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Sermons are preached within the context of a particular worship service, and are most meaningful when experienced in that way. We encourage you to view or listen to the entire worship service.
February 26, 2023
Grace to you and peace from God, our Creator, and from our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I mentioned at the beginning of worship that we mark the beginning of Lent this year with forgiveness. That’s one of two themes in our reading today. The other theme, which may not be as obvious, is caring for the wellbeing of the community. And that’s the theme of this entire chapter.
I frequently invite you to read beyond what we hear in worship on a Sunday morning, and I’m doing it again today. Because this reading makes a lot more sense when it’s taken together with the rest of the chapter, which we read for Ash Wednesday last week. So, when you get a chance, read all of chapter 18.
What we hear this morning picks up in the middle of a conversation between Jesus and the disciples. And the writer of Matthew’s gospel is using it to teach his faith community how to love each other and how to show love even when it isn’t easy.
And the way the reading begins with, “If another member of the church sins against you…” can also be translated, “Whenever another member of the church sins against you…”
In other words, it will happen. Someone will sin against you; because in every community, even church communities, people hurt each other and are hurt by each other. And it’s important to know that the sin Jesus talks about here refers to not keeping one of the Ten Commandments.
He isn’t talking about situations of abuse or domestic violence. In those situations, the steps for resolution that Jesus talks about here do not work. If you’re in a situation like that, get yourself to a safe place where people that have experience in these matters can help you. But don’t try to do what Jesus says here, because it isn’t safe.
But with the type of conflict that Jesus is talking about, he expected that there would be conflict among his followers. They were human beings, same as us. So, he gave instructions for what to do when it happens.
The hoped-for outcome of the first two steps is that the person being confronted listens to what is being said so that the entire situation can be resolved, and the relationship can be restored.
If it gets to where the situation needs to be made known to the entire congregation – or whatever community group is affected, because this isn’t limited to churches – if it gets to that point, the purpose isn’t, is not, to shame or humiliate the offender. And it also doesn’t automatically mean convening a meeting to determine what to do next.
It’s for the purpose of making the community aware of what’s going on, so that everyone in it can actively pray about the situation and offer help for the healing and restoration of the broken relationship.
And in the times when even that doesn’t work, and it seems like nothing else can be done, Jesus tells us to treat the sinner as a Gentile or a tax collector.
When Matthew’s gospel was written, Gentiles and tax collectors were outside of the community of believers. But the church still had a responsibility to bring the gospel to them so that they might become part of that fellowship.
Jesus always sought to include people outside of the faith community, so that they knew they were always welcome to be a part of it. And his teachings here protect both the individual and the community by keeping people from reacting too quickly and casting someone out without giving him or her a chance to make things right.
It doesn’t mean that the forgiveness minimizes or denies the seriousness of the offense. Or forgets or condones or excuses the offense. And it also doesn’t automatically mean reconciliation, because forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things.
It means that the forgiveness recognizes the pain that was suffered so that healing can happen, so that the person that was hurt and the community can move forward.
So knowing all of this, Peter, God bless Peter. Peter essentially asks, “But how many times do we have to forgive like this?” And Jesus responds with, “Every time.”
It’s something we practice continually in order to build up and preserve the community. That is to say, it’s members of a community continually choosing to release feelings of resentment or anger toward someone who has caused them harm, and not letting that pain become the thing that defines them.
But the flip side of that decision is remembering that each of us also needs forgiveness.
Whenever we hear a parable, we tend to identify with one of the people in it. And in the one we hear today, it’s tempting to identify with the benevolent king who forgave the slave’s outrageously high debt because that’s how we’re supposed to act.
And the slaves in this parable were more like indentured servants – they were working to pay off a debt. They weren’t slaves in the same way that African people were enslaved in the U.S., and that distinction is important.
So, in this parable, we want to identify with the benevolent king. But in reality, we’re the slave whose debt was forgiven – the one who received mercy and grace – and then didn’t extend forgiveness to another. And although the torture is an extreme image, we can also think of it as a mirror being held in front of our faces to bring about self-knowledge and repentance.
Martin Luther reminds us that “faith in God naturally brings forth acts of love toward the neighbor.” As God’s people, we have faith that, through God’s grace, we have already received God’s mercy and forgiveness. And because of that, our lives are to be lived in such a way that we extend God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness to others in thanksgiving for what we’ve received.
We learn how to live this way by being part of a Christian community. In community, we learn how to love each other when it’s hard to do. Whether it’s because we disagree about how something ought to be done, or because someone has broken one of the 10 commandments –- forgiving others and asking for forgiveness means that, as a community, we hold each other accountable for our actions. In a manner of speaking, we hold up the mirror and remind each other what we look like. That, despite having already received God’s grace, we don’t have it all together and sometimes we mess up.
But we hold the mirror up in ways that respect each other’s dignity and worth. And we do it to remind each other of the grace and mercy we’ve received, so that we might also help each other to reach out with grace, even when it’s easier to reach out with a clenched fist.
Practicing repentance and forgiveness, and holding each other accountable, here in the church community and in the community-at-large reveals who we are as God’s people. Because it any community, there either is or will be conflict. It’s guaranteed. What sets us apart is how we work through it.
And that doesn’t only mean how we interact with each other here, because we don’t only follow Jesus’ teachings when we’re at church, right? We’re also expected to follow them when we’re in public and in our own homes. And that includes repenting and holding people accountable in those places, too.
When Jesus teaches about forgiveness, he never says that we do it to excuse, minimize, or ignore unjust behavior. And he also never says that asking for forgiveness or extending mercy are easy.
But as a community of people that follow Jesus, we work toward repentance and forgiveness every day because they’re actions that build up and nurture community. We hold up the mirror and remind each other to act and treat each other in a way that reflects God’s love for us.
And that we live this way in thanksgiving for having already received God’s mercy and grace, because we are God’s beloved people. Thanks be to God! Amen.
 Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4.