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Sermon: Lord, How Often Should I Forgive?

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on Sunday, September 14, 2014.
14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (RCL): Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable to you, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

            Sometimes it seems there have been many weeks of late where the rector or I could step in the pulpit and say, "Wow! It's been a week, right?"           

Just this past week, three major news stories came to the forefront as this preacher contemplated today's lessons


  • Additional video goes public showing now former Baltimore Ravens RB Ray Rice's fierce assault on Janay (then fiancée’, now wife) in a Las Vegas casino elevator.


    • The indictment of Charles Severance for three unresolved high-profile homicides in Alexandria.


    • The 13th Anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States.


            In today’s Epistle reading, Paul questions why we judge one another, since we all stand before the judgment of God. We all sin against one another sometimes simply because we are human and don’t understand other people. Paul writes to the Romans because that Christian community has significant struggles with diversity. Here Paul helps us understand that despite different practices in worship and personal piety, we should not judge one another. All Christians belong to the Lord Jesus Christ who died for all of us and will judge each of us.                  


In the Gospel, when Peter asks about the limits of forgiveness, Jesus responds with a parable that suggests human forgiveness should mirror the unlimited mercy of God. Jesus’ challenge back to Peter that we forgive seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven) illustrates God’s boundless mercy. When we hear the words of forgiveness in worship and humble ourselves before the cross of Jesus, we are renewed by our baptism to be signs of reconciliation in the world.          

Peter asks “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Rabbinic tradition taught that forgiveness would be offered three times. Third Century Rabbi Jose ben Hanina said, “He who begs forgiveness from his neighbor must not do so more than three times.” He based that on the Book of Amos (1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6), where we could deduce that God’s forgiveness extends three times, but that judgment and punishment visits the sinner afterward. The Rabbis did not think that humans could be more generous than God.            

I find it curious that Peter doesn’t wait for Jesus; he answers his own question. Perhaps he even thought he was being generous.

Peter suggests seven times. It’s almost as if he decided to double the rabbinically-taught number of three times and then added one more for good measure. Is that enough, Lord? Maybe more than enough? Jesus responds, NOT HARDLY. There is no limit to forgiveness.  

And yet, living in community with one another, it is so hard sometimes to forgive. Whether you consider forgiveness as ‘wiping the slate clean’ or ‘resetting the board to zero,’ it can be hard. There are some hurts that go too deep and some harm that is too great. Peter thought he’d set a high bar for forgiveness. But Jesus ups the ante. Some translations speak of seventy-seven times; others seem to suggest seventy x seven = 490 times! ((The Greek is unclear here. It might mean BOTH!))       

Seventy-seven plays with the ancient idea that seven is the number of fullness and perfection, because seven combines three, a number that suggests divinity, as in the Holy Trinity, and four, recalls the four corners of the flat earth. So with seventy-seven, Jesus multiplies the number of total perfection.   

But either number really indicates the absolute infinity of God’s mercy.    God claims an obligation from us due to God’s forgiveness extended to us. But that obligation carries over to between us and others. This is NOT ‘Jesus and I are good’ while neglecting the community around us. There is a relational aspect. Forgiveness is all about generosity and grace, and mercy and reconciliation; God-given, human shared.  

I wonder: How do you define forgiveness? Is it erasing a debt? Or is it letting go of the fact that the past can be changed? Is your definition always the same or does it change, depending on the circumstances? Did you forgive those who perpetrated the crimes of 9/11? Is that different from forgiving an individual who hurt only one person? Let’s add in another example from today’s news: Can you ever forgive a group who beheads innocent people whose jobs were peaceful, a group that seems to delight in using social media and news organization to spread their gruesome deeds? Is that forgivable for us? And yet, what about the small slights that happen between families and friends? Can you readily forgive those?      

Asking for forgiveness is an act of humility. It can be as challenging as granting forgiveness. At what point do we says, ENOUGH is ENOUGH! Jesus is not suggesting a larger ledger to keep track of wrongs done by or against us, or the need for forgiveness. If fact, Jesus says QUIT COUNTING! Forgiveness is a deep well of grace that never empties. It is grace without limits. It constantly refreshes. I might even say the more you dip into this well, the easier it gets to pull that forgiveness out.

Everybody makes mistakes. There are times when all of us hurt or injure another person whether we intend to or not. So how can we address this? How can we make our bodies, words, and actions all show that we want to make it right? The person in the gospel falls on his knees and asks for mercy, but when he receives it and gets up, it’s like he forgets right away about that well of forgiveness, that infinite mercy. He doesn’t pass it on to others. Look where THAT behavior gets him!         

We CAN act differently, if we remember our God’s mercy. In worship and at home, we can model simple practices of confession and forgiveness. Notice my use of the word PRACTICE. Remember how I said that its gets easier to draw forgiveness out of that deep, deep well the more we do it? That’s PRACTICE. Our challenge as Christians, as people of God in this world, is to show those practices, to teach people, both young and old, to show with their words, bodies, and actions this learned behavior. “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” It’s practicing our way into new ways of being.          

With that said, forgiveness does not mean being a doormat to continued abuse or violence that is visited upon us. We are still amazed at the reaction to the video when Ray Rice knocked his fiancée out, then dragged her unconscious body out of that elevator. It seems significantly worse than just seeing him pulling her out of the elevator. Because of this ‘new revelation,’ The Baltimore Ravens immediately terminated Rice’s contract and the NFL quickly suspended him indefinitely. But can we, the public, forgive him? The NFL is wondering -- wondering especially, according to yesterday’s Washington Post, whether this issue will drive women away from watching football. So I ask you, can YOU forgive someone arguably much larger and stronger who attacks a smaller weaker person and knocks them out? Not because you condone the behavior. Not because of any human reason. But because, if he is repentant and asks for forgiveness, God’s mercy is big enough to include him?

With the Severance indictment, and merely presuming a possible conviction for any or all of those deaths, does this strange man stand any chance of being forgiven for his alleged actions? These murders have a very personal feel to us in Alexandria, whether we knew the victims (and many of you did). We now know the fear induced by random violence. The issue of forgiveness is literally much closer to home.

And those crimes lead right into the national fear of attacks on our country. We will never forget those lost in the terror attacks of 9/11, or the subsequent wars spawned to retaliate, or try to end any further aggression. Is forgiveness possible? On a national level, on a personal level?     

Fredrick Buechner says this about forgiveness: “To accept forgiveness means to admit that you've done something unspeakable that needs to be forgiven, and thus both parties must swallow the same thing: their pride. This seems to explain what Jesus means when he says to God, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Jesus is not saying that God's forgiveness is conditional upon our forgiving others. In the first place, forgiveness that's conditional isn’t really forgiveness at all, just fair warning; and in the second place, our unforgivingness is among those things about us which we need to have God forgive us most. What Jesus apparently is saying is that the pride that keeps us from forgiving is the same pride that keeps us from accepting forgiveness, and will God please help us do something about it.” (End quote)       God’s forgiveness is vaster than we can ever fathom. And yet sometimes the hardest thing might be to forgive ourselves. Chrissie and I know a priest who works with individuals who have tried to forgive themselves, but have never forgotten, so true reconciliation of self is not possible. This priest offers counseling and prayer for the healing of memories which eventually might lead to grace, mercy and forgiveness of self.      

Returning to Buechner, he says, "When somebody you've wronged forgives you, you're spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience. When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you're spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride. For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other's presence." (End quote)

Today at 11:15 a.m., Jonathan Louis Boynton will be brought to this font to be washed, bathed, and cleansed, symbolizing death to sin in this world and to be raised up to a new shared life with the resurrected Jesus. Jonathan is just one year and two days old. What sin could this beautiful innocence already know? He is already a child of God. By Baptism, he becomes an intentional child of Jesus Christ. He will join the household of God as he is marked as Christ’s own forever. Will he commit wrong afterward? Likely. Will him repent and turn to the Lord? It’s up to us to show him how. Can he learn to forgive, others and himself? Again, we pray that he will learn that. For a life in Christ is a life where we are called, we are dared, to be different.         

Peter’s question about forgiveness is one we all face ALL THE TIME. Do we HAVE to forgive? How many times? WOW, how can YOU, GOD, expect that? For him, for her, for THEM? Notice how those questions really are our own judgments on others? They don’t deserve forgiveness (in our humble opinions). Yet Jesus’ answer is clear, whether it is seventy-seven or four hundred and ninety times. Keep forgiving. Him, her, them, yourself. Practice. Fall down, get up, and remember. God’s forgiveness is big enough, deep enough, and wide enough to get us up off our knees and grant us new life. It’s been quite a week, indeed, for all of us. I don’t know about you, but I have work to do.           

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.