our offer of forgiveness comes from the bottom of our hearts. And if there are times when we fail to forgive, and there will be, to know that God nonetheless forgives us even for this failure to forgive.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2002

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