9/14/14 Sermon (September 14, 2014)

posted Nov 6, 2014, 12:06 PM by David Hawkins

The Discipline of Forgiveness

Scripture Reading: Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, “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.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.
So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.
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. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.
Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Sermon: "The Discipline of Forgiveness"             Rev. David Hawkins

As we saw last week, Jesus knows that there is no such thing as a perfect church. We need not fear the reality that conflict happens in church, even in our church, that people get hurt, that people act like, well, people. Jesus knew very well that the church he was building was an imperfect institution, filled with imperfect people, pursuing imperfect agendas, for imperfect reasons.

It took me a long time to accept this. I have worked in the church since 1989, and I confess that for the first several years, I was intolerant of the imperfect people who dared commit ministry in the name of Jesus all around me. I was intolerant of their hypocrisy, of their failings, of their sins, and of their suspect reasons for being at church. I am not proud of this. It took me a long time really understand that a church is not a Club Med for saints. It took me even longer to embrace the reality that the church is actually a hospital for sinners. And that means you, and that means me. And that means us, and that means them.

And when we read these scriptures from Matthew, we are reminded that even at the very early formation of the church, the issues that plague us today, especially issues about how to deal with each other in the church were already being addressed by Jesus.

Mostly because Peter keeps asking these questions that are on everybody’s mind. Questions that in some ways might seem to be stupid and self-serving, but are really quite heartfelt and legitimate. I can’t always tell if Peter is just being dumb, or if he’s the only one with the courage to ask Jesus how all this stuff is actually going to play out in real life.

Today it’s about forgiveness. Specifically, Peter wants to know how much is enough. How much is too much? When can we finally stop forgiving someone else? What are the limits of our grace? When we can just be done with someone, wipe our hands and walk away?

I wonder if Peter has someone in mind. These sorts of questions usually have some basis in reality. And I’ll bet we all have someone in mind. We all have been in relationships with people who have repeatedly broken our trust. We know what Peter is asking. When can we quit trying to forgive someone who has only caused us pain?

And, Jesus, like he does, answers Pater’s question with a story. A king somewhere decides to balance the books of his kingdom. He questions one of his servants, obviously a servant in some kind of high position, with some kind of financial responsibility, and discovers that the ledger is a bit off. In fact it’s quite a bit off. Specifically, the books are 10,000 talents away from balancing.

Now, that’s an outrageous amount. It’s an absurd amount. When these words, talent and ten thousand are tossed around, they become almost meaningless, they are so big. There is no practical way for the servant to be responsible for this kind of debt. This debt goes well beyond the servant’s ability, not just to pay back, but to have incurred it in the first place. This sort of debt is overwhelming. It cannot be even imagined.

But lets try. Let’s try to imagine the debt for just a second.

First off, one talent, assuming we use the standard heavy common talent which was used in Jesus’s time, is equal to one-hundred thirty pounds of gold; so, one-hundred thirty pounds of gold, times ten thousand talents equals, are you ready, one million, three hundred thousand pounds of gold. So, if we multiply that times sixteen, we now have twenty million, eight-hundred thousand ounces of gold.

Now unfortunately, the price of gold has gone down some in the last couple of months, which my trusted broker at Goldline.com told me was un-possible, but still, gold is down to about one-thousand two hundred and 30 dollars an ounce. So, multiply that times twenty million, eight hundred thousand ounces, and you start to get the idea.

The servant has somehow, inexplicably,  lost track of over twenty five and half billion of today’s dollars. That’s quite a bit. A billion is a big number. A billion is a thousand million. A million minutes ago, we celebrated Wiley’s fifteenth birthday at the manse. A billion minutes ago, Jesus celebrated his 30th birthday at a wedding in Cana. Twenty-five billion minutes ago, modern humans celebrated their first birthday in Europe hunting wooly mammoths. Twenty-five billion dollars is a lot of money.

So, if the first servant wanted to pay this gigantic amount of money back, even if he made as much as Tony Romo per year, which some people feel is too much, it would take 1500 years to pay off the debt. Of course, that assumes that Romo continues his current rate of interceptions, and we disregard the welcome reality that he will become an unrestricted free agent in 2020.

Anyway, twenty five billion is a lot. And the King forgives it. And then the servant immediately goes out and acts in way that indicates that either he had really no earthly idea of what had just happened, or that he had forgotten the whole thing. In any case, he’s not acting like someone who had just been forgiven the largest debt in the history of the world.

He immediately, violently extorts a debt of about six thousand dollars, a debt that is less than two to the negative 7 percent of what he owed the King. I’m not enough of a mathematician to know what that really means, but the point is that when we compare the two debts, the second amount becomes infinitesimally small.

That’s not to say that the second debt is insignificant. Six thousand dollars is a chunk of change. It’s a real debt. The point of the story is not to minimize the amount the second servant owes. The point is to put it into perspective.  That what Jesus is trying to get us to do. It doesn’t matter if we multiply the debts owed us seventy times seventy times seventy, we will never get that number to stack up against what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It’s not just a matter of forgiveness. It’s a matter of eternal life.

Maybe we should talk about what forgiveness really is while we talk about how much we’re supposed to do it. Because part of our problem with the idea of forgiveness is that we have confused it with giving people permission to continue to do the things that requires forgiveness in the first place.

The most egregious example of this mistaken view of forgiveness has been the advice that too many church leaders have given women over the years to forgive their husbands when they are beaten by them. This is not what Jesus is talking about, and it is not something the church can support or tolerate. Forgiveness is not the same thing as submission to violence. Forgiveness is not the same thing as martyrdom.

The church is absolutely called to protect those who cannot protect themselves, and to ensure that those who commit violence are restrained from doing so. The suggestion on the part of a church leader for a battered wife to accept her situation as the will of God has absolutely no basis in the liberating, healing, shalom-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ. Forgiveness does not mean that we must remain physically or emotionally or spiritually captive to any kind of abuse.

Forgiveness also does not mean that the abuser gets to go free. Forgiveness is not linked to the criminal justice system. We are all accountable for our actions, regardless of whether we are forgiven, or not. If I steal from someone, I am liable for those actions, whether God forgives me or not. If I kill someone, I am liable for those actions, whether God forgives me, or not.

Forgiveness does not mean that there are no repercussions. Forgiveness does not assume that there are no expectations for changed behavior. Forgiveness does not mean we are exempt from following the communities legal standards. Forgiveness is not the licence to continue to hurt, to steal, to abuse, to sin. Anyone who assumes that forgiveness means that we can do anything that we want has not learned the lesson of the first servant of today’s parable, and simply does not understand forgiveness.

But what is forgiveness, if it’s not these things? What is the forgiveness that Jesus is teaching his disciples about? What is the forgiveness that we are to continue offering, seventy times seven?

Jesus reminds us that when we live with hate in our lives the only person who is damaged is us. Living with old grudges, with the overwhelming desire to exact revenge is like my sister used to say about her ex-husband, it’s like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies. Hate corrodes our own souls and accomplishes nothing. Forgiveness is a decision to release someone who has wounded us from our judgment. It’s a choice to let go of our resentment, to relinquish our need for retribution.

In other words, forgiveness means making a choice to let go of the anger and the desire for revenge that being hurt naturally provokes in us. It means choosing to break the power that old grudges and hurt feelings hold over our lives.  

But this is a hard thing to do. Because the anger we feel, and the desire for revenge we feel is absolutely justified. A six thousand dollar debt might not mean much compared to a twenty five billion dollar debt, but it’s still a real debt. Our need for retribution burns white hot in us, and we want to see justice done on our terms, preferably by our own hands.

And so Jesus has to shock us out of our justifiable rage. He resorts to hyperbole to remind us that we ourselves are liable for our own sin, a sin much greater than the sins of those with whom we are angry. We ourselves have sinned by action and inaction, not just against God, but against our neighbors, both here around us, and far away around the world.

We have tolerated, even condoned the use of torture in the name of national security. We have killed innocent civilians with our smart bombs and called it collateral damage. We have stood by and watched as religious communities in far away places were besieged and slaughtered by religious extremists. We support corrupt governments in countries that hold commodities that we consume.  We perpetuate inhumane working conditions in third world countries with our insatiable need for the cheapest most up to date technological gadgets and fashionable clothes.

We gossip, we cheat, we judge others, we are arrogant, we are miserly, we use our power in unfair ways, we withhold compassion, generosity, and charity. We look away when people are in pain, and we walk away when we are asked for help. We are, all of us, in deep need of forgiveness.

Jesus reminds us that when we do not forgive, we ourselves have forgotten what it feels like to have been forgiven. We have forgotten what it feels like to receive grace. We have forgotten what it feels like to have been released from the debt we know we owe. We have forgotten what it feels like to be told by God that we are ourselves forgiven and are free from our sin.

And maybe that’s the grace that we find in the discipline of forgiveness. The act of forgiving someone else depends on remembering that we ourselves are forgiven. Forgiving someone else, even when that debt is significant, even when it hurts us, means that we are living into the forgiveness offered by God. Forgiving others means remembering and experiencing the grace of being forgiven.

And this is good news. Because we are forgiven. We are forgiven a debt we could not possibly repay. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven not just our sins, we are forgiven death itself. And when we remember that forgiveness, we live in grace - grace that is sufficient to forgive our debtors. Even when we don’t like it, even when we don’t feel like it, even when our anger is justified, and the desire for revenge real and understandable. That’s what grace is. And we can only truly know it and experience it when we grant it to other people.

Thanks be to our God of grace. Amen.