Paula Northwood October 28, 2018
Scriptures Psalm 25:11–22; Matthew 18:21–35
The text this morning is relatively easy to understand but incredibly difficult to put into practice. Peter asks: “How many times should I forgive someone who hurts me? Seven times?” We can get distracted by the numbers, seventy times seven, but the point is: a lot! You don’t stop; you are to keep on forgiving others.
The parable that Jesus tells is more difficult for us to hear. The King, representing God, forgives a huge debt; in fact, no debt is too large to be forgiven. But remember this is a parable; the point is not just about forgiving monetary debt. The forgiven servant, who represents us, is unwilling to forgive another of even a lesser amount. And then we hear the dire consequence about when we are unwilling to forgive. If we hold on to our hurts, grudges and unwillingness to forgive, we suffer, and we cut ourselves off from God.
Certainly we know that forgiveness is important. This should not be news to us. We acknowledge and pray it every Sunday. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We pray those words with ease and familiarity, but do we think about the meaning? More importantly, do we live our prayer? Do you live this prayer? How do you live this prayer?
Forgiving our debtors or those who trespass or sin against us is the salve that begins to heal our wounds. Over the last three Sundays, we have preached about healing. Dan preached on confession: How we need to expose our wounds to the air in order for them to heal. Seth preached on repentance and how it includes two parts: saying “I’m sorry” and then asking “How can I make it better?” This morning, we will look at forgiveness as a part of healing. If we want to be made whole, more alive, more grace-filled, then we need to look at forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a gift for “the other.” Forgiveness is about us.
We know forgiveness is not easy. We often say to each other things like “Forgive and forget.” It reminds me of the couple who may or may not be my grandparents, Alma and Earl. Earl did something hurtful, and Alma chewed him out for it. Earl apologized; they made up. However, from time to time, Alma would mention what he had done. “Honey,” Earl finally said one day, “Why do you keep bringing that up? I thought your policy was ‘forgive and forget.’” “It is,” Alma said. “I just don’t want you to forget that I’ve forgiven and forgotten.”
Forgiveness is challenging and painful work. It is something we must practice every day. I wrote this sermon before the shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue and debated whether to change my examples of forgiveness because they are in response to gun violence. I want to make sure I am not misunderstood. These acts of violence are horrendous, and we must do everything in our power to keep them from happening. The appropriate response is outrage and a commitment to action. If there is any forgiveness to be given, that will happen later. The examples I am sharing today required years of hard work.
Some of you will remember 12 years ago, when a gunman barricaded himself inside a one-room Amish schoolhouse near Lancaster, Pa. Then he opened fire. Charles Roberts killed five children and injured five others before killing himself. The Amish community responded in a way that many found surprising: They forgave the shooter. In the hours after the massacre, as Amish parents still waited in a nearby barn for word about whether their daughters had survived, an Amish man named Henry arrived at the Roberts home with a message: The families did not see the parents of the shooter as an enemy. Rather, they saw them as parents who were grieving the loss of their child, too. And, in the years since, the Amish have grown close to his family.
The Amish culture closely follows the teachings of Jesus, who taught his followers to forgive one another and to rest in the knowledge that God is present in their suffering. Love and compassion toward others is to be a way of life. Vengeance and revenge are to be left to God.
The world watched in amazement on the day of the shooter’s funeral as nearly 30 Amish men and women, some the parents of the victims, came to the cemetery and formed a wall to block media cameras. Parents, whose daughters had died at the hand of the Roberts’s son, approached the couple after the burial and offered condolences for their loss.
But the Amish did more than forgive the couple once. They went far beyond kind words. They embraced them as part of their community. When Charles Roberts’s mother underwent treatment for Stage 4 breast cancer, one of the girls who survived the massacre helped clean her home before she returned from the hospital. In the intervening years, Mrs. Roberts has spent nearly every Thursday evening at an Amish family’s home caring for a child who was severely disabled by her son. These Amish families are still consciously deciding to forgive every day. For the father of the disabled child, forgiveness has not come easy. His daughter survived, but he also lost her. Every day, he fights his anger. Every day, he has to forgive again.
A number of years ago, I attended a workshop on nonviolence here in this church and listened to several mothers who have lost their sons through gun violence. I heard them share remarkable stories of forgiving the ones who caused their children’s deaths. They were amazing testaments to the power of forgiveness. But they, too, said forgiveness doesn’t happen with one decision. It must be renewed every morning.
Most of us have some hurt we can’t let go. Sometimes it is something small. It is often unkind words or unknowingly dismissive words or actions that hurt our feelings. And for some reason, we need to hang on to it. We tell the same stories of hurt over and over, trying to evoke sympathy and confirmation from others. We have suffered and we want people to know about it, to join us in judging others. It reminds me of a rather poignant story I once heard about a person carrying around a dead cat asking people to pet it. Our hurts, grudges and resentments are like a dead cat that we carry around in our arms and ask people to pet. We want other people to see how we have been wronged. We are afraid our suffering will have been in vain if others don’t see it. But no amount of petting the dead cat will bring it back to life! We need to put the cat down and give it a proper burial. And it’s not that we won’t visit the graveside on occasion, but true forgiveness and freedom is found when we no longer dig up the cat.
It is unhealthy to define our existence by how we’ve been hurt or wronged. It only hardens our hearts and separates us from God. Can we take the risk to love ourselves, to validate our existence, pain and all, from the center out? We are loved and forgiven by God. True forgiveness waits in letting go of our ledgers of injustice and retributions in order to gain feeling in our hearts. Deep healing comes from the exchange of our hurts and resentments for the inner freedom that comes by softening and becoming vulnerable.
Learning to show up every day with a forgiving heart is a spiritual practice. It is a way of being in the world. It’s not easy—that’s why it is a practice. Every day we can choose to walk and talk the forgiveness we have received from God. Then we choose again, and again, and yet again to forgive. For most of us, forgiveness is a process that we live into, and sometimes we just can’t. The pain is too much; the wound too raw; the memories too real. On those days, we must lean into God and this community, who can hold that pain until we are ready. Sometimes we must enlarge the container, which is what makes us a “people of God.”
A Zen master grew tired of his apprentice’s complaints. The old master instructed the unhappy young man to put a handful of salt in a glass of water and drink it. “How does it taste?” the master asked. “Bitter,” spat the young man. The master chuckled and then asked the young man to take another handful of salt—the same amount. The two walked in silence to the nearby lake, and when the young man swirled his handful of salt into the lake, the master said, “Now drink from the lake.” As the water dripped down the young man’s chin, the master asked, “How does it taste?” “Good!” remarked the young man. “Do you taste the salt?” asked the master. “No,” said the young man. The master sat beside this troubled young man, took his hands and said, “The amount of pain in life remains the same, exactly the same. But the amount we taste the ‘pain’ depends on the container we put it into. So when you are in pain, the only thing you can do is to enlarge your sense of things. Stop being a glass. Become the lake. Enlarge the container.”
Like Peter, we ask, “How many times must we choose to forgive?” How many times have you cringed at the sight, the name or the memory of another? How many times have you replayed in your head the argument with another? That’s how many times we are asked to forgive.
What we know from those who have been successful in forgiving others is that forgiveness creates space for new life. The Amish parents and the mothers of sons killed carried deep hurt, but they also had a freedom that only comes from forgiveness. Forgiveness is an act of hopefulness and resurrection—new life—for the one who forgives. It is the healing of our souls. Forgiveness takes us out of darkness into light, from death to life. It disentangles us from the evil of another. It is the refusal to let our future be determined by the past. It is the letting go of the thoughts, the betrayals, the hatred and the fear that fills us, so that we might live and love again.
What is it that is keeping you stuck? What is it that keeps us as a faith community from forgiving each other? What is at the bottom of our need to hang on to old hurts and wounds? Can we confess our wrongdoing as well as wounds and give them some light and air? Can we say we are sorry and ask “How can we make it better?” Can we practice forgiveness daily and put down our old hurts, betrayals and resentments? Can we work to make this community a place of health, wholeness and freedom? May it be so. Amen.