Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Romans 14:1-12

Matthew 18:21-35


If you were to ask my 8 year old granddaughter how much I love her, most likely she would throw her arms wide open and say, “Infinity times infinity!”  It’s something I taught her some years ago and repeat as often as possible in order to impress upon her the depth my heart for her.  Though she does not fully understand, she likes the sound of the word – infinity!  She does know it means a lot and a lot and a lot and a whole lot!  Deep down in her bones she is coming to understand that there are no limits; there are no numbers to describe my love for it is beyond counting.

Now, I must also tell you that every now and then she tests my resolve in this matter.  Again, she’s 8 and she is my granddaughter and there are moments when it appears is as if she is saying to herself, “Let me just see if my Grammie really means it.  I need to know if she is really telling me the truth.”  Are there any grandparents in here?

But nevertheless, she’s a child and she doesn’t know better.  Her world view is tiny; small.  Her brain has only been functioning 8 years and her sense of self in the context of a broader world is still being formed.  She thinks a moment of instant gratification or getting her way – over, say an ice cream cone or staying up past bedtime, or watching a movie she probably shouldn’t  is all there is.  She has to learn that sometimes loving means saying no or setting boundaries in order for the next good thing to come along.

Still, I know that deep down she has come to trust that love that will never let her go; that it’s bigger than the moment; any moment.  Infinity times infinity.  “Whatever it is baby; no matter how low you go or how high you rise, Grammies love will find you and be there for you.”  And wrapped up in that is a kind of confidence and self-assurance so desperately needed in our lives and world.  Beyond clothes and shoes; games and toys is a love that sets our children free to know that they are part of the world but we are not the whole world.  There are others in the world too and we are bound up together whether we like it or not.

This is the essence of what we find in our gospel this morning: infinity times infinity; an amount beyond imagination. Indescribable.  Endless.  Innumerable.  Immeasurable.  And Jesus says that this is not only something that we receive but it is also something that we give.

Peter say, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”[1]

These lessons remind us that to walk with Jesus is to march by a different beat.  So much is required; so much that goes against the grain; against our natural proclivities; our culture; against what is considered strong or tough or successful; all of those things that the world says make us valued and valuable.

And we might be tempted to throw our hands up and think there is no place for faith in our world; except we know, I think, deep down in the farthest resources of our being that Jesus’ way is the only way for humankind to survive; the way of love by whatever tradition we choose; whatever name we give it – the way of brotherhood and sisterhood and shared love is the only way.

Last Sunday, we heard Jesus tell his followers: “If your brother or sister offends you, go and point out the fault – just the two of you.  Try to work it out; try to clarify things.  Don’t go all over the place being a wounded victim; have a broader goal in mind; try to settle things.  At no point did Jesus say, dismiss the offense as though nothing happened.  No.  Your reality is your reality but there might be another reality.  If there is a fracture, address it so the relationship can remain intact.  And if that does not work, take along another or two; clarify things get it out in the open.  Let nothing come between you.”[2]

Peter thinks he understands it.  Ha!  Now, exactly how many times do I need to do this? He seems to be asking.  I can probably do it a few times Jesus – maybe even 7 times after all, 7 is the number of completion and perfection.  Seven times is a lot of times and if I can just get to the magic number – I’m good to go.

How many times?  Don’t you want to ask that sometimes?  How many times do I have to keep doing this? Putting up with this person or that thing?

Peter is a good guy.  He has been hanging around Jesus and I know, like us, he wants to do the right thing.  He is noble and generous.

But Jesus said, “Not just seven times but as many as seventy-seven times.”[3]  Infinity times infinity; as many times as are necessary or an infinite number of times.  One of the great miracles is that anyone continued following Jesus at all, don’t you think?

We’re good at drawing lines in the sand.  Seven times but no more; or two or three perhaps or whatever our number is but don’t dare ask for more.

And no, this is not a permission slip for abuse by any means – to abuse nor to be abused.  Absolutely not!  There are times when we can forgive but we also need to draw the line clearly and distinctly.   No more.  We have to look for other ways of loving and sometimes that means loving from distance.  That’s the only way.

But these words of Jesus are critical for helping us exist together with one another, with our natural families and with the broader community in which we live.

Kayla McClurg puts it this way:  “Do we grasp the implications of this teaching for our own lives, that when we come into membership in the community of Jesus, we forever forgive? The evidence would suggest that we do not. Globally and locally, politically and personally, most of us choose other ways. We hold grudges, we seek revenge, we harbor regret—to infinity and beyond. We practice regularly in our families, our work places, certainly within our churches, all the while forgetting that forgiveness is not an elective course; it is the core curriculum. If we do not forgive, in truth we are enslaved. Thus Jesus offers a troubling illustration of how we gravitate toward bondage rather than forgiveness…The old mind urges us to do the math and settle debts and assign blame. All the while, we miss the forgiveness, which promises risky adventure for the brave of heart.”[4]

We are imperfect, failed creatures.  We are wounded and we wound.  Yes, we do; every single one of us.  On any given day, we get it right many many times but we also get it wrong.  Mercy suits all of our case; we all sit in the mercy seat.  Can you imagine where we would be if everyone we had offended had not forgiven us; or moved on?  Where would we be if everyone held onto everything we have ever said or done; not said or not done?  If an all-seeing; all-knowing; all-hearing God charged us with total justice and no mercy?

“Forgive us as we forgive” – that is our prayer and we ought to pray it often.

As much as anything, forgiveness sets us free.  It gives us our life as God intended; and restores us to wholeness, sanity, and peace.  It is for the other but it is also for us because the other may not be willing.  They might not be ready yet.  They might need to hold on to their pain and anger for a while longer; they may never want to let go.  It is what it is.  But as we forgive, we are set free.

I know it is hard work but I do believe it’s possible.  We have to just get started and practice, practice, practice.  One step at a time.  And we can keep trying until we get better.

And I’m guessing that we all have some work to do in this regard; some necessary work to forgive and to be forgiven.  And you know, sometimes, the hardest person of all to forgive is one’s own self.  Others have moved on.  God has certainly loved us immeasurably but we are dragging around baggage from the past.

Whatever harm is done is done.  We cannot go back and undo it but we can begin again; start new.  Address the pain once and for all and rewrite the narrative so that the ending is glorious and victorious.  The breach does not have to have the final word.  We are all in it together.

And I love this aspect of my faith.  I really do.  I love being able to start fresh.  I need to be able to wipe the slate clean.  To let go; and start over.  I cannot love people if I’m always carrying around stuff.  I cannot do it.  How about you?

Can you imagine the kind of world, family, church, and community we would have if we could just figure out this one thing?

Seven times seven or seventy-times seven.  Or however many times are necessary.  Infinity times infinity.  Our lives depend on it.

[1] Matthew 18:21

[2] Matthew 18:15-16 Paraphrase

[3] Matthew 18:22

[4] Kayla McClurg, Season and Scripture: Matthew, Ordinary Time A, Inward/Outward Forever Forgive For Sunday, September 14, 2014 – Matthew 18:21-35