September 17, 2017: Sermon by Deacon Benjamin Wetherill
He Forgives All Your Sins
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.
He forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities;
He redeems your life from the grave and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness;
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, oh Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Have any of you ever done something you were ashamed of? Have you ever done something and been overcome by the guilt of it? All of us at one time or another have been guilty of something and we all are aware of our sins. For many of us there would not be any fear of having our sins exposed. We have never done anything that was truly horrible. But what if you had done something that you considered to be horrible? Perhaps in a time of war you committed acts that you were ashamed of. They were ugly but you could still tell another combat veteran and know that they would understand. But what if you had done something that you knew even they would be horrified by? Could you find forgiveness for killing innocents or even doing something worse? Is there anything God will not forgive?
He forgives all your sins. Do we believe this? Is there anything that God will not forgive? A recent survey of mainline protestant churches revealed that 52% of Protestants in the United States believe that faith is not enough to save them; they believe that they have to do something themselves to save them from their sins. 52% of Protestants also feel that the Bible is not sufficient to give them spiritual guidance; that guidance also requires other sources and interpretation by skilled clergy and tradition. Maybe this explains why we doubt God’s ability to forgive us. If it is up to me, even a little bit, I can fail. Or I could do something so bad that I can’t overcome it. If the Holy Spirit can’t guide me through God’s Word then how can that same Spirit show me how to save myself? Is this why our suicide rate among youth and the military is so high? We know that the current generation feels isolated and that social media and the internet give the impression that we can never escape our mistakes. Yet in another passage of his Letter to the Church of Rome Paul tells us a very different story. “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Joseph understood this. For simply being a dutiful son and perhaps a bit too eager Joseph is attacked by his older brothers who consider killing him but then decide to sell him into slavery Sold in Egypt he gains prominence as the servant of a high Egyptian official only to be falsely accused of raping the official’s wife and is thrown into prison. After being in prison for years he again gains prominence and becomes the second highest official in Egypt. Through all this Joseph is aware of God’s presence with him. He is never abandoned by God and realizes that God has been preparing him to save not only his own family but much of the known world. It is at this point that we find Joseph in our Old Testament reading. Joseph’s brothers come to him, expecting revenge for their treachery, but begging forgiveness. Joseph, however, has realized the wisdom of Paul in our reading from his Letter to the Romans. He is not his brother’s judge and his life and theirs belong to God. God has blessed Joseph to be a blessing and to save the people of Egypt, Canaan and the world. He is called to be merciful as God is merciful. God has richly loved Joseph and he in turn shares that love with his brothers. “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”
And then there is our beloved but sometimes rock-like disciple Peter. Over two thousand years later we find Peter asking Jesus how many times he should forgive another believer. We can only guess why Peter is asking this question. It is apparent that he thought that forgiving someone seven times was truly generous. Maybe he thought his answer would impress Jesus. By the standards of the Pharisees or the ruling council it would sound good but Jesus once again shows Peter that he does not really understand God or His Kingdom. To help Peter understand Jesus tells another parable.
A king wished to settle accounts with his servants. One servant is brought before the king that owes ten thousand talents. What is the most money you have ever owed someone? Many of us have had mortgages worth several hundred thousand dollars but those mortgages are for no longer than thirty years. In Jesus’ time a worker earned one denarius for a day’s work. One talent was worth 6,000 denarii, over 16 years wages for a worker. This servant owed 10,000 talents; an impossible sum worth 164, 383 years’ worth of wages. It was not just difficult for this servant to pay his debt, it was simply stated, impossible. This servant had no possibility of paying back this sum and yet the king releases him and forgives all of the debt. This same servant encounters another man who owes him 100 denarii, only a little over three months wages, and has him thrown in prison until he pays the debt. Jesus finishes the story noting how the king has the first servant thrown into prison after he finds out what the servant did to his fellow servant. So also will God do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.
In dying on a cross Jesus paid the debt humanity owed for rebelling against God in the Garden of Eden and for each successive sin committed by every human being from then until now. That debt was not some small amount that anyone of us could repay by living a slightly better life than the next guy or gal. It wasn’t even something that could be repaid by living a magnificent life filled with glorious accomplishments of life saving or service to others like Saint Francis, or Mother Teresa. For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and the wages of sin are death. No, we all owe a debt to God that is impossible for any of us to repay. For this reason Jesus was born into this world, lived and died so that we could be reconciled to God. Owing such a debt to God why would we demand payment from one of our fellow servants for anything less?
“And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer we ask God to forgive us, “as we forgive others”. We are reminding ourselves to forgive others and asking God to remember His promise to us. God is faithful to keep His promises but how are doing? Who do you struggle to forgive? Who do you think is beyond forgiveness? Have you forgiven someone seven times and decided no more? Have you forgiven them 539 times? Like the 10,000 talents this is a number beyond the ability of most to even consider. I can safely say that few people have even tried to come close. Most never even try. G.K. Chesterton once noted that, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” This is most likely why so many in our culture do not believe there is forgiveness to be found for them from God.
I watched a recent movie that illustrated the cultures understanding of the limits of forgiveness. The movie, Suicide Squad, is derived from characters created in the D.C. Comic stories. It tells how a group of supervillains are chosen by the government to help defeat an enemy threatening the world with apocalypse for what appears to be their capabilities and then is revealed as their disposability. These villains struggle with the idea of heroism and redemption. Is there an unforgiveable sin? How do I define myself if the rest of the world sees me as unredeemable? The good guys even fail to provide any support as they break their promises to the criminals. How can the world understand the power of forgiveness if they don’t witness someone living it out?
Following Jesus is hard work. A Southern Baptist pastor in Missouri discovered that many people in the Church are like Peter and want a few easy rules they can follow like just forgiving people 7 times. This pastor was highly successful building a large and thriving church but at the height of his success he realized that something was missing. Reading the works of the early church fathers and his Bible he rediscovered Jesus and began working on Jesus’ actual teaching and examples. He challenged the people of his church to examine what following the radical teachings of Jesus might mean for their choices and priorities. It was at this point that people began to leave his church. A poem by Wilbur Rees highlights the attitude of many Americans in today’s Church:
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
No, forgiving people is not easy. Like paying back 10,000 talents it can be simply stated, impossible. But, we do not have to do it alone. God has promised that He is always with us and through the Holy Spirit we have His power to give us strength. We need to remember that forgiving others is also a command. Jesus did not tell his disciples that forgiving others was good advice or a suggestion. We are commanded to forgive others as God has forgiven us. The world is a mess right now. Everywhere we look there is chaos and hatred. If ever there was a time for forgiveness this is it. May we follow the example of South Africa and Nelson Mandela and offer our world God’s Forgiveness. One day all of us will stand accountable before God. If we share God’s grace with others now maybe we will share accountability with them then. Amen.