“Let It Go!”
(From Romans 14: 1-12 and Matthew 18: 21-35)
One of the first disagreements I had with my sophomore-year college roommate was over the correct way to make a bed. My roommate had learned to make a bed by simply pulling the bedspread up and over the pillow, while I had been taught to tuck the bedspread neatly under the pillow, and then to bring it up and over the pillow for a more “finished” look. Side-by-side, the beds each looked a bit different, yet neither of us was willing to change our own way of making our bed. I discussed this “burning” issue with my Mother, and it was then that I learned a valuable life lesson—that things in life are not always either right or wrong, they are simply different. What can be done regarding such matters? I was told by Mom, “nothing,” because each way of doing things gets them done equally well, just not the same. This fell into the category of disputable matters, along with such matters as whether toilet tissue should be hung over or under the roll. I was advised by my Mother that it would be in my own best interest and personal growth to take a breath and then, “let it go.”
Our lessons from Romans and Matthew today may seem to share different messages for our learning and spiritual growth, but I submit that if we look at them more closely, we will find that they are more similar than we may have initially thought. Each of them deals with matters of dispute and how we, as Christians, should best handle them.
In Chapter 14 of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul discusses the topic of differences in beliefs and traditions among members of the church. “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters,” Paul admonishes believers. The disputable matters refer to such things as observing particular holy days to the Lord, and whether to eat or to abstain from eating certain foods. Paul’s letter reminded his followers that they should place no stumbling blocks between themselves over disputable differences such as these. Instead, he asks believers to allow one another the space and grace to follow the practices they feel are most appropriate for the upbuilding of their own faith without harshly judging differences in the practices of others. Basically, Paul told his followers to “let it go.”
In Matthew Chapter 18, Jesus shares a parable with his followers in response to Peter asking him how many times one must forgive someone who sins against them. “Up to seven times?” he asks. Jesus turns Peter’s question on its ear, stating that one must forgive, not seven times, but up to seventy times seven times. Here, Jesus was not trying to specify 490 as the hard and fast forgiveness number. Jesus was trying to help Peter to understand that forgiveness, letting go of offenses, was a greater matter than he had ever imagined. Thus, the story that follows was Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question framed within his famous “parable about God’s kingdom” format.
The “Parable of the Unforgiving/Unmerciful Servant” is quite direct in its story line and meaning. A king was settling his accounts with his servants. One servant owed him ten thousand talents (each talent is equal to about 110 pounds of gold, so some big bucks!), and was ordered to be sold, along with his family, as he could not pay the debt. The servant fell upon his knees and begged the king for mercy. This moved the king to pity, and he forgave his servant the debt he owed. A short time later, the same servant came upon another servant who owed him 100 denarii (a denarius is worth about $3.62, so about $362.00). He grabbed the man by the throat and demanded him to pay what he owed. The servant pleaded with him, as he had done with the king. But unlike the king, the servant would not forgive what was owed to him, and he had the servant thrown into prison. When the other servants learned what the slave had done, they ran to tell the king. The king was very displeased at the lack of mercy the servant he had forgiven of is debt showed to another indebted to him. He had the unforgiving slave handed over to be tortured until he repaid the debt he owed. In a like manner, Jesus told his followers, God would show the mercy to them that they showed toward others.
The message of this parable is simple and clear, but can often be anything but easy for us to implement. Jesus used a tangible issue, a monetary debt owed, as a symbol of the many other means of indebtedness that occur within the course of our lives. Although the means of indebtedness may vary, Jesus’ message remains the same—we must show others the same mercy that we have been shown by our king, our God, for our many debts of sin. As those who have received grace upon grace in exchange for our sin, we are called by Christ’s message to follow his example. We are called to show mercy to those who sin against us—as many as seventy time seven times, we need to take some space, give some grace, and let it go.
It may surprise you to learn that the founder of our denomination, John Wesley, preached to the people of his time about differences of opinion and belief—about the so-called disputable matters. Life in eighteenth century England came complete with disputes about such religious matters as whether certain humans were predestined and elected by God to be saved, or, whether we receive, as a gift of God, the will to choose to accept God’s grace and to live according to God’s plan. In John Wesley’s sermon, “The Lord Our Righteousness,” preached in November of 1765, he addressed the matter of these differences and disputes among believers in this manner: “If there were a difference in opinion, where is our religion if we cannot think and let think?” He basically said that we, as believers, should choose the loving way of Christ, and let it go.
This past Friday was the 19th anniversary of the horrific events of 9/11/2001. It is a day we all remember. I was at my doctor’s office waiting to be treated for a case of bronchitis. I saw the events unfold on a tiny TV screen in the corner of the waiting room. I recall thinking that I was watching a movie until a news correspondent I recognized revealed that the horrific scene was a reality, as the Twin Towers became engulfed in flames and began to tumble down into a stunned city. This death and massive destruction terror came about as the result of a suicide mission carefully planned and executed by a group of Islamic extremists known as al Qaeda. They changed America and Americans that day in ways we could not possibly have imagined. Unresolved conflict resulting from socio-political and religious differences became a wedge driven between nations, and violence was waged directly upon American soil. The tangible and emotional shockwaves still resonate within us today. We are still grieving the tragic losses suffered when God’s people, people of deep personal faith and conviction, cannot resolve matters of dispute by peaceful negotiation and long established diplomatic means of international conflict resolution rather than with weapons of war and mass destruction. We live in the real world, and we recognize that all disputes are not simple matters to resolve. Complex matters require long term means of resolution. Folks can dig in and grasp their own beliefs and convictions so tightly that they are not open to grace moments that are possible only when, in love, the familiarity of comfort zones and needing to win gives way to the mercy and grace of searching for mutual understanding and common ground—a means of learning to let it go.
Church, we are all well aware of the trying times in which we are living. Our differences, be they in religious beliefs, ethnicity and race, gender identity and sexuality, or political affiliation have led us to disputes, and the disputes to separation, aggravation and, ultimately, to the point of altercation. Jesus said it, Paul and John Wesley echoed it, and today, dear friends, we need to embrace it anew—the love of Christ that calls us to make the conscious choice for love, for grace, and for mercy and forgiveness in resolving disputable maters. If we do not learn the lessons that the past, both distant and recent has taught us, we will continue to live in a world of separation and the despair of our unresolved disputing. Today, I ask you to listen carefully, to listen to the still small voice in the message of Christ calling you to love others as he so loves you. It takes courage to swim upstream in peace against the tide of our times. Christ is with you, and we are all called to work at this process of growing in mercy together. It is not the easy way; it is the way of love, the way of God’s grace and radical hospitality, the way that begins when we seek to forgive the debts of others, and instead choose to let it go. Amen.
Many gifts, one Spirit, one love known in many ways. In our difference is blessing, from diversity we praise one Giver, one Lord, one Spirit, one Word, known in many ways, hallowing our days. For the Giver for the gifts. Praise, praise, praise! (“Many Gifts, One Spirit” – words and music, Al Carmines, 1973)