I didn't read the gospel - I used this youtube video instead using our new HUGE TV!
Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Thank you for bearing with an extra-long gospel reading this morning, but I think you might agree that it was worth it! We just heard one interpretation of some adorable, but also very theologically astute children.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches A LOT, and this week we hear yet another snippet of one of his longer lesson that take up most of chapter 18. Last week, Jesus taught how sin is handled in the community. But much before that, at the beginning of chapter 18, the disciples ask Jesus “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” Jesus, probably rolling his eyes, bring in a child and says “…unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” As we can see, kids can also be pretty smart.
But Peter seems to be hung up on verse 15 from last week – “If another member of the church sins against you…” Peter seems to be less interested in the reconciliation that forgiveness would bring, and more interested in how many times he might be sinned AGAINST. So, Jesus told then a story.
And if you were following along, these kids get most of the details right – minus, Narnia, “Let it Go,” and the inaccurate details about middle-eastern jails from about two thousand years ago. But other than that, they’re pretty dead on.
For example, the bit about the amounts these two slaves owed their king. The first slave, the unmerciful one, if you recall, he owed “A jillion and twenty” dollars, which is a completely ridiculous amount. Well, so is ten thousand talents - an amount that no person could POSSILBY work off in their entire lifetimes.
The other slave, if you remember, owed the first one “a thousand and twenty dollars”, very manageable and small by comparison.
But the first slave does not forgive this comparatively small amount, even after his enormous debt is forgiven. And the children conclude that the moral of Jesus’ story is: “If you don’t forgive, God won’t be happy. Since God forgives you, you should forgive other people.”
This should sound familiar since, as the children pointed out, from one of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
This gets really tricky. This can easily be interpreted as the opposite being just as true – “If I do not forgive those who sin against me, God will not forgive me.” Does this also mean that if someone sins against me, for any reason, I should do like the song from “Frozen” and “Let it Go?” Even seventy-seven times?
For many of us, we don’t even have to get to the seventy-seventh time to find this hard or even impossible. Sometimes, one sin against us is all it takes for us to get stuck – and here we’re are usually talking a BIG SIN. Betrayal of trust, sexual assault, spreading a lie, bullying or meanness, destruction of property, infidelity, threats and violence…. What about sins of this magnitude and scale? Jesus tells us to forgive from the heart. What happens when our hearts have been so destroyed that we just don’t have enough piece left to be ABLE to forgive?
One of my seminary professors, Dr. Craig Koester, shares this helpful insight: " Forgiveness is not acceptance of the past. . . Forgiveness is the declaration that the past will not define the future. . .”
Case in point – the story of Joseph from Genesis we heard as our first reading
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is one of my favorite musicals. When I was in Wisconsin this summer, my neighbor’s daughter Molly played in the pit orchestra for her high school production, and it was awesome. On the surface, this is a fun retelling of Joseph’s story. But there is so much more going on than just peppy songs and a cool costume. It is also a story about forgiveness.
We heard the end of the story a few minutes ago, where Joseph is able to say, “Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good.” But we have an entire musical, an entire story that got Joseph to this point. Today we didn’t hear about the years and the struggles and the dark moments that Joseph lives though be able to say this. We didn’t see Joseph grappling with how the actions of his brothers removed him from his family and homeland, took away his freedom, exposed him to violence, and got him thrown in jail. At the same time, we don’t see Joseph reconcile these same actions that allowed him to eventually rise to be the pharaoh’s favor, and allowed him to eventually save his family from starvation. But we did see the forgiveness.
His forgiveness didn’t happen when Joseph was at the bottom of the well his brothers had thrown him in. Forgiveness didn’t happen in his dark jail cell. Forgiveness didn’t even happen when he saves Egypt from a famine and is promoted to the second highest office in the land. Forgiveness didn’t even happen the moment that Joseph sees his brothers again.
Forgiveness happens when Joseph secretly tests his brothers by framing the youngest for theft and threatens to take away HIS freedom. Forgiveness happens when his brothers object and offer to take their brother’s place. Forgiveness happens when they show repentance from their sin against Joseph. In that moment, Joseph’s heart is healed, and he CAN forgive his brothers from his heart.
Only God is in charge of when that moment of healing happens… if it is a single moment at all. Most of the time, it is a series of little moments. Sort of like forgiveness. One day, you are mad, hurt, and betrayed, and the next day you are still mad, hurt, and betrayed…. But twenty days, a hundred days, a thousand and twenty days, or a bajillion days later, you may find that the anger and hurt are no longer there. They no longer have you in their grip. You are free, your heart becomes whole, and you CAN forgive your brother or sister from your heart. Maybe you too will be able to sing “Let it Go” with Elsa, and be able to say, “the past is in the past.”
But maybe today is not that day. Maybe today the past is far too present. Maybe today you are in the bottom of the well. Maybe today you are in the darkness of a lonely prison cell you can’t get out of right now. Maybe you are on your seventy-eighth go-round with a loved one. Maybe today your heart is in too many pieces.
But every week we say together in the Apostles Creed, “I believe in (among other things) the forgiveness of sins.” And, as we heard Jesus tell us last week, “…if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Jesus is among us, when we gather to believe in the forgiveness of sins even when we can’t do it yet. Jesus is among us, neck deep in our story with us, and does things for us that we can’t do on our own.
There is no person or event that God cannot (eventually) use for good. There is no heart that is too broken to be healed. There is no time limit on forgiveness. You can’t keep track, and you can’t rush it. Forgiveness can’t be counted, only journeyed through. As Martin Luther once said, we may not know the way, but we know well our Guide. Amen.