September 16-17, 2017: Seventy Times Seven

Sermon A Pentecost L.24 2017                               King of Kings, New Windsor                                September 16-17, 2017

Matthew 18:15-35

On Friday, I was driving south on 9W when, suddenly, I saw a tree—just one tree—decked out in brilliant red, and I had to admit that fall is on the way.  Have you seen any unmistakable signs of fall yet?  Cantor Eric Schulmiller points out that everyone “has their favorite telltale signs of the approaching autumn:  Mother Nature [treating us to an array of vivid colors], a chill in the air, [the migration of birds south for the winter, apples and mums at roadside stands], and the unfortunate intrusion of pumpkin flavoring into our daily beverages”.  What’s your telltale sign of autumn?

For Cantor Schulmiller, “one sign of fall loom[s] above all others”; it’s “the annual Saga of the Swipe”, in the comic strip “Peanuts”.  There are three characters:  Lucy, Charlie Brown, and the football.  Almost every September or October, beginning in 1951 and ending in 1999, Schlulz played out this scenario in his popular comic strip.  Except for a couple of strips, Lucy was always the one who held the ball for Charlie Brown.  Every fall, Lucy tried to convince him that she’d hold the ball steady for him, and every fall, she pulled the ball away.  In the end, every fall, Charlie Brown forgave her and ran to kick the ball, and, every fall, Lucy swiped the ball so he missed it and landed on his back, defeated.

Cantor Schulmiller notes that “Lucy herself has offered a myriad of justifications” for her malicious behavior…

There’s the physiological excuse:  in 1966, she blames a “muscle spasm”;

the ecclesiastical excuse:  in 1980, she quotes Scripture:  “To everything there is a season … and a time to pull away the football”;

the psychological:  in 1975, she spouts, “I’m not your mother, Charlie Brown”;

the sociological:  in 1971 she informs :  “This year’s football was pulled away from you, courtesy of women’s lib”;

the philosophical:  in 1974, she kindly explains: “In every program, Charlie Brown, there are always a few last-minute changes”;

and the symbolical:  in 1966, Lucy proclaims:  “Symbolism, Charlie Brown! The ball! The desire!  The triumph! It’s all there!”  This excuse echoed a dialogue the two had had a decade earlier, in which Charlie Brown complained, “Somehow, I’ve missed the symbolism,” and Lucy, ever helpful, responded, “You also missed the ball, Charlie Brown.”

By my count, Charlie Brown forgives Lucy at least 42 times, for the exact same, repeated, mean-spirited trick.  Is Charlie Brown acting as a disciple of Jesus in this scenario?  Is he following Jesus’ injunction to forgive, over and over and over again, as many times as Lucy swipes the ball?  Is Jesus instructing him to be a victim or coaching him to take Lucy’s abuse?  Is he suggesting that the Christian role for Charlie Brown is to be a doormat, so Lucy can wipe off her nastiness on him?

At the beginning of today’s gospel, as Peter is listening to Jesus’ talk about forgiveness, he wonders out loud: “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”  I hear Peter as feeling rather magnanimous at this point, as thinking of himself as quite generous, since he is willing to forgive his brother seven times.  But Jesus doesn’t let him off the hook.  “Not seven times,” Jesus says, “but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”  Some translators render this expression “seventy times seven”.  Not seven times, but seventy-seven times—or seventy times seven; that’s 490 times—too many times to count—or at least to keep track of!

In this encounter, Jesus invites his disciples to forgive beyond count.  And then he tells a parable, about both the enormity of God’s gift of forgiveness for us—and our immense responsibility to forgive one another.  Jesus teaches that, having received forgiveness, we are to share that gift with others.  We sinners, having been forgiven, are to forgive others, without limit, without keeping track of how many times we forgive.  We are to share the forgiveness we have received with others.

Are you practicing forgiveness today?  Do you have any forgiveness to share?  Are you looking for some forgiveness for yourself?  Are you assessing whether this is a time to forgive or to set boundaries to protect yourself from someone who has taken advantage of your forgiveness in the past?  Do you need to ask forgiveness from a son for embarrassing him, from a spouse for coming home late on your anniversary, from a neighbor for speaking rudely?  Do you need to pardon a co-worker for saying something that hurt you?   A friend for speaking ill of you to someone else in your circle?  Do you need to withhold forgiveness while you figure out how to navigate a relationship with an alcoholic brother or a mentally ill daughter?

Forgiveness, whether you give it or receive it or withhold it for a time, is complicated, and it can take a lot of work—and a lot of time—and a lot of energy.  If you don’t practice forgiveness, if you either disregard the ways you have sinned—or refuse ever to forgive sins committed against you—or keep forgiving beyond your capacity, then you may become “stuck”, overwhelmed by guilt or hurt or anger or resentment.  Even if you can’t forgive someone at this very moment, practicing forgiveness—working at it—can free you from the negative energy that you hold on to so tightly—and that holds on so tightly to you.

Perhaps there is someone in your life, today, whom you need to forgive—or from whom you need to receive forgiveness—or from whom you need to withhold forgiveness for a season.  This “someone” is likely someone from whom you are estranged, someone whose relationship with you has been damaged.  Maybe that someone is a person here at church—or a family member or a friend.  Maybe it’s God.  Maybe it’s yourself.  Where in your life do you need to practice forgiveness?

In today’s parable, Jesus offers a dramatic image of the value of forgiveness.  The king forgives his servant Nathan’s enormous debt worth 10,000 talents; in the currency of Jesus’ day, that would equal 150,000 years of wages.  Nathan responds not by forgiving his fellow servant, Judah, but by demanding that Judah repay his debt, a debt worth 100 days of wages.  Truth be told, Judah might be able to pay Nathan eventually, but Nathan would never be able to repay the king.  The king’s response to Nathan is gracious; he forgives an enormous debt.  Nathan’s response to Judah is anything but gracious.  The king forgives Nathan, but Nathan refuses to forgive Judah.  Jesus tells this story, exaggerating to point out how ridiculous it is for Nathan to refuse to forgive a paltry three months of wages when he himself was forgiven a staggering 150,000 years of wages.

Forgiveness, as I said earlier, is complicated.  It’s messy.  It takes time and energy.  But practicing it is worth whatever you invest in it.  God has forgiven you, freely, more than you could possibly ever deserve, more than you could even count.  God forgives you over and over and over again, not just seven times or seventy-seven times or seventy times seven, but whenever you turn to God.  And then God invites you to practice forgiveness.  God grants you the enormous gift of forgiveness day after day, over and over and over again.  And then, when it is time, God expects the same of you, whether it takes seven attempts or seventy-seven or seventy times seven.  Because God’s enormous gift of forgiveness is yours to have, but it is also yours to share.  AMEN

2 thoughts on “September 16-17, 2017: Seventy Times Seven

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *