Year A — The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19)

Commentary for September 11, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Exodus 14:19-31
It strikes me that one of our more popular current catch phrases is, “Don’t worry…I got your back!” Spoken by a true friend, those words mean an awful lot. Having someone there to help, support, and cover our more vulnerable moments can be a a real life-saver.


How much more awesome, then, to see that God literally had Israel’s back in this most treacherous moment of the Exodus. Just when it seemed that the promise of liberation might fail after all — with a thundering herd of horses, chariots, and angry Egyptians in hot pursuit — God calmly and confidently moved from the vanguard to the rear guard. 


Keep trusting, people of God…the LORD has got your back!

Psalm 114
I have had the fortunate occasion of some extended time off recently, and used a portion of that to get outdoors into God’s creation. There is nothing like the power and majesty of mountains, oceans, and the incredible blue of the sky on a clear day to restore my sanity and confidence in the sustaining presence of God.


The psalm celebrates God’s power — sometimes displayed dramatically in nature — by virtue of his mere (or, perhaps sheer) presence. What does it take to turn the sea back or to set a mountain skipping? Just God, showing up.

Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21
In our contemporary context, the “Song if Miriam” might be seen as a little too festive or celebratory in the face of the tragedy that befell the Egyptians. In a war, for one side to triumph means that the other side has been obliterated, or pretty close to it (take Hiroshima and Nagasaki as examples.)

Yet, for Israel, the triumph at the Red Sea is seen as an expression of God’s will, might, power and — ultimately — righteousness. We dare not read this text as “might makes right.” This is not, “My God is bigger than your God…” (which sort of logic I hear a lot of in today’s international and inter-religious dialogue/debate/demagoguery.) 


A celebratory prayer, or even hymn of praise, after a time of national deliverance is fitting; we are right to acknowledge the hand of God in our lives, even and especially when coming through a “trial by fire.” But, we do well to remember that God has many children, and that hearts are heavy on all sides of a conflict when precious lives are lost.

 Genesis 50:15-21
Joseph’s example is one we need when considering our response to those who have wronged us: “Am I in the place of God? You intended to do harm to me, but God intended it for good…so, have no fear.”

 Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
Perhaps my favorite praise psalm, Psalm 103 has more good “tidbits” that I will ever be able to uncover and share in my lifetime. On this day, I think these stand out particularly:

  • The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (I really appreciate the “slow” part — not that God never gets angry, but rather, that anger is well-tempered by mercy, grace and love)
  • God does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. (Hoo, boy, am I happy about this one — especially given some of the bonehead moves I have employed in my lifetime!)
  •  …as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. Just how far is the east from the west? (A little Kipling here might help!)

 Romans 14:1-12
The takeaway from Romans for today:

  1. Quarreling over opinions is a foolish thing to do.
  2. We will all stand accountable before God.

Here ends the lesson.

Matthew 18:21-35
Only in God’s timing could this gospel portion come up for us in America on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001. Forgiveness is a deep, national struggle for us when it comes to the events of that day.

Dr. Chilton helps us situate our own struggles with forgiveness in today’s sermon. 

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Today is the tenth anniversary of a day that, like the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, “will live in infamy.”

Most of us have very vivid memories of that day; where we were when we heard the news, huddling around TV sets with loved ones or co-workers, checking up on friends and relatives around the country, hastily organized prayer vigils and worship services.

Emotions were running raw and deep. I particularly remember a pastor friend praying at a neighborhood service. He invoked Jesus on the cross praying for the Roman soldiers, his executioners, by saying “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” The pastor prayed that we might come to the place where we could pray that prayer with Jesus for those who destroyed the twin towers.

An acquaintance of mine reacted very negatively to that prayer and called to talk to me about it. At the end of a long conversation she said, “Well, I know that’s the way I’m supposed to feel and act; but I’m just not there yet and I’m not sure I ever will be.”

I think most of us know what she meant, especially today. Forgiveness is easy to talk about and hard to do. And sometimes, in certain circumstances, it feels almost impossible.
In Today’s Gospel lesson, when Peter says to Jesus that he thinks forgiving seven times is enough, Peter is feeling pretty good about himself.

After all, the Law only requires that we forgive an actual brother, a blood relative, three times for the same offence.

Peter generously expands the notion of “brother” or “sister” by including members of the church. Then he more than doubles the amount of forgiveness required.

But Jesus stuns Peter by expanding it even more, to 77 times or maybe to 70 x 7.

Through exaggeration, Jesus is making a point that he expands with the parable of the Master and the unforgiving servant; there are no limits to God’s forgiveness, nor should there be on ours.

In the parable the Master calls in the slave who owes him 10,000 talents. This the slave cannot pay. He begs that the debt be forgiven. And the Master does indeed forgive the slave the debt.

Then, that very day, almost at the same time, this same recently forgiven slave goes out and cruelly throws a fellow servant in jail over a debt of 100 denarii.

Let me see if I can make these numbers make sense. 1 Talent = 6000 denari. So, doing the math; the first slave owed the Master 60 million denarii while the second slave owed only a 100. Talents, denarii, dollars; it doesn’t matter, the point is obvious.

The first slave owed the Master a debt that it was impossible to pay. Then he turned around and refused to forgive someone else a tiny debt.

This, Jesus says, is the way we human beings treat one another. God has forgiven us much and yet we are reluctant to forgive one another a little.

Marina Gottshalk wrote a column in the Oakland Tribune a few years ago about a gun amnesty program in the town of Kensington, CA.

A woman brought in a loaded pistol she had bought 20 years ago, planning to kill her husband. She never shot him, but notice, Gottshalk says; she kept the gun loaded.

All too often, our forgiveness is like the woman choosing NOT to kill her husband. Someone does us wrong, and while we may not cause a scene, neither do we forgive. We don’t shoot them, but we keep the gun loaded just in case.

How do we learn to forgive? Only through remembering how much we have been forgiven.

We all owe to God a debt we cannot possibly pay.

Yet God forgives us:

Not because of our promises to be good,
not because of our promises of future service,
not because of our commitment to give more to the church. None of that is enough.

God forgives us because of who God is, not because of who we are.

The grace and forgiveness of God are free, but they are not cheap; the cross is a constant reminder of their cost.

In our story the man who was forgiven much then fails to forgive another man a little thing, a small debt. Again, the connection to us is painfully obvious.

How can we, who have been forgiven so much, fail to forgive others their sins against us?

That is why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer that we are to forgive others the little things because God has already forgiven us everything.

Martin Luther, in his Large Catechism, says, “For just as we sin greatly against God every day and yet he forgives it all through grace, so we also must always forgive our neighbor who does us harm, violence and injustice, bears malice against us, etc. If you do not forgive, do not think that you are forgiven in heaven. But if you forgive, you have the comfort and assurance that you are forgiven in heaven – not on account of your forgiveness (for God does it altogether freely, out of pure Grace . . .)” [Book of Concord, Fortress, 2000 edition, p. 453]

April 25, 1958 – Philadelphia, PA.A Korean student at the University of Pennsylvania was waylaid on the way to Post Office by a street gang. He was beaten, robbed and killed.

There was a great public outcry, the prosecutors called for the death penalty.

In the midst of the furor, a letter arrived from Korea. It read:

Our family has met together and we have decided to petition that the most generous treatment possible within the laws of your government be given to those who have committed this criminal action . . . .

In order to give evidence of our sincere hope contained in this petition, we have decided to save money to start a fund for the religious, educational, vocational and social guidance of the boys when they are released.

We have dared to express our hope with a spirit received from the Gospel of Jesus Christ – who died for our sins.

How do we truly forgive one another? Only through remembering that we have already been forgiven much by God. Amen and amen.

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