Your Duty to Forgive
A sermon based on Luke 17:1-10
October 10, 2010 – Pentecost 20C
A young woman was about to be married and as she went through some pre-marital counseling with a certain vicar, they got on the topic of invitations. Suddenly the woman grew cold. She turned to the vicar and said in a quiet voice. "I'm not inviting my dad to my wedding." Obviously something was wrong, so the vicar asked why not. "I hate him," she said. She sounded ashamed as she went on. "My father sexually abused me when I was a little girl and I cannot let go. I cannot forgive him."
What do you say to such a woman? How can you possibly forgive someone who's hurt you like that? Who's left physical and emotional scars that will likely last a lifetime? For that matter, forgiving anyone of any hurt or pain they've caused you isn't natural, is it? It goes against the grain. How do we let go of our grudges and love even those who hurt us?
This morning Jesus gives us the secret to forgiving someone. He tells us that we can only forgive through faith. To forgive someone once, let alone seven times a day for the same sin, is a difficult burden Jesus places on us as our duty. It's a burden that requires faith. And it's a burden faith gladly bears. Listen again to Jesus instruction of his disciples and learn again how to forgive…
In Luke 17:1-10, Jesus said to his disciples: "Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come. 2 It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. 3 So watch yourselves. "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him." 5 The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" 6 He replied, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you."
I. A Burden That Requires Faith
When your time to leave this earth has finally come, how do you want to go? If God let you choose the kind of death you will face, what would you pick? I'm guessing that most of you would say I'd like to die peacefully in my sleep. Go to bed and never wake up. Maybe some would say, I'd like to die doing something noble—fighting for my country, taking a stand for what I believe. But I'm willing to bet that no one would say, "If I could pick how I'd die, I'd drown."
Why not? Because drowning would be a horrible way to go! Imagine someone takes you to the edge of the lake ties a car around your neck (a millstone weighed up to 2 tons) and launches it into the middle of the lake. First comes the panic that you cannot take another breath. Your heart rate accelerates, demanding even more oxygen. After a minute or two your lungs, screaming in pain for lack of air, try to grab some anyway, but all they get is water. Your body's self-defense mechanism kicks in and your windpipe constricts to prevent more water from entering. Soon (in about 6 minutes), without any oxygen your brain becomes damaged, and finally (after another 2 minutes), you go into cardiac arrest and die in the middle of the lake.
Sound bad? That's nothing, Jesus says, compared with what's in store for those who cause others to stumble. (That's literally what skandalon means, not just sin, but stumble in your faith.) How do people cause others to stumble? Jesus gives two examples. He says, "watch yourselves. If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him." You can cause a person to stumble in their faith not just by what you do, but by what you don't do. Don't rebuke someone in their sin and you cause them to stumble by leading them to think their sin is no big deal. Don't forgive someone when they come seeking forgiveness and you cause them stumble by leading them to think God won't forgive them either.
Jesus' disciples recognized that they had failed to rebuke others. They'd failed to forgive others. They knew they deserved to have that millstone tied around their neck… and worse. And they also knew that this burden Jesus gave them was something they could never do on their own. 4 If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him." "Who can do this?" the apostles thought. And they said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" Literally, "Give us faith!" "We need faith to do this! It's not something that comes naturally!"
And Jesus response? "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you."
But what's Jesus saying? Who cares about the mulberry tree? Who would even want to transplant it in the sea? Understand what Jesus is and isn't saying here: He's not saying, "If only you had this much faith, then you could do amazing things like move trees around and forgive people who hurt you." What he is saying is that even the smallest bit of faith can and does do awesome things! After all, the tiniest bit of faith moves not just a tree into the ocean, but our very bodies and souls into heaven! What Jesus is saying to his disciples is "You do have faith! Use what little faith you have and rebuke others. Forgive others."
It's still hard for us today, isn't it, to forgive? To forgive the spouse, who you'd expect to be the kindest person to you, yet says the unkindest things of anyone you talk to in your day? To forgive the person who you trusted, that not only let you down, but betrayed that trust and took advantage of it? To forgive the person who's left physical and emotional scars in your life that may very well last a lifetime?
This burden—to forgive the same person of the same sin even if he does it seven times in the same day!—this burden requires faith. But dear friends, you have faith. Jesus reminds us in a subtle way of the faith we have; the power we have to forgive…
II. A Burden Faith Gladly Bears
7 "Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? 8 Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? 9 Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'"
Imagine you're the boss of a small company and one day one of your employees walks into your office and puts the report you asked him to complete on your desk. But then, rather then leave your office he just stands there staring at you, arms folded across his chest. When you respond, "Yes, what can do I for you?" he says, "Well…?" You say, "Well, what?!" and he responds, "Aren't you going to thank me?" What nerve! Of course you're not going to thank him! That's what he gets paid to do! It's the duty required of him! In fact, if he didn't give you the report (on time and at the level of quality you demanded) you'd first reprimand, and then, eventually, fire him, right?
Well, the same is true, Jesus points out, between us and God. What does God owe us? Absolutely nothing! He created us to love and serve him, right? And he has every right to demand perfection of us, then, right? So let's imagine for a second that I could fulfill my duty—to always point out the sins of others, to always forgive everyone who hurts me, to always use all my blessings only to the glory of God, to always think of others before I think of myself, to always love God and seek his will before my own. Even if I could do all that (and I most certainly can't), would God owe me anything for it? Of course not! It's what I'm expected to do!
Some churches want to sell you a load of lies that if you serve God, then God must bless you. What a bunch of rubbish! God owes us nothing. We owe God everything! If "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it" (Psalm 24:1), then what could God possibly need from you? You and I are in no position to barter with God. Because we've failed to do our duty, because we've caused others to stumble and sin, because we've failed to rebuke sinning friends, and because we've failed to forgive others their sins against us, we deserve to have a millstone tied around our necks and to be hurled into the bottom of the ocean! In fact, we deserve much, much worse!
But we don't get what we deserve. Though Jesus may have been cracking a bit of a joke when he shows how ridiculous it would be for the master to serve the slave, that's exactly what he did, isn't it? Do you remember what Jesus, the God of the universe, did for his disciples, these unworthy servants, in the upper room on Maundy Thursday? The Master served the disciples, washing their feet.
Can you imagine not only becoming a slug to live with a bunch of other slugs, but also getting down even lower still to help wash the other slugs? What humility Jesus showed! And this humble act wasn't just a one-time deal. It was symbolic of his entire ministry, ending at the cross.
Jesus once said, "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." There, on that cross, he served us. There Jesus did his duty to God of buying us sinners out of the debt we owed to God for failing to do our duty to him. There he removed every failure, every sin, every time we've been less than perfect and made us his own. Now, when God looks at us through Jesus he can say, "Well done, good and faithful servant!" (Matthew 25:21) "You've done your duty perfectly!"
And for such love that God's shown to us, we can't help but love him back. Our faith in him, makes us not only able, but eager, to do our duty.
If your boss called you at 2:00am and asked for some figures, you'd probably be a little upset wouldn't you? But when the newborn baby screams for mommy or daddy to get up at 2:00am and change a dirty diaper, they're not upset. They do it gladly. What's the difference? The parents do their duty out of love.
When the administration office calls up the poor student and demands more money, how hard it can be to come up with the cash. But when the same student's girlfriend admires a certain item, he eagerly rushes out to buy it, even if it means skipping lunch for the rest of the week. What's the difference? The student does his duty to his girlfriend out of love.
Is it difficult to serve God and do our duty? Is it hard to rebuke a friend? Is it tough to forgive? Yes. It often is. But when we understand what we deserve for our sin, and when we know and appreciate what our Jesus has done for us, by faith we're eager to do it anyway. We're eager to do our duty and serve him in all we do, at work, at rest, or at play. We're eager to forgive others, giving up our self-perceived right to get even, because we do our duty out of love.
So what do you tell a young woman who says I cannot forgive my father for the way he hurt me twenty years ago? Here's what I told her: "I know that your father hurt you more than I can ever know. And I know it's hard to forgive and that you will likely wrestle with this for the rest of your life. But you can forgive him. Examine your life and see how you've hurt and abused your Savior. Go to the cross and see how he's forgiven you by taking that sin on himself. Let his love for you move you to love him. You don't need to trust your dad, or like your dad, or invite him to your wedding. But out of love for Jesus you can let go of the hatred you have for him. You can forgive him."
Dear friends, may God continue to give you such a faith: one that recognizes what you deserve, one that stands in awe of what your Savior's done for you, one that's always eager to do your duty and to forgive. In Jesus' name, amen.