Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland
September 17, 2017 (Proper 19A): Exodus 14:19-31; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
It is truly wonderful to see all of you this morning. It is great to be home! Before my sermon, I want to begin by saying thank you for the sabbatical time and for your gifts and support that made it all possible. Special thanks to our wardens George Cooper and Sam Allen, the Rev. Sam Henderson, the Rev. Suzanne Roberts, Lynne England and the staff, volunteers and all of you who kept the cathedral’s mission and ministry alive and hopping while I was away. It was a blessing knowing St. Luke’s was in such wonderful hands. Thank you. I have missed you. It’s great to be back.
Much of my time was spent in travel, the most exotic being visiting my brother who lives in Vietnam and spending three weeks with him touring South East Asia. I am very aware that for many people the words “going to Vietnam” bring up powerful and not always positive emotions. As evidenced in the Ken Burns series that begins tonight, the impact the Vietnam War continues to ripple through our culture. The Vietnam I saw was a very different place than what you will see on PBS this evening. The Vietnam I saw was filled with people half my age who are surrounded by a booming economy with skyscrapers, highways, and infrastructure being built everywhere, and who, despite communist control, have capitalist aspirations and dreams. That said, the remnants of the Vietnam war and other South East Asian conflicts were ubiquitous and wherever I went I visited war museums, former prisons, and museums devoted to land mines and unexploded ordinance. Of those, a couple stand out. The first was in a place in Phnom Penh called the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. A former school, Tuol Sleng was one of a series of prisons created by Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. In that place, as many as 20,000 people were tortured, often to death. At the end of the tour, a man who had been imprisoned there met with visitors to tell his story. As he spoke, I learned that commandant who had run the prison was still alive. Filled with stories of the brutality he had done, I asked how that could be possible. The former prisoner looked me in the eye and said, “We are a Buddhist country. We don’t believe in the death penalty.” Peter came and said to Jesus, “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.
About a week later, I met a woman in Hanoi in Northern Vietnam, who had been a great help to my brother when he first moved there some 20 years ago. She described how her husband had suffered greatly under the North Vietnamese, then told of the day she heard the sound of American B52s coming and bombs going off when suddenly half the house and the rest of her family disappeared. I asked her if she was angry about those things. She leaned over, poured me some tea, and said “No.” All over Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, this kept happening. When people saw I was an American, they welcomed me, wanted to show me their country, share their culture and tell their stories. They truly seemed glad I was there. Peter came and said to Jesus, “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.
Forgiving does not mean forgetting. As in the case of the man in that prison I met, it may mean telling the story and doing everything you can to make sure what happened to you will never happen again. As in the case of that woman in Hanoi, forgiving does mean letting go of your anger and not letting the person or event have power over you anymore. Jesus tells Peter to forgive, not just for the other person, but for Peter himself. Jesus asks us to forgive because he wants us to heal. The number seven is symbolic of wholeness and the words Jesus used can be interpreted as 77 times or 70 times 7 times. It means a lot. How often should we forgive? Again and again and again.
I used my experiences in SE Asia because they are good stories, and exotic. Did you notice in this morning’s gospel that Peter’s question is about a brother or sister – or in our translation today, a member of the church? The point is that forgiveness, again and again and again – 70 times 7, begins with those closest to us. Jesus is talking about forgiveness in our families and in the church. Like the Israelites at the Red Sea or the people on the shores of Florida, you may have been through times when the waters were rising and it looked like everything was falling apart. Like them, you have survived. Like them you have been tasked with telling your story and making sure what happened to you won’t happen to others. Like them, you have a message of hope and healing, of Good News, and of God. The world needs your faith and your witness now more than ever. As Paul tells the Romans, the time to welcome others into the church is now. Are there hang-ups, resentments, regrets and feelings of anger that are holding you back? Paul’s comments about not worrying about special foods and special days say that it’s time let those things go. In the book “A Man Called Ove,” Ove had a long-standing feud with his best friend and full of resentments and anger… all of which disappear when his friend developed Alzheimer’s disease and needed help. How tragic that it took long. Though I have been away for several months, I have been involved with pastoral care, particularly around death and dying. Debba Curtis, Art Marcoux, Francis Maderia and Ross Hugo Vidal are each reminders of the truth in that favorite of blessings, “Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who make the journey with us.” We can’t do much gladdening of hearts, however, if our own is filled with anger toward someone who has done us wrong. Peter came and said to Jesus, “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. Wise words. Remember, they aren’t just for that other person. They are also for us.