Sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, November 12, 2017
“So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.”
WHAT IS TRUE ABOUT YOU? If we investigated your life, took it action by attitude by aggressive behavior by appeasements and every broken armistice, encounters with other human beings, how good would it be, and just how bad? We all got report cards back in school. They said something about the subjects we took and how much we’d applied ourselves, our aptitudes, and our performance in a limited part of our lives. Did any of you really like report cards? If you got straight A’s, you may have felt relief, but have you really been happy to get an outsider’s full report on how you’ve done and who you reportedly are?
We do right. And we do wrong. Sometimes we do wrong to others. Always our wrongdoing challenges God’s will for us, and always our wrongdoing hurts ourselves. Are you the product of all your misdeeds? Is it fair that you be laid out on that slab and dissected, looking only at your failures? Your failures: from the beginning of your life, every time you left the path, remembered as though it happened today? Can we live with our shadows? Would they not drag us down like sandbags at our feet? Will God forgive and forget these sins of ours, or will He bring them all up, again and again, forever?
With the promise of a new covenant written by Jeremiah 2,600 years ago, we read with hope God’s new relationship to a new people, filled with His Spirit, having His laws written in their hearts, and they “shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, says the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah 31:34 From that verse, some have preached that God will literally forget our sins. The words say it in English, but does the passage mean that? And what do we think of a God who forgets?
All knowing, our God is omniscient. Anything that I know, He must know also, and know it better than I do. God knows everything that has ever happened since the beginning of time. Before. He knows the end of all things and will know it forever. Can God forget? It’s a misreading. God’s relation with our sins can be that of the injured party, like we are to others who have harmed us. Because of those injuries, we’re guarded, mistrusting, angry still, sore and may feel the score is yet to be settled when others have harmed us.
But God’s ways are not our ways. He created us. We were His great invention, and that included our ability to wander off the reservation. His most generous plan was to provide a way back to Himself. Jesus’ blood makes that new trail, and by His death we are restored.
God forgives. He does it thousands of times in all our lives, when we have taken our medicine, felt the pangs, realized our foolishness, and turned back to Him. Forgiveness is always ready for us. He’s right there to welcome us back. Guilt is our true sense of how far we’ve gotten away from Him. When we return, the memory of that guilt can help us stay close, help us to be humble, help us to have mercy on others struggling as we have done. But the sting of that guilt is now removed because God forgives all. He forgives, but He doesn’t forget.
Does that worry you? It shouldn’t. If God forgot your sins, then someday somebody might remind Him. And He’d be angry all over. No. It adds to His forgiveness when He knows better than we do how we’ve sinned, and still forgives us. It adds wonder and love to our hearts when we know how much He has forgiven us, and still loves us and readily brings us back to places of trust and honor.
The Sermon on the Mount had a couple of central points made by Jesus to a people who believed they could win God’s approval by never sinning. If you didn’t actually kill a person, you were fine. Jesus said that was untrue, and that your grudges, your unkind words, your cruelty was enough to make you a sinner and subject to God’s judgment. The actual act of physical harm was not necessary for God to know you are a sinner, and fallen. And Jesus went further.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you this: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. In this way you show that you are children of your Father in heaven… If you love those who love you, do you deserve a reward? …That is why you must be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5 God’s perfection, and the new human nature we are moving toward, is a forgiving nature. It’s the outgrowth of love, even a love of the enemies, the ones who have betrayed us. If we would be like God, we must learn to forgive.
Jesus said it even more clearly. He told us how to pray, in words like “Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.” But then Jesus added, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Mat 6:9-15
That’s a standard we’d better pay attention to. God is forgiving of almost every sin. Jesus speaks of a sin that has no repentance, that of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. That sort of rip in the human soul is not by accident, or by foolishness, as with most of our sins. It
is a knowing refusal to take the forgiveness, throwing Christ’s gift back at Him. Then, of course, forgiveness would be wasted, and would only add judgment. But since God has forgiven all of us who are here – of this I am assured – then we are enjoined to also forgive everyone their sins against us. What does that mean?
Can I forgive and forget what has been done to me? There are dangerous people around. I was taken in, deceived, tricked and brutalized. How can I let them get away with it?
That’s not what God asks of us. A man’s sin remains his, and he must deal with God for it. Forgiveness can be his, but that’s business he needs to do with his Maker. He may need to come to you for your words of forgiveness, but you aren’t his gatekeeper. Let God be the judge. We get hurt by the sins of others, as victims, as patsies, as injured parties, as abused wives and abused children, as their personal dartboards. We remember the pain of it. We become afraid to enter into other relationships because of those bitter experiences. How can we forgive that? That is not an easy command.
But it isn’t so far a walk as you may fear. When it’s hard to consider forgiveness, think of Jesus on His cross. He forgave us all from there, with the nails still through Him, with death in the air. He’d lost everything. They were still hurling insults at Him. But that’s why He was up there, to do the work that earned our forgiveness from heaven. He did it, not out of kindly feeling, but a muscular love and a pledged obedience to His Father. I can’t believe it was easy for Him to say it. But it had to be said.
We don’t have to conjure up happy feelings for those who have done us wrong. We need only to obey our Father in heaven, and pray the prayer of forgiveness. “Father, he truly did this against me. Now I lay it down before you, and ask that you forgive him, and show him the way back to you. And please help me to forgive him from the heart. I set this entirely in your hands. Amen.” Now, the ominous words at the end of the Lord’s Prayer no longer apply to you.
But what about the words in the middle? Matthew’s version of the prayer say, “forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors.” It’s the unfamiliar term ‘debt’ that may throw us. Luke’s uses trespasses, as we do. Almost the same thing. But this brings to mind one of the final prophecies in the Old Testament.
“Can a person cheat God? Yet, you are cheating me! But you ask, ‘How are we cheating you?’ When you don’t bring a tithe of your income and other contributions. So a curse is on you because the whole nation is cheating me! Bring one-tenth of your income into the storehouse so that there may be food in my house. Test me in this way, says the LORD of Hosts. See if I won’t open the windows of heaven for you and flood you with blessings… All nations will call you blessed because you will be a delightful land, says the LORD of Hosts.” Malachi 3:8-12
If we forgive others’ debts it means whatever they have done against us, we let that go. Jesus even enjoined us to give and not expect repayment. He was serious. Haven’t you given what others called a loan, and knew that you’d never see it again? Good for you. That’s so like God. It’s a heavenly principle for us to judiciously give away what we have, part of it anyway, because He will see our
good heart and reward us with more. As stewards of His treasures, we learn where to spend them, and often, it’s to the benefit of others. As with an injury, if we follow our debtors around and remind them of what they owe us, we haven’t really let it go. We need to relieve ourselves of the burden of worry. We have to trust God. And trusting God begins with our gifts at His altar.
He forgave me everything, and every day I have to lay another sin (or ten) at His altar, ask His forgiveness, and He is faithful to wash yet more sins away. Then I get paid for my work. I may ask myself, How much of this do I owe God? The alms bason is passed down my pew, and I haven’t considered the question. Five bucks? No, ten. I wouldn’t think He means this last twenty. Oh, here’s a one. I hastily roll it up to disguise the amount. We get dollar bills rolled up so tight that George Washington looks terrified.
It’s a biblical standard, and it makes sense. How much do I owe God? I owe Him everything. He saved my life. He gave us this world. He made us, after all. What isn’t His already? But He isn’t standing there with His hand out. What do I do? God has created a level of giving back to Himself that hurts just enough. It’s enough that we really make a sacrifice. Sacrifices help us know the debt we owe, even one He has forgiven us. We don’t give it out of guilt, or because we are buying His favor. We have that already. But we do owe Him. He says, “Just give me ten percent. It’s easy enough to figure. You have ten fingers. Use them to count it out. Move the decimal over one. Give that to the church and we’re square.”
What happens then is wonderful. We’ve been forgiven, and the tithe is not about redemption or making up for our misdeeds. That was done already. This is positive, a building up of His kingdom. It’s an act of love and appreciation. He has given me new life. I owe Him. And He takes only ten out of the 100. Then He does more. He lets the 90 remain in my hand, and He calls that His also, and I am His steward, His minister of that greater portion. And though I was worried that it wouldn’t cover my expenses, I now watch it cover all of them, and leave a portion over. I can be generous. I may stop using His money for vices. It’s His money now. And better still, my debts have all been written over to Him too. They’re now His debts. I faithfully pay my bills, but the long-range financial security we all seek is to be found in God. He has pledged to pour out that blessing from heaven and make it impossible to keep it all in storage.
So, we are to reorient our lives to our world. We forgive, and yet we remember. We remember where the threat came from, for our protection, but also to see how an act of healing and relinquishment can change first our hearts and then those of our enemies. They may become friends. But that’s more than we are responsible for. Just remember, and recall how God has forgiven you so much more.
We know why we need to give back to the Father. His loving us has given us life again. We tithe to His church, the church tithes to the diocese, and that is tithed to the province. It’s precious little at that level, I can tell you as I am the provincial treasurer, but we follow the biblical mandate. You support the ministry at every level. And you bless yourself in so doing. For the gift of God, the fulfillment of His promise, is that the money that remains with you will secure your present and eventually your future. We learn to trust, and He backs it up.
Forgive? Yes, and by forgiving we are like God. Forget? Only in so far as the darkness that once surrounded us is gone. It has no force. We don’t need to bring it up again, to remind another of their sins against us. We can be generous. We can afford to be kind. For God has forgiven us all. Seven times seven times, and more. We can be generous, because God has been so abundantly generous with us.