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Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost

First Reading: Genesis 50:15-21

 15When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” 16So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: 17‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” 19But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. 21So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.


Psalm 103:1-12

 1Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. 2Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits. 3He forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities; 4He redeems your life from the grave and crowns you with mercy and lovingkindness; 5He satisfies you with good things, and your youth is renewed like an eagle’s. 6The Lord executes righteousness and judgment for all who are oppressed. 7He made his ways known to Moses and his works to the children of Israel. 8The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness. 9He will not always accuse us, nor will he keep his anger forever. 10He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our wickedness. 11For as the heavens are high above the earth, so is his mercy great upon those who fear him. 12As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us.


 Second Reading: Romans 14:1-12

 1As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 5One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. 10Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” 12So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.


 Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35

 21Peter came up and said to {Jesus}, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 35So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”


How Do We Forgive

There are four very important verses I need you to keep in mind as we contemplate our readings for today.  These four verses may, on the surface, seem harsh, unyielding, even seem uncharacteristic of the loving God we serve.  Yet these verses serve as words of warning, words of wisdom, and words of love from a God who created us and who wants the best for us.  The first three verses come from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

The disciples come to Jesus and ask Him to teach them to pray.  In what has become for us an oft repeated prayer, Jesus taught the disciple the “Lord’s Prayer.”  Immediately following this prayer Jesus warned the disciples, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matthew 6:14-15).  These two verses follow the very familiar petition from the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive the trespasses of others” (6:12).  The fourth verse comes from our gospel lesson for today.  In Matthew 18:35 Jesus tells us, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”  Please burn these words of love and warning into your hearts.

We must acknowledge that forgiveness has a two-fold benefit.  First, it benefits us since it unburdens our hearts and souls, and frees us up to love our neighbor.  Please also notice how Peter phrases his question to Jesus, “how many times should I forgive when my brother sins against me, seven times?  It’s important that we recognize that Peter never asks how many times he must forgive when his brother comes to him, asking for forgiveness.  Peter simply asks, how many times must he forgive when he is sinned against.  Forgiveness on our part isn’t dependent on the offender being sorry or even coming to us asking for forgiveness.  Our willingness to forgive is a must, because it frees us from the burden of hard feelings, of grudges, and possibly even seeking revenge.

The second benefit of forgiveness is that it unburdens the offender and opens the possibility of reconciliation with our neighbor.  Forgiving others means you open the lines of communication and yes to possibly being hurt again.  But when the offender is truly repentant for the wrong they have done, the relationship is restored, strengthened, and deepened.  God knows that forgiveness has healing benefits, this is why He doesn’t give us options.  Forgiving others is a requirement and we’re to forgive as generously and as often as God forgives us.

An elderly man was wandering a deserted beach one morning and found a magic lamp.  Naturally he rubbed the lamp and a genie appeared.  The genie told the old man he would grant him any wish.  The man thought for a while and said, “My brother and I had a fight 20 years ago and we haven’t spoken since.  My wish is that he would finally forgive me.”  The genie clapped his hands, a bright light shot across the sky, and then he said, “Your wish has been granted.”  Then the genie said, “You know, most men would have asked for wealth and fame.  But you only asked for the love of your brother.  Is it because you are old and dying?”  The man said, “No, I’m not dying, but my brother is, and he’s worth $60 million.”

There’s a story about a little boy who was saying his prayers one night.  As he went down the list of his family, asking God to bless each one of them, he omitted his brother’s name.  His mother asked, “Why didn’t you pray for Danny?”  He said, “I’m not going to ask God to bless Danny because he hit me.”  And his mother said, “Don’t you remember Jesus said to forgive your enemies?”  The little boy said, “That’s just the trouble.  He’s not my enemy; he’s my brother!”  Oftentimes it’s harder to forgive a sibling, or someone we’re close to us, than it is to forgive a stranger.

In today’s New Testament lesson, Simon Peter wanted to know exactly what the Master expected out of him when it came to forgiveness.  The prominent Rabbis of the day were teaching that one should forgive his brother three times.  But Peter’s question was, is that enough?   So Peter goes to the ultimate authority on the subject: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him—as many as seven times?”  Peter question exceeded the demands of the rabbis, so I wonder if he thought by doubling the requirement plus one, he’d be safe.

Most of us today want an answer to the same question.  We want to know if there’s a limit.  We want to know if there’s a point when we can simply write someone off and cut them out of our lives and turn them over to some sort of evil in an effort to exact revenge.  Forgiveness is, quite frankly, a huge struggle and problem for most of us.  For many, Christians included, forgiving others is one of the biggest obstacles to their mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.

In one of his books, business guru Brian Tracy tells about a man who called him one day from the Netherlands.  The caller said he was raised in a dysfunctional family; he didn’t get along with his siblings.  He had a bad marriage, was cheated by a business partner, lost all his money, and now he was quite sick.  To this his doctor said quite bluntly, “You’re going to die.  Your system is so shot, it’s just like a worn-out car, everything’s gone.  You’ve got about six months to live, so you should make peace with whomever or whatever [you’re unhappy with] in your life, because there’s nothing that modern medicine can do for you.”

The doctor went on to confront the man about his anger issues.  The doctor told him he needed to “let it all go.”  This got the man’s attention and he started to make a list of all the people he was furious with.  He concluded that if he were to take the doctor’s advice seriously, there were thirty-nine people he needed to make peace with.  He went through the list and determined that he was going to forgive them all.  Some of the people, he knew, would be difficult to forgive.  Some he knew he could call and reconcile with, and others he knew he’d have to see in person.

He put his affairs in order, he wrote his last will and testament, and he disposed of all the clutter in his house.  Then he phoned or personally visited all the people on his list, and he asked for their forgiveness . . . and he forgave them.  For six months he traveled around Europe and even came to the U.S. in order to forgive people and ask for their forgiveness.  By the end of the six months, not only had he forgiven every single person that ever hurt him, he also realized that as he did, he began to see a marked improvement in his health.  This realization shocked him.

After six months he returned to see his doctor.  Upon seeing the man, the doctor exclaimed, “I can’t believe it, you’re completely symptom-free.”  The man’s health was not only much, much better, but he had begun excelling in his work.  He was feeling great toward himself and others.  At the end of six months, the caller said he was a transformed person.  He had called Brian Tracy to tell his story because he had heard Tracy talk about the power of forgiveness in one of his seminars, and he wanted Tracy to know what forgiveness had done for him.

The requirement to forgive isn’t meant to burden us, but to unburden us.  Our refusal to forgive can have devastating effects not only on our neighbor, but on us as well.  The effects of bitterness, hatred, and anger can shorten our lives, poison our memories, weaken our relationship with God and even affect our feelings of self-worth.  This is in addition to the damage to the relationship with the person we cannot forgive. An unwillingness to forgive comes with a high price tag, just so we can hold on to resentment, anger, and even hatred.  Therefore, the question that needs to be asked is, how do we forgive those who have wronged us?  How do we let go of the pain, the resentment, the sense of betrayal?

Forgiveness means we must first let go and recognize that we ourselves have been forgiven.  To illustrate His point, Jesus followed His answer to Peter with an interesting parable of a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.  In this parable we know that God, of course, is the Master, and we are the servant.  Our debt is enormous, one that we can never repay.  And since we know, that on our own, we cannot repay the debt, our sentence is that we be sold to repay the debt.  At this, the servant fell on his knees before the king.  “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.”  And in the mercy of the King, He took pity on us and because of Jesus’ obedience, God has canceled the debt we owe and lets us go.

But, in a tale of how we, too often, respond, we confront our neighbor who owes us a little.  And in response we mistreat our neighbor, and demand repayment.  Even when our brother or sister begs us to be patient us them, what is our response?  We want repayment, revenge, to make the other suffer, to get our “pound of flesh.”  But we cannot live our lives in secret.  What we do to others is seen by those around us and in the end God knows.  And judgement comes.

In the end, the King calls us into account: “You wicked servant, I canceled all your  debt because you begged me to.  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?”  Then in anger the King handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he could pay back a debt he could never repay.  Jesus closed this parable with these words of warning, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35).  The price required for an unforgiving heart is very high.  The question is, are we willing to pay such a high price for that temporal “pound of flesh?”

Hopefully, during the week and at the beginning of each Sunday service, we gather, and we pray, asking God to forgive us of our sins.  Consider how many times we’ve done this over our lifetime.  The number of times we’ve asked God to forgive us is probably countless.  Yet we often carry in our hearts grievances toward others that we should have let go of long ago.  We must let go of these grievances, release the pain and resentment of betrayal, by acknowledging that we ourselves have been forgiven through the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Dwight L. Moody once spoke of God’s grace by saying, “I can imagine Jesus saying, `Go search out the man who put the crown of thorns on my brow; tell him I will have a crown for him in my kingdom if he will accept salvation; and there shall not be a thorn in it.  Find the man who smote the reed on my head, driving the thorns deeper into my brow.  Tell him I want to give him a scepter.  Go seek out that poor soldier who drove the spear into my side; tell him that there is a nearer way to my heart than that!’”  That’s the depth of the forgiveness of Jesus.

That’s the forgiveness Jesus wants us to show towards others.  The second thing we need to recognize is that forgiveness is the most powerful witness we have to the activity of God’s unmerited grace in our own lives.  Isn’t it the desire of our hearts that the world know that we are followers of Jesus?  One of the quickest ways to do this is to forgive someone who has done us wrong.  Many of us can remember the horror we felt in June of 2015 when we learned that Dylann Roof had mercilessly killed nine African American adults during a Bible study at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  It was a terrible event.

Yet for many, they were just as shocked at the response of the family members of the victims when they confronted Dylann Roof in court.  They said things to him like, “I forgive you.  You took something very precious from me.  But I forgive you.”  Another person said, “I forgive you, my family forgives you.  But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent.  Repent.  Confess.  Give your life to the one who matters the most . . . Christ.”  Still another said, “May God have mercy on you.”  As one pastor described it, “These people had just gone through the most terrible storm you can imagine.  But there was no hatred in their voices.  Sorrow, yes, but no hatred.  Only love and forgiveness.”

Can you imagine a more powerful witness to the grace of Jesus Christ then being able to forgive a murderer of someone you loved dearly?  Forgiveness is a tough business.  Church father Augustine once said that sometimes people in his church omitted the phrase from the Lord’s Prayer that says, “and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  They “just passed right over that phrase silently, because they knew it would be lying for them to say that [phrase] aloud.”

I suspect that would be true of many Christians if we took seriously this segment of the Lord’s Prayer.  We wouldn’t want to utter those words, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Forgiveness is hard.  It may be the most difficult requirement of our faith.  But it will be easier if we acknowledge that we ourselves have been forgiven, and if we acknowledge that forgiveness is the most powerful witness we have to the activity of God’s grace in our own lives.  And that brings us to the final thing that needs to be said.  Forgiveness is a positive activity necessary to the healing and wholeness of our own hearts.

When we refuse to forgive, two people suffer—the one we cannot forgive and we ourselves.  In other words, forgiveness isn’t only something we do for the person who hurt us; it’s something we do for ourselves.  Consider this story.  A man named Byron Johnson has interviewed hundreds of inmates in various penal institutions.  In his book titled, More God, Less Crime, he tells of how he interviewed one prisoner on multiple occasions.  The prisoner, Ron Flowers, was convicted murder for shooting a teenage girl named Dee Dee Washington.

Ron Flowers became a Christian in prison, but still he refused to admit that he was guilty of this murder.  However, while in prison, Flowers began to participate in a faith-based prison program and there he met a pastor who did volunteer work at the prison.  One day the minister mentioned to one of his members that he was working with prisoners at a nearby prison.  Intrigued, Arna Washington, a schoolteacher, asked the pastor if he had met or had heard of Ron Flowers.  Then she added, “That’s the name of the man who killed my daughter fourteen years ago.”  The pastor replied, “He’s in my group—would you like to meet him?”

Mrs. Washington, did, in fact, want to meet Ron Flowers—a person she had come to hate.  Not long after her daughter’s murder, Mrs. Washington’s husband and son also died.  Though a devout Christian, Mrs. Washington was clearly bitter and had written letters to the Texas parole board in an effort to ensure that Flowers would stay in prison as long as possible.  Now she would actually have the opportunity to meet him and ask him the question she had been struggling with for fourteen years.

When the meeting took place, several unexpected things happened.  The moment they met face-to-face, Flowers, even to his own surprise, for the first time, confessed to the murder.  Mrs. Washington then asked the question she had been waiting to ask: “Why did you shoot and kill my daughter?”  Flowers explained he had been a crazed teenager who was strung out on drugs, and he just started shooting and she happened to get shot.  He went on to say, “I don’t know if you can forgive me, but I’m sorry for what I have done.”  To Mrs. Washington’s surprise, she heard herself saying, “I forgive you.”

Later in an interview with Byron Johnson, Mrs. Washington confessed, “That was the moment I got my life back.  A huge load was lifted the instant I forgave him.”  Did you hear what she said?  “That was the moment I got my life back . . .” Forgiveness of another is the best thing we can do for ourselves.  The story doesn’t end here.  Mrs. Washington went on to develop a strong and lasting relationship with Ron Flowers.  In a sense, she adopted him as her son.

“Ron got out of prison in 1998 and visited Mrs. Washington weekly.  He sat with her in church on Sundays, and she played a crucial role in his successful transition back to society.  Now happily married,” writes Byron Johnson, “Ron has been out of prison for more than a decade, has been employed at the same company for nine years, has a four-year-old son, and has a bright future.”  Mrs. Washington died in 2007—filled with the peace that only forgiveness can bring.

Who is it that we need to forgive?  A friend who has stabbed us in the back—an employer who has taken advantage of us?  Yes, there is pain, but the most powerful witness we have to the action of God’s grace at work in our own lives is the ability to forgive others.  As we forgive, not only are we obeying God’s command that we forgive, but we heal, not only the wounds of a broken relationship, we also find healing for wounds inflicted in our own hearts by anger, hurt, and resentment.  God has forgiven each of us countless times for every soiled thought, act, and deed of which we’re capable.  Jesus told Peter, forgive not seven times, but 70×7.  God knows it’s not only good for our relationship with others, it’s good for us as well.


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