Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 6, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
About a year ago, an African American man named Botham Jean was eating ice cream in his apartment when Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, who lived in the apartment directly below his, entered his apartment by mistake, mistook him for a burglar, and shot him dead.
This past week, Amber Guyger was convicted of murder with special circumstances and sentenced to ten years in prison. Botham Jean’s brother, 18-year old Brandt, was present at the victim’s impact panel. I’d like to show you what happened when he was given an opportunity to speak:
A video clip from ABC news is played showing Brandt Jean telling Amber Guyger that he forgives her, loves her, and wants what is best for her. He invites her to give her life to Christ, where there is forgiveness. He then asks the judge if he can give her a hug. The judge allows it, and they engage in a long, tearful embrace in the courtroom. The video can be viewed at the following web address: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkoE_GQsbNA
I think this is a nothing short of a miracle. In the horror of losing a beloved brother in such a tragic way, and with all the racial tensions simmering just below the surface, this young man did something that seems to many people to be impossible. He forgave.
When the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith, their request for more faith didn’t come out of the blue. It wasn’t random. They asked Jesus to increase their faith because he has just asked them to do something that seemed to them to be impossible. Right before they asked Jesus to increase their faith Jesus had said to them: “Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”
No wonder the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith! He was asking them to do something that seemed impossible. You want us to forgive? Even if the same person sins against us seven times in the same day?
It is important to note that the offender is to be rebuked. Repentance is expected of the person. It isn’t as though there are zero consequences. Jesus isn’t instructing his disciples to be doormats!
But even so, he is calling them to something that seems impossible. He is calling them to be people of complete and perfect forgiveness. When he calls them to forgive seven times, he isn’t calling them to keep track. He isn’t telling them to keep a list, and that people get seven strikes and then they’re out. Seven is the number of completion. It is the number of perfection. Jesus is calling them to forgive completely and perfectly. Again, no wonder the disciples said, “Lord, increase our faith!” This kind of forgiveness seemed to them to be impossible!
But Jesus says it is not impossible. Not with faith. And you don’t even need a lot of faith to do it! “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea!’ and it would obey you.” This is an obviously absurd image meant to illustrate that faith can do things that seem impossible. Not that faith is magic! You can have all the faith in the world and you won’t literally be able to plant a tree in the ocean, right? But even a little faith can accomplish the seemingly impossible things our Lord Jesus calls us to do.
That’s because faith is not trusting in ourselves. It is not trusting in our own power or strength or abilities. Christian faith means putting our trust in Jesus. It is not so much a matter of how much faith we have, but where we put it! When we put our trust in Jesus, when we look to him as our Lord and master, when we realize how indebted we are to him for our salvation, well, we just naturally start to serve him – to do the things he has called us to do.
That’s what the next little parable is about. This can be a troubling story to our modern ears with its casual references to slavery. But we should bear in mind that the slavery referred to in this story is not the violent, race-based slavery which is a dark part of our nation’s history. The slavery of the ancient world was more of an indentured servitude. These slaves were most often bondservants who were indebted to their masters, who had provided them with material support in one form or another. A bondservant served his master not in order to receive a round of applause or a certificate of appreciation or in order to earn favor with the master. Bondservants served their masters because they were indebted to them! They served their masters because that’s what they were supposed to do!
The point of this little story, then, is really quite simple. Jesus is telling his disciples to serve him, to do the things he is calling them to do, simply because they are his people. They belong to him. They are indebted to him. They shouldn’t expect certificates of appreciation! They shouldn’t expect special treatment for doing what they have been called to do! They are to forgive others because that is what he himself has done for them. They are to forgive others because that is what his people do.
So who is it that you need to forgive today? Maybe it is a family member. Maybe it is someone who has hurt you or has hurt someone you love. Maybe it is someone you work with, or a neighbor, or a former friend. Maybe it is someone you should have been able to trust.
Remember that forgiveness does not mean ignoring the wrong that has been done. Jesus himself says there is a place for rebuking and for repentance. Forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences. But it does mean letting go of the anger. It does mean seeking reconciliation whenever possible. What grudge have you been nursing that you need to let go of in order to pursue reconciliation?
Maybe it is someone here in this congregation. There is a beautiful moment built right into our worship service for this. It is called the passing of the peace. Much of the time we treat this as a casual time to say good morning, and a lot of the time that’s all it is. But its intent is for reconciliation. Its intent is for the people of God to be reconciled to one another before they go to the altar to be reconciled to God in Holy Communion. The passing of the peace is intended to be a time for the kind of embracing we saw in that courtroom.
Forgiveness means bearing with each other, looking past those flaws in others that annoy us on a daily basis. It means forgiving people over and over again, loving them in spite of their flaws. For instance, I have been loading the dishwasher incorrectly for twenty-three years, and somehow my wife still loves me!
Forgiveness can also mean something much more difficult. It can mean telling the person who shot and killed your brother while he was eating ice cream in his own apartment that you love her and you forgive her and you want what is best for her. It can mean lovingly inviting someone who has taken something precious from you to give their life to Christ, where there is forgiveness. It can mean going to someone you have every right to hate, and instead of giving them hate, giving them a hug.
This kind of complete and perfect forgiveness seems impossible. It seems about as likely as telling a mulberry tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea and having it obey you!
But with faith in Jesus Christ, it is not impossible. You don’t even need a lot of faith to do it! Even faith the size of a mustard seed is enough for the Lord Jesus to work with. It gets his foot in the door so he can get a hold of our hearts and do his work in us. This complete and perfect forgiveness is hard. Sometimes it is an ongoing process. But it is not impossible.
We forgive because we have been forgiven. We embrace others with grace because in spite of all we have done, our Lord Jesus has told us he loves us and forgives us. In spite of all we have done, our Lord Jesus has thrown his arms around us in his love and mercy.
We forgive because Christ is in us through faith, moving our hearts to extend to others the forgiveness we ourselves have received.
We forgive because we belong to him, and that’s just what his people do.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church