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“God’s Realm is Built of Forgiveness”
Sermon, Year A, Proper 19, September 14, 2014
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Matthew 18:21-35

After reading this scripture lesson, which is definitely about forgiveness, I don’t want to go off in the direction of saying that this is all about how YOU have to offer forgiveness for everything. Although I do think forgiveness is a very good thing and is important for us to do. Part of our vocation as followers of Jesus is that we are to forgive. It is one of the more important things that we do, and I challenge you to be more forgiving. And often, forgiving has more to do not so much with releasing the burden from, say, someone who has hurt you. But forgiveness is good for the forgiver: to let go. To take the pain or anger or whatever out of our hearts and say, “I’m not going to live with that any more. I’m going to let that go and move on.”

But if there can be forgiveness with reconciliation, with a spouse, parent, child, co-worker, fellow church member... if there can be reconciliation than that’s even better. To come back into relationship is a wonderful thing. But sometimes that can’t happen. Someone has abused or hurt too much that maybe you don’t want to be in a relationship with that person any more. Or if the person who hurt you is dead and there can’t be reconciliation. Forgiveness is a way of saying, “I’m not going to live in the past any more. I’m not going to carry that baggage and let it rule or control my life any more.”

And especially so if the person that you need to forgive is yourself. To not live in the past. To let it go. God forgives you, so let it go.

There is that lesson in this scripture passage that I read. But what I am really thinking of today is not so much our own responsibility or our own call to be forgiving people. Sometimes to tell people that they ought to be more forgiving is a ay of piling on guilt as well. It can be an unforgiving attitude.

What has hit me, and what I have been thinking of as I have read scripture this week, is this way of living that Jesus sets up here. Not just saying “YOU have to forgive”, but that Jesus is offering us a way of life. He sets up an incredibly radical rubric of a life based on forgiveness. Even just to say that you should forgive is a pretty radical kind of statement. We don’t like to talk about forgiveness in our greater society a whole lot. We like to talk about retribution, punishment, holding on to anger, being self-righteously right. So even if Jesus had said to forgive once, that would have been pretty radical. But he doesn’t say that. He doesn’t say forgive once. He doesn’t say to forgive twice. Or to forgive seven times. He says to forgive 77 times, or we could also translate it here as 7 times 70 times. Jesus says to forgive 77, or7x70 times.

When Jesus is talking, whether it be forgiveness in this case, or feeding the hungry, or showing mercy, or serving the poor, or healing people. He’s not just saying what we HAVE to do. He’s not just saying, “YOU have to do this.” He’s setting up a vision, an example, he’s showing us, talking about the realm of God or the Commonwealth of God. He’s saying, “This is what God is like.” Not just something for us, that we have to do; but saying that this is what God is like. This is what God does. “And now that you have seen and heard what God is like, now the decision is up to you. How are you going to live? But I will set up this vision so you know what God looks like.”

So it isn’t just Jesus saying to us that to “get into heaven” or to be right with God you have to forgive X amount of times. The number that he picks here is not a specific number, but it’s a number that means “a lot.” The number he uses here is an exaggeration. He’s saying, “This is what God’s realm looks like. This is what God is like. God will forgive 77 times, or 7x70 times.” It’s a hyperbolic number, not an absolute number. Seven is a holy number. 77 a holy number, 7x70 a holy number. This is just a big number. We can read it as meaning “unlimited.”

What is God like? Unlimited forgiveness. More forgiveness than you think is reasonable. Way more than whatever you think might be reasonable. Way way way way way way way more than any of us might ever think is reasonable or sensible an amount to forgive. That’s how God forgives. That’s how loving God is. To go way, way beyond whatever we might think in our human thinking is sufficient and a good ending point. Whatever point we might think that we can go, “Well, you know, I gave it a shot, I forgave this many times and nothing has happened, nothing has changed.” Jesus is saying that’s not even a good beginning yet. God hasn’t even begun with that few times. God’s desire to forgive and to love is so beyond our imaginations.

And whatever God looks like, whatever God’s commonwealth looks like, then that is also to be the model for the Church. It is a model of what the Church ought to look like. Whether it is Plymouth, or the Church worldwide. It is what we ought to be about as well. To love and to forgive as much as what Jesus sets up here as a model of God’s vision. Our vocation as followers of Jesus is to create community that looks like God. To be god-like. And part of that community, you can see from these words of Jesus, is to be a community of unlimited and relentless and radical forgiveness. To be forgiving of one another. To invite people in to this community. To say to people who are beaten down by the world around them, invite them in, and let them experience and know a forgiving God. To let them know that however imperfect we are at forgiving, however imperfect we are at loving, God is not imperfect. “Come into our circle and know that you are forgiven, which means that you are loved and that you are beloved. Come and know that with God you are worthy. You are okay. You measure up.”

Our message to the world of love and mercy is born out partly through forgiveness. Through being forgiven. Our message entrusted to us to speak and live is that forgiveness is better than retribution. Forgiveness is better than violence. Forgiveness is better than hate. Forgiveness is better than just holding on to you anger or your hurt as though that makes you more righteous by not forgiving. By not letting that other person win. But as long as you hold on to that, they ARE winning! You’re life is not as full or good. Forgiveness is better than hurtful comments or dehumanizing speech, whether it is in real life, or on Facebook, on the comments section of an article on the web. There is no much non-forgiveness in the world. It’s hurting people. It’s hurting us as a species and as a world community.

Forgiveness is so important.

So maybe we can’t fix the worlds problems. We can’t make God’s realm appear at the end of the week or even by the end of the millennium. But we can live into the vision that Jesus showed us. The vision of God’s realm showering love and mercy. By being a community which values these virtues. By community meaning this church, Plymouth Church, which we are all part of. Being a community here in which people find forgiveness of one another’s mistakes and especially forgiveness for ourselves.

Sometimes it can be more difficult to forgive ourselves than to forgive someone else. To forgive our own mistakes, our own errors, than it is to forgive the hurts that others have done to us.

But know this: you ARE forgiven! You can let it go.

And we – the church – can be a respite from a world that says that we don’t measure up. That’s the message we hear from advertising all the time, and hear from other places, that we don’t measure up. We’re too fat or too thin. Or we have the wrong body shape, or we’re too obsessed with our body. Our homes aren’t clean enough, big enough, or we don’t live in the right neighborhood. We don’t send our kids to the right schools. We don’t wear the right clothes or drive the right car. All these messages about how we don’t measure up. So much telling us that we are not worthy.

All those toxic messages that we hear.

And in this frenzy of harsh messages that beat us down and that hammer our souls, we who are followers of Jesus have this message from Jesus that is the antidote to all the harshness. This message of what God is like. To say “Don’t judge by these human measures. Look at the world through God’s eyes.” A message to share with our neighbors, that we invite others to come here to hear and to experience. The message through Jesus that says, “You DO measure up! You ARE worthy! Whatever you have done, whatever you have failed to do, whoever you are, you are worthy! God loves you just as you are. In God’s realm you are loved and you are worth and you matter. You are made in God’s image and are holy, right, and good, and worthy of love. And even if you think you have done something that is unforgivable, it is forgiven, and you are forgiven. Seven times, seventy-seven times, seven times seventy times, and beyond. Because that’s who God is. And that’s how God acts toward us.”

Thanks be to God!

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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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