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Forgiveness is important because inclusion is important.  Without forgiveness we tend to exclude, which means we are working at cross purposes to the God who is within us.  God is always trying to include, always looking for the creative way forward that keeps the community whole.

The Backstory

In the first reading from Genesis, we have an addendum to the classic story of Joseph, who was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt because they were jealous of him.  As bad as your family might be, I suspect that has not happened to many of you.  (Unfortunately though, families do still sell their members into slavery.)  You remember the story.  Joseph ends up eventually in charge of all the food stores of Egypt.  When his brothers come begging to the Pharaoh’s administration for food, Joseph does not reveal his identity.  Instead he questions the brothers about the family and demands to see their youngest brother, his only full brother, and the one who is taking care of Jacob, the very old father.  Judah is afraid that he will keep Benjamin as a slave and that that news will kill Jacob.  So Judah offers himself in place of Benjamin.  This conversation about family, about another suffering the same fate, about the father being despondent to the point of death moves Joseph to tears.  He embraces them and they cry on each other’s necks, we’re told.  Joseph forgives them; but note that it is a forgiveness that comes out of a desire to be family again.  Forgiveness is a tool of inclusion.

Family Dynamics Sometimes Shift

But alas forgiveness is not a simple matter in family situations.  Sometimes we forgive, and then something challenges that and we feel like taking it back.  Our story from Genesis tonight has the story of Joseph and his brothers above as the background.  Eventually Jacob, their father, dies.  The brothers, just like “modern families,” worry that the death of the father will open up an old wound and Joseph will now exact his revenge on his brothers—revenge he would perhaps not have had the courage to exact while his father was alive.  These things happen in families!  But Joseph is a good man and does not do that.  He chooses to forgive and keep the family intact.

The Not-Like-God King

In the gospel for tonight Matthew continues this theme of forgiveness being a tool of inclusion.   The story is about a king.  This king is not like God, except in one respect which we learn at the end of the story.  This king is not like God because he forgives only once and then when he does forgive he takes back the forgiveness that he has given.  Forgiveness was perhaps not something that flowed from his heart, but was a useful tool for running his operations.  The bad king in the story never interrupts the system of domination and exploitation.  He maintains his power.  Most of the wealth of the system moves from the producers to him.  When he forgives this servant of his (think of a high ministerial position in a kingdom), he gets to appear magnanimous in front of everyone, to have his honor preserved by the groveling (as opposed to rebellious) servant, and he keeps a talented worker.  So forgiveness “works” for the king.  The so-called “forgiven” official then goes back to “his people” and looks humiliated for not producing; so he beats up on them as a way to show that he is still in power over them.  Of course they can play the game too, so they go collectively to the king and say, “Get rid of this guy; he’s too severe.”  So now the king is willing to let him go because he can’t justify losing all those producers.  So much for the “forgiveness.”  These things happen in power structures.  It may have happened to you at work.  If you are really open to spiritual growth, you may have noticed how these dynamics show up in your own heart…which brings us to the point.

True Forgiveness Comes “From the Heart”

Forgiveness, the way the Teacher is teaching tonight, is a matter of the heart (vs. 34).  It promotes inclusion.  It sustains families and communities, like Sts. Clare & Francis.  It is not optional.  That is the only thing the real King is “unforgiving” about.  Jesus warns that there are consequences to our not forgiving after we have been forgiven.  We will never see the Kingdom.  Not because the King is actually unforgiving, but because we cannot live in the love of the real kingdom unless our hearts know how to forgive.  We just have to live isolated.  And that is not anyone’s vision of heaven.  Forgiveness may be hard sometimes, but it is the key to the kingdom, the key to community.

My Availability for Communion Depends on Forgiveness

Forgiveness is tricky business.  We live in a world where people hurt each other.  We have to be able to create boundaries for our own and our loved ones’ health and safety.  We also live in an imperfect world where the “forgiveness game” is played in a way that is nowhere near what Jesus is talking about.  So while we live with appropriate boundaries, we (in the real Kingdom) are always called to walk around available for communion.  Without forgiveness as a daily practice, that simply won’t happen.  I invite you to gather around the table of communion tonight; and when we are holding hands around that table I invite you to recommit yourselves to “forgive those who trespass against us.”  That is who we are called to be.  Amen?

25th Sunday of the Year

Sts. Clare & Francis

Saturday, September 20, 2014
Genesis 50:15-21 (focus text)
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35 (focus text)
Homily by Frank Krebs

Photo by Amy Bundy on flickr.com

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