Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Matthew 18:21-35. I am indebted to Adam Hamilton for inspiration for parts of this sermon, especially RAP and the questions people ask.
Last week we began an eight-part sermon series on the challenges of being a disciple of Christ. The first challenge was to accept Christ’s call to be a disciple. In the examples of what it means to answer Jesus’ call to discipleship in scriptures, we are shown that we are to stop whatever it is we are doing and go, there can be no excuses and no interruptions. Today we deal with something that is just as difficult, forgiveness. We are told time and time again by Jesus that we cannot draw a line in the sand and say we will forgive up to this point, but anything beyond that is unforgiveable. Instead we are told that we are to forgive, and forgive all, just as we are forgiven. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer each Sunday, we ask for forgiveness and in return also offer forgiveness to those who have sinned against us. Forgiveness is a significant part of what makes us Christians, but it is events like those that we remember today which test our understanding and willingness to forgive.
All of us have been hurt or injured in some way over the course of our lives and most of us carry some significant wounds as well. Maybe it’s that we were abused, or there has been a significant betrayal, or we or a family member were the victim of a serious crime, all of us carry at least one of these around with us, and many of us will have more than one. This hurt is represented by this large stone, which I’m going to put in our backpack. Then we have smaller wounds and injuries. Times in which people have sinned against us. These are not nearly as significant as our major wounds. Maybe it’s a time we were cheated, or maybe a betrayal, sometime we were lied to, or someone betrayed a confidence. We probably have a lot more of these smaller hurts, and so these are represented by these smaller stones. And then we have the everyday sorts of things that occurs, someone is rude to us, or we get yelled at at work, or someone cuts us off in traffic. Some days will collect a lot of these hurts, and other days they’ll just seem to wash off our backs, but if we don’t let them go, over our lifetimes we will collect a lot of these hurts and they will weigh us down, literally and figuratively.
In order to rectify these hurts we try and seek some justice. There are two types of justice. There is retributive justice and there is restorative justice. Much of what we hear about and almost all that is practiced is retributive justice. We want retribution for what has wronged us. We want vengeance. We want something bad to happen to the other person. This is a natural part coming from the base part of our feelings. Even people who are opposed to this, still feel it, as maybe perhaps summed up by an essay written by Rev. Mary Lynn Tobin in response to September 11, called “Vengeance is the Lord’s (but something inside me wants to ‘bomb the hell out of them’).”
But here’s the problem with retributive justice. While it might make us feel good in the short-term it does nothing for us in the long-term because we are still carrying all this weight around with us. It does nothing to loosen our load. In fact, sometimes it even makes it worse, because we want more than an eye for an eye, we want to hurt them to the degree that we think we’ve been hurt. I’m sure all of us who have known people who are filled with anger and animosity, who take on the role of perpetual victim and can never move past whatever happened to them, they become bogged down in that moment. Uness we let go and forgive, then the more and more wounds we accumulate and the heavier and heavier our load gets.
And here’s the worst problem, hanging onto these hurts, never letting them go, has been compared to drinking a jar of poison yourself in order to hurt the other person. The other person is rarely ever hurt by our refusal to forgive; instead we are the ones who are hurt. We are hurt spiritually, we are hurt emotionally, we are hurt psychologically and we are hurt physically. We are literally winded, just as I am about now, by having to carry this baggage around with us all the time. In recent studies that have been conducted, it has been found that those who are unable to forgive have higher rates of cardiovascular disease, incidences of depression, alcohol and drug abuse, stress related illnesses, and anxiety. Not forgiving can literally kill us. Of course knowing this doesn’t make forgiveness any easier.
Following the shooting at the West Nickel Mines School in 2006, in which five Amish girls were killed, many people were surprised by the community’s response. They immediately began offering support to the widow and children of the shooter, including setting up a charitable fund in their name. One of the children’s fathers hugged the shooter’s father for more than an hour while he cried over what his son had done. There was a killing at the high school where I last served and I can tell you the community response in that situation was very different. In witnessing this, people began to ask how could they forgive this most evil of actions? In his book, Think No Evil, Jonas Beiler, who is a former member of the Amish community, said they could respond the way they did because forgiveness is part of who they are. Forgiveness is something they work on every day, and so they know what it takes, what to do, and what forgiveness looks and feels like. But most importantly, as the title of Beiler’s book implies, they know that if they don’t forgive then they will carry that evil forward with them. The evil gets perpetuated rather dieing along with the children who died.
Jesus tells us we must forgive to be forgiven, that we must love and pray for our enemies. Paul tells us, in a passage we read a couple of weeks ago, not to overcome evil with evil, but instead to overcome evil with good, but it is so hard. Peter asks Jesus, how many times must I forgive someone who has wronged me? Is seven times enough he asks? And Jesus responds, not just seven times, but seventy seven times, or in some manuscripts seventy times seven times. It becomes an infinite amount of forgiveness, and then Jesus tells this parable, in which a man is forgiven by his King, who we are to understand as God, his debt of 10,000 talents, but is unwilling to forgive the debt owed to him of 100 denarri. A denarri is equal to one day’s wages. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American makes about $102 a day (this is down from a few years ago). That means that a debt of 100 denarri is $10,200. That is what the servant was unwilling to forgive. A talent is equal to 6,000 denarri, or 16 and a half years worth of wages, so a debt of 10,000 denarri is equal to 6.24 billion dollars. I don’t know about you, but it would take me a long time to pay off a debt of 6 billion.
God is willing to forgive an infinite amount on our behalf, but the expectation is that we will also forgive, and not only are we told that we will not be forgiven if we do not forgive, the simple fact is we cannot. If we have our fist clenched in anger, an almost universal sign of displeasure, then we cannot receive anything in return, in order to receive forgiveness we have to loosen our hand and let go of that which we are clinging and holding on to.
So how do we do this, how do we work on getting rid of this weight we are carrying around? We rap about it, and no that does not mean we start making beat box sounds with our mouths. Instead, RAP is an acronym. The first step is to remember our own shortcomings. In trying to release a wrong that someone else has done, think or write down five things that you have done wrong to others. It is much harder to remain indignant, when we remember our own imperfections and times we have done wrong. We open ourselves up to new possibilities when we remove ourselves from the role of victim. So, first step is to remember our own shortcomings.
The second is to assume the best intentions of others. We usually assume the worst, we think that the person who just cut us off in traffic is just a jerk, but what if instead of thinking that we instead think, their wife has just gone into labor and they're in a hurry to get to the hospital, or their children are at home sick and they want to get home quickly to see them. It doesn’t change the reality of the situation, we still got cut off, but it changes our perception of it because now instead of thinking they are a jerk we are worried for them, and we might offer up a prayer, which is the third step. Now I feel I must note that this will not always work. If you were physically or sexually abused, for example, I don’t think there is a way to assume the best of intentions, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try. Step one, remember our own shortcomings, step two assume the best of intentions not the worst, and step three is to pray for those who have wronged us.
Jesus tells us to offer prayers for our enemies, and when we do this, the prayer is not something like “Dear God, please help them to see what a jerk they are, and how wrong they are and how right I am.” That is not what we are called to do. Instead we should be asking for God to bless them just as we pray for blessings on those we love. We should be praying for God to help us to love them, just as God loves them. Pray for a change in our heart, not a change in their heart, so that we can begin to see them again as a child of God and to treat them as such. And finally, we pray that God will help us to let go of the hurt they have caused us. Remember your own shortcomings, assume the best, pray for them.
A fourth step, which can also be helpful, is to seek to understand what shaped them. What caused them to do what they did? Why did they act this way? Most abusers were also abused themselves. Now does that justify her behavior? Absolutely not. That is often one of the questions people will ask is whether forgiveness condones the actions. I think we all know the answer is no, but we still worry about it. A good definition of forgiveness, is to let go of the right to retaliate. It does not say that the action was okay, it merely says that we are no longer going to carry that weight with us. We are not going to be doubly harmed by continuing to carry the baggage of the injury with us. We are going to let it go.
Forgiveness also does not remove the possibility of punishment. When Samantha and Abigail get in trouble, I don’t take away their time out, or lessen whatever the punishment they receive merely because they say they are sorry and I forgive them and tell them that I love them. The punishment is still in place because they still have to learn that what they did has negative ramifications. Forgiveness is not about enabling the perpetrator. I think this is often misunderstood. I have heard horrible stories from domestic abuse victims who have been told, often by their ministers, that they should forgive their abuser and because they have forgiven them should stay in the abusive relationship.
Forgiveness, as a form of restorative justice, seeks to restore and repair broken relationships. That is why God forgives us because God wants to be restored into relationship with us. Sin is literally a breaking of relationship, and so God offers forgiveness to restore relationship. While we try to do the same when we forgive others, some relationships cannot and should not be restored, but that doesn’t mean that forgiveness cannot take place. If you are being abused, you need to get out of that relationship, and that has nothing to do with forgiveness. If you have been betrayed by someone you might not be able to continue in relationship with that person, but that does not stop you from being able to forgive. Forgiveness is not about enabling the other person to continue to hurt us, and it does not mean that no punishment can happen. Forgiveness is about stopping us from perpetuating the pain that has already been caused to us, but that does not mean that we have to allow it to happen again.
The final question most people ask is whether forgiveness can be given if the person who has harmed us never asks for it. The simple answer is yes, because, again, while forgiveness at its heart seek to reconcile broken relationships, it does not always result in that. Forgiveness is often more about us than it is about those who hurt us, and the best example of that is Jesus. When he is hanging on the cross, he said “forgive them father for they know not what they do.” The Romans did not ask for forgiveness, but Jesus offered it in return. Forgiveness is about letting go of the right to satisfaction or redress for a wrong done to us, and in that we can be the person who acts first. Sometimes we may be giving forgiveness for something the other person is never sorry about, but for us to stop the hurt we need to begin this process.
Do not expect the process to bring immediate results. For some the little things, it might be almost instantaneous, but other things are going to take a lot longer. For these large stones, and for the stones that are even too big for us to carry, doing you rap is not going to remove the pain and the hurt in one shot. It just won’t. Instead it is something that we have to chip away at and the more we work at it the smaller it gets, and the smaller it gets the easier it gets. But, I think what today’s passage also reminds us, is that even when we think we have processed everything, that we have forgiven, that it will raise its ugly head, and we have to begin all over again. How many times must I forgive? Peter asks, and Jesus says not just seven times, but 77 times. As forgiven people we are called to forgive, and in order to receive forgiveness for the hurts we have caused we must be willing to let go, to open our hand and let go of the hurts we have received.
Let me close with two quotes and then I am going to tell you what to do with the rock you were given this morning when you came into worship. After having spent twenty-five years in prison, Nelson Mandela was asked about his feelings toward his jailers and those who imprisoned him, to which he responded: “I hated my jailers when I left, but I realized I had to leave it all behind. Otherwise I would still be in prison – a prison of my own making.” We must forgive. There is no boundary line, there is no line in the sand we can draw, that says we only forgive up to this point, that everything beyond that is unforgivable. That is the responsibility of loving and being loved by God and that is the challenge of being a disciple of Christ.
Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." Our love to the world begins with first accepting Christ and through him God’s forgiveness, and then offering that forgiveness to the world, and today we are going to make just one small start. The stone you received represents a hurt in your life. Either a hurt you have received or a hurt you caused that you want to let go of either through beginning the process of offering forgiveness or of seeking forgiveness. We are going to pray together, and then Tracy is going to play “Where were you when the world stopped turning” by Alan Jackson and then I invite you to come forward and to place your stone on one of the two tables up front as the first step, and then light a candle as a means of breaking the darkness with the power of light and love. Then you may come to kneeling rail for prayer or you may return to your seats. We are offered forgiveness and in return we must forgive. Overcoming the hate and darkness of the world begins with us, but this cannot be accomplished with hate and darkness, but only with light and love and forgiveness.