This Sermon was preached the Rev. Nancy Vogele on September 17 2017, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The Gospel reading was Matthew 18:21-35.
When you were a kid and got into trouble for doing something that an adult didn’t think was nice to someone, didn’t you hate it when they said, “Say you’re sorry”? And didn’t it infuriate you even more when they said, “Say you’re sorry…and, this time, mean it.” I wasn’t sorry so how could I apologize, let alone mean it!
When I was in grade school – maybe 7 or 8 years old, I got into a fight with Johnny Meadows who lived behind us and across the street. I don’t know now why we got into a fight, but there we were on his front lawn duking it out. Now Johnny was one of 8 kids – all girls except for him and his youngest sibling. John was somewhere in the middle. Anyway, he and I were fighting on his front lawn when all of a sudden one of his older sisters came upon us. I don’t remember at all exactly what she said, but it was to yell at him for hitting a girl and then ushering him into their house. I found myself alone on the lawn and so decided I had won the fight.
I sauntered on home and was playing upstairs in my bedroom when the doorbell rang a bit later. My mom answered it and called upstairs to me, “Nancy, it’s Johnny Meadows. He wants to talk to you.”
So I came down the stairs and stood at the door – me on one side of the screen and Johnny standing on our front stoop on the other. He said rather formulaically, “I’m sorry I tried to beat you up.”
And then, with a hint of a devious smile, he gave me a defiant one fingered hand gesture and ran off!
You cannot make someone apologize and mean it if they don’t!
And as hard as it is to ask forgiveness and mean it, I find it sometimes even harder to offer forgiveness.
Many years ago, I felt that someone wronged me deeply. It was unjust and I felt deeply hurt. What was worse was that the person didn’t even give any indication that he felt he did anything wrong. In fact, he made the remark, “I hope we can continue to be friends.” Yeah, right!
I was also getting some pressure to just “forgive and forget.” This went against everything I was feeling.
I knew as a Christian that I needed to find a way to forgive him for hurting me. But I also intrinsically knew that I was allowed to take care of myself in the process – to not become a doormat for more hurt but also not to strike back, only causing more hurt.
And then someone gave me the book, Don’t Forgive Too Soon. The title alone was a healing balm and affirmed that forgiveness is a process that can’t be forced or rushed.
What I love about this book is applies the 5 stages that Elizabeth Kubler Ross observed in her dying patients to the process of forgiveness: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The book explains that hurts are like small deaths and to forgive is also an intentional decision to die to getting even or making the other pay…or being able to turn the clock back to before the offense and hurt.
As Christians, Jesus commands us to forgive and to not put a limit on that forgiveness. This is made clear in Jesus’ response to Peter’s inquiry in this morning’s Gospel lesson: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to Peter, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22). In other words, Peter, there is no limit to forgiveness.
But that doesn’t mean we also don’t take care of ourselves and our needs in the process.
So I read the book those many years ago and I really followed their suggestions. I took my time and I honored my legitimate needs but also, with their help, realized when I had gotten stuck in any stage and then worked that through as well. And I invited trusted people into that process with me.
One afternoon, I was lying on my bed, quietly pondering this situation and it dawned on my that, while I did not believe in reincarnation, this issue, this hurt would “reincarnate” itself again and again in my life until I was able to release its grip on me by forgiving the person. But what would that look like specifically since this person had never asked for or given any indication that he thought he needed any forgiving?
After some more thinking and praying, I realized what I needed to do and I felt energized. One day, while I was on my lunch break from my new job, I walked over to my former place of employment and went to my former boss’ office. He was there behind his desk and obviously surprised to see me. After exchanging hellos, I said, “I’ve been thinking for two years now what I wanted and needed to say to you and I’ve finally figured it out.” He swallowed hard and said, “Oh?”
And with as open a heart as I could muster, I said, “I love you.”
There was a slight pause and then he responded, “Well, that’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me today.” And then he hesitatingly asked, “Can I give you a hug?” I said sure and we hugged and then I went back to work.
Forgiving does not mean condoning what happened. Forgiving does not necessarily mean to be reconciled either. To this day, I don’t consider myself reconciled with him because we have never had a serious conversation about what really happened, but from that day in his office I have felt free of the burden of what happened.
The authors of Don’t Forgive Too Soon write, “Forgiveness does not mean tolerating abuse from the person who hurt us, but rather finding a healthy way to love ourselves and that person as well” (p. 54 in Don’t Forgive Too Soon).
More specifically they write, “Most of us know that we should forgive those who hurt us. But how can we forgive when we’ve tried everything we can think of, including prayer, yet we still feel stuck in a hurt? When we are hurt, most of us are tempted either to be a passive doormat or to strike back and escalate the cycle of violence. We can find more creative responses to hurts by moving through the five stages of forgiveness. The five stages help us extend two hands: one hand that stops the person who hurt us and the other hand that reaches out”…to “offer [that person] our wish for his or her highest good.” ((Preface, p. iv and p. 9)
It is difficult to ask forgiveness; it is difficult to forgive; and it is difficult to accept forgiveness.
The unforgiving slave, in actuality, did not ask forgiveness from his King – he just asked for more time to pay him back. To ask for forgiveness is to make yourself extremely vulnerable to the one you wronged – it is to admit that you wronged them and there’s nothing you can do to make it right.
The unforgiving slave still thinks he can balance the books even though it’s clear from the parable that he can’t. He owed the king tens of millions of dollars. The king, however, knows it’s impossible so, for reasons only known to him, the king doesn’t just accept the slave’s proposal of repayment, he out and out forgives the debt – as one commentator wrote, the king “simply drops dead to the whole business of bookkeeping.” (Robert Farron Capon, The Parables of Grace, p. 47). To accept the king’s forgiveness would have necessitated that the slave also drop dead to the whole business of bookkeeping. But he can’t. He runs into his fellow slave who owed him a few bucks and demands payment. When the fellow slave pleads for more time, he showed no mercy – let alone forgiveness.
He could not or would not die to his illusion of being able to pay the King back. It is so difficult to accept forgiveness because that forces us to die to the belief that we didn’t do anything wrong, that we didn’t cause real hurt.
But we do do wrong things. We do cause real hurt. We aren’t perfect. We sin.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.
The hurt has been inflicted. The wrong has been committed.
Neither side can fix it or do something to make it as if it didn’t happen.
But it can be healed…with and by forgiveness. Only genuine forgiveness – from the heart – releases all from the torturous state that the hurt has caused.
True forgiveness sets us all free – all of us free.
Scripture says that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). And yet,
God shows his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us – Christ [chose to love us to the end – even if that meant death on the cross] (Romans 5:8).
John wrote, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
And from the cross Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
God has forgiven us – set us free from the whole business of bookkeeping. All we have to do is accept the unearned grace that God offers. But if we want to experience the joy of grace in us, we must let grace have its way through us (Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace, p. 50). In other words, since forgiveness is an undivided whole, it is impossible to live in God’s forgiveness without “forgiving your brother or sister from your heart.”
I do not think that we take seriously enough the type of life we are to have with each other as fellow members of the Body of Christ. How can we expect to be a witness of God’s love and forgiveness in this world, if we do not forgive our brothers and sisters from our heart? We cannot simply be nice to one another. We must be “kind, tendered hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven [us]” (Ephesians 4:32).
Paul writes that forgiving a brother or sister in Christ is precisely how we reaffirm our love for one another (2 Corinthians 2:5-8).
And Christ commanded us to love one another. On the night before his suffering and death, Jesus said to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13:34-35)
Later that same evening, he prayed on behalf of all believers, “May they become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:23).
Since we are not perfect, the only way we can genuinely experience and bear witness to this love and unity is by forgiving from the heart…again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again…