Year A: The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (September 14, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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 yet another anniversary of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent events in Benghazi several years later. Forgiveness is a deep, national struggle for us when it comes to the events of that day.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We say it every Sunday.
Some of us say it every day in our personal prayers. We say it, but . . . are we really ready and willing for forgive others in equal measure to how much we have been forgiven by God?

Forgiveness, in the radical form taught by Jesus, is a startlingly foreign concept to the way most of us live our lives. When things got bad in Ferguson in the last few weeks, I pulled an old file out of the drawer and read clippings I had kept of racial incidents over the years. I read one the riots in Los Angeles following the Rodney King Police Brutality trial? There was a story about a truck driver named Reginald Denny. There were pictures of him, lanky with long blonde hair, being pulled from his truck, then kicked and pummeled with bricks by rioters. A few weeks later, Mr. Denny met with his attackers, shook their hands and said that he forgave them. A reporter, commenting on this episode, said in his column, “Mr. Denny is reported to be suffering from brain damage.”

In a world that has raised retributive justice to the highest ideal of human relationships, brain damage becomes the only logical explanation for such a generous act of forgiveness. In a universe of meaning in which we have been taught to define ourselves as either perpetrators or victims; for a victim to forgive a perpetrator is so illogical that it must the result of impaired thinking.

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” When Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive, he probably felt pretty magnanimous in his suggestion of seven times. After all, the rabbis traditional answer was three. Peter, perhaps reflecting his growing understanding of Jesus generosity of spirt, doubled that and added one to make it a Holy Seven.
“See how holy I am, master?” he seems to say.

But Jesus raises the ante higher than anyone could have imagined, “Not seven, but seventy-seven times,” which isn’t meant to be taken literally, as we laboriously count off seventy-seven occasions. No, it means “as many times as it takes,”

Peter’s problem, our problem, is that we are calculating this sin and forgiveness equation on a human scale of values and possibilities while Jesus inserts God and God’s justice and God’s mercy into the deliberations.

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” That’s the way I learned the Lord’s Prayer, many Sunday evenings ago in the little Presbyterian Church where we went to Evening Prayer when we visited my grandmother. Jesus is using this concept of sin as debt in his parable of the “unjust slave.” This slave owed 10,000 talents to his master. Many commentators say that one talent was worth more than 15 years wages of a day laborer. In modern terms, let’s say a day laborer makes $15,000 a year. That’s one talent is $225,000 and multiply that by 10,000 talents and that comes to, two and a quarter billion dollars. Wow.

And, because the slave asked the master to forgive him this humongous debt; the master did; the master had mercy, the master wiped out the debt.

Now, if a two and a quarter billion dollar debt being forgiven wasn’t hard enough to swallow, here comes the really unbelievable part of the parable. This slave left from there and threw a fellow slave into prison over a debt of a hundred denarii. A denarius was a day’s wage, so using our modern financial scale, we’re talking a few thousand dollars. What? That can’t be right!

“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

This is a case where Jesus uses hyperbole, over the top exaggeration to make his point, which is simply this: in light of the tremendous debt we owe God, any debt anyone else owes us is practically nothing. When we consider the cost to God of forgiving our sins, the cost of our forgiving the sins of others is also nothing. It is in response to God’s gracious, loving act of forgiving us that we are able to forgive others.

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Like Peter, we prefer to think of ourselves as the ones who do the forgiving, and we like to give ourselves credit for being kind and merciful when we forgive. But Jesus’ parable, and his teaching on prayer, will not allow this. We pray first to be forgiven, and because we have been forgiven so much, we forgive other for the little things they have done to us.

Seen in this light, the forgiveness of others is as natural as breathing. It is not a sign of brain damage, but is rather the natural outpouring of a once broken heart that has now been healed. To forgive others is not the act of some great spiritual master, it is rather a humble servant’s joyous response to the unbelievable and immeasurable love of God in Christ.

“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Amen.

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