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the sermon for

the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

17 September 2017

Matthew 18:21-35
How often do we forgive? As long as we love!

09172017It began as a seventh grade social studies project. Extra credit, actually. "Think of something to change the world... and put it into action!" The way one of the students responded to the assignment became, for a while, quite a fad. Pay It Forward was the name of the movie and of the movement! Bottom line, when someone does you a favor, instead of paying them back for what they've done, you pay it forward, doing something else for someone different. Well, I watched it, again, last Monday morning. And to be honest, it seemed more than a little... naïve.

You see, it came out a little less than a year before that first 9/11. Before the towers feel. Before Afghanistan, Iraq, and all the rest. Before the fear took hold of us. Before the cynicism took root. Back when we still believed in more than weapons and walls. But I digress...

It was that movie – Pay It Forward – that came to mind when I read the parable, again. One slave owed a king an amount impossible to repay. The king demanded payment. The slave begged for more time. And the king, out of the goodness of his heart, forgave the debt. But then, another slave owes that slave a modest amount. But instead of paying forward the king's generosity, the slaves demands immediate repayment! Or else! Apparently, that's not how the parable was supposed to end. No doubt, the king forgave the first slave and that first slave was supposed to forgive the second. But it didn't happen. The second slave acts just like the first. He falls on his knees and pleads with him, "Have patience! I'll pay!" Only this time, the first slave, the forgiven one, says, "No!" He's ruthless! No pity! No patience! He refuses to forgive the debt! The king finds out and in his anger, hands the unforgiving slave over to be tortured until the debt is paid in full! The moral of the story: So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart!"

God loves us; we love them! God forgives us; we forgive them! That's salvation from a Lutheran point of view. There's not a whole lot about heaven or hell, about living after dying. But a lot about paying it forward! Paying forward the love, the charity, the grace. But here, according to the parable, there are those consequences... pay it forward... OR ELSE! But, of course, once again, it's pure Matthew! Matthew and Matthew alone! Matthew and not Mark or Luke or John!

Look at it in context, for a few moments. First of all, Peter comes up and asks Jesus, "How often should I forgive?" Jesus' response? "That's all you do! Forgive and forgive and forgive and forgive!" And then, Jesus tells the parable – the parable of the unforgiving forgiven slave – and forgiveness becomes very, very conditional! The slave will be forgiven ONLY... ONLY... ONLY... if the slave forgives as he or she's been forgiven by the king! And if she doesn't... if he doesn't... forgiveness will be rescinded and the original debt re-imposed! "The Gospel of the Lord! Praise to you, O Christ!" The king forgives... but only once! Only one time!

But just a verse before, Peter is told to forgive and keep on forgive! To forgive and never stop! This parable is about paying it forward. But it never should have ended after the first new sin! It should never have been told that way. Instead, the king should have forgiven the slave. And when the slave – the forgiven one – fails to forgive, the king should have forgiven him, again! And when that slave refuses to forgive, again, the king should have forgiven again... and again... and again... and again! On and on and on! Over and over and over! Time after time after time!

Is it just? No! Is it fair? Of course not! (That's what we'll look at, next week!) But for now, it's enough to know, that's how god does it! Especially to a bunch of forgiven slaves like us, who have trouble passing it on! Who have an easy-enough time accepting the forgiveness we're offered, but who have a difficult time forgiving those who owe us! God forgives us and we forgive them! God forgives us and we forgive them! God forgives us and we forgive them! But when we don't... when we won't... when we can't... god, simply, keeps on forgiving! Truth is, if that wasn't the way it went, none of us would, ever, stay forgiven, for long! God just keeps on forgiving us, so when we run into a slave like ourselves, we can do the same! Not take it back! But just keep on forgiving! Just keep on forgiving!

You see, forgiveness isn't simply a method of accounting! A way of keeping track of what we owe to whom! Of who owes what to us! Chalk on a board! Notches on a tree! Once and only once! Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice shame on me! Three strikes and you're out! Seven times! Seventy seven! Seventy times seven! Forgiveness is a forever, an always, kind of thing! It's seeing a person for who they are, not for what they do... for what they don't! Forgiveness is valuing not because of, but in spite of! Respecting them not for a reason, but without merit or condition! Just like Jesus did! Just like Jesus continues to do!

Take, for instance, that woman in John's gospel! The one caught in the act who was brought to Jesus! The one all those men wanted to stone because the book said they could! The one all those men wanted to stone because the book said they should! "Let the one without sin throw the first stone!" That's what Jesus said. And slowly they turned and walked away. When Jesus and the woman were alone, Jesus said, "Go and sin no more. Go and sin no more."

Now does any of us really think that Jesus would do anything differently if that woman was brought to him a second time... and a third time... and a fourth time... Do any of us really, truly believe there is a limit, a ceiling, a cap, to Jesus forgiveness? Where he tells the women, "Enough! No more!" When he would just hand her over to be stoned! Not seven times! Not seventy-seven times! Not seventy-times-seven times! Forgiveness doesn't work that way. Not here! Not now!

Forgiveness doesn't begin with the debt! It begins with the love! It begins with the love! And that love never lets go! No matter how often! No matter how long! It's the love that inspires, that instigate, that instills, the forgiving! And so – unlike that king in the parable – god forgives and forgives and always forgives some more! So that slaves remain forgiven. So that the slaves have a model, an example, to go on forgiving when fellow slaves , when neighbors, do the same to them! Respecting the unworthy! Revering the undeserving!

We keep on forgiving because, in the end, love has no end! When all is said and when all is done, if you love, you forgive! No ifs! No ands! No buts! We love because god first loved us! We forgive because god first forgave us! And god has never stopped doing either! Loving! Forgiving! Never stopped! Never given up! Never walked away! No matter what! No matter how often!

So, my friends, it's not about paying back someone who has done something for us. It is about paying it forward! Always, forever, someone else! Especially when the one doing us that favor is god! How often, we ask, should we forgive? As often as it takes, says Jesus! How often, we ask? As often as you need to! How often? As often as I forgive you!

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