SERMON from 9-11-11: “10 Years & 77 Times”

Matthew 18:21-35:

21 Then Peter came and said to him, Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? 22 Jesus said to him, Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, Pay what you owe. 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, Have patience with me, and I will pay you. 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you? 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.

10 Years & 77 Times

Ten years ago to this day and minute, Emily and I were walking out of Neva’s Restaurant in North Webster, Indiana with our godson, Hunter. We had just finished breakfast where all around us were heard discussions of “who” and “why” taking place in the wake of terrorist attacks still unfolding along the east coast of the country. I was attending classes at IPFW at the time and I had to still go into Fort Wayne that day. By the time I had come home that night, gas prices were trumpeted out as nearly $5 a gallon and it felt like the world would never be the same. And it wasn’t.

In the wake of this tragic day, three has been so much that has happened. Not only were there three thousand people killed in the attacks, there have been thousands of soldiers die in the wars that were begun as a result of that fateful day in September. And ten years later, we can still see those images and feel those feelings–fear, sadness and anger.

It is difficult to think of the good which came out of that day. In fact, to do so might display an incredible insensitivity or ignorance. There is, however, one story which I think merits consideration. As we consider how we continue to move on–ten years later–I think it is one of the best lessons we could learn. It involves a Moroccan Muslim and a Jewish American.

Phyllis Rodriguez was walking home that morning and got home to receive a message from her son, Greg, that there was a horrible accident at the World Trade Center, but that he was alright. When she turned on the TV, she saw the second plane strike one of the towers–Greg was in that tower. After holding out hope for much of the day, she resigned herself to the reality that Greg was gone. Within a year of the tragedy, she met Aicha el-Wafi.

Aicha is a Moroccan Muslim living in france. She had met with a group of families of 9-11 victims in the aftermath of the attacks. Her son was a man by the name of Zacarias Moussaoui–currently serving a life sentence for his role in masterminding the attacks of 9-11. Despite that, she met with the families and struck up a friendship with Phyllis. Initially, Phyllis separated Aicha from the evil of her son. They remained friends in spite of that nasty history. However, during the trial for Zacarias, Phyllis came to a realization that she could not separate that mother from her son, even though she was separated from hers. Phyllis hadn’t only befriended Aicha, but she had forgiven the man who killed her child–and the children of thousands of others.

That is tough. It is, at once, a very tragic and very triumphant story. Some of you may have mixed feelings about that story. It is one thing to befriend a mother who is also going through a tough time, but to forgive her murderous son? In the case of such a national tragedy as this, is her forgiveness something which she needs forgiveness for? That is almost unthinkable.

Unfortunately, 10 years after the fact, these attacks have been so exploited and politicized that it can be difficult to have a serious discussion about how we live our lives in it’s wake. As a pastor, it often falls to me to encapsulate these types of things into coherent packages for us to be able to understand. The lesson from all of this is just how important forgiveness is to the life of any human being–including and most of all, Christians.

The scripture passage we are looking at begins with Peter looking to define the parameters of community in light of conflict. Peter exclusively references forgiveness between those inside the community–or church. The first question I asked myself when I read this was just how important that distinction may be. Should we be more forgiving to those in the church than to those on the street? Should we be more forgiving towards the usher who kills his neighbor than the annoying church neighbor who kills the church grass? Should we be more forgiving towards Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (Christian) than 9-11 mastermind Zacarias Moussaoui (Muslim)? No. Just as all sin is rendered the same in God’s eyes (James 2.10), the forgiveness for that sin is to be rendered by humanity in the same fashion.

It may be based upon the type of sin. Of course, we view petty shoplifting as less a sin than stealing a car. We believe it is better for someone to have used God’s name in vain than to have killed someone. If that isn’t enough for you to get it, let me ask you about teachers and students. When you hear about a female teacher having an inappropriate relationship with a male student, you think that is appalling. But, what if you hear about a male teacher with a female student? Don’t you feel a little more icky about that one?

This isn’t because one sin is better than another–is less bad than another. We make distinctions between these sins and deem one better than the other. However, God does not. Most certainly and definitely, God views all sin through the same lens–it is unacceptable. The good news is that no matter how much or what kind of sin exists in your life, God forgives it.

He forgives it and forgives it all. How do we know that? Jesus tells Peter that he is to forgive any particular person–not seven times–but seventy-seven times. Now, I am no biblical numerologist. I know that the Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years, Noah was afloat for 40 days and nights and Jesus was in the desert for 40 days. I don’t know, or really care why that number is used to often in the bible. Seven is also the number of creation–within biblical numerology–but I don’t really care what that means for further biblical study. I don’t know why it was used in this context, but I know the number seventy-seven merits further study for better understanding of what Jesus means.

Depending upon which Bible you are reading, verse 22 could contain a couple of different numbers. It could be translated as seventy-seven. This seems like plenty–if not overkill–but it is still a finite limit on forgiveness. Another way to translate this is to say “seventy times seven,” the answer to which is 490. This is exponentially larger than 77, but still finite. Which is it? Neither. Jesus isn’t giving a limit on this forgiveness. This is an expression meaning the forgiveness we should be offering is limitless. there should be no limit to the amount of times we are willing to forgive someone for something.

Additionally, this means that the forgiveness is to extend to everyone for whatever offense it is they have committed. Whether you steal a piece of Brach’s candy from their big candy dishes inside grocery stores (a crime of which a young Pastor Chris is guilty), or you steal the Mona Lisa. Whether you lie to your kid, or lie to a judge in a court of law. The size of the sin doesn’t matter. The number of times a sin is committed doesn’t matter. Jesus calls us all to forgive. It isn’t just a single act; it’s a lifestyle. It’s just what we do! As I read this week, “no follower of Jesus should keep score of another’s offenses–unless, of course, they have no problem with God keeping score of theirs. All have sinned, lest we forget.

But, why? Why is our forgiveness of others so important? That is answered through the parable that follows Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question. The servant owes the master a debt–a big, huge debt. He could not possibly pay this debt back. Rather than giving the servant what he deserves, the master forgives the debt–just like that. The servant, in turn, goes to look for the guy who owes him some money. In comparison, the debt the servant owed his master was Peyton Manning money, and the debt the servant was owed from the other guy was like local pastor money. There was no comparison. The servant doesn’t just not forgive the debt, but physically assaults the guy for not paying the debt. It is a ridiculous display of foolishness for this servant to have received such forgiveness and not shown the same to those who owed him.

One commentary I read this week had this to say, “there can be no limit to forgiveness for those who experience the limitless grace of God.” That is a great word, limitless. It is such a freeing word. It is such an uplifting. The idea of “the limitless grace of God” makes me have the same sensation some get when they bite into a York Peppermint Patty. You know, when you take the bite, you are all of the sudden transported to the top of a mountain with the wind whipping through your hair. Except, God’s grace lasts a lot longer and is much more awesome…much more awesome.

When we do not forgive, it creates such an black cloud over our entire being. It is an issue which effects the entirety of our being. Imagine you were shot in a crowd. You crumple to the ground with a bullet not quite an inch away from your heart. You are in pain and still dealing with the possibility of long-term health issues as a result. This will effect you whole life. You could have died! The day after he was shot by assassin John Hinkley, president Ronald Reagan said that the key to his physical recovery would be to forgive his shooter. And he did.

Whether it is for something that happened 10 minutes ago, or ten years ago, forgiveness is not only beneficial, it is what the Christian is called to do. To not do so is, in itself, sinful. And not only is it beneficial for all other things in our life, but it is beneficial because God does it for us. No limits, just his graceful patience and promise that he will forgive. And thanks be to him for it.


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