September 11, 2011
The theme in the Gospel text for today is forgiveness. We all agree that forgiveness is a great idea, until we ourselves have to do it. Then, we think, the other person should forgive, not us. At the very least, the other person should beg for mercy first.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, our country went to war. Four years later, Germany and Japan had surrendered. Other than Pearl Harbor, our nation did not suffer physical damage, as did so many other parts of the world. And we had won obvious victories. It was over, and we could celebrate and move on. The focus turned to reconstruction and restoration of buildings, nations, economies. It was easier to find forgiveness when the enemies had been brought to their knees.
Today, ten years after the terrorist attacks on our nation, there is no obvious victory; the enemies have not been brought to their knees; we are still rebuilding, still grieving and still recovering from the effects of the terror attacks. Many are still angry, still resentful. Many are still not in a mood to forgive and move on. The feeling is that someone should pay, and pay, and pay! The mood in the nation is definitely not one of forgiveness.
We feel the same about the financial crisis. As we watch our savings disappear without time to recover what we have lost, we want those who did this to us to pay. We are in no mood to forgive.
In our congregational and work and family and friends relationships, it’s often the same. Someone else messed up, and they should beg for mercy before we’ll consider forgiving them.
While I believe that Jesus wants those who do serious evil to be caught and punished, he also makes it clear that forgiveness is not an option. In the story from Matthew’s gospel, Peter asks how often he must forgive someone. He tries to be generous and suggests seven times. But Jesus doesn’t let him off the hook so easily. He says, “No, not seven times but seventy plus seven –77 – times.” Other ancient texts say much more: seventy times seven, or 490 times.
We get the idea that if we are to forgive seven times, we can keep a tally, on a calendar or something. On September 1, I forgave Jethro, check; on September 3, I forgave him again, check; on September 10, I forgave him a third time, check; only four more times, and we’re done being friends.
It’s harder to keep track of seventy-seven times; and much harder still if the number is 490. Unless we record the acts of forgiveness in an Xcel spreadsheet which automatically adds for us, it’s easy to miscount and not know exactly how many times we have forgiven someone else. If we remember to record each time we forgive. And, that is Jesus’ point. Forgive and forgive, without keeping track. It’s what God does for us.
Jesus continues to make his point by telling a parable about a king and the steward in charge of his finances. The steward has either embezzled or mismanaged about $3 billion, converting the ancient currency to ours. The steward begs for forgiveness, and the king grants it. Yet, the steward refuses to grant forgiveness to the slave who owes him about $5,000. The king hears about this and throws the book at the financial steward – who lands in prison until he can repay the debt – in other words, a life sentence; it’s simply too much to pay back, and a slave in prison has no way of earning income to repay the debt. Jesus adds a final comment to the parable: those who are forgiven must pass on forgiveness to others.
Jesus gives us not just his sermons and his parables, however. He models forgiveness for us. One of the seven last sayings recorded as he hung on the cross is about forgiveness. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. Forgive those who are putting me to death, because they don’t understand my life and death are part of your plan.” Forgiveness is who God is; forgiveness is what grace is all about.
Forgiveness is a nice idea, we all think, until we’re the ones who have to do it. “How do I forgive …?” is one of the most frequent questions pastors are asked. And there is no easy answer to the question, but it’s clear in scripture that it’s something we are supposed to do if we want to follow Jesus.
Each week, as we pray, we are reminded to forgive because we have already been forgiven. We say, in one way or another, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” In Matthew’s Gospel, immediately after the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says this: “For if you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins.” If we want to be forgiven, we must forgive. Today’s parable of the debtor reinforces this: when the Financial Steward did not forgive the other slave, he found himself being punished.
Each week, we receive a symbol of Jesus’ forgiveness when we receive Holy Communion. The bread and wine flow through our bodies and our spirits, filling us with God’s love and grace. Sometimes, I’m so grateful for this gift of forgiveness, I want to cry with joy.
Forgiveness is what caught the attention of the world when five girls were murdered in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania: Amish Country. The day after burying their daughters, some of the Amish folks attended the funeral of the man who killed them. As journalists probed into this phenomenal action they learned that the Amish began with acts of forgiveness. Actually forgiving with the heart took longer; for some, much longer. Sometimes that’s the way we have to do it. First we say we are going to forgive; then we tell the person or group they are forgiven; then we work in our hearts to make the forgiveness happen.
Usually, in order to forgive someone, we have to make a decision to forgive. We have to say to ourselves, I want to forgive Jethro, and I’m going to keep telling my mind to forgive him until my heart is ready to do so.
Often, we have to ask for God’s help to forgive very hurtful deeds. After a family member said and did some really hurtful things, it took me two years to be fully able to forgive them. I prayed daily, daily, daily to be able to forgive. One day, I received a card in the mail with an apology, and I realized I had already forgiven the person.
I tell people forgiveness is not for the other person. Jethro may be dead, or he may have moved away, we don’t want to be his friend on Facebook, so we’re never going to see him again. He may not care one whit that he has been forgiven; or he may gloat that he got away with hurting us.
Forgiveness is not for the other person; forgiveness is for ourselves, for our own benefit. If we refuse to forgive, we allow our hearts to stay wounded; we keep picking at the scab that naturally wants to form; we wallow in the cesspool of resentment and martyrdom instead of allowing God to help us heal. Our health suffers from the chemicals produced by the anger we hold onto. Even when we don’t want to forgive, in order to be healthy persons, Jesus instructs us to keep on forgiving.
Let me recap:
o Jesus instructs us that we must forgive.
o Forgiveness is hard work.
o We have to make a decision to forgive.
o Forgiveness takes time and commitment. We must repeatedly tell ourselves we want to forgive, and ask for God’s help in making it happen in our hearts.
o Sometimes, we must say the words and do some action which indicates our forgiveness, and then wait for forgiveness to be there.
o If we ask God to help us forgive, God will help us.
o If we refuse to forgive, the anger and bitterness build up, pile up, adding resentment on top of resentment, and our health suffers.
o We pray each week in the Lord’s Prayer for forgiveness and the ability to forgive.
o Each week, we taste forgiveness in the bread and cup Jesus offers us.
Forgiveness is not an option, according to Jesus, and it is a choice we must make when the wounds are deep and seem unforgivable.
Please pray with me: Jesus, you forgave those who put you to death. You forgive us, over and over again. Help us to pass on forgiveness, even when our human, sinful selves don’t want to do so. Amen
Props: lunch box, paper lunch bag, money
I have a few different ways we can get lunch.
How do you get lunch at school?
When I was a kid, we always compared notes about who was eating what for lunch. Do kids still do that?
Some kids eat differently than other kids.
Is that OK with you, or do you tease kids who have weird stuff in their lunches?
Kids and grown-ups tease each other about a lot of stuff besides what’s for lunch. People tease each other about their clothes, and their bikes (or cars), and what we are good at or not good at.
In our middle reading today, the Apostle Paul was concerned that some people were teasing other people about what they were eating and what they were not eating. He tells them it’s not what Jesus wants them to do. We should not judge people about what they eat, or what they wear, or what they like to do.
I hope you don’t tease other people. I hope you also try to stop it when you hear your friends teasing other people.
Let’s pray: Jesus, you taught your disciples to care for everybody. Help us to be like him, too. Amen