DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.
May the Spirit Speak to you!
14 September 2014 – 14th Sunday after Pentecost
Click here to read scripture first: Matthew 18:21-35 (NRS)
The lectionary is a list of scripture readings for each Sunday set by an ecumenical group years ago. And every three years in early September, the gospel readings of the lectionary come back to Matthew 18. The reading from last week about a process of direct conversation with those who sin against us. And now this week: Peter’s question about how many times we have to forgive. The last time this reading came up in the lectionary it was the Tenth Anniversary of 9/11. A tricky day on which to preach a rousing sermon about endlessly forgiving those who sin against us, which is the intent of Jesus’ response to Peter’s desire to put some limits on mercy. “Not just seven times,” Jesus says. The holy number – the whole number. “But seventy-seven” or “seventy times seven” as some manuscripts record. In other words: forgive times infinity, as the LORD our God does.
I doubt I’m the only person alive who struggles with forgiveness. And I should give a disclaimer that we’re not talking about letting the bad behavior continue. Jesus words about limitless forgiveness come after the process of recognizing and calling out the sin another commits against us. If someone else repeatedly is hurting us, that cannot go unchecked. We, the community, have a role to play in ensuring the health and safety of one another. If the sinner doesn’t change the bad behavior; we need to set in motion the process Jesus outlined early in chapter 18 of Matthew’s gospel. Continued right-relationship and forgiveness of another are two very different things. . . . Either way, if we give the Lord’s Prayer any weight in our lives with God and one another, then we might find ourselves panicking a little bit. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” we mindlessly recite each week. When we stop to think about those words, we might find ourselves struggling with forgiveness. Is it really true that if I can’t forgive another their sins against me, then God might not forgive me mine? It appears to be the end to the parable Jesus tells here as recorded in the gospel of Matthew. But it doesn’t seem entirely fair. After all: God is God. Forgiveness has to be much easier for God than it is for us.
A few years ago I led an eight week course on forgiveness. I had some stuff of my own to sort out so when the trusted resource came along, I thought I’d give it a shot. I wasn’t really sure anyone would sign up for the class. But about 8 or so people did. Stories ranged from harboring decades of anger over being abandoned by parents, to siblings who had messed up the family with their addictions, to co-workers who had done them wrong. Over the years I’ve sat with survivors of incest, and wives whose husbands have had affairs, and people who have been deeply betrayed by loved ones. In story after story, I have learned that I am not the only one who struggles with forgiveness. And I’ve also learned the incredible strength of those who desperately want to forgive but just don’t know how.
A powerful image of forgiveness is contained in a quarterly Christian Spirituality journal called Weavings. Each article of the publication matches a theme for that issue. The “Forgiveness” issue of the early 1990s still is their most highly requested copy. “Forgiveness” had an incredible image in it of what looked much like a dark dirty dungeon. A solid, dead-end wall with heavy chains on it. Shackles around the wrists of a figure whose face appeared gnarled in emotion. One of the shackles was bursting free; the other tightly gripped the opposite wrist. Forgiveness: letting the prisoner go free. . . . The thing about forgiveness – or rather the lack of it – is that both parties end up shackled. And so often the other party doesn’t even know we’ve chained ourselves to them.
A rabbi tells a story about a woman who came to him. She was a struggling young mother whose husband unexpectedly filed for divorce. She spent each day working her fingers to the bone just to make ends meet for her and her three small children. Meanwhile, her ex was living it up in another state with his younger new wife. She was so incredibly mad at him – not to mention betrayed and left wondering what was wrong with her. She was not at all open to the rabbi’s suggestion that she forgive her ex. Finally the rabbi explained: “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you are hurting yourself” (Harold S. Kushner, “Letting Go of the Role of Victim,” Spirituality and Health, Winter, 1999, p. 34). That’s just it. When we can’t forgive, we stay stuck. We shackle ourselves even as we keep the emotional shackles on the other person.
In that Weavings issue on “Forgiveness,” Presbyterian pastor and spiritual director Marjorie Thompson writes an article entitled “Moving toward Forgiveness.” She states: “To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment may seem. . . . Forgiveness involves excusing persons from the punitive consequences they deserve because of their behavior. The behavior remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effects as far as the forgiver is concerned. Forgiveness means the power of the original wound’s power to hold us trapped is broken.” (Marjorie Thompson, “Moving Toward Forgiveness,” Weavings, March-April 1992, p. 19). . . . Can you imagine a God like that? One who always chooses to release us from the judgment we deserve. One always ready to leave behind the resentment and desire for retribution that is our fair consequence. One who doesn’t punish us for our unacceptable behavior but releases us, at least in God’s eyes from the wound we have caused God. What Jesus is telling Peter and his whole church is that God is a God who forgives completely. The body of Christ – us, the church – is to do likewise. Someone has to be on earth that same kind of mercy. That same representation of freedom.
Unlike God, we may need to practice it. “Moving toward Forgiveness” Marjorie Thompson’s article is entitled. In other words, though God may be ever-ready to forgive, you and I may need to wake up each morning to make a conscious choice for that day. It’s another way to think about seventy times seven, or seventy-seven. Consider that young mother who sought out a listening from the rabbi. It might have been helpful for her to hear: wake up on Monday morning and begin the day with a prayer like: “Help me today, God, to forgive him.” At the end of the day when she put her head back down on the pillow, pray: “Help me tonight, God, to forgive him.” When the sun comes back up, pray: “Help me today, God, to forgive him – to release my resentment towards him.” And again that night: “Help me tonight, God, to forgive him. I choose to let go of my desire to see him punished.” And so on and so forth for as long as it takes until we wake up in the morning free from the resentment; our punitive spirit toward another gone. . . . I like that. Because it seems more real to me. More doable. Like any other virtue or Christian quality we’re working to develop: seventy times seven or seventy-seven times it may take us, but eventually we will be able to forgive. Little by little those prayers – that attitude in us will wear down our smoldering anger, will soothe that throbbing wound until we wake up one morning to find ourselves free. Forgiving and forgiven. Able to practice the same kind of excessive mercy which we find ourselves receiving from God.
“Lord: how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter asks. No. Not just seven times. But every day. Over and over again until we find we’ve become experts at the practice. Spirits as free as our God to forgive one another.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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