Exodus 14:19-31 – The Israelites are delivered from the Egyptians, through the Red Sea.
OR
Genesis 50:15-21 – Joseph forgives his brothers. “Even though you intended it for evil,, God intended it for good…”

Psalm 114 – When Israel went out from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange language, Judah became God’s sanctuary, Israel his dominion.
OR
Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21 – Moses’ song. “I will sing unto The Lord for he has triumphed gloriously…”
OR
Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13 – The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.

Romans 14:1-12 – Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions… Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?… Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

Matthew 18:21-35 – Peter: How many times must I forgive? The Parable of the Unforgiving Slave.

Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, merciful judge, you are the inexhaustible fountain of forgiveness. Replace our hearts of stone with hearts that love and adore you, that we may delight in doing your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. We have an advocate, Jesus | Christ the righteous; your sins are forgiven on account | of his name. Alleluia. (1 John 2:1, 12)

It is ironic and perhaps difficult that the theme of forgiveness comes up around 9/11. This might be a good Sunday to remember the victims of 9/11 in your prayers.

Our first option for the Hebrew Bible reading (Exodus 14) is the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. The Psalm picks up this theme, either by using the Song of Moses in Exodus 15 or Psalm 114. The theme is God’s deliverance from oppression. This is not a story of revolution – people rising up and overthrowing an evil empire by their own might. It is a story of escape. God delivers them and they walk away.

The other option for the Hebrew Bible reading might be a better choice if you are going to use the theme of forgiveness from the Gospel reading. Joseph forgives his brothers. Then Psalm 113 emphasizes this forgiveness: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.”

This coming Sunday’s epistle brings to an end our marching through portions of Romans. Though Romans has 16 chapters, we end this run in chapter 14. A portion of chapter 15 appears in Advent 2A, when Paul quotes Isaiah saying a root of Jesse will come. A portion of chapter 16 (the last three verses of Romans) appears in Advent 4B: Paul says the mystery hidden for the ages is now disclosed, and made known to all the Gentiles through the prophets. Next week we begin four weeks in Philippians:

  • September 21: Philippians 1:21-30
  • September 28: Philippians 2:1-13
  • October 5: Philippians 3:4b-14
  • October 12: Philippians 4:1-9

Romans 14 is one of Paul’s treatises on bound conscience. It gives us insight into his thinking, ethics and ecclesiology. “Welcome the weak, but not just to quarrel.” Some eat only meat, while others are vegetarians. The vegetarians believe it inappropriate to eat meat sacrificed to pagan idols. Since this comprises most of the meat in the Roman markets, some believe it is more appropriate and faithful (kosher?) to abstain. Paul’s take is that idols are nonexistent anyway, so eat up. He also clearly believes human religious traditions to be ineffective for justification. They can, in fact, work against one’s salvation by puffing one up.

Clearly Paul considers those who abstain from eating meat to be weaker in faith, and the omnivorous stronger. He is not without an opinion on the matter. And yet, his admonishment to them is to accept one another’s differences. “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” Shades of Matthew 7:1-5, Sermon on the Mount.

Paul then says, whatever you do, wherever you fall on this issue, make up your mind and be confident, while respectful of others. The point he emphasizes toward the end of this passage is that we’re all going to stand before God on judgment day. People are accountable to God, not to you, so don’t worry about it. Let God be God. Jesus would add, work on the log in your own eye. You’ve got more than you can handle dealing with your own stuff.

Mark Reasoner tells an amusing story to make the point:

A story about Ruth Graham, wife of the famous evangelist, illustrates how differences can threaten our unity. Mrs. Graham, dressed and made up as would seem fitting for any American woman in the 1970’s, attended a luncheon with wives of conservative pastors in Germany. These German Christians had more conservative ideas regarding how women should look. They did not believe that married Christian women should wear makeup or clothing that made them look too much like the world. As a result, a German pastor’s wife, sitting across from Ruth Graham, became very upset. She thought it was shameful that the wife of this famous evangelist looked so worldly. Why, Ruth Graham was even wearing mascara! The German pastor’s wife became so angry that she started crying right into her beer. Meanwhile Ruth Graham couldn’t understand why the woman was crying, although it bothered her that a self-respecting pastor’s wife was drinking beer at a meeting to prepare for an evangelistic crusade where Christians come together as the unified body of Christ.

Matthew 18:21-35 is a classic text on forgiveness. Jesus’ shocking storytelling style drives the point home with power. Jesus makes it clear: We are to forgive. Especially when preaching close to 9/11, we should be very clear about what forgiveness is and what it isn’t.

A parishioner once told me this passage made her stay in an abusive marriage too long. Another said his childhood abuser wanted to “friend” him on Facebook. Forgiveness does not mean we allow destructive things to happen or continue. It does not mean discarding healthy boundaries. Forgiveness does not mean we are going to be best friends. Forgiving an abusive ex doesn’t mean you have to marry him or her again. Forgiving an abusive person does not mean you keep putting yourself in the dysfunctional arena in which the abuse takes place.

Forgiveness does not mean restoration to a position of trust. An example: your treasurer embezzles $50,000. Do you forgive him? Yes. Do you make him treasurer again? No. Restoration to a position of trust would be unkind to the people of the organization and to former treasurer, who clearly has a weakness. The preacher needs to take care not to proclaim too shallow a vision of forgiveness.

If forgiveness doesn’t mean these things, what does it mean? Forgiveness means I am not going to let the wrong or abuse define me. I am not going to let it keep me from living into a hopeful and joy-filled future. I choose not to carry around the heavy anchors of anger, bitterness, resentment or hate. I choose to live into the future, in spite of the scars of the past. I forgive because Christ has forgiven me. Ephesians 4:32.

Lewis Smedes said forgiveness is relinquishing my right to get even. It is giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me. Frederick Buechner reminds us that forgiveness is an act of radical self-interest. We punish ourselves by carrying around our grief and anger when we do not forgive others.

Forgiveness is not easy, but is something the Bible talks about a lot. Jesus says we are even to love our enemies. Paul says if your enemy is hungry give them food. If he is thirsty give him something to drink.

The preacher has to be able to tell a story of forgiveness that makes a difference, either from the saints or from his or her personal life, to connect with the congregation.

I will close with some thoughts from C.S. Lewis:

Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. ‘That sort of talk makes them sick,’ they say. And half of you already want to ask me, ‘I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?’ 

So do I. I wonder very much. Just as when Christianity tells me that I must not deny my religion even to save myself from death by torture, I wonder very much what I should do when it came to the point. I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do – I can do precious little – I am telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.’ There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. What are we to do?

– C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” Book 3, Chapter 7