Sunday, September 14, 2014

Radically Forgiven, Radically Forgiving: Genesis 50:15-21, Matthew 18:21-35


This morning's scripture readings come from Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35 and we are exploring the theme of forgiveness.

There’s an old phrase I’m sure you’ve all heard. Some of you may have been offered this as advice.  I know I have.
“Forgive and forget.”
That phrase makes me crazy.
Jesus doesn’t say, “Forgive and forget.” He says “forgive.” And those are two totally different things.  Forgiving isn’t just saying, “Oh, forget about it, it’s no big deal.”  Sometimes, forgetting isn’t the right thing to do.
What Joseph’s brothers did to him. . . leaving him in a ditch for slave traders. . . that was a big deal. It completely changed Joseph’s entire life. There is no way he could ever forget that, and in fact it would be pretty foolish of him to do so. Just look what God did to turn that all around and redeem the situation. To forget what his brothers had done to him would be to cheapen what God did for him in that situation.
Joseph did not forget. Joseph could not forget.
But Joseph forgave. He forgave fully and lovingly and with a gracious heart. He let go of the darkness of what had happened to him and he clung to the goodness of a God who saves us out of the pits of slavery and despair so that we can accomplish much for the sake of the kingdom.
Forgiving is not the same as mere forgetting. Forgiving is saying, “I’m letting go of the anger, the hurt, the pain, the grudge, all the negative emotion and energy that are wrapped up in the situation and I’m handing them to Jesus.”
When you’re out driving, you’re going to want to remember that car you just passed. It’s still back there. It’s in the rear view mirror now, but it’s still a part of what’s going on around you and it could try to pass you later or cut you off or even rear end you. You shouldn’t forget that car is back there. But you have to leave it in the rear view mirror. If you obsess about the car, you’re likely to miss beautiful scenery out the side window or a stop light up ahead or run off the road while you’re staring out the back window.
Forgiveness is leaving things in the rear view mirror. It’s setting them down and leaving them behind us.
Forgiving can be tiring. Sometimes it seems like all we do is forgive, forgive, forgive. Forgiveness, even without the forgetting, or sometimes because of forgetting, can be very hard. Peter points this out to Jesus. How many times is one to forgive? Peter asks. “Seventy seven times,” or, depending on who’s translating the Greek, “Seventy times seven.” Is Jesus’ reply. Either way, what a funny thing to say! I wonder if Peter expected Jesus to say an actual number?
The number isn’t really the point though. That’s why it doesn’t matter a whole lot if it’s seventy seven times or seventy times seven. Peter throws out what he thinks to be a reasonable number of times to forgive someone - seven, but Jesus says, “No. Take what you think is reasonable. Multiply that by a whole lot, and you might be getting close.” In other words, take what sounds like a lot of forgiving, and go way beyond that.
Before the disciples can even question him again about that to clear things up, Jesus launches into a parable about a servant who is forgiven of a HUGE debt. I don’t know exactly how much ten THOUSAND bags of gold would be worth in today’s terms, but I have a pretty good hunch that it’s in the ballpark of what we’d call a “cartload of money.” Perhaps, “Wholelotta” would be a good word here. It’s like if your bank called tomorrow and said they were forgiving the remainder of your mortgage or student loans or car loan after you’d only made a few payments. That’s the sort of giant forgiveness of debt we’re talking about here.
So this servant, newly forgiven of a MASSIVE debt, heads home. He runs into a guy who owes him something on the order of twenty bucks and lays into him. The debtor begs for some more time – in exactly the same way that just moments before the one he’s pleading with had pled with his boss . And this man who has just had a huge debt forgiven, refuses forgiveness to the one who owes little.
At this point in the parable, I have to imagine the disciples were all thinking, “What a total CREEP!” I know I am. Who does that?
And Jesus says. . . you do. You do that. Every time you hold onto the hate and the anger and the hurt and the bad stuff and you refuse forgiveness to another person, you are that guy.
            We’ve been forgiven a huge debt. We humans get into all sorts of trouble. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Not “most,” not “some,” “All.” And it’s not “and those who sinned littler sins got close enough.” Or “and some did unforgiveable things that even Jesus just couldn’t forgive them for.”
It’s simply, “We have all screwed up and none of us made the mark. Not even close.” Forget a bull’s-eye, none of us have even hit the target. There’s just a whole lot of darts in the wall.
            And Jesus walks in and and he says, “I still love you. Of course I forgive you.”
            There is nothing too big, no terrible skeletons in the closet, no guilt-causing, shame-inducing past, no missed steps, terrible words, embarrassing deeds, there is absolutely positively nothing you have done, are doing, or could do to make Jesus turn away from you. No matter what it is. . .
And you.
And you.
And you.
And me.
And you.
And you. . .

A friend of mine shared an interesting quote this week from someone I’d never heard of by the name of Robert Farrar Capon.
“In heaven, there are only forgiven sinners. . . But in hell, too, there are only forgiven sinners. . . He forgives the badness of even the worst of us, willy-nilly; and never takes back that forgiveness, not even at the bottom of the bottomless pit.
The sole difference, therefore, between hell and heaven is that in heaven forgiveness is accepted and passed along, while in hell it is rejected and blocked. In heaven, the death of the King is welcomed and becomes the doorway to new life in the resurrection.  In hell, the old life of the bookkeeping world is insisted on and becomes, forever, the pointless torture it always was.”
            In Jesus, God refuses to use the sort of bookkeeping and tab-counting that we use. There is no list of sins sorted from worst to least offensive. Sin is sin. Messing up is messing up. And we can accept that forgiveness or we can ignore it. But that doesn’t mean Jesus forgives us any less. The only thing standing in our way is our refusal to live into, lean into, soak in, revel in, and to truly accept that forgiveness.
            That is radical! It was radical when Jesus taught it and it’s radical now. It’s almost impossible to wrap our heads around.
We’re going to sing one of my favorite hymns together before we part ways this morning. I’ve always loved this hymn. I had at least three of the five common verses memorized by the time I was 6 or 7 years old. When I learned to play the guitar, Amazing Grace was one of the first songs I learned how to play. It’s such a deep, rich song and when you hear the story about it’s author, John Newton, it becomes even richer and deeper.
Amazing Grace employs some pretty strong language. “Wretch.” “A wretch like me.” People don’t really talk like that these days, do they? But have you ever felt like that? Have you ever thought, “I am wretched.”
Newton served on several slave ships during his life in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s and was in fact converted on one of those slave ships during a storm while reading a book called “The Imitation of Christ.”
When he quit working in the slave trade, he was ordained as a minister and spent the rest of his life serving in the church. He wrote over 280 hymns, some of which are still in hymnals today. His days on the slave ships, however, stuck with him. He was deeply impressed by the fact that God would take someone as wretched as he had been who had been so terrible to other human beings and turn him around and use him for the kingdom. He went from despicable slave trader to being the author of one of the most beloved hymns of all ages.
What an incredible transformation!
Friends, there is nothing you’ve done that can keep Jesus from forgiving you. We are radically forgiven, and that is why we are in turn to radically forgive those around us. Let us take that forgiveness out into the world. Like John Newton, let us never lose the awe of the great forgiveness we have been given. . . what amazing grace God gives in Jesus.
Amazing grace. How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
Pastors and Preachers
John Newton
Reformed slave trader
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”
It is probably the most famous hymn in history:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
Though some today wonder if the word wretch is hyperbole or a bit of dramatic license, John Newton, the song’s author, clearly did not.
Slave trader
Newton was nurtured by a Christian mother who taught him the Bible at an early age, but he was raised in his father’s image after she died of tuberculosis when Newton was 7. At age 11, Newton went on his first of six sea-voyages with the merchant navy captain.
Newton lost his first job, in a merchant’s office, because of “unsettled behavior and impatience of restraint”—a pattern that would persist for years. He spent his later teen years at sea before he was press-ganged aboard the H.M.S. Harwich in 1744. Newton rebelled against the discipline of the Royal Navy and deserted. He was caught, put in irons, and flogged. He eventually convinced his superiors to discharge him to a slaver ship. Espousing freethinking principles, he remained arrogant and insubordinate, and he lived with moral abandon: “I sinned with a high hand,” he later wrote, “and I made it my study to tempt and seduce others.”
He took up employment with a slave-trader named Clow, who owned a plantation of lemon trees on an island off of west Africa. But he was treated cruelly by Clow and the slaver’s African mistress; soon Newton’s clothes turned to rags, and Newton was forced to beg for food to allay his hunger.
The sluggish sailor was transferred to the service of the captain of the Greyhound, a Liverpool ship, in 1747, and on its homeward journey, the ship was overtaken by an enormous storm. Newton had been reading Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, and was struck by a line about the “uncertain continuance of life.” He also recalled the passage in Proverbs, “Because I have called and ye have refused, … I also will laugh at your calamity.” He converted during the storm, though he admitted later, “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer, in the full sense of the word.”
Newton then served as a mate and then as captain of a number of slave ships, hoping as a Christian to restrain the worst excesses of the slave trade, “promoting the life of God in the soul” of both his crew and his African cargo.
Amazing hymnal
After leaving the sea for an office job in 1755, Newton held Bible studies in his Liverpool home. Influenced by both the Wesleys and George Whitefield, he adopted mild Calvinist views and became increasingly disgusted with the slave trade and his role in it. He quit, was ordained into the Anglican ministry, and in 1764 took a parish in Olney in Buckinghamshire.
Three years after Newton arrived, poet William Cowper moved to Olney. Cowper, a skilled poet who experienced bouts of depression, became a lay helper in the small congregation.
In 1769, Newton began a Thursday evening prayer service. For almost every week’s service, he wrote a hymn to be sung to a familiar tune. Newton challenged Cowper also to write hymns for these meetings, which he did until falling seriously ill in 1773. Newton later combined 280 of his own hymns with 68 of Cowper’s in what was to become the popular Olney Hymns. Among the well-known hymns in it are “Amazing Grace,” “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” “O for a Closer Walk with God,” and “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.”
In 1787 Newton wrote Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade to help William Wilberforce’s campaign to end the practice—“a business at which my heart now shudders,” he wrote. Recollection of that chapter in his life never left him, and in his old age, when it was suggested that the increasingly feeble Newton retire, he replied, “I cannot stop. What? Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?”[3]

[1] The New International Version. (2011). (Ge 50:15–21). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
[2] The New International Version. (2011). (Mt 18:21–35). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
[3] Galli, M., & Olsen, T. (2000). Introduction. In 131 Christians everyone should know. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

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