Sermon – Forgiveness in the Balance
Leviticus 25:39-46; Matthew 6:5-13
Farmville Presbyterian Church
July 30, 2023
– Our Forgiveness dictating how we are forgiven
Does every family have its Uncle Larry or Aunt Freida? You know, that family member who makes life more colorful and always makes family gatherings more interesting? In my family, that is my brother Matt. If he is listening right now, Happy Birthday this week, brother. Yes, I love you and thank you for how you have made our lives more, let’s say, vibrant. Brother Matt was always one to march to his own drummer. From his time with a mohawk and combat boots to his flirtation with the Hare Krishna to his two stints in the military jumping out of planes to his work with undercover cops, SWAT, starting his own dive shop, drilling for oil, being a repo man, and even making sure UPS arrives on time, he has blazed his own path. Now, he works as an insurance adjuster. You may agree with our parents that that is a relief of a change. Together, though, he and I form a trust with the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives) so that he can make custom guns. If the Feds show up at my house, I might need somewhere to hide if any of you have a workable storm cellar. And that does not even get to his actual personality that enjoys getting people riled up, especially with those subjects you do not discuss at the dinner table. It does make me sad that he lives so far away in Florida since it has meant our local family gatherings are far more bland than they could be.
My guess is that probably all of our families have had people who have made our families more unique. Church families are no different. Of course, some of these personalities I have enjoyed in my three years here. As long as we keep God’s love as our ground, I am delighted to have all of God’s children welcome, and we all make this church family more interesting and more rich in God’s grace. What is even more about the people of God, though, what makes us even more distinct as a family… is the way we pray. What makes our church family this church family is how we pray. In prayer, we share what we believe and what we hope and with what we struggle and what we fear. If we pray what is most important to us (and we do), then what we pray really shows our heart and who we are. Jesus says FORGIVENESS is crucial to our prayer, and if it is crucial to our prayer, it must be crucial to our shared life. Yes, we are back to forgiveness today.
“But, preacher, we did forgiveness last week. We talked about how we are supposed to forgive our debtors and what it means that we are a forgiven people.”….
You are absolutely correct. We did talk about forgiveness last week, and I tried my best to impress on everyone just how central this aspect of life in Christ truly is and how in this one way we can even most resemble God, BUT, BUT, BUT that is not all that the Lord’s Prayer has to say about forgiveness, is it? In fact, Jesus here promotes one of the most challenging, troubling glimpses into forgiveness that we will ever see. He seems to be saying that our own forgiveness is directly tied to our willingness to forgive others. For people of grace (that’s us Presbyterians), we don’t like conditions on God’s love toward us at all. We don’t believe that we have to love God to be loved. We don’t believe that we have to choose God before we are chosen. We don’t believe that we have to make ourselves good enough to be acceptable in God’s sight. We don’t believe that we have to somehow come up with our own faith before we can be numbered among the faithful. All of these things are first given to us in God’s grace, and we live out grateful lives of faithful discipleship in response through Jesus Christ. In other words, we love because God loved us first; we believe because God first believed in us; we are saved because it is God who first gave us salvation. Jesus, however, does not seem to be saying, “Forgive others because you are first forgiven by God.” In fact, it almost sounds like the opposite. We really need to continue this one point today before we go any further. We need to see where he might be steering us.
Our first Scripture lesson today also begs us to keep going. Last week, we were in this same Jubilee chapter of Leviticus reading how when we must give land to someone else because of our debts, that land will eventually return to us one way or another. Either family steps in and pays the debt or we raise the money ourselves to buy the land back OR in so many years, that debt is just forgiven free and clear, and the land comes back to our family. That “year” is the year of Jubilee. But as we see today, it is not just when we give land to others to cover our debts, it also applies when we sell ourselves to others as servants.
This was a legitimate concern in a world with no social programs and much less wealth and much more dependance on weather and water. People got into trouble paying their bills and could easily owe someone more than they could pay. One way you could pay for your debt was giving your land over. If that was not an option, you could give yourself to someone as a servant or a hired hand. Notice that the text makes a big difference between this servant and a slave. Only foreigners could be slaves. Sadly, you know this was used to justify bad things, especially in the 19th century. Hear me now, though, because this whole idea turns on one question: who is family? Who is related? Back in the days of Old Testament folk, family was everyone related to Abraham and Sarah – the 12 tribes, the Jewish people, the Hebrews. If you were blood, you were special and you would never be a slave to a cousin. If you were not a child of Abraham and Sarah, you were fair game to become a slave, to be bought and sold as a slave, or to stay a slave with your family as slaves forever. Those slaves would have mostly been people who were captured in war. Hebrew people, however, who became servants through debt would have their debt forgiven according to Leviticus 25, and they were to be set free. Family is family; family is freedom. This was God’s plan.
Back then, you could tell family through your blood lines, your names, or your hometown. Back then, family was about lines and who was in and out. Back then, you kept family carefully. Then came Jesus.
Rather than only forgiving some people, he is trying to say we need to be a big bunch of freedom-loving forgiving people. We need to all live as if we are all family. We treat others as if they are family, and we expect to be treated as family. God has made us all sisters and brothers in Christ, and if I were in another religious context, I just might ask for an amen because this is one of the most wonderful things that God has ever done for us. We are all family, so we can never enslave each other and must live by forgiveness toward all of God’s children. If we refuse this opportunity, though, then we are saying we are not going to live as part of God’s family.
If we are part of the same people, if we are part of the same family of God, then we do not enslave one another. If we are part of the same people, if we are connected, then we do not own each other. If we are part of the same people, if we are brothers and sisters, then there is always forgiveness. There is always forgiveness. We may not get along, and we don’t have to like each other, but forgiveness is how we live in the love of God.
Imagine for a moment Jesus standing up there on the mount with that sea of faces before him. He prayed something they had never heard before. He prayed something that shocked everyone who heard him. Forgiveness is not just for the special, the privileged, the connected, or the righteous. Forgiveness is for us all, but if we refuse to forgive, if we cannot make that our prayer, then we have no part in God’s people. We are rejecting the very God who forgives us.
It is a direct insult to God to take this very gift that makes us most like God and to deny it. Even when it is for something so incredibly difficult to forgive, we should still want to get there one day. With God’s help, it is possible. But to not even try, to never want to try… we are declaring our unwillingness to be in the very fellowship of God’s family. If we are unwilling to be people of forgiveness, we must want to live enslaved to guilt, debt, and blame. There is no freedom from our debts, if we are not willing to let them go. There is no freedom from our sins, if we are unwilling to part with them. There is no freedom from the guilt and blame that we hoard unless we are willing to cut the chains and turn it all over to someone else – to God.
We will always be chained to our sin as long as we hoard sin. Forgiveness is there, but we will never see it. Family is there, but we will never love it.
I love that when Jesus looked across that crowd on the mount, he did not see people by political party or gender or race or nationality or any particular persuasion. He saw them all as people who needed help, people who needed him. He fed them all with food left over. He taught them new life, and he gave them prayer to change the world as a family.
Now let us pray… Brother Jesus, we are here because you have invited us and welcomed us all. Help us to welcome each other as family. Help us to recognize your face in the other, in anyone you bring before us. Forgive us for not living into this vision of life that you gave us 2000 years ago. Forgive us but first make us more willing to forgive others. Yes, it is very hard sometimes. It may not seem possible, too hard to even consider, but there is always hope in you for something better. Give us the first step to something better. Give us that starting point, that orientation, that zeal to be gracious and kind and forgiving to all of your children from least to greatest. And if we are in doubt about whether forgiveness is needed, nudge us to the forgiving side. Do not let us live in fear or meekness when it comes to practicing the faith. Do not let us neglect this holy calling. Fill our prayer with love for your people, our people, all of them, and show us greater freedom. To you be the glory. Amen.