God Values: Forgiveness
Where were you when it happened? That is a question you might have been asked this week. Where were you on 9-11-01 when you head the news? I was in seminary. I had just started my internship at our United Methodist interfaith agency, located in the Upper West Side of Manhattan – I worked on Mondays and Fridays, and had put in just two days before September 11th. I was feeling pretty brave about going to work in the big city, riding the trains and the subway, being part of the commuter crowd. Thankfully, I was not in Manhattan on 9-11. I had been the day before.
On the morning of the 11th, I, not surprisingly to those of you who know me well, was still asleep when the first plane hit the towers. Soon after, I was up and at the bookstore, when I heard a radio report saying something about a plane and a building, but I didn’t pay it much attention. I then went to the library, where I overheard a woman telling a work-study student that it was ok if he didn’t feel like working that day. And I couldn’t log onto cnn.com on the computers. But I still didn’t know what was happening. It wasn’t until I made my way to Seminary Hall, and began talking with other students, that I realized exactly what was happening. And so eventually the fear set in, the sadness, the anxiety. In the coming weeks, I found it hard to get over my fear of going back to the city for work, hard to relax on public transportation, hard to operate through fire drills at my office building there. And I found it hard to watch how we reacted as a nation, and as a world community to these events, how quickly the climate of the world changed. Today you’ll still hear the phrase, “in a post 9-11 world . . . ʺ
Into the midst of this day, ten years later, our lectionary, our schedule of scriptures, brings us a passage about forgiveness, and it is hard for me not to marvel at the mystery of how God is at work even in which Bible text we are meant to read when. It is certainly no mistake. Our passage from Matthew today comes in the middle of a series of teachings from Jesus. The disciples have asked Jesus some questions, and he has responded, teaching about not being stumbling blocks for one another, talking about it being better to enter God's kingdom without a foot or hand rather than to stumble and stray because of it. He speaks about conflict in the community, recommending a course of action if someone has sinned against you. And then, perhaps in response to this teaching, Peter asks Jesus: ʺLord, if another member of the faith community sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?ʺ Now, the way Peter asks his question gives you an idea that he thinks he is being pretty broad in his suggested response. As many as seven times? Peter asks and lets Jesus know he thinks seven times is a lot. See, Peter is learning, even though he stumbles. He is learning from Jesus and has learned that Jesus is pretty extravagant sometimes – not when it comes to having things and possessions and money. But extravagant about his relationships with others. Jesus is pretty extravagant with his compassion, justice, and mercy. Always going farther than anyone else was prepared to go. Peter, I suspect, thinks he will impress Jesus, by saying he suspects you might need to forgive someone up to seven times if they sin against you! Seven times!
Jesus replies, “Nice try, Peter. Try seventy seven times. Seventy seven.” In other words, stop counting how many times you have forgiven, and then you are on the right track. And then Jesus tells a parable, about the kingdom of heaven, saying, “It’s like this. A king wanted to settle his debts. He called forward a slave who owed him 10,000 talents. The slave could not pay, so the king prepared to sell the slave, his family, and his possessions to make the payment. But the slave begged for mercy and patience, promising to pay. The king had mercy and cancelled the entire debt and released the slave, beyond what the slave asked for. But later, the same slave encounters a peer who owes him a small sum of money, a hundred denarii. He violently demands payment, and when his peer can’t pay, and begs for mercy, the slave denies him mercy, and has him thrown in prison. When the king finds out about it, he calls the slave before him. ‘How could you not show mercy to your fellow slave, as I showed you mercy?’ Finally, the king hands the slave over and requires payment for the debt.” Jesus concludes, saying that this is how it will be with us if we do not forgive one another.
When we say the Lord's prayer here at First United, we say, ʺforgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.ʺ We say it that way in particular to honor our Presbyterian heritage, as we honor our Methodist history in other ways, like through our hymnal choice. I grew up saying trespass and trespasses in the Lord's Prayer, and it took me a while to get the hang of saying debts and debtors, especially when I am still often at conference events that require me to switch back to trespasses! But I have to tell you, having to remember where I am and which words I am supposed to say each time I pray the prayer has helped me to think about it more deeply when I pray, instead of running quickly through familiar words. I have to really think about what I am saying every time. And what am I saying? Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
There has certainly been enough talk about debt, lately, hasn’t there? We know a little more about national debt and debt ceilings and all that than most of us probably ever knew before. Or at least we've worried about it more than usual. But the debt we are probably most familiar with is our own. Who are you in debt to? And is anyone in debt to you? We probably know that pretty well too. But think particularly about to whom you are in debt – who do you owe? Most of us, unless we are extraordinarily lucky, are in debt to someone financially. Student loans – I am pretty sure I will have those until I am too old to remember what I even studied in college. Car payments, or mortgage payments. Credit cards. Taxes. Utility bills. Rent. To whom are you in debt, and for what? And then, imagine, imagine that your creditor, whoever you owe simply cancels your debt. Not that you suddenly have so much money you can pay off everything you owe. No, but imagine that your debt is just gone, cancelled. What does that feel like? Can you feel the weight that is lifted? The anxiety, the stress, the worry that would be just gone. No more burden.
How often should I forgive? Cancel someone's debts? Forgiveness is a tricky thing, isn’t it? We’re willing to go only so far before we start wanting to know about limits – how much, how often, who must we forgive and in what circumstances? Today’s world demands answers to these questions. Can we forgive even when forgiveness entails life and death situations? Do you believe such extreme forgiveness is possible? What shapes will forgiveness take when we think of the tragedy of September 11th? And all these questions about human forgiveness lead us to God’s forgiveness. Can God forgive us? Does God forgive all sins from all sinners? What are the conditions of forgiveness? Are there conditions? Are there conditions to God canceling the debt of our sinfulness? Our believing in the possibility of forgiveness works both ways. If we believe that human forgiveness is possible, then forgiveness from God is certain. And in order for us to believe that we are truly forgiven and reconciled people, truly forgiven by God and given the chance, again, for right relationship with God, then we must also believe in the possibility of human forgiveness, reconciliation in human relationships.
How should we forgive? Let me say briefly but clearly what I don’t think Jesus is saying here about forgiveness. His call for our compassion and bottomless forgiveness is not a call for people to remain trapped in abusive relationships, or a call for victims of violence to remain victims of violence. God wants wholeness for all of us. Forgiveness comes in the simple and complicated form of canceling the debt of wrong-doing done against us, letting go of what is owed to us by another.
But let me tell you what else I really don’t think Jesus is talking about. Jesus isn’t really addressing his teaching to those who need to ask for forgiveness. This passage isn’t about, primarily, those who are sinners (although that is really all of us, mind you), those who stand in need of forgiveness (again, all of us, really.) Jesus has lots to say about our sinners and how we sin, but this isn’t it. This passage is about those of us who feel someone owes us something, those of us who feel someone is in our debt, those of us who feel someone needs to seek out our forgiveness. Peter wants to know how much forgiveness he has to pay out. That is what prompts Jesusʹ teaching. Ultimately, we can only be responsible for our own actions. You can only decide whether or not you will forgive. You can’t control whether or not someone feels sorry for wronging you, whether they have done enough to make up for hurting you, or even how they will behave in the future, if they really mean their apology, if they will hurt you again or not. Jesus doesn’t really make comment on any of these questions. Because you can only choose how you will behave when someone is in your debt. How often do we forgive? Seven times? Seventy-seven times. Jesus is calling us to forgive like he does, like God does – extravagantly, recklessly, without counting up the cost and how much we were owed and how much debt we cancelled.
In these next few weeks, we are looking at what I have been thinking of as God-values. God has a way of taking our values and turning them inside out and showing us how much we have missed the mark, how much richer our lives would be if we could begin to see and act with God's eyes and heart. I think we look at someone owing us a debt, and we think of that as power – when we are owed something, it gives us a sense of power over, even if we have that power because we have been wronged. But Jesus finds power, strength, life in letting go of one kind of power to take up another. Jesus, instead of trying to show off his strength, always makes himself more vulnerable. Even on the cross, dying, at his most vulnerable, Jesus exposes his heart to the world even more, speaking of forgiveness even as he is put to death. There is a different, deeper kind of strength and power in laying our hearts bear, emptying our souls of the resentment we feel toward those who have harmed us. Forgiveness is a God-value, a gift from God to us, and a gift that continues to bless us when we share it with others.
We’re given a reminder, even as we pray familiar words: God, forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. God asks for us to share with others the same forgiveness with which God blesses us. Is it easy work? No. Like Peter, we want to know – have we done enough yet? But God promises us that practicing forgiveness is life-giving, where withholding forgiveness only hurts us. There is much in this world to forgive. There is much for which we seek forgiveness. So we struggle, we try harder, both in forgiving those who have sinned against us, and in asking forgiveness where we have caused harm. But wherever we find ourselves in our struggles, we can trust that we find ourselves free of debt, completely covered by God’s boundless forgiveness. Let us go, and live likewise. Amen.