September 14, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Matthew 18:21-35

Every Day Forgiveness

When it comes to forgiveness, it seems like there are two options: There is the forgiveness of every day things, simple and smiling and easy to practice. Then there is forgiveness that is impossible. The first kind happens when you’re driving and you have to swerve to miss the car that came over into your lane without signaling, or when they remember to list your name in the program but it is misspelled, or when you’re walking down the street in your own neighborhood and somebody’s dachshund barks at you for no reason.

All through the day we go around saying, “I’m so sorry.” All through the day, “Oh that’s okay.” We feel hurt or anger flash up for a second, and then we let go. Like if you’ve ever picked up a lizard for a whole second then put it down again. Every day, we practice forgiveness so simple and smiling.

The other kind of forgiveness is not simple and smiling. It is impossible. It is the kind nobody can tell you, you better do. Yet it keeps on happening in our world. There are parents whose children have been murdered who go on and one day forgive the ones who did the killing. Now if it’s your child who dies, nobody can tell you, you better forgive. There are people who have survived imprisonment and torture, then gone on, and one day forgiven the ones who held them captive.

This is not forgiveness that says, “Oh that’s okay.”What happened was not okay. There is nothing simple or smiling. There is a wound that can’t heal, hurt that keeps going and going, reverberating for a lifetime. Forgiveness here is impossible. It would take a miracle.

But what if a miracle is exactly what we have? What if every day forgiveness is exactly what can help us do the impossible, with the grace of God…

Friends, today we continue our fall sermon series called Jesus Said What?! through which we’ll explore a set of teachings in the Gospel of Matthew that confound our expectations. In today’s Gospel reading, right after Peter asks Jesus how many times we must forgive, Jesus tells a parable about a king who forgives the debt of one of his slaves.

Now I don’t know whether this was easy forgiveness or impossible forgiveness, or somewhere in between. I can tell you that the slave owed ten thousand talents which was an unthinkably huge sum. It’s like saying eleventy bazillion-jillion, plus infinity. When this slave could not pay the king, he fell on his knees, begged for mercy, and promised to pay the king. Out of pity, the king forgave his debt. If the parable ended here, that would be fine. But instead, things get worse.

This slave all forgiven is probably a bit shaken. He doesn’t say “thank you” to the king. Instead, he bumps into a fellow slave who owes him money, not quite as much as eleventy bazillion-jillion-plus-infinity, but still an enormous sum. He seizes his fellow slave by the throat and demands his money back. When this slave begs for mercy, the first slave refuses and throws him into prison.

This isn’t right. And this is something we might have done too. Debt collection can be messy and threatening. One minute the first slave is filled with panic, begging for mercy. The next minute, he passes on this panic to somebody else, like if somebody yells at me and I turn and yell at the next person I see. Hurt people, hurt people.

Now when the others see what happened, they go and tell the king. The king summons him and says,“You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you? And if the parable ended here, that would be fine. Instead, things get worse.

In anger, the king has the slave tortured until he could pay the entire debt. Then Jesus says, “So my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Sure, this helps the threat. We can feel the thrill of satisfaction as the king gets revenge on the slave. Then the Gospel writer twists the knife: And God will do this to all of you! You get once chance, so don’t screw it up!

Friends, I need to tell you, I don’t buy it at all. I believe the Gospel writer added this verse to make a point, and no person has the right to decide that God won’t forgive.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Not seven times, but seventy-seven times, or seven times seventy, or eleventy bazillion-jillion-plus-infinity.

Our story this morning proves it doesn’t always work out well to give somebody a second chance. The king was trying to do a nice thing. He felt pity well up in his heart and he chose to forgive the slave, like any of us might, and it didn’t work out. Maybe this is why Jesus does not ask us to forgive once, but to forgive seventy-seven times. If the first time it doesn’t work out, maybe try it another four hundred and eighty-nine times. Can you even imagine.

Now one reason why forgiveness is a problem is that we run the risk of getting it tangled up with conditions for how the other person will behave. We say things like, “I’ll forgive you if you promise to never hurt me again.” And maybe there’s a person who can make that promise, but I’m not sure anybody can keep it. You get hurt again. Then you might even blame yourself for daring to forgive in the first place, but please don’t do that. The only forgiveness we have to offer is what comes from God free and unconditional. If we place it in escrow, contingent on the other person’s repentance, well that’s not really forgiveness; that’s a test. “Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice shame on me.”Fool me seventy-seven times, and be forgiven every time.

It must be said. The call to forgive again and again, may or may not involve giving more chances. Jesus does not call us to stay in relationships that are abusive. We are not called to enable behavior that is addictive or dangerous. Nobody’s required to stay in the cycle that goes: hurt, then I’m sorry, then hurt. Some relationships need to change or come to an end. But you can end a relationship and still forgive the other person. In fact, sometimes ending the relationship makes forgiveness more possible.

The challenge in our parable is the call to forgive and forgive, without limit. The blessing in our parable is the call to forgive and forgive, without limit. Hurt that reverberates for a lifetime takes a lifetime to forgive. And it could be that the only way to do the impossible is every day, by the grace of God.

For many of us, we can’t just get up tomorrow and run a marathon. The way to run a marathon, I’m told, is to run every day. The way to become a writer is to write every day. The way to trade in alcoholism for a life of sobriety is to quit drinking today, then quit drinking tomorrow, then quit drinking the day after that. People in recovery actually give up drinking every day.  I’ve seen them do it.

Twenty-years ago, Sister Helen Prejean wrote the book Dead Man Walking which chronicled her account of sharing ministry with several inmates on death row. Patrick Sonnier, and his brother Eddie, kidnapped a young couple, David LeBlanc and Loretta Borque. She was raped and they were both murdered at the hands of Patrick and Eddie.

Sister Helen gets to know Patrick in the months leading up to his execution. She also gets to know the families of Loretta and David, and to this day, Sister Helen ministers to families who have experienced murder. As you would expect, she encounters a wide array of responses from families, some who favor the death penalty and some who oppose it, some who forgive and some who do not.

In this case, David’s father Lloyd LeBlanc, takes up the impossible work of forgiving Patrick Sonnier. One way he does this is through prayer. Every time he prays the Lord’s Prayer, he says these words to God: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Again and again, he says these words of prayer, and some days he can believe them. In reflecting on his witness, Sister Helen concludes the last chapter of her book by writing,“Forgiveness is never going to be easy. Each day it must be prayed for, and struggled for, and won.”

May each one of us forgive somebody today. If you need to, forgive them just for today because you can come back and forgive them again tomorrow. We don’t have just one chance to forgive. When it comes to opportunities to forgive, we have eleventy-bazillion jillion, plus infinity.

There is blessing in this call. There is blessing in knowing we are not alone in this work. We belong to a community of grace and support, the body of Christ bends toward forgiveness, every time. And when one person forgives and tells their story, it makes forgiveness more possible for everyone. Together we share in the miracle of impossible forgiveness, every day. Together we keep getting ourselves set free by the grace of God. Every day. Amen.


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