Saturday, September 10, 2011

Untying the Knot

Dedication of Church Entryway
Faith Lutheran Church, Wolverton, MN
September 11, 2011
Matthew 18:21-35

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

So what’s so special about the number 77?

Here in this gospel lesson, Peter comes to Jesus with a very good question:  “If another member of church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”

And like an eager-beaver, impress-the-teacher student, sitting in the front row of a classroom, straining to be noticed….Peter offers an answer to his own question.   “Should I forgive someone ‘as many as seven times?’”

What you may not know is that Peter was being pretty generous here.   The great rabbis of his day taught that Jews owed one another three gestures of forgiveness.

But Peter had been hanging around Jesus long enough to sense that Jesus would want to raise that number… Peter doubles the rabbi’s number and adds one more for good measure.

Seven!   Is seven the number of times I should forgive someone who does me wrong?

Peter comes off like a young man who really wants to impress the adults.

But Jesus immediately deflates Peter’s pretentiousness, upping the ante elevenfold.

“Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times” (some ancient manuscripts read:  seventy times seven).

Wow!   Peter undershot that one by a country mile.   Forgiving someone seven times—really quite a feat, when you think about it—but that doesn’t even come close to what Jesus is after here.    Jesus increases Peter’s seven by a magnitude of eleven.

So I ask you, what’s so special about the number 77?  

We could come up with all sorts of answers, most of them having to do with seven being the perfect number in the mindset of first-century Jews….but I don’t really think this particular number matters all that much.  It’s not a password or a PIN number or an access code to deep mysteries.

I think Jesus hit upon 77 as the number of times we need to forgive someone, because if you even try to do that—to forgive someone 77 times--sooner or later you will lose track.  You will forget what the “count” is—in fact, you’ll probably chuck it all and simply stop bothering to keep score at all.

And then you will understand that the number “77” is a placeholder for “countless.”

“If another member of church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Peter asks.

And Jesus, in effect, says:  forgive count-lessly….forgive so many times you lose track of the score….forgive as God forgives….anything less than that will be the death of you…”

So now the question becomes less about arithmetic, and more about the very heart of forgiveness, and here’s where we hit pay-dirt.   Because at its core, the biblical notion of forgiving someone has to do with freedom….with setting someone  else free, and in the process yourself also being set free.

Because in God’s Word, the root-word for “forgiveness” conjures up the image of untying a knot.  

Have you ever been stuck, annoyingly delayed, trying to untangle a pesky knot in a thread, a shoelace, a cord, or a rope?   When that happens, time stands still.  Everything grinds to a halt until you untie that pesky knot.  

Then you are free.  Free to move on.   Free to be, once again.

THAT’s the picture I’d like to imbed in your brain, your heart, your soul today.   Forgiveness is about getting unstuck, it’s about untying a deadly knot in your life, it’s about moving out, moving ahead again into a vast sphere of freedom and a new future in which God intends for you to love and live and have your being. 

And freedom is what this day is about, isn’t it?

Freedom is the red thread that draws together all that’s on our minds on this September 11, 2011.

“Freedom” helps us understand the deep meaning of this accessible entryway that you have labored long and hard to make happen.  

I trust that you made this investment for the sake of freedom, freedom for everyone to find their way to this house of God, where the liberating Word and the future-opening Sacraments of our Lord Jesus Christ can be accessible to, available to ALL.

Several years ago, I was in another congregation of this synod—a church that had recently constructed their own accessible entryway—and the pastor told me about an elderly man who came to that church on dedication day, with tears streaming down his old wrinkled face.

That man proudly drove his motorized wheelchair up the street, onto the sidewalk and through the front door of his church—a sacred space he had not been in for decades….and now he could be where his heart had always longed to be, in HIS church, once again.

It was about freedom for that dear old soul—freedom from all the barriers that had tied him up in knots.   Freedom to feed again on the precious Gospel, as it was proclaimed from a pulpit he had not sat beneath for ages.

This day is about freedom—the “untying-the-knot” freedom that is Jesus’ specialty, God’s forgiveness that drives our sin away from us, as far as the east is from the west, that restarts the clock, that sets aside the stumbling blocks and other obstacles between us and God’s overflowing goodness.

And in a way, that red thread also ties us to the other story that’s on our minds this morning:  as we recall the tragedy of ten years ago, what for a decade we have called “9/11.”

Most of us who were alive in 2001 will remember where we were and exactly what we were doing on that fateful morning.

I was living in Redwood Falls, MN, where I had been on the synod staff for over a decade.   I was returning to my home from my morning workout at our community center….and as I got out of my car I caught just a word, just a phrase, about a building being hit by an airplane in New York City.  

When I got home, I dished up a bowl of breakfast cereal and went down to our family room to turn on the TV….and two hours later I noticed I still hadn’t eaten that bowl of breakfast cereal—so mesmerized was I, so “stuck” in watching the cascades of heart-rending images that poured forth from my television set.

9/11 was for many of us, the scariest day of our lives—the day we began to wonder if the whole world had gone mad, if everything we thought we could count on had simply evaporated.

It was easy, as I recall, easy to get stuck on 9/11:  stuck in our fears and anxieties and hatred for those who did this vile thing—murdering over 3,000 innocent Americans on one day, the worst attack on our homeland in our nation’s history.

But thank God, we did not remain stuck for long.   We roused ourselves, took action to restore a measure of safety and security to our lives, and brought justice to those who perpetrated this outrage.

But still, I wonder, if we Americans have truly gotten ourselves completely “unstuck” from the events of 9/11.   I wonder if at times we still allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear and anxiety, tied up in a quest for revenge that has taken us beyond the pursuit of justice, drawn ourselves into ourselves, made us less open to our neighbors, to the world, and to the future.

Our great country--and indeed every people and place on the face of the earth--we still all need to know what brings joy to the heart of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ….and that is the freedom that only God gives to us, the freedom that is centered in the astonishing forgiveness we have received and in which we are invited to live every day of our lives, in Jesus Christ.

It’s really the red thread that ties it all together this morning:  it’s about freedom.   God intends for us a life that is unshackled by paralyzing fears, smoldering resentments, and foreboding about the future.   Jesus came to untie all those “knots.”

And this freedom is meant to be shared, pure and simple.   I take that to be the central point of the parable of the two debtors that Jesus tells in the second part of our gospel lesson.   The freedom that comes from forgiveness is something for us to receive—but never to keep, for ourselves.  

Try to “freeze” it or hang on to it selfishly, and it melts in your hand.   Share it, as lavishly as God forgives you, and it keeps coming back to you, eleven-fold, a full measure heaped up, pressed down, and overflowing, right in your lap.

Freedom.   God created you for that.   And Jesus Christ is recreating you, even now, to bask in, to receive, and to pass on this freedom.   The freedom that is forgiveness.

In the name of Jesus.


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