“Life After the Elections”
Texts: Matthew 18: 21-35
Ecclesiastes 4: 1-4
By: David D. McDonald
September 13, 2020
NRSV Ecclesiastes 4: 1-4
4 Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed--with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power--with no one to comfort them. 2 And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; 3 but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun. 4 Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind.
NRSV Matt. 18:21-35
21 Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" 22 Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
23 "For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, 'Pay what you owe.' 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
William Willimon begins his lectionary commentary on this text from Matthew 18 with the following words:
For those who doubt that God’s Spirit can operate within such human constructions as a three-year lectionary cycle, let us remember that this text was also appointed for use on September 16, 2002. I had been asked that year to preach at a remembrance service on Wednesday, September 11. Searching for a text and a way to deal homiletically with [ i.e. in a sermon} the still-raw emotions surrounding the tragic events of the previous year, I turned to the Gospel lesson appointed for the upcoming Sunday. My first inclination was to set Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness aside. Surely it was too soon to address the nation’s tragedy with a lesson on forgiveness. Upon further consideration and prayer, I chose to use the lesson as my sermon text and to proclaim the concept of forgiveness in the face of incalculable loss and grief. The hyperbole of the parable was precisely what was needed to get our attention at a time when forgiveness was far from people’s minds. (Preaching Resource, Year 2014. p.46)
How long does it take to heal the wounded and the grieving? How hard it is for those who lost sons and daughters in the Middle East conflicts to forgive! How hard it is for those who have lost family members to the Covid 19 pandemic to forgive the slow and inadequate response by governmental authorities! There is so much name calling and finger pointing in the current election cycle! I am reminded of words from Jeremiah:
NRSV Jeremiah 31:15-17
15 Thus says the LORD:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
16 Thus says the LORD:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the LORD:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
17 there is hope for your future,
says the LORD:
your children shall come back to their own country.
Yet, we would ask of the Lord, “What of those who will not come back? What of those who come back forever changed by injury and post-traumatic stress? Where is the Balm of Gilead?
We are apt to say far too lightly, “Time heals all wounds.”
I’m not so sure that is true. I have listened to any number of veterans of Viet Nam, Korea, Iraq … who cannot forget the battles, the dead and dying, the innocent children and other non-combatants killed and maimed in the firefights and bombing raids. Much time has passed and the nightmares still come – maybe less frequently, but they still return. Time does not heal wounds – God does – and it is hard to make peace in our own skins until we make peace with God – and that surely involves forgiveness!
Could any pair of scripture passages be more relevant to these days then our morning texts from Ecclesiastes and Matthew 18? We are still reeling as a nation, years later, from the terrible and horrific acts of September 11, 2001. We are still looking for and sometimes finding terrorists. Yet, in terms of history, these years are but a blink of an eye. Sometimes forgiveness takes generations. When religious zealots get involved, the results can often take generations to untangle those webs of thorny vines. We must be patient with ourselves and with others. Consider a historical glimpse of our own Scottish tradition. I reread one of my favorite articles this week entitled, “Meditation on a Scottish Church” by Roger Lovette in Pulpit Resource, September 14, 2008:
“I remembered something that happened to me in Stirling (the author writes), Scotland several years ago. Stirling is northeast of Edinburgh and is the gateway to the Scottish highlands. This is where Robert the Bruce fought to gain Scotland’s independence in 1314. The movie Braveheart told that story. It is a beautiful city dominated by a wonderful castle high on a hill overlooking the whole city. Near the castle is the Church of the Holy Rude. In case you’re wondering, Holy Rude was a medieval term for the Cross of Christ’s crucifixion.
This church dates back to the 12th century. The present building was constructed in the 15th century. Mary Queen of Scots was crowned there in 1543. Prince Henry was christened in this church in 1594. James VI was crowned king in that room. As we stood in the sanctuary the guide said: “Do you see the brick line there?” He pointed to a line from floor to ceiling right down the middle sides of the church. “This was one of our most painful stories. During the turbulent 17th century when there were so many religious and political troubles, the congregation was split into factions. An extreme and bigoted Presbyterian pastor, James Guthrie, refused to accept his more moderate colleague. After trying to resolve the conflict for a long time, the town council finally solved the problem by building a wall across the church between the west pillars of the crossing. They did this in 1656. One church became two separate churches, the east and the west. They worshipped back to back from 1656 until 1936. One altar was at one end of the church and a second altar at the other end. In 1936 the wall was removed and the church was reunited. But for 280 years they worshipped in a divided manner.”
I looked up at the scars where the bricks had finally come down. I thought about the church I have known and served from its beginning until now. All those divisions in that little band of 12 he called: Peter, James, and John, and then the others. Peter was loudmouthed and impetuous. James and John wanted to be in charge. Judas, the treasurer – well you know that story. Standing there in that 800-year-old church, I thought about all the jealousies and the jockeying for power from then until now. The splits and divisions between Peter and Paul and Apollos were merely a prelude to the multitude of hassles, struggles over doctrine, and disposition and personalities we still contend with. “…….This reminds me of a cartoon that came out years ago. It dealt with the prodigal son. The father was going down the road to meet his boy and the caption reads: “I’ll be glad when this boy grows up; this is the sixth fatted calf I have had to kill.”
The Gospels are full of forgiveness and the stories and parables of the forgiven.
Journalist Sydney J. Harris captured the essence of Jesus’ idea of forgiving beyond measure with these pithy words: “There’s no point in burying the hatchet if you’re going to put up a marker on the site.” Ibid.
In this morning’s scripture lesson, the apostle Peter poses the initial question of this text in this way, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" The context of the passage leads us to believe that there was trouble in the rank and file of Jesus’ followers. Some wanted to take places of precedence. There was infighting and feelings were being hurt. Peter does what a lot of disciples of Jesus have done before and since. Peter goes looking for a Biblical text to validate what he wants to do. Peter remembers the story of Cain and Abel and the companion story of Lamech in Genesis 4: 23-24. Recall the text:
23 Lamech said to his wives:
“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.
24 If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”
Yes, the Bible tells the story of the human race in all of its ugliness. Cain broods in hatred against his brother Abel and then wants protection from God against any avenging family or friends. Lamech, gets in a brawl with a young man. No doubt, it started with some harsh words, a small affront, the exchange escalates, and a blow lands hard on Lamech. His feelings and his pride are wounded, too! Lamech should know better, he is older, but revenge is sweet, and when he strikes the blow, he kills! Can Lamech be forgiven? If this man has friends and family and they come after Lamech what shall happen to Lamech’s wives? He answers the concerns of his wives, family, and friends that God’s protection is even greater then Cain’s, seventy-sevenfold, since at least Lamech had provocation. The scriptures have the human race in clear focus for sure! We are easily provoked. We can be a violent species! More often then not, as history testifies, we will not break the cycle of violence, but perpetuate it with more violence.
To answer Peter, Jesus tells a parable. Peter may have fallen into the trap of trying to proof-text his way into restrained and limited violence, but Jesus will not buy into the argument. Jesus can see quite clearly that the issue of counting and keeping score is merely a way of bidding time and seeking the approval of friends and family. In the parable that Jesus tells a slave owes his king 10,000 talents which is roughly equivalent to the wages a day laborer would earn in 150,000 years! In other words, there is no way he can ever pay the debt! If he starts today he will not even make a respectable payment on the debt in his lifetime. So, he appeals for mercy and not justice. He wants the king and his court to ignore the law in his case. Yet, he immediately seeks the court’s justice in regard to a debt that a fellow slave owed him! He became violent and grabbed the man by the throat and had him hauled off to prison. What a snapshot of humanity! How often we have seen even in recent history how wanton, selfish, greed, and ambition have cost a nation, or a corporation everything and the perpetrators want understanding and forgiveness. Yet, their very actions demonstrate no compassion or mercy for their hurting neighbors, employees, or adversaries. The Lord’s response to Peter seems to be, “Practice makes perfect!” One cannot learn forgiveness by doing it only once or twice or thrice or even seven times.” Maybe 70 x 7 is not enough. Forgiveness is never easy. A devotional calendar we had at home had this story by Rhoda Blecker for August 16, 2011:
“I've always loved music. As a child, I struggled with piano lessons; my hands were too small to stretch an octave on the keys, and I never could seem to loosen their stiffness enough to make the music seem anything other than labored. I gave it up when I got old enough to protest against the lessons.
One year, I shared a monastery guesthouse with a young man named Douglas, who wanted to be a jazz trumpeter. He moved in with hundreds of CDs and a shiny trumpet. I was eager to hear him play. Douglas practiced for four hours every day, two in the morning and two in the evening. But for the entire month I was there, he played only scales, every morning, every night. All those hours of practice went into nothing more than scales.
Just before I was due to leave, I asked him why he never played anything else. He answered, "I want to be a very good trumpet player, and I don't have a natural gift for it. So I have to work at the basics very hard for a very long time."
I went away humbled by his dedication to making music, aware that, just as I hadn't had the talent to play easily, I also hadn't had the gift of working hard enough to make up for my flaws. Douglas may not get the career he wants, but it won't be for lack of trying. His God-given determination will carry him through obstacles that turn away a lesser heart.”
Moreover, experience reminds us that bitterness, hatred, revenge, and the violent settling of scores lead only to a circle of more death and violence. If we do not forgive, then we surely die. Jesus rose on the third day, not by vanquishing Pilate, the Sanhedrin, or the Roman legionnaires who nailed him to the cross. He rose to life and sits on the right hand of God for all eternity by reason of the Father’s will and gracious love. Jesus rose by declaration of Almighty God and his mercy. Those who would live in the fullness of life and enter into the Kingdom of heaven must follow the path of Jesus Christ who found peace, life, and eternity in forgiveness and trust in His Heavenly Father.
Further, forgiveness has a benefit for both those who forgive and those who are forgiven. Frederick Buechner in his devotional book, Listening to Your Life, writes:
“WHEN SOMEBODY you've wronged forgives you, you're spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience.
When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you're spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride.
For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other's presence.” P. 305
When forgiveness becomes our home place it provides fertile ground for the new plantings of the future to take root. The old animosities and bitterness that were choking out the opportunities for community and fellowship disappear and in their place new relationships, shared joys and a Spirit of hope abound.
Have you ever done anything really dumb, something you don’t thin k you could possibly be forgiven? Consider this story:
The story of "Wrong Way Riegels" is a familiar one, but it bears repeating.
On New Year's Day, 1929, Georgia Tech played UCLA m the Rose Bowl. In that game a young man named Roy Riegels recovered a fumble for UCLA. Picking up the loose ball, he lost his direction and ran sixty-five yards toward the wrong goal line. One of his teammates, Benny Lorn, ran him down and tackled him just before he scored for the opposing team. Several plays later, the Bruins had to punt. Tech blocked the kick and scored a safety, demoralizing the UCLA team.
The strange play came in the first half. At half-time the UCLA players filed off the field and into the dressing room. As others sat down on the benches and the floor, Riegels sat down in a corner, and put his face in his hands.
A football coach usually has a great deal to say to his team during halftime. That day Coach Price was quiet. No doubt he was trying to decide what to do with Riegels.
When the timekeeper came in and announced that there were three minutes before playing time, Coach Price looked at the team and said, "Men, the same team that played the first half will start the second." The players got up and started out, all but Riegels. He didn't budge. The coach looked back and called to him. Riegels didn't move. Coach Price went over to where Riegels sat and said, "Roy, didn't you hear me? The same team that played the first half will ~:art the second."
Roy Riegels looked up, his cheeks wet with tears. "Coach," ne said, "I can't do it. I've ruined you. I've ruined the universities- reputation. I've ruined myself. I can't face that crowd out there."
Coach Price reached out, put his hand on Riegels's shoulder, and said, "Roy, get up and go on back. The game is only half over."
Riegels finally did get up. He went onto the field, and the fans saw him play hard and play well. (1001 Quotes, Illustrations & Humorous Stories, Rowell, p.265)
Forgiveness does not come easy. The Biblical concept of forgiveness is sometimes lost on even good, church going people, who often do hurtful, shameful things when asked to change and take life’s road in a different direction. Consider this story from the not so distant past:
(Pulpit Resource, September 14, 2008) “Robert Coles, the distinguished child psychiatrist, says that a little black girl was responsible for his conversion to social concerns. He writes that he went to Biloxi, Mississippi in the 1950s to help black children living with the trauma of trying to integrate their schools. Ruby was the first black child to help desegregate her public school in Biloxi. Every day Ruby would walk to school guarded by Federal Marshals who escorted her through an angry mob of protestors. Dr. Coles was quite concerned about Ruby and what effect all this hatred would have on the rest of her life. He knew, as a psychiatrist, that she was probably having trouble eating, sleeping and carrying on her normal routine. Every day he interviewed her and would ask, “Ruby, how are you sleeping?” She would reply, “I’m sleeping just fine.” Coles would pursue the question, “Then I bet you aren’t eating too well are you?” And Ruby would answer, “I’m eating just fine.” Every day he would ask the questions and she responded in the same say: “I’m just fine.” Finally one day he heard Ruby’s teacher say that she had noticed that Ruby seemed to be talking to herself when she walked through the angry mob every morning. Dr. Coles asked her what she was saying as she walked through that line of angry people. She told him, “I say, Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.””
In these deeply troubled and disturbing times, the key to a vibrant church and personal happiness is the practice of forgiveness. We need to practice what the scripture states quite plainly in the reply of Jesus to Peter. To state the matter in my own words, “We need to really, really, really, forgive one another as God has forgiven us. Go and practice forgiveness! Amen!