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September 11, 2005 (Sunday 24 · Time after Pentecost)—“Forgiveness—Living in Christ's Vision for the World”

Pastor David Barber

Matthew 18:21-35; Genesis 50:15-21

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Some of you may remember a movie from several years ago entitled Dead Man Walking. This movie was taken from a book by the same title.

In the book and in the movie we meet a character by the name of Lloyd LeBlanc. He was a Roman Catholic layman and his son had been murdered.

When he arrived in the field with the sheriff's deputies to identify his son, he immediately knelt by his son's body and prayed "The Lord's Prayer." When he came to the words, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," he realized the depth of the commitment he was making.

"Whoever did this, I must forgive them," he said. Even though it has been difficult not to be overcome by bitterness and feelings of revenge that well up from time to time, he said that each day, for the rest of his life, forgiveness must be prayed for and struggled for and won.

What this father said reminds us that forgiveness is not always something that easily rolls off our tongues or fills our hearts with delight. Like the word love, forgiveness is used in so many convoluted ways that we don't often realize the price, the difficulty, and the impossibility of the practice of forgiveness.

Instead, we fill our conversations with pious cliques that are neither true nor helpful. You've heard them before, and maybe someone has even spoken them to you. For instance, "Forgive and forget" or "To err is human, to forgive divine"--and perhaps there are other cliques that you've heard as well.

But as Lloyd LeBlanc said, in some situations forgiveness must be prayed for every day. There's a process and a struggle here, and who knows, somewhere along the journey in this process and this struggle, we may receive and discover the gift of forgiveness.

In a helpful article by Garret Keizer in The Christian Century magazine, he writes, "If forgiveness is divine, then it is not an act of willpower but an operation of grace."

He continues, "When in my work as a pastor wounded people come to me with the confession that they cannot forgive, I do not tell them to 'try harder' or to 'move forward.' I ask them if they are able to pray for the grace to forgive.

"And if not, if they are at least willing to pray for the grace to say that prayer. And if even that is too difficult, if they are willing to express their refusal to God.

"But before asking God for the grace to forgive," he says, "a person might think to give thanks for the grace to be angry. Anger in the face of injury is a mechanism for survival, no less than the clotting of our blood. Forgiveness is the scar and it comes later. Anger comes first, and like all created things, it is good."

Our Gospel for last Sunday focused on the process that we need to follow when destructive behavior happens within the life of a congregation. The whole intent of this process, according to Matthew, is on regaining a brother or sister in Jesus Christ and healing a relationship that's been broken.

But now Peter comes to Jesus and wants to know if there are some limits on how many times we need to forgive a fellow Christian if that person keeps on sinning against him. Of course, Peter thought he was being generous by suggesting seven times, but instead, Jesus tells him, "There are no limits on the forgiveness asked of you."

Both our Gospels for last Sunday and this Sunday center on reconciliation within the community of Christ and how believers are to live in relation to one another. From that standpoint, our words for today may not apply to every situation that we may encounter in our world.

For instance, how does the practice of forgiveness apply to domestic violence, or to the physical and sexual abuse of children? Or on this fourth anniversary of 9/11, what about forgiveness in regard to acts of terror? How should believers respond to evil people in the world? Are there times when forgiveness needs to be withheld?

These words from Matthew can't give us a blanket answer that will apply to every situation. Although this Gospel may bring some new discoveries and thoughts which might be helpful for those circumstances outside of a faith community, such questions are probably better addressed in a longer forum than a 15-minute sermon.

In our reading for today Jesus tells a story about a slave who owed a king a large sum of money--10,000 talents to be exact. There's obviously some exaggeration here. King Herod's total income was only 900 talents a year.

One commentator said, "The annual payroll of General Motors North America is therefore somewhat smaller than, but comparable to, the value of 10000 talents--not in real dollars, but in purchasing power in the first century A.D."

This slave begs for mercy, and the king reached into his ledger book, took hold of the page, and ripped it into shreds. The king forgave the debt, and the slave was free to go.

This would be a wonderful story if it ended right here, but it doesn't. The forgiven slave ran into another slave who owed him 100 denarii. That's not a small amount. It equaled three months pay for a day laborer, but 100 dollars is small peanuts compared with 50 million dollars.

In a parable that talks about forgiveness, there's lots of violence, isn't there? At first, the king is ready to sell all the servant's possessions as well as the servant, his wife, and his children into slavery in order to gain back the money that is owed.

Then the forgiven servant seizes the fellow servant by the throat, threatens him, and throws him into prison. And then finally the angry king tortures the first servant until he pays the entire debt. That's not exactly a bedtime story for children where all the characters lived happily ever after, is it?

The theme of forgiveness is played out over against an alternative of terrible violence. But isn't that what sometimes happens when there is no forgiveness? Don't our lives and the world around us have the potential for violence when we live and act in an unforgiving manner?

In fact, Martha Stortz in the May issue of The Lutheran talked about the necessity for repentance in the process of forgiveness even for victims. Repentance is a necessary first step to put a roadblock in the bloody path of violence.

Why repentance? When we're wronged, "we can't control whether or not the offender repents," she says. "We can only confess our dark desire to retaliate."

She continues: "The Lord's Prayer demands repentance from everyone as we acknowledge the desire for revenge--and step away from it...It stands as the first movement in the miracle of forgiveness--and revenge is its chief temptation."

We might check this out by monitoring our reaction to the story that Jesus told. Aren't we somewhat delighted at the response of the king, and aren't we somewhat delighted to see what happened to the wicked servant at the end?

"What goes around, comes around," and this ungrateful little wretch received his due. The king acts in typical Clint Eastwood fashion to put this little dweeb in his place and we receive some satisfaction in that.

When we watch the scenes on television about some abuser or child molester, can't we identify with the victim who says, "I hope they take that animal out and torture him just like he did to my loved one."

And on this anniversary of 9/11 don't we resonate with this bumper sticker which says, "It's God's job to forgive Bin Laden. It's our job to arrange the meeting."

I'm not talking here about the need for justice in these situations. I'm talking about those feelings that go beyond justice and righteous anger. I'm talking about revenge and the smug satisfaction we feel when someone receives their due and retaliation has taken place.

Again Martha Stortz gives some guidance that is helpful. In forgiveness the enemy is not now magically morphed into friend or family. "The enemy is still an 'enemy.' But the relationship shifts from one of enmity to one of love." She quotes St. Augustine, who said, "Our enemies won't kill us--but our enmity will."

That doesn't mean that we trust those who have wronged us or we want to be friends with them or even like them. But rather we love them--as enemies.

Rabbi Harold Kushner in his book How Good Do We Have To Be? tells about a divorced woman who was still bitter and angry with her husband who left her for another woman and was behind on child support payments. She struggled with forgiveness.

The counselor said to her, "I'm not asking you to forgive him because what he did wasn't so terrible. I'm suggesting that you forgive him because he doesn't deserve to have this power to turn you into a bitter resentful woman.

"Your being angry at him doesn't harm him but it hurts you...Release that anger not for his sake...he probably doesn't deserve it...but for your sake, so that the real you can reemerge."

Is such love and forgiveness for our enemies possible? In Holy Baptism we are clothed once and for all with a forgiveness woven for us by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

So we look to Jesus--the one who said from the cross, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." He didn't say, "I forgive them," but he asked God to forgive them. Maybe he threw himself on his father's mercy, asking God to do what he could not do.

From the dark places of his abandonment maybe he leaned back on the greatest love of all, and he prayed for forgiveness even for his enemies.

We, too, lean back into this love and we pray for the grace, for the mercy, and for the courage to do what we cannot do on our own. God not only forgives us, but also gives us what we need, so that we, too, might minister in God's kingdom as forgiven forgivers.


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