|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on September 13, 2011 at 12:00 AM|
Forgiveness. We walk into church today, Sept. 11th,and have to hear about forgiveness. I didn’t do this on purpose- these are lessons appointed for our church at least 15 or 20 years ago. They just happen to coincide with September 11th this year, just happen to fall when most of our country is focused on that terrifying and horrible day 10 yearsago. So it’s tempting to feel like these lessons mean we need to talk about forgiveness as a nation today- to forgive those who committed such horrible acts or to say strongly that these are things that cannot be forgiven. But for all of us tempted to go there just because today is September 11th, listen again to the passage.
‘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.
There are big questions of forgiveness in our world and in our lives, but today on this solemn day, we get the blessed relief of only having to deal with how to deal with our fellow church members. You see, today’s lesson follows right after Jesus teaches the disciples how they are to act toward each other when they mess up- how they should correct their brother or sister in the faith directly and even take thestrength of the community with them if their brother or sister cannot hear it as truth. But Peter wants to know when the limit comes and when they can finally stop correcting this member and just throw them out. When is enough finally enough, Jesus? How nice do we need to be about this?
Becaue messing up seven times and being corrected seems pretty generous- at least better than the three strikes we usually offer folks. Because Peter figures that followers of Jesus should be a little more gracious with each other than the rest of the world. But reasonable and even generous is not enough, Jesus says. When you’re dealing with your brothers and sisters in the faith, forgive so many times that you lose count. Forgive a ridiculous amount. Forgive so much that people around you start thinking you’re crazy. Then forgive some more.
Now, even though we know this is inthe Bible, I think this is one of those verses that we wish had an asterisk next to it. We get that forgiveness is a good thing, a God-like thing, and we like it when we receive it. But sometimes people mess up too many times and we get tired of correcting them only to have them do the same thing again. And some things are simply too terrible and we don’t want to forgive and we don’t think we should have to forgive.
I think some of our trouble with forgiveness is that we often have the wrong idea about what forgiveness really is. Too often we think it means tolerating the bad things that people do. We think it means saying that what was done wasn’t REALLY all that terrible. And when it has to do with something illegal,we think of forgiveness as being “soft”- of allowing people to get away with things they shouldn’t so that they never learn or change their behavior.
But, Jesus tells us, that’s not what forgiveness means. So he tells us a story. Because we can dismiss words, but stories have a way of working on us even when we don't want them to.
There once was a slave who owed the king a debt, a debt so ridiculously large that there’s no way he could have ever paid it. It was a burden that always weighed on him, for he knew it would have taken him 2,000 years of paychecks to pay it back. And one day,the king decides that since the slave could not pay, he and his whole family were to be sold to pay the debt.
At this the slave fell at the king’s feet. He knew had no way out of the debt; that he didn’t deserve any leniency, and he knew that the king had every right to sell his family to restore the debt. And yet, he pleads with the king, as one desperate for his life and for the life of his family. Somehow I will make it up to you, he cries. Please,give me time. Don’t take away everything that I have. And the king looked at the debt that was owed and he looked at the face of his slave. And in an act of mercy too extravagant to make sense, he forgave the whole debt.
You see, forgiveness doesn’t mean ignoring evil and debts and saying they don’t exist. The king acknowledged the debt of the slave and even showed him the consequences of it. And yet, he saw the life of his slave as even more important than the debt. And the only way to give him his life back was to forgive the thing that was impossible to pay.
Forgiveness means still taking evil and sin seriously- there would be no reason to forgive if the thing done to us were not so bad. But it also means taking the life of your brother or sister even more seriously. It doesn’t mean being soft on the sin, but it means valuing the life of your brother or sister so highly that you are willing to release them from the burden of your anger so that they may have life.
This still allows us to take sin seriously. When our brother or sister sins, we still need to say that what was done was not right. It was not what God intended. And sometimes we will need to take action to prevent this person from doing further things that harm others. But we are not allowed to take the sins of our brothers and sisters more seriously than their life and health.
We will still need to restrain those who do evil. We may need to force those who have done evil to fix what is in their power to fix. And, with them help of God, we will need to teach them again the good and life-giving ways. But in all this, we also commanded to love the sinner so deeply that we only want their health. In all we do to our neighbor, the point is always to restore the person to who God intends them to be and to restore them to the community when possible.
This is what Jesus commands of us as we deal with our brothers and sister in the faith. This isn’t optional. It is simply a part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Now I don’t know how it is we’re supposed to do this. I know that people have done things to me that are very mild and I don’t very much want to forgive them. So I don’t have any magical ways to make this easier. It’s not easy and it’s not supposed to be- for it is not our way, it is God’s way. And as much as I’ve read Scripture, God’s way always seems to make things harder and less like our gut tells us to react.
And so, the only hope we have to forgive, short of having our brains re-wired, is to accept the gift that God gave us first. And perhaps that is the hardest step. To know that truly, our God loves us beyond our failures. Our Lord, by his love and by his cross, has set us free from mistakes that we can never undo and debts that we have no hope of repaying. It's hard to believe sometimes. So when we can’t trust that grace to be true, Jesus urges us to hear the words of forgiveness proclaimed in worship. Jesus beckons us to touch the baptismal waters, where God said that our life would always be more important than our mistakes. And Jesus begs us to come again and again to the meal that proclaims forgiveness for all the unworthy.
And then, when we’re filled up with the joy of being set free, Jesus sends us back into the world as forgiven folk to share that freedom with those who need it, whether they know it or not. So, whether it’s hard or not, this is what Jesus calls us to and commands us to do.
He commands us to forgive when the other person doesn’t deserve it, when it’s foolish, when we know full well the person is going to do the same stupid thing again to us. We're not called to forgive because it makes sense, but simply because it is necessary for our brother or sister’s life.
Now, Jesus calls us to forgive our brothers and sisters in Christ- he tells us that this is how we are to act toward each other. And yet, I can only believe that the one who went to the cross so that we might know forgiveness meant that acting this way toward our fellow church folk was only the beginning. It was a way to train us in the ways of God-to give us an easy place to start as we begin to learn what it is like to love like God. A place to start so that we might let this forgiveness flow over into a world that needs to be set free.
And yet, I don’t know what this teaching of Jesus means for our foreign policy. I don’t know what it means in all criminal cases. I only know that for us who follow Jesus, we are commanded to take the lives of our brothers and sisters so seriously that mercy always wins over harshness, that life and health win over death. And we are commanded that we do everything in our power to act to them like God has acted toward us. And when we are too weak to do that, we are called to receive again that gift of forgiveness so that we might let our mighty, merciful God forgive where we cannot.