Sermon: “Forgive us our sins…”

Matthew 18:232-35

So we get started early in life, this keeping track, counting how many times we have been wronged.  Remember complaining:  “She hit me three times!”  or “He has left his towel on the floor in the bathroom every day this week!”  Tally marks.  Just like the artwork on the screen.  Peter was a scorekeeper too.  He knows forgiveness is expected, but he wants to know how much forgiveness is required.  How many times do I need to forgive someone for the same wrong?   He is making forgiveness into a law you can measure yourself against– you either measure up or you don’t, just like your swim time meets the time required to enter a particular race or it doesn’t.  Being close doesn’t cut it.  Well, Jesus could have laughed in Peter’s face at his misunderstanding of what forgiveness is all about.  But, being Jesus, he never makes fun of us or puts us down in front of others.  He just tells a story.  A story to teach about forgiveness.  Forgiveness is not a law you can keep or something that you can tally up.  It is about strengthening and healing damaged relationships with real people in your everyday life. You may as well say that you must forgive someone 77 times (or maybe 70 x 7 times)– no one is going to keep track to that extent, so there is clearly no need to tally it up.

I have a story to tell you too.   This one is true, and it happened in Minnesota too.  It is about Mary Johnson, a single mother with one son living in Minneapolis.  Due to a conflict with another young man, her son was shot and killed before he turned 20.  Oshea Israel, the murderer, was sent to prison.  The grieving mother was angry, of course.  But as the years went on, she realized something about forgiveness:  the past can not be changed and the past does not have to hold us captive, bitter, angry, isolated in pain.  She prayed a lot about her situation and Oshea’s situation.  She felt called to go to the prison and visit her son’s murderer.  Over a period of time, with repeated visits, she got to know him better and better, and when it was time for him to be released, she talked with her landlady and arranged for Oshea to move into the next door apartment.  All that separated their living spaces was a door jamb and their shared wall.  Their relationship is more than just neighbors.  Mary has supported Oshea in his return to life outside the walls of the prison, and he supports her, providing a presence of another son in many ways.  Mary decided that forgiveness was the way to live.  It doesn’t erase what happened.  It doesn’t remove the need for him to pay the consequences for taking the life of another.  But it transforms two lives, breaking down the walls of two invisible prisons.  Forgiveness provides freedom from the restricting prison of bitterness and anger on her part and from the unending state of deep guilt on his part.  Forgiveness provides freedom for two new lives.

I think the Mary’s ability to forgive such an act of violence is a lot like the king in Jesus’ story.  He forgave his servant a debt that was preposterous, unimaginable.  The debt amount of 10 talents would be equal to 150 years of a laborer’s wages.  What?  How could someone have ever amassed such a high level of debt in the first place?  When Jesus tells stories he often exaggerates to the extreme in order to make a point.  The king had compassion, literally a gut wrenching concern, for the servant who begged to be forgiven and promised he would pay back every cent.  Right.  In his head, the king had to know that it would have been impossible for him to pay back the debt.  Ever.  And in his gut, the king felt a concern for this guy and his family, all of whom had been sold into slavery for lack of payment on the debt.  The king listened to his gut and released the man and his family, freeing him from the huge burden of debt.

What is the value of a  human life?  It is priceless. No matter what price was set on a person’s head by a slave buyer it could never approximate the value of a human life.  The value of a human life is so astronomical that you can not put a number on it. Like the wages for billions of hours of labor.  Yet we continue to set values on life through our legal system, with a judge or a jury exacting x number of years in prison for murder depending on the facts of the particular case.  The value of the murdered person’s life is set by the law.  Try telling that to a grieving family who knows that no number of years in prison will ever bring their loved one back to them.

The end of Jesus’ story is equally as unimaginable and preposterous.  The very idea that someone who had been forgiven monumentally would not extend forgiveness for a much smaller debt, an amount equaling about 100 days of wages, is ridiculous.  Everyone can see it.  The forgiven servant has no compassion, no gut wrenching response of concern for the man who owes him a paltry sum.  The point is as clear as a bell.  Forgiven much, the servant is expected to forgive as well.  And he doesn’t.  So he ends up in prison, being tortured.   Some theologians wonder whether this torture and imprisonment is the life he is already living, being held captive by his anger and bitterness at a fellow servant’s lack of payment of his debt.  Unforgiveness has been described like a cancer, eating us up from the inside out. Maybe living without forgiving is ongoing torture.  It surely is being held captive to the past.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  Jesus rolls forgiveness into one big bundle…. God forgives you first, so you need to accept it.  Even when you think you don’t deserve it.  Even when you think there is no way you could be forgiven.  God forgives you first, and you need to find a way to forgive yourself.  And sometimes that is harder than forgiving someone else. God forgives you first, and you forgive others.  Even when you think they don’t deserve it.  Even when you think there is no way you could ever forgive what they have done.  It is all bundled together, unable to really be separated.  God forgives, we forgive, we seek forgiveness from God, we forgive, and so on.

I like the words from Matthew West’s song, Forgiveness:

Forgiveness:

It’s the hardest thing to give away
And the last thing on your mind today
It always goes to those who don’t deserve

It’s the opposite of how you feel
When the pain they caused is just too real
Takes everything you have to say the word

Forgiveness
It’s always angers own worst enemy
Even when the jury and the judge
Say you’ve got a right to hold a grudge
It’s the whisper in your ear saying, “set it free”

Forgiveness
It can clear the bitterness away
It can even set a prisoner free
There is no end to what its power can do

So, let it go and be amazed
By what you see through eyes of Grace
The prisoner that it really frees is you

Forgiveness is hard.  There is no way around it.  If it were easy we wouldn’t care about tallying it up or keeping track.  Sometimes the person we need to forgive is no longer living near us or no longer living, period.  We have carried the hurt around so long that it has become the norm and we can’t imagine being without it.  It is like a big heavy weight we live with all the time.  In Philip Yancey’s book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, he describes forgiveness as an unnatural act. He writes:  “I never find forgiveness easy, and rarely do I find it completely satisfying.  Nagging injustices remain, and the wounds still cause pain.”

And sometimes it is hard to be on the receiving end of forgiveness from another person.  We feel we don’t deserve it. We ought to suffer more to somehow repay the pain we caused.  So we extend the pain even longer. The forgiver has been freed from her prison, and we refuse to walk out the open doors.  Go figure.

Perhaps the best way to really understand forgiveness is to try to grasp ahold of God’s forgiveness toward us.  Think about it.  What can you do or say or not do or not say that will be a shock to God?  Something God has not seen before? Now really.  Yet the forgiveness still stands.  It was offered through the murder and the new life of God’s only Son two millenia ago.  And God does not withdraw his forgiveness.  Ever.

The South African principle of Ubuntu was used as a foundation for the truth and reconciliation process after the dismantling of apartheid.  Ubuntu describes our common humanity, a  humanity we share even with someone who has hurt us.  When we see the offender as a fellow human being, a brother, sister, mother, father, we see that we are all in the same boat as human beings.  We too have offended someone.  They too have been hurt by others.  Practicing ubuntu breaks the circle of bitterness, hatred and violence.  Practicing ubuntu is a step toward freedom.

Clearly Mary Johnson was practicing ubuntu.  She saw the murderer of her son as another human being in pain, racked with guilt, sure that by one awful decision he had ruined his chances to live the life God had designed for him.  In the process of forgiveness, she broke the circle of revenge and hatred.  She freed herself and she freed Oshea, because indeed, they both share a common humanity.   Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us:

So, let it go and be amazed
By what you see through eyes of Grace
The prisoner that it really frees is you

Amen.

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