Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sermon: September 14 (Forgiveness)

Peter came and said to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” 77 times (or 70 times 7). We would lose count if we tried to keep track, which is the point. Jesus is talking about forgiveness beyond our calculation.

Forgiveness is not easy. As the old saying goes, to err is human, to forgive divine. And yet Jesus calls us to do just that, forgive our brother and sister. I think of the Amish in that Lancaster County village, who after five of their children were murdered in a one-room schoolhouse, began turning the other cheek, urging forgiveness of the killer and reached out to the killer’s family. Many members of that community supported the family that was left behind when the killer committed suicide.

"I hope they stay around here and they'll have a lot of friends and a lot of support," Daniel Esh, a 57-year-old Amish artist and woodworker whose three grandnephews were inside the school during the attack, said of the Roberts family. (from the AP)

Forgiveness is not easy and its not about someone else. It is about us. Our hearts and our lives. I believe it is the most challenging way to live, and yet it is at the heart of our following in faith if we are to be called disciples of Jesus Christ.

As the book of Ecclesiasticus puts it: “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned. Remember the end of your life, and set enmity aside; remember the commandments, and do not be angry with your neighbor; remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook faults.”

Sometimes that forgiveness is not sought until the end of our days… I think of the movie the Bucket list. Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson’s character): has terminal cancer, in the middle of the movie he talks about the estrangement from his daughter. He tried to help with an abusive husband and went too far and they hadn’t spoken since. Even after all he does on the list, it still nags at him that he is not reconciled with her. We see him finally after all, going to her house and asking for that forgiveness.

Forgiveness and our relationships are so intertwined that it speaks to how we live our lives of faith. We see this in Jesus’ teaching and in the parable of the unforgiving servant that we heard today.

The parable begins with a king. A king settling his accounts. When a slave who is brought to him owing him owing a huge sum, one he could not pay, he is ordered to be sold with his family to repay the debt. That is his prerogative. His slave, and he wants his money. Sell them. But the slave begs for mercy, promising to pay the king everything he owes, which of course as a slave he could never obtain that amount of wealth. Like a child who says he will stop x behavior to get out of a punishment that you known darn well he will repeat again…

But the king indeed does have mercy; he has a change of heart. He releases the slave and forgives the debt. That’s it. He expects nothing from the slave. No repayment necessary. Not even a little.

"But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt."

The slave who was freed does not understand the gift given to him by the king. So he refuses to show mercy to a fellow slave who owed him money and throws him into prison. The king hears about it and has him tortured until the debts are paid off because he did not have mercy and forgive his fellow slave. And how does Jesus end this?

“So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” That is blunt. Forgive your brother or sister or share the fate of the slave in the parable.

As one of my seminary professors has put it, “the main message of Jesus was about forgiveness. and how it transforms lives.” (Bill Coutryman)

The king in the parable was transformed because he forgave the slave. The slave did not understand or could not do it, so his life was not transformed and he suffered for it. Jesus who died on the cross for us, for the forgiveness of our sins, gives us that gift of grace. Forgiveness of our sins. Not because we earned it, or begged in the right way, but because God wanted to do that. It is offered to us, do we accept?

That acceptance is how we practice forgiveness in our own lives today, how it transforms us and our hearts. Do we forgive our spouse? Our child? Our relative? Our neighbor? Or do we hold on to their debts to us? Even if they don’t ask for it. Even if they don’t deserve it. Do we forgive them? Jesus says yes. Do we?

It reminds me that everyday, twice a day (morning and night), monks following the rule of St. Benedict say the Lord’s Prayer, because as the rule says, “this is done because of the harm that is often done in a community by the thorns of conflict which can arise.” They hear the words, “forgive us as we also forgive,” and are called to forgive one another, to be cleansed from the stain of such evil, so they can live with one another in love.

Could we adopt this practice in our homes? At our work, wherever we are? The practice of using the Lord’s Prayer to remind us of the forgiveness that we have received at Christ’s hand, and our call to forgive others. It can transform our lives if we are willing.

"Imagine this scenario:

You are sitting one night with your family. You are irritated, overtired and underappreciated. Something happens to push you beyond your patience and you suddenly lose your temper. You yell at everyone, tell them they are selfish and stupid, throw your coffee across the room, and stamp out, violently slamming the door to punctuate your anger. Then you sit in your room, alienated and feeling utterly and helplessly alone. Slowly, sanity and contrition overcome self-pity, but wounded pride and the rawness of what has just happened make it too embarrassing for you to go back and apologize. Eventually, you fall asleep, leaving things in that unreconciled state.

The next morning, now doubly contrite and somewhat sheepish, but still wounded in pride, you come to the family table. Everyone is sitting there having breakfast. You pick up your coffee cup (which didn’t break and someone has washed and returned to its hook!), pour yourself some coffee, and without saying a word, sit down at the table — your remorse and your wounded pride showing in every move. Your family is not stupid and neither are you. Everyone knows what this means. What is essential is being said, without words. You are making the basic move toward reconciliation, your body and your actions are saying something more important than words: I want to be part of you again. At that moment, the hemorrhaging stops (even if only for that moment). If you dropped dead on the spot, you would be reconciled with your family." [From The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality by Ronald Rolheiser.]

“Christ calls us to create within our families and communities that place and environment in which forgiveness is joyfully offered and humbly but confidently sought.” (Jay Cormier)

In his parables on forgiveness and reconciliation, Jesus calls everyone to be his disciples in the work of reconciliation, to be ready and willing to make the first move toward forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift that we can share. So will we be the king who forgives or the unforgiving slave?

Today let us remember the precious gift of life, and the gift of forgiveness, and share these gifts with our troubled and hurting world today, which may be as close as our own home. Amen.

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