17 September 2023

This week we will be asked to listen to the tough, but life-giving Gospel message of forgiveness. In a world of conflict, terrorism, and serious inequalities the idea of forgiveness can sound naive. But without forgiveness, we doom ourselves to repeating cycles of violence, division and scapegoating of one another.

May our worship challenge us to move away from seeking to end violence through violence, and lead us into the path of forgiveness which alone can bring peace and healing.

Exodus 14:19-31: Moses stretches his hands over the sea and it opens a path for the Israelites to walk on dry ground. Then, as the sun rises and all the people have crossed, he stretches his hands over the sea again, and the waters return to their place, drowning the armies of Egypt.
OR Genesis 50:15-21: When Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers, afraid that he might now exact retribution from them, tell him that Jacob asked him to forgive them. Joseph, weeping, assures them that he does not hold their actions against them, and that God brought good out of their sinful acts.

Psalm 114: A celebration of the earth’s response to God’s mighty acts, and a call for the earth to tremble before God.
OR Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21: The song of victory and praise that Moses sang after the liberation of the Israelites.
OR Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13: A song of thanksgiving and praise, inviting worshippers to remember God’s mighty deeds, God’s grace and forgiveness, and God’s love and compassion.

Romans 14:1-12: Each believer works out how faith is to be lived for themselves and must decide between them and God how to practice their faith. Therefore, as people of faith we are not to judge one another, but to celebrate each one’s commitment to living out their faith before God.

Matthew 18:21-35: Jesus tells a story about a man who is forgiven a huge debt, but then refuses a small debt which is owed to him. When the master, to whom he owed his debt, hears about it, he is angry that the man did not show others the same mercy he received, and he instructs that the man be imprisoned until he has paid back his debt in full.

After last week’s confrontation with evil, this week’s emphasis is both surprising and elegant – the focus on forgiveness is clear in the readings and is the only appropriate response to evil if we are not to become what we oppose. The parable of the unforgiving servant is the centre around which all of the other readings rotate. The related Old Testament reading moves into territory that the continuous readings were covering a few weeks ago – the story of Joseph and his brothers. In this case, though, the focus is on Joseph’s forgiveness of them. Psalm 103 picks up this theme with a celebration of God’s forgiveness and grace, while in Romans we approach the subject from a different angle – that of not judging those who express their faith and live out the daily ramifications of faith differently from us. The connections in these readings are all very clear. The continuous Old Testament reading (Exodus 14), and the related Psalms (Exodus 15 & Psalm 114) seem to have the exact opposite message here, though. Pharoah and the Egyptians have offended God and enslaved God’s people and the response seems to hold no forgiveness at all. Rather, there is judgement, death and the celebration of the death of the enemy. On the one hand, this need not trouble us – the continuous readings are meant to be a separate focus, and don’t have to be fitted into the other readings. However, on the other hand, there is a wonderful opportunity in this contrast. If nothing else, it demonstrates how Jesus changed things, and how important it is not to lift stories like the Exodus out of their context and make them directive for us today. Rather than adopt a Mosaic attitude of violence and judgement against enemies, and a celebration of their demise, Jesus invites us to a different response to those who hurt us – the response of forgiveness and relinquishing of judgement, and of ending the cycle of violence and retribution and choosing to actively seek peace through the tough, but healing act of forgiveness.

GLOBAL APPLICATION: How are the words “peace” and “forgiveness” relevant in a world of war, crime, corruption and religious conflict? Last week’s focus on resisting evil raises the challenge of how to stand against injustice and destruction without becoming what we resist. This week provides a strong answer to that challenge. In the last few months the world has seen war, terrorism and judgement on a massive scale. But, perhaps more disturbing, has been the discrimination, prejudice, stereotyping, vengefulness and violence breeding more violence that has followed close behind. In the face of all this, the call to forgive is more than just a call to deal with hurt feelings. It is a radical call for peacemaking, for ending the cycle of violence, and for refusing to exact retribution even on those who hurt us. Further, this week’s readings call us to re-examine how we view God (through Mosiac eyes, as a violent overlord, or, through the eyes of Christ as a non-violent peacemaker), how we view other people of faith (refusing to impose our practices and conscience on others, but giving them the freedom to find and follow God according to their own conscience – or, perhaps, even religion) and how we view ourselves (not just as those who are hurt – like the indebted servant – but as those who are capable of hurting others – as the servant did to his debtor; not just as those who must give forgiveness, but also as those who must receive it). This call for forgiveness goes against our angry, human quest for “justice” and “retribution”, it does not satisfy or heal us of the deep wounds that enemies have inflicted on us. But, it does ensure that we do not make the hurt worse, for ourselves or others or for our world. It does ensure that healing can come. And it does challenge us to take the difficult, but transforming call of the Gospel seriously. I pray that we have the courage to proclaim this in our worship this week.

LOCAL APPLICATION: The work of forgiveness, on an individual and community level is easy to speak about – and we often do in the Church. It is less easy to put into practice, it seems. It is disturbing when Christians are seen to act in ways that are anything but forgiving – burning the sacred books of other faiths, calling natural disasters God’s judgement on certain groups of people we disagree with, preaching judgement as if we are God’s agents and have the right to choose who is “in” and who is “out”. When we do this, we are not reflecting the Reign of God, and we are not proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather, we have become part of the imperialistic, violent system that brings so much hurt into the world. The same is true when men use the Bible to suppress and control their wives, or when parents use God as a whip to keep their children in line. The same is true, whenever Christians in dispute with one another, or with others, turn to violent words or actions, and adopt methods that create more destruction in our world and communities. Into all of this – all of the ways in which our differences and brokenness result in conflict and pain – Jesus invites us into the difficult, but life-giving, peace-making and healing work of forgiveness. The challenge is whether we are prepared to release our need to be “right” and our need for “justice” and “retribution”. In the end, the “justice” we seek is not true justice at all. It is just a feeble attempt to balance the scales in our favour. But, the result is always a cycle of more pain. And so, once again, as hard as it is, we are faced with the shocking, but unrelenting call of the crucified one to follow his example, and offer forgiveness even to those whom we may feel don’t deserve it.

The Tyranny Of Vengeance
Shocking Freedom
God Of Peace
Small Random Acts Of Peacemaking

Hymn Suggestions:
Praise My Soul The King Of Heaven
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Forgive Our Sins As We Forgive (Link to YouTube video)
Make Me A Channel Of Your Peace (Link to YouTube video)
Let There Be Peace On Earth (Link to YouTube video)
White Ribbon Day (Link to YouTube video)

A Liturgy for the Agape

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