SEPTEMBER 11, 2011 – PROPER 19
Genesis 50: 15-21
Psalm 103: 8-13
Romans 14: 1-12
Matthew 18: 21-35
I don’t know if it is coincidental, ironic or God working in mysterious ways, but on this 10 year anniversary of 9/11, the Gospel reading for today is the conversation between Peter and Jesus about forgiveness. You may know that our readings on Sunday mornings are part of a 3 year cycle that is shared by a number of denominations. So the fact that on this particular Sunday we have a passage talking about forgiveness is not something that was planned. And, quite frankly, if I got to choose the lessons, I probably would not have chosen these. But, here they are.
The events of 10 years ago were the kind that makes us remember where we were as we watched in disbelief and horror as things unfolded. It is an event identified not by a name, but by numbers – 9 - 11. We were glued to our TVs, witnessing sights we will never forget. The destruction of life and property, the incredible stories of courage, the heroism of responders, all contributed to a day that seemed very surreal and yet all too real. And so today, 10 years later, we look back. Today, we also look out – out to a world that is at war, out to a world that wonders what will happen next, out to a world that has seemingly forever changed - and yet, in many ways, really has not changed at all, and also out to a world where courage and hope are still evident in the lives of so many.
In such a world, what are we to do with the scripture readings for today? How do we talk about forgiveness in the face of such incalculable loss and grief – even after 10 years? Is it even possible to do that? A mother who lost her daughter on that day was asked whether she would be going to worship the following Sunday to perhaps find some comfort in her faith. She said: “No, we won’t be going this weekend, because we are Christians and we know Jesus commands us to forgive, and frankly, we’re just not ready for that. It’ll be some time before we’ll want to be with Jesus.” We perhaps can sympathize with that mother – and the closer people were to those events and the more they were affected by those events, the harder it probably is to feel otherwise. So how can we even think about this forgiveness Jesus talks about when we know there are people who would do it all over again if they could? How could we even begin to think like Joseph in our first lesson who, even though his brothers had wronged him so deeply, finally could say: “Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”? What good could there possibly be here? I suspect we can identify more with the woman who put on her adulterous husband’s tombstone: “Gone, but not forgiven.” Or, on a lighter note, like the woman whose husband left her. In despair, she put her new model Cadillac up for sale for $50. A buyer, finding it in excellent condition, gave her the $50. But before riding off, asked her why she was selling it for such a low price. She smiled and said: “My husband ran off with someone else and left me a note instructing me to sell the car and send him the money.” I confess that when a speeder goes by me on the highway and further ahead I find them pulled over by the police, there is a certain satisfaction about that – justice has been done. People should get what they deserve, we often say, even though we know that often people do not get what they deserve, or that sometimes people get what they do not deserve.
Would anyone think that we are just to stand there and let someone keep beating us up over and over again and not try to stop it? Most of us wouldn’t. Are we to ignore the threats and hatred by some in our world? - of course not. Can we ever forget what happened? – no. So perhaps this forgiveness stuff Jesus talks about is just for what happens between individuals or even just between Christians when there is a wrong? C.S. Lewis tried to distinguish between excusing and forgiving. He said that if someone bumps into him accidentally, he can excuse that. But if a person does something to injure his family and the hurt will go on hurting for years, he can’t excuse that. His only option then is that of forgiving or not forgiving.
In our Gospel reading, Peter wants to know how often he must forgive another. And, quite honestly, he is asking here about sins committed against him by another member of the church. We will have to decide if it applies anywhere else in life. Peter suggests 7 times – a biblical number of completeness and fullness. Peter feels he is being really generous at that. And many would agree he was. But then Jesus says: “Not 7 times, but 77 times” – or, as another translation has it, 70 times 7, which would be 490 times - in other words, as often as it is needed. Jesus then tells a parable about a servant who owed a debt that was so big, he could never have repaid it. Out of compassion, the master forgave him all the debt. This same servant then went out and demanded payment of a much smaller debt – and when his fellow servant couldn’t pay, he had him thrown in jail. When the master heard about this, he became very angry and said: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?”
That’s the rub for us Christians, isn’t it? We are people of the cross. And the cross is all about forgiveness. On the cross, Jesus said: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And so we pray: “Forgive us our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive the sins of others.” Jesus got into trouble with the authorities, not because he performed miracles, but because He was so bold as to declare forgiveness to others. God always seems to command us to do things we cannot seem to do – things that feel impossible to do. And it is only by the grace of God that we can do them at all. God asks more; but God also gives more. That’s why, when people say: “But I can’t find it in my heart to forgive”, they are told that perhaps they are looking in the wrong heart.
But, here is the thing about forgiveness. What if the other person doesn’t ask for it, doesn’t even want it? Should forgiveness be spoken? The short answer is ‘yes’, when it can be spoken honestly. Clearly, if there is repentance by the other, then the possibility of reconciliation is there. We have seen repentance spoken in state houses and countries in recent years over injustices done to groups of people in the past. It was sometimes an unpopular and bold step to say ‘you were not treated well and we are sorry’. But even when that repentance is not present, forgiveness can be spoken to help ourselves as much as anyone else. Often, in times of divorce for example, there is a lot of anger. And what many people find is that until they can forgive the other person, they can’t let go and they can’t move on. It may not matter to the offender. But it can matter a great deal to us. To carry the weight of what was done, to nurse it and let it grow and accumulate within us does not hurt anyone else but ourselves. Maybe we need to be angry, maybe we want to be angry; but, as someone said: “To forgive is to set the prisoner free and then to discover that that prisoner was you.” Nelson Mandela, when he was released from prison in South Africa, seemed to carry a lot of hatred and anger in his face and in his heart. Having been in solitary confinement, he thought all was lost – personally and for his cause. Later, seeing that Mandela’s hatred and the anger were gone, someone asked him what had changed. Mandela said: “Everything I had was gone, and I hated them for it. Then I remembered what Jesus said about forgiveness, and God spoke to me and said: Nelson, for 27 years you were their prisoner but you were always a free man. Don’t let them turn you into a free man only to make you into their prisoner.”
Indeed, this is a difficult day. This is a difficult commandment. I would not presume to tell anyone how they should feel or what they should do or where or when or to whom or how often to speak forgiveness. We should continue to pray for all those affected by these events in very real ways, for those continuing to be affected, for those who continue to work to keep us safe, and for our world that is divided by so much hatred and violence. But somehow, in the midst of all of this, maybe there can also be a witness that says something different is possible. Maybe, in the midst of all of this, we can remember the words of St. Paul in our second reading today:
“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.
If we live, we live to the Lord,
And if we die, we die to the Lord;
So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.
For to this end Christ died and lived again,
so that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living.”
Sometimes, being with Jesus is hard to do. Sometimes being with Jesus is the only thing we can do. Amen.