Sunday, September 27, 2020

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21A)

September 27, 2020

Text: Matt. 21:23-32

            By what authority are You doing these things?  Who gave You this authority?  Just who do You think you are?  That is ultimately the question the Chief Priests and elders are asking this morning.  There is no question, Jesus has been teaching the people with authority, and not as their scribes (Matt. 7:29), who would cite all the varying opinions of the rabbis, but couldn’t give a firm answer to save their life.  And He acted with authority, healing diseases, cleansing lepers, casting out demons.  He had authority over life and death, raising the widow’s son, Jairus’ daughter, His dear friend Lazarus.  And He had the authority to forgive sins: “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven… But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins… Rise, pick up your bed and go home” (Matt. 9:2, 6; ESV). 

            Now our Lord has come into Jerusalem to the exultant cries of the people: “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matt. 21:9).  Behold, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey” (v. 5).  He is riding in to set things right.  He is riding in to die.  And the people spread their cloaks before Him, in deference to His authority.  He comes into the Temple like He owns them place.  He drives out those buying and selling and overturns the tables of the money-changers.  He upsets the whole system of righteousness by the Law, the big business of sacrifice.  ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” (v. 13).  And now it is Tuesday of Holy Week, and here Jesus is in the Temple, teaching the people with authority, as though there were nothing wrong with the events of the previous two days, and the Chief Priests and elders want to know: Just who do You think you are?

            For if Jesus has the authority to do these things, they do not have the authority.  Jesus has authority over them.  He’s a threat!  He is a threat to their power.  He is a threat to their way of life.  He is the true High Priest, the Good Shepherd, the Pastor, the King.  He is Messiah, the Son of God.  So there is only one thing to do to mitigate this threat.  Kill Him.  Who do you think You are?  We’ll show you the truth of it.  You are nobody.  You are nothing.  Not before our authority and power.  And to make this clear to all, we’ll crucify You.

            And what about you?  You understand, do you not, that as Jesus comes to you, He will drive out your own greed and lust and upset your own way of life, your whole system of self-righteousness?  When Jesus comes to you to make you His Temple, He comes in like He owns the place, and He teaches you with authority and expects that His Word will transform you.  It will break you down and be the death of you, that He may rebuild you in His own image and raise you to new life.

            If Jesus has such authority, you do not.  Jesus has authority over you.  And Old Adam understands, He is a threat!  He is a threat to Old Adam’s power.  He is a threat to Old Adam’s way of life.  He is the true High Priest who makes the sacrifice for your sins, to purchase you as His own, to live under Him in His Kingdom.  He is your righteousness.  Your own good works and sacrifices are not.  He is your Good Shepherd, which means you are His sheep.  He is your Pastor, and He insists that you hear His sermon.  He is your King, the Messiah, the Son of your God.

            What can you do to mitigate this threat?  Well, you cannot crucify Him anew.  That is over and done.  The sacrifice is complete.  But you can, as the Chief Priests and elders did, as did the Pharisees and the whole Jewish religious establishment, deny Him.  Reject Him.  Plug your ears to Him.  Not allow His Word free course.  In other words, refuse to repent and believe the Gospel. 

            The Chief Priests and elders rejected God’s preacher, St. John, and his baptism of repentance.  While they feared the crowds, who considered John to be a prophet, they would not acknowledge John’s authority from heaven.  So it is no surprise that, having rejected the preaching of God’s Word, they rejected the Word Himself as He came to them in the flesh.

            Now, understand, these were the great religious men of their day.  They were respected, revered as holy men.  But they were like the son in Jesus’ parable who said he would go and work the field, be faithful, be obedient, but did not go.  So it is with Old Adam when he poses as a pious Christian.  He says all the right things pertaining to faithfulness.  He positions himself as an upstanding citizen, perhaps even a regular Church-goer.  He even does some really good stuff that puts a shimmer and shine on his reputation.  But he will not hear this preaching of repentance.  For that would mean the death of him.  It would be to submit to an authority not his own.  And he will not receive Jesus as his righteousness and life, for that would mean a whole new creation emerging and arising to live in his place.

            The man who insists on living by his own authority, his own righteousness, his piety, and the illusion of autonomy…  The man who will not hear John’s preaching of repentance or follow his bony finger pointing to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world… That man will be shocked to see tax collectors and prostitutes entering the Kingdom of God before him.  For real sinners know what they are.  They know who they are and they know what they’ve done.  There is no denying it.  So they simply confess it.  They make no claim to any authority of their own in spiritual matters.  They’re just desperate to be saved.  And John points them to the only One who can do it, and there He is, arms extended to receive them as His own and eat with them.  He teaches them what it is to belong to Him, and He forgives their sins.  And He has authority to do it.  To that the miracles attest. 

            These tax collectors and prostitutes, these sinners, are like the son who says he will not go and work.  After all, they went their own way.  They broke the Commandments of God.  They lived and unclean life.  And that is sin, make no mistake about it.  But that’s just it.  They confess it as such.  They don’t dress it up.  They don’t try to excuse it.  They hear and believe the preaching.  Repent and behold the Lamb of God who takes away your sin.  And they do.  They run to Him.  They follow Him.  They go the way of faithfulness.  They go out into the field.  Which son did the will of his father?  The one who went and did the work.  Who does the will of our heavenly Father?  The great religious men of the day?  Or the tax collectors and prostitutes who repent and believe the Gospel?  It is the repentant sinners! 

            The reality is, they are all sinners.  There are no great religious men.  There are only sinners who confess their sins, and sinners who deny their sins.  It is better to confess them and run to Jesus for forgiveness, for that is the will of your Father in heaven.  To deny your sins means death.  To confess your sins, and hear and believe the forgiveness of your sins in Jesus, that means life. 

            This happens when the authority of Jesus takes possession of you in the preaching of His Word.  It is a complete renovation.  You are crucified with Christ.  In Baptism, you die with Him.  As He died on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins, you now die to your sins within yourself.  Your whole way of life is turned upside down.  It is Jesus in the Temple all over again.  But so also, in Baptism, you are raised with Christ.  You are His New Creation.  The old has passed away.  The new has come.  He already gives you His life as He teaches you and feeds you with His Body and Blood.  And there is the Promise of the resurrection of the body on that great Day. 

            And He has the authority to do it, because He is risen from the dead.  That is the answer to the question posed by the religious leaders this morning.  Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly in our text.  No, the answer must wait for the great surprise ending of the Gospel.  They crucify Him, dead and buried.  But on the Third Day He rises from the dead!  And if there is any doubt as to His authority, it is annihilated in that earth-shattering moment.  Who do you think you are?  I AM the Risen One, Jesus says.  And “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18).  By what authority are you doing these things?  And who gave you this authority?  God did.  I do these things by the authority my Father has given me.  And I now bestow that authority upon my disciples, my Church.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (vv. 19-20).  And these are now the marching orders for the holy Church, for you and I, beloved.  Upset the whole world.  Turn the whole thing on its head.  Preach my Word.  Take them captive with my Gospel.  Do it with all my authority.  For “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  So we preach.  So we believe.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.              

Monday, September 21, 2020

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20A)

September 20, 2020

Text: Matt. 20:1-16

            The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” Well, it’s not like anything that would really happen in the kingdoms of men.  This is where we go wrong with the parables.  You have heard it said that a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.  As I’ve told you before, that doesn’t quite capture it.  A parable is rather a ridiculous earthly story by which we learn that the Kingdom of Heaven turns everything on its head, upside down, the first are last, the last are first, the Least is the greatest, the greatest are the least.  The rich go away empty and the hungry are filled with good things.  The despised and weak and foolish are the instruments of God.  The mighty are cast down from their thrones.  Those who work hard and bear the heat of the day get no more than those who work very little, and those who work very little get no less than those who have labored for hours.  They all receive of the Master’s generosity.  By grace.  Which is, by definition, unearned, undeserved.  The Master’s treatment of His workers isn’t fair by any earthly standard.  The Union would strike.  The media would breathlessly cover the scandal.  Congress would pass legislation.  We’d all agonize and argue about it endlessly.  And God says, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9; ESV).  We always think we’d make a better god than God.  Beloved in the Lord, repent.

            When it comes to the Kingdom of Heaven, the point isn’t how long and hard you’ve worked, but that you’ve been called into it.  By grace.  This is what the laborers who worked all day missed about the Master’s generosity.  They, too, were standing by the roadside unemployed and penniless.  And the Master sought them, came to them, found them, called them into His Vineyard, gave them to work in it and to share in His abundance.  Not content, however, to limit His generosity to those who were called in the early hours of the day, He went out again in the third, the sixth, the ninth, and the eleventh hours.  He sought, He found, He called those who were standing there idle, with nothing of their own, to come into His Vineyard and share in His abundance.  Whether they worked all day, or only one hour, the point is, He called them.  That’s grace.  That’s God.

            God sent His Son into the world to redeem sinners, to redeem you, by His holy precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death.  In the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Kingdom of Heaven comes to man.  The Vineyard is planted, the Church.  And the Holy Spirit is sent to call sinners by the Gospel, enlighten them with His gifts, sanctify and keep them in the Vineyard, which is to say, work in them to will and work for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13) and to remain in the Church where He daily and richly forgives their sins and gives them eternal life and salvation.  The Word is the call.  The preaching of the Gospel is God’s call to come into His Vineyard, to work it, and to receive of His abundance.  Many of you, myself included, were blessed to be called from the beginning of the day, when your parents and sponsors brought to you to Holy Baptism and raised you here in the Vineyard, week after week in Divine Service and Sunday School and Catechism Class and home devotions and prayers.  God be praised for that.  That is a gift. 

            The temptation, though, is always to think of it as a work, something that makes you special, more impressive, more Christian.  This is especially a temptation for those who plant mission congregations.  I’ve heard it many times from many Missouri Synod Lutherans: I was here from the start.  My children were baptized here, confirmed here, married here.  And I intend to be buried here.  Nothing is wrong with that as it stands.  Thank God for that.  It shows a great love for your congregation.  My grandfather and my dad and their fellow Lutheran patriarchs built my home Church building from the ground up with their bare hands.  I love the stories about that, and I love that congregation, and that building will always be my home.  God-willing, our children and grandchildren will say the same about us generations later when they sit in the pews or sip their coffee in the fellowship hall of Augustana Lutheran Church, Moscow, Idaho.  But at some point, it becomes a matter of pride, doesn’t it?  Rather than thanksgiving for God’s grace in calling us into the Church in the first place?  And those of us who were baptized as little babies forget how helpless and useless we were to God when He brought us into the Vineyard.  But He called us and He brought us in by grace.  And He pays us, all His riches, not because we’ve earned them by our work, but because He is good.  He is generous.  He delights to give us gifts.

            Others came into the Vineyard later.  A friend invited them to Church, or their grandparents brought them.  Someone gave them a Bible and told them about Jesus.  Maybe that’s your story.  Whether it happened when you were a child, a teenager, middle aged, or elderly, it happened by God’s grace.  It was the Holy Spirit calling you by the Gospel.  And it does happen, and I’ve seen it myself, that the Holy Spirit calls by the Gospel and a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ at the eleventh hour, which is to say, on their death bed.  The classic example is the thief on the cross, to whom Jesus promised, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).  He didn’t just hear the Gospel, he saw it happen before his very eyes.  And here he was, this thief, justly dying for his crimes, while next to Him an innocent Man, his Savior, his God, was dying for his forgiveness and eternal life.  And when the thief breathed his last and died on his cross, he opened his eyes in the heaven won for him by Jesus on His cross.

            In my case, I was a young seminary student when I met a woman, the sister of a member of my summer vicarage congregation, who had been hospitalized with a violent illness that turned out to be pancreatic cancer, stage 4.  She asked the pastor to come, and I came along for the ride.  She had been baptized as a child in a different denomination, but hadn’t been to Church as an adult.  She turned her back on the faith.  Now it turned out she had days to live.  And she wanted to know how it was between her and God.  Could anything be done to save her?  Even her?  Even after all she’d thought and said and done against Him?  Here the sun was setting and she stood alone on the side of the road, idle, without a good work to her name. And the pastor, sent by God, was given to tell her the life-giving news: Something had already been done to save her, even her, after all she’d thought and said and done against God.  Jesus died for her.  Jesus died for the forgiveness of all her sins.  And He lives for her, and loves her, and is with her.  She is not alone.  She will not die apart from Him.  He is risen from the dead and gives her eternal life.  And then the pastor asked her, “Do you believe this?”  “Yes,” she said from her hospital bed, tears in her eyes.  “Do you want me to be your pastor?” he asked.  “Yes,” she said, as she nodded with what little strength she could muster.  This was the sum of her Confirmation ceremony in the Lutheran Church.  “Do you want to receive Jesus’ body and blood in the Lord’s Supper today, the body and blood given and shed for you, for your forgiveness and life?” the pastor asked.  “Yes,” she sighed with more tears, and cathartic relief, and even joy, from her deathbed.  And so she received her first Communion. 

            As a post-script to the story, she was soon moved home with hospice care where Pastor and I visited her daily, several time a day, to speak the Gospel into her ears and heart, and Pastor communed her as long as she could swallow.  Pastor was out of town one afternoon as I visited her by myself, green seminarian that I was.  “I’ll be back this evening,” I said.  I had to teach Bible study.  When I got back to the Church the phone rang.  The angels had taken her home to Jesus.  And she shines brighter than many life-long Missouri Synod Lutherans, for she knows, and she knew before she departed to be with Christ, that this is all by grace, all unearned, undeserved mercy and kindness because the Lord is good.  She’ll be with us today at the Supper.

            Now, the Lord does bring us into the Vineyard to work it.  There are works to be done.  Good works are necessary, as our confessions remind us, but they are not necessary for salvation.  Still, we are to do them.  The unhappy laborers in the parable did not understand that they weren’t earning the denarius with their work.  They weren’t earning anything, anymore than those who worked the one hour.  That’s why everyone got a denarius.  They didn’t earn it.  The Master gave it.  Freely.  Out of His goodness.  To those who worked and to those who didn’t.  Rather, they were in the Vineyard because the Master called.  At whatever hour.  At whatever time, whatever place.  He called.  He brought them in.  And yes, He bid them work.  But they were already in the Vineyard. 

            Here we learn the order of faith and works.  Faith is God’s gift.  He brings you to faith by grace, by His call, by the Gospel.  And you have all of the Master’s riches by grace.  And then, after all of that is true, He gives you work to do.  Love your neighbor.  Provide for his needs.  Give him a Bible and tell him about Jesus and invite him to Church.  Start a mission congregation and build a Church building.  Raise your children in the faith and to be good citizens.  Go to your job and do it faithfully.  Vote.  Drive the speed limit.  Give a big tip to your waitress.  Be generous, because the Lord, the Master of the Vineyard, is unfailingly generous to you.  Trust in Him.  Have no other gods before Him.  Call upon Him in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.  And get to Church to gladly hear and learn His Word.  That’s the work He’s given you to do.  Don’t keep track of it.  Don’t compare your work with that of others.  You aren’t earning anything.  You’re doing what members of the Master’s Household do.  But you are a member of the Household, by grace.

            That’s finally what it’s all about.  The Master didn’t just hire you to be cheap labor.  He called you to be a member of His Household!  To live with Him and be His own!  To inherit the Vineyard!  Now, here is the warning.  Those who want what they have coming to them, what they’ve earned, will get just that.  A few temporal rewards for outward good works maybe, but no place in the House.  They will be told to depart.  Take what belongs to you and go,” the Master says (Matt. 20:14).  But here is the comfort.  Those who know they have received what they have not earned, who know that the Master gives from His generosity, by grace, are not told to take what belongs to them, and they are not told to go… They belong here, with the Master, in His Vineyard!  Beloved in the Lord, that is you!  At whatever hour of the day you were called, however hard or much you’ve worked, or not worked, you are here.  By grace.  Because the Holy Spirit called you by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who purchased you for the Father, to be His own child.  Not because you are good or useful or doing Him any favors.  But because He is good.  And He loves you.  And here in His Vineyard, in His Church, you are home.  Yes, even you.  That is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19A)

September 13, 2020

Text: Matt. 18:21-35

            “Pastor, I just can’t forgive that person for what he did to me.”  Now, I’m not quoting any one of you in particular.  I’m quoting a whole bunch of you in particular.  Which is to say, this is a common struggle for Christians.  You know you should forgive.  There is the Commandment in red letters in your Bible, from the lips of the Lord Jesus Himself: When it comes to forgiving your neighbor who sins against you, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22; ESV).  And the point is not to keep track until your neighbor has sinned against you 490 times, and then you’re off the hook.  The point is, don’t keep track.  Your supply of forgiveness for your neighbor should be bottomless, as your Lord’s is for you.  But that’s a tall order.  It isn’t easy.  In fact, it’s downright impossible.  Some wounds are so deep, they simply hurt no matter how hard you try to get past the offense.  You have all the good intentions in the world.  You want to forgive.  You want to get past it.  But the pain won’t go away.  So, “Pastor, I just can’t do it.  It’s impossible.”

            And you know what?  You’re right!  You can’t!  Not by your own power.  Not by any amount of effort on your part.  I mean, yes, you can form the words to say to your neighbor, “I forgive you,” and you should say those words.  But deep down, where the hurt resides, you know you’re having trouble with it.  And Jesus’ command is absolute: “forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35; emphasis added)!  Beloved, I’m not going to mince words when it comes to the Law in this text.  You should and you must forgive your neighbor who sins against you, from your heart, from the deepest part of you, as your Lord has forgiven you.  Insofar as you have not, or will not forgive, that is sin.  Repent.  Turn.  Confess it to Jesus.  And then hear and believe what He says to you in response: “I forgive you… I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.” 

            The Commandment gives you no power to do what it says.  But this Holy Absolution does.  For when God forgives you all your sins, fully and freely, for Christ’s sake, the whole situation has been transformed.  Everything has changed.  Including and most especially you.  You have been re-created.  You have been brought to new life.  After all, remember that Confession and Absolution is always a return to the baptismal font where the old you is drowned and the new you emerges and arises to live in Christ.  It is rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says (Titus 3:5).  The you that cannot or will not forgive is the old you, whom you crucify daily in repentance.  The you in Christ, forgiven of all sin, now lives in that forgiveness.  And that is an entirely new situation.  That is the new way of life in God’s Kingdom.  And that now defines all your relationships: your relationship to God, your relationship to others. 

            Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving servant to illustrate this point.  The King… that is, God… wishes to settle accounts with His servants… that is, you at the Judgment.  Now we zero in on one servant in particular.  He owed the Master, the King, ten thousand talents.  The amount has been variously calculated by scholars, and it is hard to find agreement, but the best estimation I’ve read is that a talent equals about twenty years’ wages for a laborer.  So think about that.  Ten thousand talents equals about 200,000 years of labor!  And the point is, there’s no hope of working this debt off in a lifetime, no matter how hard or long you work!  The servant, obviously, has earned hard time in slavery or debtors’ prison, the Master’s condemnation, which is to say, hell.  And that is you, isn’t it?  Your sins have placed you in unimaginable debt to God!  You couldn’t pay it if you lived 200,000 years and worked every moment of it.  So if the debt is to be dealt with, there is only one solution.  Forgiveness!  And that is what God does.  He cancels the debt.  For you.  For all.  He wipes the slate clean.  With the very blood of His Son, Jesus Christ.  What a relief!  What freedom!  What joy!  You shall not die, but live.  And not a cent is required of you.  All is forgiven.  Your account has been paid in full.  By God.  By grace alone.

            But the servant in the parable is an example of what you don’t do with such grace.  He goes and finds a fellow servant who owes him a hundred denarii.  Now, this is no small amount.  A denarius is a day’s wage, so a hundred denarii is a hundred days of labor.  But it’s not unpayable.  I went to college, and then seminary, so I’ve been in for that much several times over.  There are various ways you could calculate this using the average daily wage in America, but let’s say a hundred days’ pay is about $12-13 thousand.  Well, you can hardly buy a decent used car for that.  So, the point is, the debt is payable given time, unlike the first servant’s debt, which the Master has forgiven.  But this ungrateful servant will not forgive the smaller, manageable debt of his fellow-servant.  He chokes him and demands immediate payment.  And even though the fellow-servant uses the same words as the first servant, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you” (Matt. 18:29), he refuses and throws the poor guy into prison until the debt is paid.  And the thing about debtors’ prison is, the keepers have ways of motivating family and others who care about the prisoner to come up with the money.  Hard labor, of course.  Starvation.  Torture.  So this is a pretty cruel thing. 

            So what is going on with that first servant?  He is refusing to live in the new reality created by the Master where sins are forgiven and debts are released.  He doesn’t understand how extraordinary the Master’s mercy is toward him.  If he did, it would mold and shape his dealings with others.  He would go and extend that same mercy toward his neighbor.  He would say to himself, “Here I am, and my Master has totally forgiven my unimaginable debt that I could never hope to repay, and not only that, He continues to take care of me, and even gives me a place in His home and His Kingdom as a member of the family.  Therefore, surely I can extend the same mercy toward those who are in debt to me.  I can forgive, as I have been forgiven.”  But he doesn’t.  He won’t.  And what is the result?  You wicked servant!  I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (vv. 32-33).  There is only one alternative now.  If you will not live in the new reality of mercy and forgiveness, then you must live in the old reality of exacting justice.  To prison with you, and you will not get out until you pay the last penny!  Which is to say, never.  He’s condemned to the prison forever, because he’ll die before he’s able to pay!

            Don’t be like him!  Look, you live in the new reality created by your Master, our God, who erases your debt with the blood and death of Jesus Christ.  Your sins are forgiven!  All of them!  And it is an unimaginable debt.  Not just 200,000 years’ worth.  An eternity’s worth!  But it’s all gone, taken by Jesus, who fulfilled the Law for you, who suffered and died for your sins, who is risen from the dead and declares you righteous with His own righteousness.  And if that is not enough, He gives you His own status as God’s own child, a citizen of God’s Kingdom, with a place in His House and at His Table.  You call God, “Father,” and Jesus is your Brother.  That is a pretty amazing thing. 

            Whatever your neighbor has done against you, it pales in comparison with the debt God has forgiven you.  I know you are hurting.  I understand you struggle to let go and move on.  But you can do it, and you should.  Because you now live in the new reality of the crucified and risen Jesus.  You are baptized into Christ.  God’s forgiveness changes who you are: You are one who is forgiven for Christ’s sake.  You are one who forgives for Christ’s sake.

            But how to do that, practically… that is the difficulty, isn’t it?  Well, the first thing to recognize is that forgiveness is not a feeling.  Certainly, your feelings should catch up with forgiveness, and bad feelings toward another person are sinful and you should repent of them.  But feelings are not the essence of forgiveness.  That is why you should simply start by saying the words: “I forgive you.”  Because the word of Absolution is the essence of forgiveness.  It is a declaration, a decision, followed by action.  This is simply what you say in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  As I’ve said to you many times, when you pray this petition, you are not telling God to follow your example in forgiving you as you have forgiven others, nor are you earning God’s forgiveness by forgiving others.  In the Prayer, you are asking God to forgive you, and announcing that as a result of God’s forgiveness, you hereby forgive all those who have sinned against you.  You actually absolve your neighbor every time you pray the Lord’s Prayer.  That is one reason it is especially important that we pray this Prayer before we go to Communion together.  We are declaring that we don’t hold anything against anyone else in this congregation.  We are one Body, at peace in Christ. 

            And then you follow up the words with action.  You love and serve your neighbor.  Yes, even the one who hurt you.  You pray for him.  You seek his good.  You speak well of him, and refuse to speak evil of him.  You don’t give him the cold shoulder.  Even when you feel like it.  You extend to him the kindness and mercy you yourself have received from Christ.  This is not to say there may not be some earthly consequences to your neighbor’s sin.  If someone, God-forbid, hurts your child, you’re not going to ask him to babysit next week.  There may be civil penalties for some sins, like fines and jail time.  Nor is it to say you’ve forgotten it, as in, you can’t even remember it.  Of course you are aware that the thing happened.  But it is to say, you seek peace with the person, and as far as possible you do not hold their sin against them.  You don’t keep bringing it up.  You ask God to do what is best for all concerned, including the offender, and that is what you seek in your words and actions. 

            Now, you will struggle with this in this earthly life, and that is especially true when it comes to your emotions.  Forgiving your neighbor from your heart takes a lifetime of practice.  But that’s just it.  Forgiveness is not a one-and-done action or event.  It is a totally new way of life.  It is an all-new you.  So when you have trouble forgiving someone, here is what you are to do.  Look at a crucifix, or read our Lord’s Passion in the Gospels.  He suffered all that for you, and He suffered it for your neighbor.  You are both forgiven in Christ.  And that frees you from all that binds you up.  Pray the Lord’s Prayer with your neighbor in mind, and then say the words to him: “I forgive you for Jesus’ sake.” 

            Recognizing that you are both fellow servants in the Master’s Kingdom, both sinners forgiven an unimaginable debt, changes your whole perspective.  It is a new, cross-shaped reality.  God forgives you all your sins.  That is the vertical reality.  Therefore you forgive one another.  That is the horizontal reality.  And so your whole life is marked by the cross and lived under the shadow of your Lord’s outstretched arms.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.