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Proper 17A-17

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago


How many times must I forgive?

I invite you to reflect for a moment.  When have you forgiven someone?  Who have you not forgiven?  When have you been forgiven by others?  When have you not been forgiven? Particularly in old relationships it can be difficult even to name what hurts.  Whenever we travel with my extended family—my sisters, my nieces and nephews, and my mom—my wife Kari often points out that something comes over me. I get crabby and short-tempered. When pain is not metabolized through forgiveness it lingers in the body like a motherless child.

Forgiveness.  We all know it was important to Jesus.  Peter knew it.  That’s why he asked.  Wanting to impress, he picked a really big number.  ‘How many times should I forgive someone? As many as seven times?’ (Matthew 18:21) Jesus answer was shocking.  “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” In other words, stop counting.  Stop keeping the score.

To underscore his point, Jesus offers Peter a hyperbolic parable and about a fictional king settling accounts with his servant.  10,000 talents was an enormous sum.  It is ten times the amount King Herod received every year from all his territories—which was around 900 talents (Brian P. Stoffregen, CrossMarks).  A talent was about 130 lbs. of silver and was the equivalent to about fifteen years of a laborer’s wages.  By contrast, the 100 denarius the servant is owed by his fellow servant is a tiny fraction—1/600,000 the size of the first.

This week we recognized the 16th anniversary of 911.  To be sure, 10,000 talent offenses like September 11th don’t come along that often, but 100 denarius offenses come at us every day.  Jesus urged the disciples and us to follow the example of a pagan king, a religious outsider, who showed grace and mercy even though he was owed a great debt, rather than the religious insider who proved stingy and withholding of mercy even though he was owed only a very small debt.

Like Peter, I suspect most of us are gracious enough to forgive neighbors, friends, or family members over and over again.  But, sooner or later, the ledger will mount up and the bearer of forgiveness can become the carrier of a grudge.  You may feel righteous and justified in carrying that grudge but the truth is, Jesus says, carrying that grudge eventually becomes its own offense. Stop keeping score.

Yet, somewhere in our bodies, shielded from every-day consciousness, we carry unforgiven hurts and slights within us.  Some of us carry traumatic memories of abuse or neglect, or violence. Somewhere, we carry the sins of society—of racism, injustice, and ecological devastation.  Somehow, we know Jesus’ teaching to forgive is not a command as much as it is a pathway to freedom.  Forgiveness is a way of life that leads to healing, recovery, and transformation.  But I’ll admit when confronted with the brokenness in my own life I don’t what I can do about it.  I just have to accept it, that’s the way it is.  This person doesn’t like that person. This one won’t talk to that one.  This person hasn’t been the same since that happened.

Old scores never settled, hurt, harm, or loss churn in us like an unstoppable wheel. It causes us pain and to inflict pain on others, or to see others as less-than and inhuman, or to seek revenge and payback, or to be the cause of violence or cruelty, which then becomes a source of hurt, harm or loss in someone else, and on it goes.  With all respect to George R. R. Martin and the other authors of The Game of Thrones, it is not Daenerys Targaryen who will break this wheel, because it has already been broken by our Lord Jesus Christ by way of the cross.

The cross was God’s critique of worldly power and all petty religious and moralistic score keeping.  On the cross God stands with the crucified, the cast-offs, the lynched, and the broken. By way of the cross, God has broken the wheel of vengeance and opened a pathway to healing and reconciliation. By way of the cross Jesus has shown us the way to resurrection, transformation, and new birth.

Jesus taught us how to love our enemies, pray for them, will good for them, and to see them as part of us—as children of shared humanity. This is possible for us because Jesus lived this kind of life and, even now, Jesus lives this kind of life in us so that the way of forgiveness and reconciliation is not impossible for us.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, leader of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and author of The Book of Forgiving (2014) tells us what forgiveness is not.  Forgiveness is not easy.  It requires hard work and a consistent willingness. Forgiveness is not weakness.  It requires courage and strength.  Forgiveness does not subvert justice.  It creates space for justice to be enacted with purity of purpose that does not include revenge. Forgiveness is not forgetting.  It requires a fearless remembering of the hurt.  Forgiveness is not quick. It can take several journeys through the cycles of remembering and grief before one can truly forgive and be free.

Forgiveness begins with a willingness born of the Holy Spirit to walk a fourfold path. On the way, we must tell our story.  We must name what hurts before we can grant forgiveness, by which Tutu means to see our abuser as part of a shared humanity. Only then can we either release or renew the relationship.  Then we can be free of the burden of our pain and strengthened with wisdom so we might begin to break the cycle of violence and prevent others from being harmed in the same way.

Next week, we will discuss and vote together about our future with the Families Together Cooperative Preschool (FTCNS) and our commitment to working with them to expand by adding a third classroom.  We have shared this home with them for twenty years. We’ve been very effective together in our common mission to improve the lives of children and families throughout Edgewater.  There is a strong sense of belonging and a warmth to these streets and in the homes surrounding our church that is traceable to the work we’ve done for decades emanating from this place.  Of course, as with any long relationship there have also been frustrations and disappointments. We have not always lived up to the partnership we set for ourselves.  We have made extra work for each other. Like any household, we get tired of looking at each other’s mess.  What might it look like to turn these slights and hurts into aspirations?  By the power of grace and forgiveness, can we learn from our past in order to make a different, more positive future as we contemplate the future together?  I’ve been listening to conversations about this for weeks now and believe we can make things work better for all our ministries even as FTCNS expands.

We cannot create a world without pain or loss or conflict or hurt feelings, but with God’s grace we can create a world of forgiveness.  We can create a world of forgiveness that can allow us to love our enemies, to heal our losses and repair our lives and relationships.  But ultimately, no one can tell you to forgive. We, and the Holy Spirit, can only ask.  You and I are invited on this journey.  All of us must walk our own path and go at our own pace to discover the power forgiveness has to change your life and the world.

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