Belmont UMC—September 14, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
It was a bright sunny day in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, when a Federal Building was bombed, killing 168 persons. Among them was Julie Welch. Julie’s father, Bud, was devastated and he was angry. He said, “At first, I wanted Timothy McVeigh not even to have a trial, but just to die. But then I saw that I would only contribute to the circle of violence that helped produce Timothy McVeigh.” And so Bud began a journey toward forgiveness.
It’s hard to imagine forgiving such a horrific act. I recall being in a church service not long after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and hearing a clergy friend offer prayers of forgiveness for the attackers. I knew that this was theologically correct and it was what Jesus would have wanted us to do, but my heart was not there yet.
Bud Welch had friends who encouraged him on his path toward forgiveness. It was process within him that had begun in hatred but ended in forgiveness. He found Timothy McVeigh’s father and visited him. He saw Timothy McVeigh’s graduation photo on the mantel. He looked at the picture and he cried, realizing that here was another father on the verge of losing a child, a father with whom he had a kinship through grief. Sympathy and compassion were evoked in him. At first revenge and payback seemed the normal response but at last forgiveness became possible. (Pulpit Resource, Vol. 42, No. 3, Year A, pp. 47-48)
The text today is about forgiveness and it ends a section in the Gospel of Matthew that focuses on relationships in the community, and through this section we hear a call to be in right relationship with each other and to do all we can to foster the bonds of love.
The disciple, Peter, has been listening to Jesus and he wants Jesus to be a little more specific. So he asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive 7 times?” (v. 21)
There ought to be a limit to how many wrongs must be forgiven. Right? And in a world in which we are taught over and over again to get even, to settle the score, Jesus gives us a story about forgiveness. He is telling us today that the church, that Belmont and other churches like us, are to be communities that embrace and model the spiritual practice of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not easy and it is often elusive. I have to confess that it’s easier for me to preach about forgiveness than to actually practice it.
Over the years we have watched what happens when people are unable to forgive another. There was an older man in one our churches who was angry all the time about something that happened, or he perceived it to have happened, several decades earlier. He did not leave the church. He stayed on to allow his angry persona to punish others. Over the years, the church members simply ignored him. Sadly, he had allowed his life to be defined by unforgiveness and it had taken a toll on his physical and emotional health.
When Kathryn and I first married we became a very young parsonage couple, serving two small churches in Montgomery County. We had some interesting neighbors, an eclectic mix of folks who had moved out our way, to the country, for extra land and for peace and quiet.
We enjoyed the neighborhood children and it wasn’t unusual for them to knock on our door for a visit. We especially adored the little girl next door named Gabi. Gabi had befriended the little girl who moved in next to their house. One day they got into a spat over something minor and they each ran home to tell their mothers. Within the hour the children were ready to apologize and get on with the business of playing together. But the mothers had called each other and exchanged some angry words. The little girls were not allowed to play together and the families remained divided the rest of our time there. We encouraged reconciliation but no one was ready. Children are better at forgiveness than adults.
Jesus tells Peter that he is to forgive, not 7 times, but 77 times, meaning, “Peter, quit trying to keep count.” And Jesus answers Peter’s question with a story about a king who wants to settle accounts with his servants. One servant who is brought before him owes an enormous sum, 10,000 talents--equal to about 1.5 billion dollars in today’s money. There is no way the servant can pay this amount so the king forgives or releases the servant from the debt.
But the servant learns little from this generous act of forgiveness. The servant finds one of his fellow servants who owed him a small sum and he threatens him, violently grabbing him by the throat and has him thrown into prison.
From this parable I am reminded that I have learned to forgive by being on the receiving end of forgiveness. I suspect if you have spent time being my friend, my parent, my spouse, my child, my sibling, or my co-worker, you have probably had to forgive me at some point along the way. I fail, I forget, I falter, I change my mind, and I make many mistakes.
I am keenly aware of how many times I’ve been forgiven. I am keenly aware of the gracious gift of God’s forgiveness in my life. If I am able to forgive another person, that forgiveness is deeply rooted in profound gratitude for the forgiveness of God and of others. And I must never take that for granted.
And in a few moments, we will pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Jesus modeled this forgiveness. He offered it unilaterally to almost everyone he encountered. He did not wait for an apology or for pleading and begging. He said, “You are forgiven.” And from the cross he offered the greatest model of forgiveness, forgiving those who would put him to death.
And if I am able to forgive, forgiveness is a gift from God. I may not find the strength in myself to do so, but God can give me strength and set me on the journey toward forgiveness.
Our friend, Bishop Rueben Job, grows weaker these days and he is unable to stand here and address us but his words will continue to teach us and make live more like Christ.
Hear these words Rueben has given us: “Forgiveness is a life-and-death matter because forgiveness lies at the very heart of Christian belief and practice. To remove forgiveness from our theology and practice is to tear the heart out of any hope of faithful Christian discipleship, and to drive a stake through the heart of Christian community. . . .
Forgiveness is not only a preposterous gift; it is unbelievably difficult and costly. To offer forgiveness to our national enemy today will most likely be branded as unpatriotic and to extend forgiveness to another is often branded as being soft and unrealistic. But the forgiveness Jesus taught is neither soft nor unpatriotic. But it is extremely costly and laden with a mother load of grace for those who practice it.” (When You Pray, pp.189-191)
The parable reminds us that the root meaning of the word “forgive” is a word that means “release” or “let go.” The king released the servant from his debt. It suggests letting go of something we have held onto for a long time. What is it that we hold so tightly but we need to release? We have all been wounded, abandoned, abused, and betrayed. We all need God’s grace.
I want to invite us to join in a spiritual practice this morning. I invite us to close our eyes, if we will. Clench our fists as tightly as we can. Imagine that in our clinched hands we hold onto something we have refused to let go. What is it? See it. Is it a broken relationship, anger, hatred, a deep woundedness, resentment? Let’s spend a moment being honest about our lives and what we hold so tightly.
Let’s now ask God to help us be on the journey toward forgiveness. Let’s ask God to help us let go of that which we hold so tightly. Slowly begin to open your hands as you pray and visualize releasing what is held in your hand.
This exercise does allow us to instantly experience forgiveness, but it sets us on a journey, a slow journey sometimes, a costly journey sometimes, but one that allows us to experience, in the words of Rueben Job, “the mother load of grace.”