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If You Don't Forgive

Exodus 14:19-31; Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21; Romans 14:5-12; Matthew 18:21-35 Bigfork Community United Methodist Church September 13, 2020 – 15th Sunday after Pentecost

By God’s grace and with God’s help and in the swirling presence of miracles the Israelites become free of Pharaoh this morning. They know it is God who has delivered them.

They celebrate…and move on into the wilderness. There are days like that, when you are set free from the tyranny of those who want to control your every movement, your every thought…even your beliefs.

Then you move into a place where there is only survival, and a big part of survival is staying together and remembering that the goal is the Promised Land.

But the one that it is hardest for us to set ourselves free is…ourselves. Pharaoh thought he owned Jacob’s descendants, but the truth of the matter was that they were living rent free in his head…in a way, they owned him.

The tighter he gripped them in his hand, the more he made it inevitable that they would want to find a way out. The more he squeezed…the more he produced the one result he most dreaded… their departure.

He could not let them go…so they had to leave. It turns out that it was Pharaoh who was a slave to himself… he was his own captive.

We are fearfully and wonderfully made, though, and we can do anything we set our minds to.

This freeing of ourselves from self …trusting our lives to God…is the ultimate adventure. Anthony de Mello was a Catholic priest who wrote that he went to India to save the world. After he admitted to himself that he had failed at that, he set his sights on saving all the souls entrusted to his care.

But that turned out to be too much, too, so he finally did what he could to save himself. He said that if only he had started there, he might have been able to do all three.

It is natural to think that our religious practices are meant to bind us to God or our faith community. But the opposite is true. They have been handed down for thousands of years to set people free…as Israel was set free.

The practice of contemplative prayer for instance, gives me a chance to sit in the presence of God. That is what all the preparation and relaxation and focus on the way to prayer is all about.

There is a chapter in Advise and Consent where U.S. Senator Seeb Cooley is troubled by some mystery that has come his way. So he goes to his office, cleans off his desk and turns and looks out the window.

He does not try to go to the solution. He waits for it to come to him. That is one of the gifts of prayer. Time you give to yourself is time you give back to God…so you can be enlightened…and healed… and saved.

The world still demands your attention while you pray, but in this prayer practice you always come back to your sacred word…or simply your breath…to focus…and you let the world take care of itself for a while. It can come to you.

The clarity you get from simply witnessing your thoughts lets you see yourself for who you are…and you will have as good a chance to find peace and freedom in the stillness you bring into your life… into our world.

Fasting frees us from our appetites. Giving our offering sets us free from our fear of being in want. Being in worship sets us free from the hurly burly of a world that is now chock full of distractions… and gives us an opportunity to enter into the practices that set our spirits free.

In times of turmoil we are reminded that what is bothering us most is not the end of the world. We are still here. Truth is still here. Hope is still here. God in Jesus Christ is still here. What bothers us most is that it isn’t going the way we think it should.

Paul asks us to spend a little time this morning thinking about what a blessing it is to be in a faith community…and this is a different Paul than the guy who set out on the road to Damascus breathing threats against The People of the Way.

He has converted to Christ and he is doing all he can to share the Good News with all the world. The letter we read this morning is the one letter he wrote to a church he had not visited…he is sending them the Word, in writing.

He is urging them to stay together even though they are not in lock step with their beliefs. Some of them refrain from eating meat, others don’t. Don’t criticize each other…learn from each other… appreciate each other.

He just wants to keep them together, as one in Christ, one with each other and one in ministry to all the world. That is a pastor’s job.

How many United Methodists does it take to make a great church? All of them. We need everyone.

How do we keep them together? Just before our Gospel reading takes up today we find a procedure for that. If someone sins against you, you go to them to solve it in private…not telling anyone else…just the two of you.

If that doesn’t work, you take a couple of friends to the parlay. If that doesn’t work you take it to the church. If that doesn’t work you treat them like an unbeliever or a tax collector. You have to just be done with them.

This is when Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone. The answer can be summed up in a phrase we used this morning in our prayer time: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

You forgive them seventy times seven, because we have all offended God far more bitterly and callously than anyone has offended us. When we refuse to forgive, when we hold onto our bitterness and victimhood, we become like old Pharaoh. We get to stew in our own juices.

Once again, Jesus is not trying to confine us or tie us up with the story about the unforgiving servant. Our anger does not punish those who offend us nearly as much as it punishes us, ourselves.

The person who offends us may be completely unaware of how they have done it. They may be unaware of our anger. If they see it, it might make them curious, but it isn’t going to cause them the anguish it’s causing us…the anguish we are hanging onto.

Then again, the person who offended us might have done it stupidly or awkwardly, without any intention to hurt us. But when we make them an object of our hatred, we are doing it consciously, deliberately…with malice aforethought, as they say in the law.

We are doing it to make they feel pain. We are as guilty in all of that …as sin. When we do that, we commit a far greater sin than they ever thought of committing.

Then the issue is no longer their negligence. Now it is our willful wrongdoing. Our action rather than theirs has become the meaning of the transaction…what the story is all about.

When we do that, we become the thing we hate. When we have become the thing we hate, we are in a very awkward position to pass judgment on anyone.

Even if…especially if…if the one who offends us did do it on purpose, hoping to make us miserable?

Why should we give them the satisfaction of knowing they have scored a hit? Why should we let them know they have made us suffer? Why…indeed… should we consent to the suffering they aimed at us?

Walk away. It says more about them than it does about us. Count to ten. Lift them up in prayer because it is obvious that people who do things like that are suffering greatly.

The guy who hit me and knocked me into the street and robbed me the night I got run over by the truck…and scared the poor woman I was with to death…for herself and for me…I thought about that guy while I was still in the hospital and I still think of him from time to time.

But I have never been able to be mad at that guy. It just makes me sad to think about him. If that is the high point of his life…and it has to be a big part in the life of anyone who could do such a thing…if that is the high point…I just feel so very, very sad for him and about him. What a sad life he has chosen to lead.

And he is a perfect example of what I have been talking about here. He had a lot of anger in him that he expressed as violence toward someone he had never met before. He is walking around with some terrible, terrible things eating away at him.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.”

His anger becomes my problem only when I am out on the street in Washington, D.C., not paying attention. But his anger is his problem all day every day. He can’t get away from it. It eats at him day and night and it hurts him more than he hurt me.

Let me say this about this in this context. The protests in the street made their point a long time ago. How do you sit on the asphalt in the summer for 20 days or more to express anger without losing your own life…your soul…in the process?

The sincere people who want to bring about just changes are only giving less highly motivated people a chance to stir things up…to make everyone scared…in the hope that something a lot worse than the cause of the protest will come of it.

Tell me how you strike a meaningful blow against police misconduct by looting and vandalizing neighborhood shops. You are only creating a need for stern law enforcement efforts against you… and the sincere people who are trying to advance the cause of justice in the world.

This is why nonviolence is such an important part of any meaningful protest: it keeps the focus on the reason you are protesting.

So let us speak a kind word to everyone we meet. Let us do good, not only for the people we know but also for people we don’t know and will never meet. Let us reply to bitterness and hate with kindness and love.

We don’t want a better weapon to inflict pain. We want a better world with less pain in it.

Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address put it this way. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

If he could say that after four years of a civil war that claimed 620,000 military deaths and hundreds of thousands of collateral casualties in the civilian population…equivalent to a loss of 7,000,000 souls today, why can’t I say that, too? And mean it?

Let us forgive seventy times seven and get on with making peace and promoting justice. Let us begin now.

O Lord, what is it that you want to accomplish in the world through us …through me…this day? Amen.