“Will the Earth Forgive Us?” ~ A Sermon on the 2nd Sunday in Creation
Exodus 14: 19-31, Matthew 18: 21-35 ~ Northwood UC ~ September 17, 2023
In church, just like in life, we have our favourites. What are yours? I might guess that last week’s luncheon would be among them. Or perhaps hearing the choir again? Seeing beloved friends and making new ones? Whatever they are, we all have our favourite parts of ‘church’ and we are delighted when they occur. On the other hand, we have the least favourite ones. And this morning’s focus will likely be among them? Forgiveness…how many of us relish the opportunity to dive deeply into forgiveness? Few, if any, among us do. Yet, Sunday after Sunday, day after day we pray the Lord’s prayer: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. This morning, we wade into the deep uncertain waters of forgiveness…seeking for those waters to part, become clear and offer guidance for living and the unfolding of peace unfold into the days ahead.
As Jesus teaches in the gospel lection, forgiveness is the way the Kingdom of God works. It is a simple and wonderful formula. God forgives us with an amazing grace, and we are called into a way of allowing that perpetual forgiveness and grace to unfold in our living. God’s forgiveness and ours…the unfolding way of Kin-dom living. Sound simple? Easier said than done, right? Well, let’s begin by unpacking the gospel teaching and the parable of the unforgiving servant that comes with it.
Jesus’ teaching begins with an interesting number: 7. The perennial question among followers of Jesus had always been: ‘how many times do we have to forgive the offending party?’… ‘when can we stop forgiving those who are indebted to us?’ The answer Jesus gives is never. And he does so by giving variations of the biblical number for perfection: 7. You are to forgive not 7 times, but 77 times. 7, as many know, is a very significant number throughout scripture. It is used over 700 times, spelled with the same consonants as “complete” or “full”. Used first, in the book of Genesis, 7 was the number of days God took to bring Creation to fullness, as God rested on the 7th. Skipping to the end of the Bible, we have the 7 churches assembled in the book of Revelation. And throughout scripture, 7 is about liberation, freedom and hope. On the 7th year, the land was to be given rest (no planting and production) so that it could renew itself. And when 7 cycles of 7-year periods had transpired, the year of jubilee proclaimed the release of all who were in slavery. So, Jesus picks a very significant number for the prescription of forgiveness. Fullness, completion, release, hope.
Scholars have suggested that Jesus’ prescription of 77 times forgiveness takes us to the point that it becomes a practice or a way of being. The focus becomes on forgiveness not on debt. With a 7 times requirement, you might count your way up to 7, and having fulfilled your forgiveness quota, you can ‘let them have it’. But 77 times forgiveness is the Kin-dom way that Jesus is teaching. The offering of forgiveness becomes the focus rather than the trespass against. It becomes a way…a habit…the Kin-dom unfolding of forgiveness. Last week, we focussed on Paul’s teaching about the “debt of love”. We have one debt, Paul teaches, and that debt is the debt of love. Here, Jesus teaches us a focus on forgiveness, rather than indebtedness. Our focus should be on forgiveness offered, rather than on trespasses received. The debt of love is informative for us here too. As an extension of love, we offer forgiveness rather than count the trespasses against. Forgiveness is a beautiful part of God’s Kin-dom
And to further make his point, Jesus tells the parable of the Unforgiving servant. As we don’t deal with biblical currency of talents and denarii, so a little translation might be helpful. The parable relies on hyperbole to be understood. The Lord demands repayment from the servant of a ridiculous sum…10,000 talents. One talent would be the wages earned by the labourer over several years. 10,000 talents is beyond thousands of lifetimes of labour. It would have been impossible for the servant to have ever accrued that debt! And, furthermore, it would have been equally impossible for the servant ever to pay it back! So, the story is absolutely absurd. And what is all the crazier is that after the master shows mercy to the servant, the mercy is not of forgiveness is not shown unto his debtors. The servant has been forgiven the outrageous sum of 10,000 talents, yet he cannot even forgive a denarii (a day’s wage) to others. The parable teaches that forgiveness must be the currency flowing in the Kin-dom, not debt-keeping!
It is important, I think, for us to pause and consider what forgiveness is, and also what it isn’t. Forgiveness means to release, to let go of the other. However, forgiveness is not denying our hurt and pain. It is not allowing for it occur again. When we minimize what has happened to us, gloss over it, or tell ourselves that it was not really that that bad, we are not really forgiving. Forgiving is the release of the other, so that they no longer have power over us. Eleanor Roosevelt, after learning of her husband's infidelity, said to him; “I can forgive but I can never forget.” And some events and situations should never be forgotten. Lest we forget, we will see them repeated. We might include situations like this: mistreatment of indigenous people, the Holocaust, slavery, ethnic cleansing, exploitation of children and women, infidelity, and lies that turn our lives upside down. Forgiving is the release of the other, so that they do not have power over us, and we are freed to live.
This year, we ponder Jesus’ teaching amidst the season of Creation. Scientists tell us that we are have been the offending parties behind much of the pain and suffering that Mother earth is experiencing. They say that no other species have polluted, harmed, and changed the planet more than humans. This past summer, we experienced record devastation in British Columbia through the wildfires. And as we look at the pain inflicted upon the earth, one wonders ‘Will the earth forgive us’ of the sins committed against her?
If we were to use the formula Jesus is teaching on forgiveness, perhaps it might be an informative guide in our living. With Jesus’ teaching, forgiveness becomes the way we move forward. As the offending party, are we leading with forgiveness, are we making efforts towards healing and living with grace in terms of earth care. I found the shift of our church vision last year to be a significant one. We shifted from “embracing the community with the love of Christ” to “embracing all of creation with the love of Christ”. By explicitly naming “all of creation” being the focus of Christ’s love, it began to began to shape us. Recycling became the standard and our waste has gone down significantly. We do not welcome damaging materials, such as Styrofoam, into the church. People have been making shifts in their lifestyles: more earth-friendly cars and more walking. The shift has begun at Northwood and in many areas of our lives. Living the way of forgiveness towards earth care means making decisions, that might not be the cheapest, but are the most loving towards the planet. It is a shift towards thinking what the planet owes us…towards what we owe the planet.
I got to wondering about the story of the Red Sea that Jenny read for us this morning in this light. The Israelites had been imprisoned in Egypt for generations; God’s power was shown at the Passover and Pharoah became afraid at the death and destruction that was beginning to occur. Pharoah wanted the Israelites gone! The Red Sea escape happens when Moses was leading them out of Egypt. And at that moment, Pharoah had changed his mind. In anger, he decides to no longer free them but rather to attack them and seek revenge. Trapped, on the one side by the stormy waters of the Red Sea and the warring armies coming from behind, we see that way of God towards those who come in peace and those who come in war. For the Israelites, the waters parted and allowed the Israelites to pass towards freedom. For the warring Egyptians the waters came upon them and they were swallowed up in anger and violence as the waters drowned them. The Israelites followed the way of love and freedom and found life; the Egyptians follow the way of violence and were swallowed up in the waters of hatred. I wonder if this might be a poignant difference God is making when it comes to earth care and living in the way of love? The waters parted for those who sought freedom in God’s Promise. The waters swallowed up those who came in violence and war.
May we live as people whose only debt is love. And part of that love is living the way of forgiveness.