21Peter 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?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. (Read the whole passage)
I wonder what was going through the minds of the Israelites standing on the banks of the Red Sea… an army chasing them down from behind and turbulent waters ahead of them. No good options, only bad ones.
Here we are, into month 7 of this global pandemic, and it feels strange to be preaching again about a virus… and yet this illness that spreads so easily and makes just enough folks really sick has changed life and the way we live it. It is in the news every day, it has become an important factor in nearly every decision we make from how to buy groceries, to visiting with family, to going to work or school or even coming to church.
We have been walking along side the stories of God’s people during this entire pandemic in a new way, a way different from before when we likely felt degrees of separation from the struggle. Again and again we have found the world and story that we have been living out in real time is one that is already told and experienced in the bible. From Abraham and Sarah and their descendants making their way in the wilderness, to the disciples cluelessly following Jesus, to Moses and the Israelites preparing to escape Egypt.
We are firmly in the back half of this long season of green. 15 Sundays into Ordinary Time, and there are only ten or so left before we flip the calendar on a new church year in Advent. Yet, even now, those ten weeks seem like they are still a lifetime away, the predictability of our lives has been taken from us as we wait each day to hear whether or not this pandemic thing is getting better or worse.
Along side the the story of the Israelites feeling Egypt’s armies and crossing through the parted waters of the Red Sea, Peter asks Jesus how many times ought he to forgive. Peter’s guess was a number he thought to be quite generous. 7 times. But Jesus responds by multiplying that number 70 times 7. Which is not to say 490 times, but forgiveness ought to be offered more times than Peter imagines possible.
There is something about the Israelites standing on the brink of destruction or disaster that goes with Peter’s question about forgiveness.
As the people of Israel, the community of God’s people stood there on the banks of the seashore, the feeling of helplessness and defeat must have been overwhelming. There was no good choice to make, only bad options. Options that both include death for many. Death at the hands of Egyptians soldiers, or death in the waters.
In the same way as Peter considers forgiveness, he too stands between hard choices. Forgiveness really exists at the edge of a difficult choice, to let go of harms and wrongs done. Does forgiveness condone bad behaviour? Does it simply allow for more harm and abuse? Or does not forgiving hold us in bitterness and judgment, in resentment and anger? There is no easy answer or obvious choice.
The people of Israel and Peter are standing at the precipice of bad options and choices all around. Not dissimilar to where we are stand theses days. We too have been struggling with how to move forward in life when there are are only bad and unsatisfactory options all around us. Do we stay home or risk seeing family and friends for the sake of mental health and wellbeing. Do we go back to workplaces and jobs risking exposure but needing to support businesses and the economy? Do we send children to school with untold numbers of contacts or do we risk their growth, learning and development.
And of course, do we begin gathering in-person for ministry and worship as churches once again? Is the community that we share in this place worth the risk of transmission? Do the restrictions placed on how we worship (masks, no singing, no visiting, socially distant and brief) justify the effort to be together inside of a beloved church building and church home?
Today, the Lord God of Israel and Jesus the Christ offer third options. A parting of the waters, a new and unexpected pathway to salvation. An understanding of forgiveness that expands far beyond what seems generous and reasonable at first.
Yet, as Moses raises his staff and hands over the sea and the waters part… I am not so sure that stepping into the newly revealed sea bed would have felt any safer. I don’t think I would have been the first to follow the path between the two walls of water, not knowing if or when they might come crashing down. Salvation and rescue doesn’t always feel low-risk and secure. Being safe isn’t always comfortable.
Yet, as Jesus speaks of forgiveness beyond what Peter can imagine, forgiveness that is not just generous but abundant and lavish. Forgiveness that extends beyond close friends and family, that is given for the whole community, for all of creation… I am not sure I would want to walk away from the ability to hold others accountable, to hold them in my judgment… who knows how that might be taken advantage of. Letting go my judgment and resentment doesn’t feel natural or straight forward. Setting feelings and gut instincts and coping mechanisms aside isn’t easy.
Yet, the Lord God of Israel brings the people through the waters to safety to other side and on their way to the promised land.
Yet. Christ goes to the cross and even while hanging there in the final judgment of humanity, prays for mercy and forgiveness for all of us.
For you see, God reveals something beyond our impossible choices, beyond the risk of armies and raging waters. God pours out forgiveness, release from judgement and condemnation that cannot fathom.
God invokes options and futures that we cannot conceive of. Christ shows us the way to abundant new life beyond ourselves, and beyond what feels safe.
And for us, for the church as we face a world full of bad options, full of risks and stress and anxiety about what the right thing to do is, God is working among us already, parting waters that will send us on our way to the promised land – there just might be 40 years in the wilderness first.
And Christ is exhorting us to forgiveness knowing that resurrection and new life have begun already in our world, even if the cross of Good Friday comes first.
God in Christ promises that even through this pandemic, even through the separation of communities, friends and family, even through the limitations on the way we worship and the way we can gather… that the transformation and salvation of God’s people has already begun… that there will be parted waters ahead for us, that there’s abundant forgiveness waiting for us… that a new way of living and being in the world for this pandemic church of 2020 is on its way.
We might feel stuck to between bad choices theses day, but God is with us, God is beside us, God is among us… carrying us to the new and unexpected thing that we cannot imagine yet.
Because God has already brought God’s people, and will bring us, through the struggle and to the other side,
to the promised land
of mercy and new life.