Proper 19 Year A
September 17, 2017
When I was around 13 or 14 years old, my best friend’s father taught me to sail. Their family had two small sailboats, both Sunfish, which are small 14’ boats, designed ideally for just one person, or maybe an adult with a child or two. So, on Saturday mornings, we’d get up early, help load the boats onto the trailer and drive out to Lake Conroe for the day.
Being out on the water and in the sun was fun, of course. But actually learning the ins and outs of sailing, as opposed to just riding along, was a challenge. At all times, you had to note the wind direction and its changes; position your body weight just so, sometimes leaning in and other times hanging out over the water. You had to control the sail with one hand and the tiller with the other. And of course, you really needed to know when to duck under the boom and shift to the other side of the boat with every tack and gybe. I watched closely as my friend’s father did all of this with ease and experience, and I helped a little, lifting the daggerboard or tacking down the sail. But every time he asked me if I wanted to take the lead, to be captain of this tiny boat, I shook my head with a fearful, ‘No.’
So one day, we took the Sunfish out like usual, sailed far from any shoreline, and my friend’s father asked, again – for the umpteenth time - if I’d like to take over. As politely as I could, I demurred, and said “No thanks,” but just as those words left my lips, my friend’s father flopped into the water! That’s right, he had actually jumped out of the boat, and was floating in the water next to me, with his life preserver on, of course. It took me a minute to realize what was going on, until he shouted out, “Now, Sail!”
I had no choice. I was terrified at first; What if I capsized? Or couldn’t tack against the wind? What if another boat came too close? But then the wind caught my sail and off I went, leaning back against the tilt of the boat, picking up speed and confidence along the way . . . most importantly, though, feeling the incredible freedom that sailing can bring.
My friend’s dad gave me the gift of freedom, which came not just because he patiently taught me, over and over again, but also because he dared to jump out of the boat.
Now in today’s Gospel, essentially Jesus is jumping out of the boat, teaching Peter about the freedom of forgiveness. As you know, in all the Gospels, Jesus had a LOT to say about forgiveness. "Love your enemies." "Turn the other cheek." "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." And, Jesus didn’t just speak about forgiveness. He lived it. He even died it, offering a prayer of forgiveness, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” as he took his final breath. Jesus knew the freedom that forgiveness offers, and he wanted Peter – and us - to know that freedom as well.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Forgiving is hard. Perhaps it’s the hardest truth of our Christian life. We really don’t talk about it too much. But there are countless websites, self-help books, and blogs devoted to the topic. And I’m willing to bet that therapists make millions counseling people through the steps of forgiveness. But we don’t have to start at the top – with, for example, forgiving Hitler. Leaning into forgiveness begins with the little things. Forgiving the driver who cut you off in traffic. The teacher who used such harsh language. The co-worker who betrayed your trust. We learn to forgive, by doing it – and receiving it – multiple times a day, every day until finally, we learn that forgiveness isn’t a burden placed on us by God, but in fact a freedom given to us by God!
You see, forgiveness means "letting go," or in Aramaic, it means to "unbind.” It’s completely counter-cultural and I think, even counter-intuitive. But it’s this kind of forgiveness that connects us with the heart and freedom of God.
At first, Peter doesn’t even realize he’s being offered this gift of freedom. He tells Jesus, ‘Sure, I’ll forgive someone, but only seven times.” But that’s not it, Jesus tells him. That’s not the point. The point is to forgive seventy-seven times, or another translation says seventy times seven times, which is scripture’s way of saying: In the Kingdom of God, forgiveness is given often; forgiveness is given eternally; forgiveness is given freely.
Robert Capon, in his book, "Parables of Grace," describes this kind of forgiveness this way. “In (the kingdom of) heaven, there are only forgiven sinners." That’s what makes God’s grace so amazing! Because there are "no good guys, no upright, successful types who, by their own integrity or merit, have been accepted into the great country club in the sky. There are only those who have accepted their sins, and who have been raised up by the King himself who died that we might live."
Every one of us has implicitly and explicitly hurt others, and we are ALL in need grace and forgiveness. When we recognize this, it becomes a little easier to offer that grace and forgiveness to others. Start small. Learning and experiencing slowly. Then do it again, and again, and again. Before you know it, you’ll be sailing into an entire ocean of redemption, grace, and freedom. Amen.