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Sermlon – September 11, 2011 – “You Must Forgive”

Sermon for September 11, 2011 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg
You Must Forgive Genesis 50: 15- 21, Romans 14: 1-12, Matthew 18: 21-35
We still speak as if the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west, when in reality the Sun as a heavenly body goes nowhere, and the place where we live wheels into view of it at dawn and rolls beneath it through twilight. We all know why it appears to rise and appears to set, and we all know the convention of saying that it does rise and does set, so itʼs all okay. Nobody is being deceived. I am using this as an example of how the way things really are can be counterintuitive. Once persons believed that the Sun rose and set, because it takes more than the way an ordinary person thinks to conceive it differently.
Which is not to say that scientifically-minded individuals didnʼt know long ago that the Earth was roundish. Around 240 B. C. an Alexandrian named Eratosthenes used the distance of a well from Alexandria over which the sun directly shone on a certain date to measure the circumference of the world, based on the shadow cast in Alexandria and knowing the distance and so forth. The whole calculation was based on the premise that the earth was round. Eratosthenes had considerable ingenuity, and he was educated. He benefited from the thinking and research of others who went before him, so he was able to approach the natural world in a way not based on appearances, but on realities which many never would have been able to detect.
In the eighteenth century it was noticed that the inhabitants of a small island off the coast of Scotland all came down with colds and other illnesses after the visit of the infrequent mail ship. Someone suggested that maybe some invisible source of contagion arrived on the ship, but a man of great learning pooh-poohed the idea, and credited the change in peopleʼs health to the corresponding change in the winds which permitted the ship to get to the island. Now we see that the person was right who thought there was something aboard you couldnʼt see which brought the illness, but medical thinking was still largely pre scientific two hundred and fifty years ago. It is only in the last couple of centuries that medicine has come to rely on the scientific method, and it still sometimes is amending its practices by experimental science. A person has to be taught to understand what can only be seen both by sophisticated instrumentation and by tested hypotheses.
When this church founded the university a hundred and sixty-some years ago, it did so because it understood that this relatively new nation needed informed individuals not only to spread the gospel but engineer bridges and administer justice. Seat-of-the-pants living and even traditional wisdom only gets us so far–it used to be the barber was also the surgeon, and that says a lot about what your health care was like then. Now, thanks to education and its corollary research, you live as long as you do because surgeons specialize and sub-specialize and there are all kinds of technology and pharmacologyhelping them keep you alive. That knowledge does not just occur to people as they sit daydreaming. That know-how results from years of learning, of benefitting from the collective efforts of generations to figure out things that are, by their nature, not able to be apprehended through the senses or seized by the instincts.
Church school may seem like a nursery or breeding ground for future members, a means an organization has to indoctrinate, and there is always the possibility that education itself may be viewed that way. Thatʼs how Pink Floydʼs “The Wall” sees education. But at its best education is not merely a means of providing an upbringing, the “up” to which one is being brought some institution which wants to assure itself of continu edexistence. At its best, education is about equipping people to live more successfully in the world, to spend less time in error and in fruitless effort, and more time in mastering the arts of living, as well as enjoying the excitement of discovery.
The whole church exists to learn to live in harmony with Godʼs sovereignty, to be in the world in a way which fits with the most profound realities about right and wrong and what is true and what is false. Christian education is part of that, whether for the youngest in the congregation or the oldest. Just as the ability to design an electronic device is not intuitive, neither is the conviction that the right way to address a wrong is to forgive it.
Weʼre talking about forgiveness as a representative teaching of Christianity for three reasons. The first is that it is counterintuitive, that it does not come naturally to persons, that belief in it requires faith that one has seen past appearances and discerned the true, that the invisible energies and interactions underpinning spiritual existence endorse forgiveness, in the same way that the mysterious properties of electricity encourage modern communication. The second is that all the scriptures offered for our hearing today are about forgiveness. The third reason is that there is no practice more central to what is peculiarly Christian in our faith, nothing more closely connected to the actions and meaning of Christ. When Jesus first appeared as a healer, how did he characterize the nature of that healing? That it was the result of forgiveness. When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, contrasting the level of spiritual effort of his native Judaism with what he believed was required in a true Kingdom of God, how did he handle the whole, big part of human life which is people who harm us? He taught forgiveness, he required forgiveness as a mark of discipleship. When Jesus was on the cross, how did he react to the brutes whose routine had become, in the name of the state, the torture and murder of their fellow men ? how did he respond to the powers which had framed him and delivered him to this fate, and whose leaders and sympathizers ringed the spectacle of his final suffering with taunts and insults? He didnʼt say “May their sins be on their heads.” We all know what he said, because we know the story so well, and because it troubles our conscience to recall it when we ourselves are hurt and feel that sickness of frustrated anger imposed on us by the malice of another. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The tale of Joseph and his brothers is a rich story of human nature and family relationships, and itʼs not surprising that the author Thomas Mann made a big book about it. Everyone in the family is flawed, but Joseph grows up through the suffering he undergoes, and he becomes great not only in public power and wealth, but great in his heart. He forgives his brothers having torn him from the bosom of his doting dad and sent him away to slavery and all kinds of mischance–not to mention having broken the heart of his father by falsely reporting his death. He forgives them. He recognizes that wrong in the world will generate more wrong until it somehow is erased, and he apprehends that if one can just accept being wronged and decide that God may yet be served by it, and forgo any kind of satisfaction– one may be able to eliminate that ill from the earth.
None of his brothers is nearly the person Joseph is. They are so far from being able to do what is noble in the sight of all, to borrow Paulʼs phrase, that they donʼt even get it. They canʼt believe that their brother is so generous spirited, so they make up a lie to make it even less likely that heʼll finally avenge himself on them. They donʼt need to do it, but they do. They canʼt help themselves. They are schemers, and Josephʼs greathearted treatment of them doesnʼt make them into better people. Itʼs not like those stories we like to tell about someone being converted by another personʼs kindness. Itʼs more like that proverb we have, that virtue is its own reward. It is enough that forgiveness puts away wrong, whether or not it is understood or even fully appreciated by the forgiven.
What Paul writes about in the beginning of chapter fourteen of Romans is not exactly forgiveness. It is forbearance. He teaches that Christians should not judge those qualities and behaviors of others which strike us as wrongheaded. Heʼs not talking about things everyone recognizes as criminal or dangerous in some practical way–heʼs talking about beliefs, the kinds which may be characterized as opinions. Heʼs talking about scruples one makes up for oneself, for whatever reasons that people have their pet virtues. People have their ideas, Paul says, and thereʼs no sense getting into a big flap with them for this notion and that notion– God is their judge, and not you. Live and let live.
Thereʼs forgiveness in that, of course, because we are always threatened by other people deciding to live their lives differently than the way we have decided to live ours. If their way of keeping a holiday or doing their devotions or supporting their religion is different from ours and weʼre not allowed to say they are wrong, it creates the possibility that they are not wrong, and that maybe we are. So thereʼs forgiveness in forbearance, and thatʼs a good thing.
Jesusʼ teaching on forgiveness is you have no choice about it. God forgives you so much that you make yourself preposterous refusing to forgive those who have wronged you. You ignore Godʼs grace, instead of aspiring to imitate it, and you deliberately keep resentment and recrimination alive in a world in which God wants there to be peace. Pray for Godʼs help to get over the instinct you have which tells you you must not suffer wrong, and find a way through forgiveness to make of your letting go an opportunity for good, and for God.

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