On Unending Beginnings …

On Unending Beginnings …

On Unending Beginnings and Other Fruits of Forgiveness

September 17, 2023
Traceymay Kalvaitis

Psalm 103: 8-10

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.

Matthew 18: 21-35
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Today’s sermon is titled On Unending Beginnings and Other Fruits of Forgiveness.
For the past three days, our Jewish brothers and sisters have been celebrating the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah that mark the Jewish New Year. What perfect timing, it seems, to celebrate a new year as the plants and flowers that grew all summer are going to seed and fruit is ripening on the branches. My Friend and colleague Leaf Seligman writes that Rosh Hashanah “invites us into an unending beginning.”
Rosh Hashanah began on Friday at sundown and continues through Sunday. Rosh Hashanah is followed by the Ten Days of Awe that culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The running themes are as follows: acknowledgement of our shortcomings over the past year, asking for forgiveness, and working to make amends so we can be liberated from guilt and shame, experiencing atonement, or at-one-ment, with the love that is God.
If I were pressed to identify a teaching in the Second Testament that echoes the themes of Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Awe, and Yom Kippur, it would be the teaching we are given today from the 18th chapter of Matthew, so it is no wonder we are offered this text in our lectionary this week. What we have before us today is a profound example of radical forgiveness, the unending beginning that radical forgiveness can provide, and a sobering reminder of our innate human tendency to hold on to grievances, revisiting them over and over again, guarding them, and nurturing them until they grow into insatiable beasts, needing always to be fed with more and more negativity.
In this sermon today, I hope to impress upon us all that the essence of our work, as followers of Christ, is rooted in inner work…work of making amends, and releasing our guilt and our shame so that we nurture the ability to forgive others. The work is never-ending and it is the greatest gift we can give ourselves. I dare say it is the greatest gift we can give to the world. And church, my Friends, church is the place where we practice.
In a conversation I had earlier this week, I heard myself say that my highest hope for our community of faith is not how much we do for the community or how far our outreach extends. My highest hope for our community is that we become a place where we are known by our lovingkindness…lovingkindness to one another and to all, with no exceptions. I want our church to be a place where we can be accepted for who we with all our strengths and weaknesses and shortcomings, a place where we can feel safe in asking for forgiveness when we make mistakes, and a place where forgiveness is graciously granted…granted as Jesus says, in our reading today, “from your heart.”
Radical forgiveness is what I’m talking about. Radical forgiveness is what Jesus is talking about in the parable today. The forgiveness in this parable is hyperbolic. The slave owes his master the equivalent of 26 million dollars. He is forgiven his debt, but he obviously does not experience true forgiveness because he then turns right around and demands the equivalent of 100 dollars from another slave who is indebted to him. Jesus uses this hyperbole, this outrageous example, to reveal our human tendency to hold on to our grievances, to feed them and grow them until they become a force in and of themselves, preventing us from the one thing that might just be our greatest desire…entering and abiding in a state of grace.
It’s not easy to enter and abide in a state of grace. It takes humility, honesty, and perseverance. To enter into and abide in a state of grace requires us to acknowledge our past mistakes, make amends however we can, and let go of the guilt and shame that we carry because until we do, we, like the slave in our parable today, are merely slaves to the burdens we carry. The slave in our parable was given a great gift. His debt was forgiven and he was assured he would not be separated from his family, and yet he did not fully experience forgiveness. He did not gain access to the unending beginning that comes with fully experiencing forgiveness. Perhaps it is because he was still a slave, still a captive, and still living under oppression. He was not able to enter into and abide in the state of grace so he was unable to extend grace and mercy to another.
There is a difficult and valuable lesson here, Friends. The love that is God is like a river that is moving through this world and we can enter it at any moment. We can move along with it, and be carried by a current of grace and unconditional love unless we are weighed down. Things that weigh us down are clinging to guilt and shame over past mistakes and our judgment of one another that keeps us in a near-constant state of negativity and complaint.
How do we let go of our guilt and shame? Our Jewish brothers and sisters have a ritual of atonement known as Tashlich (tash-leekh) as part of the observance of Rosh Hashanah. Bread crumbs are gathered as a representation of whatever is separating us from allignment with God…our guilt and shame, the weight of our wrongdoings. These breadcrumbs are taken to an area of moving water and cast into it with a prayer. Here is a modern version of the traditional Tashlich, written by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat:
Here I am again ready to let go of my mistakes.
Help me to release myself from all the ways I’ve missed the mark.
As I cast this bread upon the waters, lift my troubles off my shoulders.
Help me to know that last year is over, washed away like crumbs in the current.
Open my heart to blessing and gratitude.
Renew my soul as the dew renews the grasses. Amen.
We have familiar prayers, too. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our tresspasses as we forgive those who tresspass against us.
In closing, I leave you with a fine example of right living I witnessed in a high-school student I taught nearly 20 years ago. Her name is Lilia Fick. She was raised in a Quaker family with very strong morals. As a young woman of 15, she was committed to never speaking about anyone in a negative way unless they were present. In addition, if someone else was speaking negatively about someone who was not present, Lilia would call it out and remind the group that such behavior was unnecessary and unfriendly. Last week we discussed Jesus’s teaching known as the “Rule of Christ,” remember? It was about speaking to someone directly if there was a conflict and if it could not be resolved, then take two others and try again. Try, try again, seventy times seven. May we never give up on one another, Friends. May we confront conflict with mercy and a willingness to find a resolution that leads ultimately to forgiveness. And may we take a lesson from that 15 year old Quaker and mind what we say about one another so that we are known for our lovingkindness. In our lovingkindness towards one another, we reflect the love that is God…the love made manifest in our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. So be it. Amen.

Pastoral Prayer

God of All, in the stillness of this place I pray that each one of us feels safe enough to reach farther, deeper in whatever direction leads us closer to your divine presence. In the words of your prophets we have been assured that your love lives within us, yet at times you feel so far away. In those times, Lord, help us to ask ourselves if we are actually the ones that distance ourselves from you. Then help us to find our way back home to the place where you are all that is. From that place, we find strength for the living of our lives and for helping those among us that are struggling. For those coping with illness, God, please comfort them. And for those facing death, grant them peace. In all we face in our everyday lives, help us remember the power of prayer. This we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.


I leave you with this 3000 year old blessing from the Old Testament book of Numbers, chapter 6:

“The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord let his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace.” Amen.