Sermon for September 15, 2002
Forgiveness: Genesis 50:15-21, Romans 14:1-12 and Matthew 18:21-35
Two weekends ago after church, Judy and I went to the Taste
of Madison. I was not sure what to expect, but we enjoyed it very much. I wondered
how they judged what Madison tasted like. In the end, we had many good samples
of food from ethnic restaurants, but after our walk around the square I still
was wondering what is the essential taste of Madison?
Then it occurred to me that if Madison, Wisconsin had a taste it would be this: beer battered, deep-fried cheese curds served on a bed of organic kale in a croissant. That's Madison in a taste.
And if you'll forgive me for that, we'll move into the theme from the lessons for today: forgiveness. Forgiveness may not have been the issue on your heart when you walked through the door this morning, but it basic to life.
We know it is important because the lack of forgiveness can grind away at us, making life hard for us and those around us. We know forgiveness is important because daily bread, deliverance, and forgiveness are the things we pray for in the Lord's Prayer. Food and forgiveness are the essentials of life.
We know forgiveness is important because of the number of times we are to forgive people in the gospel lesson today: seventy times seven. It is an outlandish number, but the number reminds us that we are never finished with the business of forgiving. The number calls us to forgive again and again for the building of a better world. Without forgiveness our disagreements would only multiply and life together would be impossible. Underneath all life together is forgiveness.
Sometimes, though, forgiveness is hard. We want to forgive but we cannot. Whether we are talking about nations or individuals, forgiveness becomes a difficult process more than an accomplished fact. The complexity of forgiveness is part of the story this morning from the Old Testament about Joseph forgiving his brothers. The story comes at the end of the book of Genesis. In the book of Genesis the entire universe is created by the beginning of chapter two. But the forgiveness of Joseph and the reconciliation with his family takes many more chapters. The problems begin in chapter 37 and the forgiveness is finally complete in chapter 50. It takes a little more than one chapter to create the entire universe. It takes fourteen chapters to work through forgiveness in the family caused by something as small as jealousy over a brightly colored coat. Forgiveness is not an easy thing. It can be a long-term life process.
Yet even the longest journey toward forgiveness comes to an end. The history of our own wars from the revolutionary war onward reminds us that the grandchildren of our enemies become the allies of our own grandchildren. And the book of Genesis finally finds its ending. The Bible goes on. If forgiveness is part of your own spiritual journey, and if you are traveling that long path toward forgiving those around you, these lessons here and now offer practical insights into achieving that forgiveness and opening the next book of your life. There is more to the Bible than the book of Genesis. After forgiveness comes the liberation that begins with the book of Exodus.
The first practical help for finding greater forgiveness is the common ground for all of us. Enmity is based on differences and distinctions. Whenever we are having trouble forgiving, we are emphasizing the difference between others and ourselves. Forgiveness becomes more possible when we remember our common ground. In Genesis the brothers use the memory of the father, the common ground of the family as the foundation for forgiveness. Take whatever enemies you have, and begin to think about the things you have in common. Slowly the enemy becomes someone you can forgive.
Second, to help with forgiveness, the lessons remind us to recognize our place. Again in Genesis, Joseph is able to forgive because he realizes that he is not in the place of God. It is God who justifies, who are we to condemn, Paul says in Romans. Judging others comes easily. It is hard to forgive as long as we are sitting in a judgment seat.
Two thousand years ago, I suppose all the neighbors talked about Mary, that young woman who was pregnant outside of wedlock, whom her fiancé, Joseph wanted to leave, and who from the neighbor's point of view mysteriously disappeared about the time of childbirth. I suppose the neighbors judged that young woman, the mother of Jesus. We like to draw conclusions about others often unaware of the great mysteries God is working in their souls. Forgiveness comes when we let go of the judgment. As Joseph says in Genesis, we are not in the place of God.
Third, to help with forgiveness, the lessons call us to remember that God uses even the ill intention for the larger good. Joseph knows that his brothers did not wish him well when they sold him into slavery. They gave him up for dead in an act of fratricide fueled by sibling rivalry. But Joseph sees the hand of God at work in this ill intention. This is precisely Joseph's famous providential insight. God's providence is the sense that God is watching over us, using even the ill intention for the larger good.
I once knew a victim of domestic abuse who was only able to come to some resolution of her anger when she realized that she had been mobilized by her experience to offer support and care and advocacy for literally thousands of others who had struggled through the same hell. In the ill will of our lives lies the call of God to be someone greater. Focused on the great call of God, we find forgiveness becomes less of a struggle.
Fourth, the second lesson from Romans today calls us to appreciate different perspectives. We may disagree about many things. But our disagreement does not need to pull us apart. Sometimes we struggle about things that do not matter in the end. The issues facing Romans involved food and abstaining from various practices. Paul says, we do not need to agree to respect each other. In the ancient church the doctrine soon emerged indicating that many things are adiaphora or open questions. The old Iowa Synod of which this congregation was a founding member emphasized two things: missions (and you can see that history played out in the congregation's various outreach programs) and open questions: Christians need not agree on all things in order to share Holy Communion and to worship together. These days we need to remember the value of open questions as we consider difficult debates on Christian ethics. Realizing that there are many points of view, all valued by God, helps us to forgive when the struggle arises out of disagreement.
Finally, the story by Jesus reminds us that we too have been forgiven. "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass" is what we pray. When we remember the forgiveness we have received from the mercy of God, we are called to forgive others. We may not always be eager to forgive. We can be like the ungrateful servant in the story. But when we recall the great mercy, grace, and forgiveness of God and feel again the love God has given to us; then we are best equipped to show mercy, grace, forgiveness and love to those around us.
Forgiveness is important. It can consume many chapters of our lives. In that journey through our own Egypt, forgiveness comes when we stand on common ground rather than our differences. Forgiveness comes when we remember not to put ourselves in the place of God. Forgiveness comes when we remember that what is meant for ill can have a larger good. Forgiveness comes when we remember that other points of view are as valid as our own. Forgiveness comes when we remember we have been forgiven.
It may take awhile, but forgiveness comes. Genesis ends. The story of liberty begins.
I suppose the real taste of Madison is an open question. But we do know the taste of forgiveness. It tastes like bread. It tastes like wine. Come now to the table of the Lord. Taste the bread and wine, and we'll sing a song of forgiveness and love.