491 and Counting
Text: Matthew 18:21-35
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
September 11, 2011
As I was preparing to write this sermon I began to wonder what I was doing a year ago on September 11th. I don’t remember. But I do remember where I was and what I was doing ten years ago on this date. Most of us do. It is a day etched in our memories and our hearts.
There are days that always remain etched in our hearts and minds. I remember my wedding day and the days my children were born vividly. I also remember the days my parents and in-laws died. We remember days of joy and days of sadness.
September 11th is a day of so many memories for us. It is a day of shock, of sadness, of anger, and a day of terror.
It was a blatant act of hatred and terrorism and filled with innocent victims.
The people on the planes that had become instruments of death and destruction; and one heroic band of passengers who sacrificed their lives to protect others.
There were the people in the buildings many of whom talked to loved ones and said tearful good byes waiting to die. So many of their remains were never found.
And there were the amazingly heroic fire fighters and police officers who, despite overwhelming odds, went into the buildings that people were fleeing, in an attempt to save lives before losing their own lives.
And since that day, in a war against terrorist thousands of soldiers have lost their lives and so many have been wounded and disabled for life. And so many families have suffered the loss. Additionally, our economy has been devastated paying to carry on this campaign against terrorism.
And it should not be forgotten that there has been a death toll, so often dismissed as collateral damage, of so many people in far off lands who have been killed, wounded, and/or lost their homes. War is not just about soldiers, but is also about those caught in the crossfire and who have the misfortune of having their homes and their lives in the midst of battlefields.
So we remember that day ten years ago which impacted all of our lives so much.
As we gather in the presence of God at Worship today, we encounter an interesting passage from the Bible.
Within a large sector of Christianity there is something called the Revised Common Lectionary. Mainline Protestant churches have the option of using it and you’ll find that many do. I for one, sometimes use it and sometimes I don’t use it. This Fall, however, I decided to focus on it.
Beside mainline Protestant churches the Roman Catholic Church uses it as well. Chances are good, if you were attending either a Roman Catholic Church or a mainline Protestant church, the Gospel passage would be the same today.
The Lectionary goes on a three year cycle that was set decades ago and set for decades from now, so today’s Scripture reading was set long before September 11, 2011.
And it’s this. How many times should we forgive?
Peter asks a question and it is a good question. Peter often comes off as clueless but there are many times he is the one apostle who has a grasp on what Jesus is saying.
It would be inaccurate to say that in first century Judaism there was no concept Fo forgiveness. Jesus however was saying it was larger and bolder than ever before. Peter gets this and so his question of asking seven times was bold. To forgive someone seven times was remarkably generous.
But Jesus is radical. The answer is seven times seventy. If you take him literally it means that we forgive others 490 times. However Jesus seems to be speaking figuratively so it seems more like 491 and counting. As most of us would not count slights that high forgiveness is more or less an unlimited gesture.
Jesus goes further. He tells a parable about a slave who seeks forgiveness from the king for a debt and receives it. However, when this same slave will not forgive a fellow slave for that debt, the forgiven slave is now condemned. Jesus is not speaking of forgiveness as optional; it is part of our faith. It is something we profess every time we say the words in Jesus’ prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”
And this is the Scripture of the Revised Common Lectionary for today.
These are words of grace on a day when we remember an act of pure evil, of terror, and ponder how the world has changed as the result of the evil. They are not words of political leaders or commentators, or even of any member of the clergy. They are, in the words of Tony Campolo, ‘red letter words,’ the words of Jesus.
And this text is really difficult on a day like today.
One scholar within the United Church of Christ who really does a wonderful job wrestling with Scripture texts is Kate Matthews Huey who works in the national office of our denomination. In her reflection this week she cited Thomas Long, a professor in Atlanta, "We know too well that the little boat in which we are sailing is floating on a deep sea of grace and that forgiveness is not to be dispensed with an eyedropper, but a fire hose."
It’s a great image because our impulse is to dispense grace and forgiveness carefully and judiciously and rarely as an eye dropper drips sparingly. But Jesus dispenses grace with a fire hose and tells us to do so as well.
But here is the dilemma. When we think of September 11th and the horror of the day and the sheer evil of the day ideas like forgiveness and grace do not come to mind. Instead we generally think of revenge, retribution, and justice. Truthfully, on the day Osama Bin Laden was killed most of us did not mourn his death.
But then there are the words of Jesus talking about forgiveness and grace.
We can probably talk about all of what this means politically and theologically, and I really don’t want to get political. As for the theological, there is something also very personal about this.
At Floyd Memorial Hospital there is a wonderful little chapel. I often use it after visiting people to pray and reflect. It is a nice quiet space and it’s usually empty when I get there.
About a month ago I went in the chapel and a man was sitting in there. I sat down and began to read and pray Psalms which is my usual endeavor. Soon, another man came in and they both took out Islamic prayer rugs and began to pray. They were both physicians at the hospital and both appeared to be of Middle Eastern origin.
Truthfully, I had a horrible thought; a thought that embarrassed me at the time and still does. Images of September 11th danced in my mind and I wondered----and my thoughts all danced with the word ‘terrorists’ in my mind.
And, as I watched them pray another thought came to mind. These were both doctors who healed people in our community each and every day. And they were pious men who were praying out loud in a public chapel something I would be reluctant to do. I left that chapel that day filled with shame and it caused me pause.
Living lives of faith is difficult.
The twentieth century German theologian, Pastor, author, and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote of a world where the will of God would one day lead to a world reconciled to love, justice, and peace, and where oppression would end. He left Germany in 1938 to get away from Nazi oppression but returned because he believed, as a person of faith, he could not run away from evil. He returned and spent his last years in a concentration camp and was executed for his belief.
He said that there is a cost and joy of discipleship that all people must grapple with. Those words, his words, are forever remembered in our United Church of Christ Statement of Faith, always reminding us that being people of faith is never easy and will always force us to ask difficult questions.
Diana Butler Bass, a modern day theologian and author made one very simple observation about how we, as Christians, deal with this day. She said, perhaps the day is best approached in silence. It is a day that should be met with a pause; with a time of somber and sober reflection.
There is the well known story in the Bible of the woman caught in adultery. She is taken before Jesus and he is asked what should be done. Jesus’ action was very simple. Before he said a word, before he came to any conclusion, he got down on the ground and began to write. Her sin and their judgment caused him to pause and be silent.
So in the midst of today, I ask you to do one thing to remember this day. Take some time during the course of this day and take pause and be silent and sit in God’s holy presence.