It’s apparent that the early church struggled with forgiveness.
And we hear of Jesus instructions to Peter to forgive… not just seven times, but seventy seven times!
Well Peter doesn’t much like that answer and he appeals to a higher power… he writes God a letter!
Listen to Peter’s words:
I know it’s been a long time since I have written, but I think about you every day… I try to be faithful in my attendance at temple, my daily prayers and I tithe… well, at least some of the time…
Have you heard what your son is telling us? That we must forgive others, not just seven times, but seventy seven times? Do you really that that is reasonable? What about the Romans who have imposed harsh taxes on us? What about the merchant who tries to cheat me? What about the neighbour who allows his animals to stray into my courtyard and they eat my crops?
I get so angry when these things happen… and rightfully so… they are taking what is mine. Those people are breaking your commandments. Surely they are in the wrong! Surely you will bring vengeance down about them! Surely one day they will get their just desserts! Surely you do not expect me to forgive these kinds of transgressions! Surely, Jesus got your message mixed somewhere along the way.
Respectfully and anxiously awaiting your reply, your faithful servant, Peter.
Well, knowing the God responds to us, although not always in the way we expect, you will not be surprised to find that God wrote back to Peter.
Listen to what God wrote,
Peter, it is good to hear from you and to learn that you are one of my son’s followers. I am delighted that you are concerned for the adherence to my commandments. Surely with such zeal and passion, you will be a force to be considered in telling others about my love. And that’s what I want to tell you today.
You asked Jesus about forgiveness… and he told you the story of the slave whose master forgave his debts, but who in turn couldn’t forgive the much smaller debt of a fellow slave and demanded repayment. Jesus was telling you a story of my love… A love so deep, so wide, so vast that it can encompass all… from the greatest saints to the greatest sinners… and everything in between.
When Jesus spoke of forgiving seventy seven times, he was speaking of that vastness. He was also speaking of how difficult and challenging forgiveness can be for humanity.
And maybe you are still a bit confused about what forgiveness is.
Sometimes it is easier to start with what it is not:
• It is not accepting abusive behaviour
• It is not reconciliation, because that requires the other persons participation
• It is not forgetting the sin or the wrong done to you
• It is not about continuing to be in relationship with the one who has sinned against you.
Forgiveness is dipping your heart into my heart… allowing a bit of my love to flow through you to the one who wronged you. This may have no impact on that person… but trust me Peter; it will have an impact on you.
I look forward to hearing from you again Peter. In the meantime, listen to Jesus!
Friends, have you, like Peter, ever held a grudge? Feels good sometimes doesn’t it?
We can get on our high horse and feel self-righteous and guiltless. We can practically demonize the other… But is that what God wants for us? Is that the kind of life that God calls us to lead?
Whenever I have held study groups, the longest and most challenging discussions have been around forgiveness. We absorb the teachings of our culture that tell us to return vengeance with vengeance, hate with hate, and that some people and actions are unforgivable. Practicing forgiveness, and remember, practice means just that, practicing, making mistakes, gradually gaining confidence and expertise. The Christian practice of forgiveness is willing to be transformed by the message of God’s love and forgiveness of us. And offering that love and forgiveness to others.
I am going to elaborate a bit on what God said forgiveness is not and then share a few stories of communities and individuals who have offered forgiveness to those who wronged them.
• It is not accepting abusive behaviour; can you imagine a loving God, expecting anyone to accept abuse? And sometimes the abusive one is unrepentant, has no intention of changing behaviour and so perhaps you have to step away from the relationship.
• It is not reconciliation, because that requires the other person’s participation. Sometimes there is no possibility of reconciliation… sometimes the other doesn’t understand that a new relationship must be formed… one not based on past patterns of behaviour. Sometimes the person has died… in fact, I once found out that I had hurt a dear friend… but she hadn’t told me… and she has since died… there is no possibility for us to be reconciled… and I long to speak words of regret to her… but that is impossible… and so I offer them to God confident that my friend’s heart now dwells in God’s heart and knows my heart.
• It is not forgetting the sin or the wrong done to you. In fact, sometimes I would say that it is important for us to remember the sin… in order for us to recognize those patterns that are not part God’s plan for us. But it is also not being held captive by the wrong.
• It is not about continuing to be in relationship with the one who has sinned against you.
Sometimes all you can do is walk away… Jesus says pray for your enemies… pray for yourself… pray that God’s love and forgiveness will enter into each of your hearts.
Listen to a few stories of everyday people who allowed God’s forgiveness and love to enter their own hearts and thereby overflowed into the heart of the one who wronged them.
There were once a couple of young teenage boys who were goofing around throwing rocks off a highway overpass… the last thing they threw was a cement block, which landed right on the windshield of a car driven by a school teacher. The car slammed into the overpass, and as they later found out, killed the young woman instantly. The young boys ran away terrified, confessed to their parents a couple of days later who brought them to the police. There was a court appearance, in which they admitted their guilt, expecting, at the very least to be sent to a juvenile detention center. But the father of that teacher spoke as well… he said, “Don’t send them to jail… my daughter lived her life for her students, teaching them that there was always a better way… her life is over… don’t allow two more lives to be over… before they have even started.”
The judge saw the wisdom of that… but the boys did not get off scot free… the father entered into a relationship with them and told them about his daughter and the kind of life she had, the love she shared with her students and friends… and challenged them to make something of their lives to honour her. Those boys and the teacher’s father spoke at many schools… and they in turn both grew up and dedicated their lives to troubled teens. Forgiveness… the father dipping his heart into the well of God’s heart… offering love. (I didn’t note where I got the original story)
Malcolm Gladwell, a writer, tells this story in his latest book, David & Goliath. He interviewed a couple, Wilma and Cliff Derksen, whose daughter had been murdered thirty years previous. At that time a reporter interviewed them and asked, “How do you feel about whoever did this to Candace?” Cliff’s response was, “We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives.,” Wilma went next. “Our main concern was to find Candace. We’ve found her.” She went on: “I can’t say at this point I forgive this person,” but the stress was on the phrase at this point. “We have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to.”
Forgiveness… dipping their hearts into the well of God’s heart… offering love.
On a much larger scale in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission does not seek vengeance… instead wanted to end the cycle of violence that had plagued the country for so long.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu led that commission… stories were shared… perpetrators had to listen to the impact their actions had on the lives of those they wronged… each, perpetrator and victim had to give up retaliation.
One of Nelson Mandela’s famous quotes, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Forgiveness, dipping their hearts into the well of God’s heart… offering love.
Friends, forgiveness is a journey… it isn’t something that necessarily happens overnight.
A personal story of forgiveness that I have shared with the Study Group: I had a very challenging relationship with my supervisor while on internship, an internship that was a requirement for ordination. It was the longest, most miserable 8 months of my life. I came home depressed, disheartened, angry, and doubting my call to ministry.
With spiritual direction, prayer, the support of friends and family and the presbytery I gradually put that time into perspective, but I couldn’t forgive my supervisor. I prayed, almost daily, that I would let go of the anger and resentment. There were times that I thought I would carry it forever. And then one morning, around 7 years after I had been praying to be released from the anger and resentment, it was gone. I was no longer held captive by those feelings. I had forgiven him.
Timothy Haut, an on-line colleague writes, “So much of what Jesus commanded in the way of living our Christian lives springs out of the great mystery of God. God is this incredible well of love, like an enormous energy bursting at the heart of the universe.
We get wisps and trails of it all the time: an afternoon spent on a windy beach with a friend… a moment of shared communication with a spouse… a burden lifted after months of carrying it.
Then we do say or do something stupid and mean and the great flames seem to sink back and away from me, and then we are forgiven in spite of ourselves and we are changed again.
Forgiveness is not something we do as a technique to make us better than we were, to heal an old hurt, or to free us from a corrupting power that diminishes us.
Of course, forgiveness may do all that.
But forgiveness means that I willingly dip my heart into the well of God’s heart so that I may be a channel of that love.” (Paraphased -Timothy Haut – Midrash posting September 10, 2008)
My friends; let us dip our hearts into God’s heart, and be channels of that vast love. Amen.
Matthew 18: 21-35
Elmsdale Pastoral Charge