Genesis 50:15-21 Psalms 103:8-13 Romans 14:1-12 Matthew 18: 21-35
Shirley placed an ad in the paper to sell a car. A man responded to the ad and wanted to see the car. He arrived later that day. He looked at the gorgeous Cadillac in mint condition and asked the price. Shirley said five dollars. The man was floored. Shirley said, “My husband ran off with his secretary. He wrote to ask me to sell his car and send him the money. Five dollars seems fair.” Forgiven is a challenge.
We are being forgiven every day of our lives. We are being set free by someone who has arranged things so that we have all the advantages. We have choices. We have free will. And we have an advocate, who seems to know that we need lots of practice at this forgiveness business.
How often should we forgive? Will seven times take care of it? Seven is the perfect number in the Bible – the number for completeness. “Not seven times,” Jesus said, “but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” This is no chore. This is a promise, because forgiveness is a way of life. It is God’s cure for the deformity our resentments cause us. It is how we discover our true self, and every time we do it, we get to be a little more alive, we get to be a little closer to God. What God knows and we don’t yet know is that once we get the hang of it, seventy times seven won’t be enough, not to mention seventy-seven times. We’ll be so carried away by it that we’ll hope it never ends.
We know that Christianity is a religion in which the sinners have all the advantages. People can step on our feet fifty times and we are supposed to keep smiling. They can talk bad about us every time we leave the room and it is our job to excuse them with no thought of getting even. The burden is on us, because we have been forgiven ourselves, and God expects us to do unto others as God has done unto us.
This is not a bad motivation for learning how to forgive. If God is willing to stay with me in spite of my pettiness, my weakness, my stubborn self-centeredness, then who am I to hold those same things against someone else? Better I should confess my own sins than keep track of yours, only it is hard to stay focused on my shortcomings. I would so much rather stay focused on yours, especially when they are hurtful to me.
Staying angry with someone is how we protect ourselves. Refusing to forgive someone is not only how we punish them; it is also how we keep them from getting close enough to hurt us again, and nine times out of ten it works, only there is a serious side effect. It is called bitterness, and it can do terrible things to the human body and soul. It locks up our hearts.
Peter’s question to Jesus, “How often should I forgive?” speaks to our relationship with ourselves, with those we love, with those we hardly know, with God, with our enemies, and with our faith community. Although Peter’s question is directed toward others within the church, those with whom there is a bond through the Spirit of God, the area of forgiveness weighs heavily upon people of faith. It impacts all areas of our lives as we seek to live in a way that is faithful to Jesus’ life and teaching.
Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the story of a woman in his congregation coming to visit him. She was a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and her three small children. She said, “Since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids that there is no money for the movies, while he is living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?” Kushner answered her, “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did is acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.”
Forgiveness means to release, to let go of the other. Forgiveness is not denying our hurt. When we minimize what has happened to us, gloss over it, tell ourselves that it was not really that bad, we can’t really forgive. Forgiveness is a possibility only when we acknowledge the negative impact of another person’s actions or attitudes in our lives. Forgiveness is also not a matter of putting people on probation, waiting for them to do something wrong so we can take it back. Forgiveness is not an excuse for unjust behavior, and to forgive is not necessarily to forget. Eleanor Roosevelt, after finding out about her husband’s infidelity, said to him, “I can forgive, but I can never forget.” Some events should not be forgotten.
In the past, we have held stones in our hands as reminders. Imagine that you are holding a stone and that it represent those obstacles in our lives, perhaps the unforgiveness we hold in our hearts that gets in the way of our relationship with God. Imagine the weight in your hand…get to know the feel of them. Over and over again in his parables, Jesus taught about the risk that we may stumble ourselves. His lessons remind us that the righteousness of God, that being in right relationship with God, is so important. So to strive to be free of those obstacles is a daily task.
How do we maintain forgiveness, which offers us peace in a community of faith? How do we live out our gifts in a community of faith when we feel wronged or have wronged others? The stones are like these burdens, the distractions in our life in the community of faith, which we carry with us. The burdens, the obstacles, the distractions can be a number of things not just unforgiveness, but also things like… indifference, impatience, apathy, pride, bitterness, hatred, gossip, control issues, envy, jealousy….the list is endless. Recently, we have experienced more and more pettiness and unkindness in the presidential campaign from both sides of the aisle and from our friends and family. It is a time to realize that each of us has a right to our own opinions and a responsibility in how we voice them.
Living in relationship with others means there are times that we have offended somebody and we know it. Up to now, there has been no reconciliation: the grudge hangs between the two of you. We do the same thing with God, when we think we’ve offended beyond repair. We stop praying when we know we’ve done something wrong. We no longer feel worthy to approach the goodness of God, feeling the strain of our sin, our separation from God, pursuing our will instead of God’s. And so we don’t try: God knows what I’ve done, we think, and I won’t be accepted. But of course, the reverse is true; God does know what we’ve done and we are accepted anyway. It is for this reason that Christ is among us: because we continually make a mess of things, whether through mistake or negligence or being strong-willed or being just plain stubborn, and we need help. God does not demand our perfection to be in relationship with us. God engages us first, and perfects us in time. We are all works in progress.
What is stopping us from calling out to God? It is too painful to remember that God already knows it all. What we did, what we should have done, and also why we did it or didn’t do it. However foolish, it is not beyond the power of God to forgive and heal. But you can’t regain the relationship with God or with anyone else, if we won’t talk, if we won’t open up. Nothing happens if we turn a deaf ear. Nothing happens if we harden our hearts.
Continue to think about what unforgiveness you are holding in your heart. Feel it like a solid presence, just like the obstacle that is preventing you from moving closer to God. What does it represent in your life? What is the obstacle, the burden that is weighing you down, that is preventing you from being all that you can be in your family, in your work, here at Grace Church? Are there unresolved issues and pain from your childhood? Is there conflict at work or within your family? Is your life filled with indifference, apathy, fear of rejection, pain, hurt that is keeping you from stepping up? Is there unforgiveness that has locked up your heart? God’s desire for all of us is healing and wholeness. Here is your opportunity to lay your burden down.
After this message, we will observe a moment of silence to allow our hearts to open to those things that are separating us from God. This will be the opportunity to give them to God as I pray. We can physically hold them up to God in our raised hands or picture that action in our mind. At times in my life, I have pictured a silver tray resting in my lap and on that tray, I place those things of unforgiveness. Then, I physically raise them to God so they are no longer a burden on my heart. Let the releasing of our obstacles that cause us to stumble make us better…not bitter. We are one body, the body of Christ and we can be of one heart, the heart of God, when we open our hearts and let Jesus bear our burdens. Amen.