Proper 19, Year A: Genesis 50:15-21; Matthew 18:21-35. St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Lake Jackson.
I don’t know the whole story.
I actually don’t know the story at all.
All I know is that the disagreement happened during the construction of a fence.
And it happened before Ed and I bought our little 1950s ranch house in Dallas. Because by the time we arrived on the block, our neighbors across the street were not on speaking terms.
We became good friends with the neighbors to the east of the fence. We were friendly with the neighbors to the west of the fence. But the fence between them and the silence between them, meant that we were never together at the same time.
It wasn’t until the neighbors to the east of the fence moved away, that I realized the impact of the conflict, specifically on my neighbor to the west of the fence
While I had often visited with his wife on the sidewalk, I had rarely seen him. And now? He was regularly in his front yard, visiting with neighbors or occupied with various gardening projects.
From my perspective from across the street, the conflict had imprisoned this man in his home … and now, with the geographic move of his neighbors, he was finally free.
The geographic move is a favorite choice among human beings in resolving conflict. We often choose the geographic solution in our families, in our careers, and in our churches. When things go sideways or terribly wrong in a relationship — when we cause or experience an offense or sin — it can be difficult to forgive. And it’s often easier to see a way forward through moving or relocating, than a way forward in the relationship.
But that’s the very thing that forgiveness provides: a way forward. It provides healing and opens the door to the future with new possibilities and new energies.
But the thing to understand about forgiveness is that it is rarely a one-time event. Granted, for God, when we ask for forgiveness, it’s a “one and done.” But for us? Forgiveness is a process and takes time. This insight is articulated so well in Jesus’ response in the Gospel of Matthew.
Peter asks how many times to forgive? Seven?
Jesus’ response speaks to the time and process, not the number of offenses. Remember, Christ calls us into abundant life, not abusive relationships.
Time and process: seventy-seven times, he says.
For all of us who have experienced a deep emotional wounding by another, this resonates, doesn’t it? To forgive … how we wish it could be a “one and done” … but it’s more in the neighborhood of seventy-seven times.
And that process, while it may be slow, includes God’s presence … and through God’s grace, we are eventually able to let it go.
It is inner work and spiritual work — and God is present in it, transforming us.
The powerful passage from 2 Corinthians (5:17-18) speaks to the heart of this: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come. All of this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”
God gives us a future together through forgiveness.
An epic example of this is the passage we heard from Genesis (50:15-21). It’s the end of the Joseph story (chapters 37-50). And if you’re not familiar with it: here’s the gist. Jealous brothers sell Joseph — it’s a case of human trafficking! Fast-forward, Joseph becomes a big shot in Pharaoh’s court, while the brothers in their land experience famine. The brothers come to Pharaoh’s court asking for relief, but they do not recognize Joseph. But he recognizes them! He is so overwhelmed by emotion that he steps away.
Fast forward again, and in today’s passage, the brothers worry that Joseph may bear a grudge.
Well, yeah! It is very likely that Joseph bears a grudge except … he has done the deep emotional and spiritual work and God has been present in it. So that, in this consequential moment, Joseph responds:
“Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” (50:19-20).
And here we see, thanks to Joseph, how God can work through all kinds of situations and offenses. God doesn’t cause the harm. The brothers sold Joseph into slavery, not God! But God continues to pursue God’s purposes even in the midst of our hurtful and sinful choices … in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.
When we turn to God, God’s grace takes hold in our hearts, and our lives are transformed. We are able to forgive. We are able to let go. And we are able to embrace a new hope of a future together. Eventually allowing us to arrive at forgiveness — from the heart (Matthew 18:35). And the community benefits.
I began with neighbors, so I’ll end with neighbors — my childhood neighbors. We played hide-and-go-seek and kick-the-can.
Perhaps you remember from your own childhood, that at the end of these games, someone would call out: “olly, olly oxen free!” Which meant that the game was over. You were safe to come home and we would all begin again.
Forgiveness can be like that. If you’ve found yourself separated by a fence. Or out on a limb. Or stuck. Or hiding because of an offence you committed or an offense you experienced.
Christ offers us a future together through forgiveness.
It is a process. It takes time. It is a grace-filled path available to us, this ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians (5: 18).
While for God, forgiveness is “one and done,” the question is for us:
Will we forgive ourselves and one another and step into the future God intends for us?
Working Preacher Brainwave podcast #742. Luther Seminary.