September 17, 2017 Sermon
Exodus 14:19-31/ Matthew 18:21-35
New Vision for God’s People
When you hear the word ‘salvation’, what comes to your mind? Are you still haunted by the traditional church teaching that salvation means, if you believe in Jesus Christ as your personal saviour you don’t have to burn in hell? Ever since I started studying theology and struggling with my faith and what it means to me, doctrinal terms such as ‘salvation’ or ‘redemption’ started feeling different. Although these concepts require a lifelong struggle to understand, I remember FEELING the concept of salvation and liberation. It was my second Sunday worshipping with the United Church of Canada. I had just arrived in Montreal for my studies and attended St. James UC. My second Sunday at St. James was a communion Sunday. This pastor whom I didn’t know at the time was the pastor of the church because the previous Sunday we had a guest preacher, an old man with gray hair shared a story of a gay man and his struggle to be accepted. I knew about the United Church’s inclusive policies, but it was the first time I heard and felt the inclusive love of God extending to marginalized and stigmatized people. I felt something powerful inside me and started weeping during the sermon. Then I kept weeping through the Holy Communion because it was my first experience at a truly inclusive Lord’s Table. When I belonged to the United Methodist Church, I heard that everyone is welcome at the Lord’s Table; but the church’s ambiguous stance on the gay issue enabled a lot of individual pastors to reject gay people from membership and so on. My first Communion in the United Church of Canada, and listening to my first gay accepting sermon were overwhelming. That’s what salvation felt at that moment; God’s love that shows no partiality no matter who you are, and especially if you are marginalized. I thought, “This is why I, a hard core Methodist left the Methodist Church”, and experienced what liberation feels like.
We are listening to the story of Exodus these days, and finally in today’s text, the Israelites escape the Egyptians once and for all. They experienced liberation and salvation. But think about the circumstance in which they were liberated. So many Egyptians suffered and even died in the course of the ten plagues, and on this day of crossing the Red Sea, all the Egyptians who have been chasing the Israelites drowned. It makes us wonder, “Is this what God’s salvation looks like? Was it necessary to kill so many people along the way? Is it fair?” The Egyptian soldiers all drowning also reminds us of the many refugees and asylum seekers who risk their lives to cross the border. Some of them don’t make it. Mexicans crossing the border might die of hunger and thirst. Syrians escaping their country by sea might drown before reaching the other side. Of course, the Egyptians are not the desperate and oppressed people here, unlike our refugees; but it doesn’t change the fact that they are humans like anyone else. Is this how God saves faithful people? We should raise moral questions even while reading the Bible, because the Bible is full of troubling and conflicting messages. How can we discern God’s will in this chaos? I will tell you over and over again that our barometer for discerning God’s will in the midst of troubling and conflicting stories of the Bible is the gospel message. The teachings of Jesus is how we discern which other biblical lessons are God’s will and which ones are not. Then let’s take a look at what Jesus is teaching us through today’s gospel text.
Today’s gospel lesson is about forgiveness. When Peter asks Jesus, “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” he thought he was being extremely generous; since the rabbinic teaching says we should only forgive three times. The biblical foundation for this rule comes from the Book of Amos, where the prophet Amos declares a series of condemnations of various nations for three transgressions and then comes the punishment. Peter mentions seven times, and Jesus replies “seventy times seven.” Now shall we do math and get the exact number or shall we take it as hyperbole? Let’s take it as hyperbole. It’s like when we say, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Nobody will bring you a barbequed horse. It’s a way of saying, we should forgive without limit. Remember last Sunday we heard the message that we should not give up on each other. Then Jesus tells the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.
This parable teaches us first and foremost that one should forgive in order to be forgiven. But rather than understanding this as a condition for our forgiveness, think of it as a symbiotic relationship; as we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us.” But why should it be so? I want you to focus on the contrast between the two debts in this story. The first servant owed his master 10,000 talents. The total revenue of the provinces at the time was between 300 and 600 talents, depending on where you lived; so you can imagine how much money 10,000 talents is. What the fellow servant owed the first servant is 100 denarii; this is about one five-hundred-thousandth of his own debt. The point is that nothing anyone can do to us can in any way compare with what we have done to God. If God forgives us over and over again, we should treat our fellow humans the same way.
What is the vision for salvation that our gospel story teaches us? The salvation that is offered to God’s people through Jesus the Christ is based on never-ending compassion and unconditional love. God loved us unconditionally and accepted us into God’s family, and called us to follow the way of Jesus; this is God’s salvation. Following last Sunday’s lesson of handling our personal relationships with the love of God and prayer, today’s parable teaches us to forgive. Today’s text from the Romans teaches us not to judge one another. They both teach us that God’s kingdom is based on unconditional love, compassion, and equality. God doesn’t desire to save us at the cost of others’ destruction or misery. The vision for God’s people is based on the gospel teachings, and Jesus teaches us the principle of justice. The privilege of enjoying God’s love and reward for our faithfulness cannot come at the cost of others’ suffering. We cannot rejoice at our salvation while watching other people drown in the Red Sea. The new vision that God gives us as the members of God’s community is to live by the gospel teachings; compassion, inclusive love; extending our love and welcome to “the others”, who are marginalized or different from us. This is how we live together in God’s community. It is God’s commandment that we love one another without condition and discrimination, and with never-ending compassion. This is the vision that God’s people received from Jesus. Let us build our community based on this vision, and be the embodiment of the compassionate love of God.
Rev. Sunny Kim