Tuesday, September 16, 2008

forgiveness (matthew 18)

It begins with a question, spoken by, who else, Peter: ‘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.

Why did the early Christians remember this story? Maybe they needed to remember it, maybe it continued to be relevant. Christians have always done things to each other, even members of the church have done things to each other that required forgiveness, and evidently we have needed to know the answer to this question. It is true.

I grew up in a church that would sing “There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place”, and yet I knew enough to know that there were not only sweet, sweet spirits, but also unclean spirits: a woman did not speak to another woman, a family kept their distance from another family, one group liked the preacher, another did not, one group controlled the cemetery, I could go on. We had bumped into each other, bruised each other, battled with each other, we were the church, imperfect people who needed to forgive and be forgiven.

It was so from the beginning. How often should I forgive another member of the church? We are not talking about forgiving people of other faiths, or people of no faith? Another member of the church… how often should I forgive?

Seven times would seem to be a lot. Seven is the biblical number of wholeness, completeness, perfection. Seven would be stretching it for most of us. Peter must have thought it was a pretty extravagant gesture. But no, not seven, Jesus says: seventy times seven. A lot. I was not a math major, but that adds up to 490 times. At least that was my interpretation as a kid, hearing this story. Wow, that is really taking it, over and over again. Some translations have it as 77 times, not seventy times seven, but regardless, the point is clear: a lot of forgiveness, virtually unlimited forgiveness. This is a stretch for most of us. Of course, Jesus is not asking us to take this literally. Maybe the point is that relationships are worth the time, the effort, the blood, sweat and tears of keeping them whole. And relationships always exist in the midst of conflict. It is true in that greatest of relationships, the one between God and his children. Jesus is always connecting human relationships with heavenly relationships, and he does this by telling a story

A ruler, as an act of compassion, forgives a great debt---ten thousand talents, the wages of a day laborer that would be earned over a twenty year period. Then that very man who had been forgiven encounters someone who owes him a much smaller debt—one hundred days wages. He grabs him by the throat and demands the money. The one who is in debt refuses and is thrown into prison.

All of this is a problem for those who have witnessed both acts, and it gets back to the ruler, who is, understandably, upset. His response is straightforward: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” In anger the ruler hands him over to be tortured until he can pay his entire debt. Now hear it from a different perspective. As the poet Emily Dickinson said it, “tell the truth but tell it slant!”

Imagine that the United States owes an enormous debt to China, a debt so large that we will never repay it. China says, “your debt is forgiven. You are free.” Now there are financially astute people here this morning who hear this and who would say, under their breath, “this is enough to make me laugh out loud”. That is exactly how it would have struck those who heard Jesus tell it. Who would forgive such a debt? The United States is happy with this outcome.

But then say there is this guy, let’s say he lives in Yadkin County, he is a farmer, or it is a woman who works in a textile mill in Caburrus County, and they owe two-thirds of the income tax for a year, and can’t pay it. What happens? They are thrown in jail. And word gets back to China…and on and on.

And this leads to the moral of the story, Jesus says, So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

It is, one scholar has described it, a story of forgiveness without grace. Forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity, the cross being the great visual symbol of what God has done for us, and, the parable teaches, what we might do for each other. It is woven through the biblical story, from the great flood, another symbol of the cleansing of human sin, to the words from the cross at calvary: “Father, forgive them”. Like the prodigal son, forgiveness is also more than an idea considered in a holy book. It is where we live, it is the intersection of God’s story with our story. Forgiveness is always relevant, it is two friends, two boy scout leaders, two choir members, two NFL football players, two presidential candidates, two siblings, two spouses.

Several folks in our congregation have been reading the New York Times number one bestseller, The Shack. It is a novel about a man named Mack who takes his children on a backpacking trip in the Pacific Northwest. While tending to one of his children in a canoe, one of his daughters disappears. A search by police and residents of the wilderness ensues, and the search leads them to the shack, where her bloodied clothing is lain by the fireplace. This precipitates, in the words of the author, William Young, “the great sadness”.

There is immeasurable grief within this small family: the father is at times guilty and at other times angry, the child in the canoe withdraws. They are a religious family and their faith is severely tested. I won’t go into all of the details of the book, which are quite fascinating, but a recurring issue is this matter of forgiveness: can Mack forgive God for the loss of his daughter, or should he? Can Mack forgive the murderer who ended his daughter’s life, or should he? And a part of the story goes back to Mack’s childhood and his alcoholic and abusive father? Can he forgive his father, or should he?

The Shack is really a series of dialogues between Mack and God the Trinity. I will let you discover how he encounters the Trinity, it is quite creative, but a recurring issue is the matter of forgiveness. Late in the story Papa, who is a member of the Trinity, is having a conversation with Mack. Mack has spent a great deal of time, healing, restorative time with Papa. Along the way Mack has forgiven his father---a difficult but powerful experience. Now, an even greater challenge. “You have to name it”, Papa says. “How can I ever forgive the s.o.b. who killed my daughter?”

“If he were here today, I don’t know what I would do. I know it isn’t right, but I would want to hurt him like he hurt me, if I can’t get justice, I still want revenge”.

Papa simply let the torrent of rage rush out of Mack, waiting for the wave to pass. “Mack, for you to forgive this man is to release him to me and allow me to redeem him?” [God’s forgiveness of us is connected to our forgiveness of one another.] “Redeem him…I don’t want you to redeem him. I want you to hurt him, to punish him, to put him in hell…” His voice trailed off. “I’m stuck, Papa. I just can’t forget what he did, Can I?” “Forgiveness is not about forgetting, Mack. It is about letting go of the other person’s throat”.

Why are people gripped by a novel like The Shack? It is a story about and endlessly fascinating and unceasingly relevant subject: forgiveness. We learn about forgiveness from teachers, like William Young, like Jesus, but also as we see it modeled. Jesus did both---he taught the disciples to forgive—the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”—and he forgave. What I have learned about forgiveness I have learned from teachers, like Jesus, and from seeing it modeled.

This week a close friend died, and I remembered how he had modeled forgiveness. His name was Derry. He was a friend of my wife’s family, had worked in business at Western Electric in Winston-Salem, and he was later called to the ministry. His son and my wife’s brother were high school golf teammates, and his son is now a PGA golf agent. Derry himself was a scratch golfer—that means he had no handicap, that means he was a very good golfer. My last conversation with him was at the Wachovia Tournament at Quail Hollow two years ago.

For five years Derry was the minister of visitation at Mount Tabor United Methodist Church. Serving with Derry, and with Abe Moyer here, I realize how blessed I have been to have worked alongside pastors like this, and I also wonder if God gives out some kind of special golfing talent to pastors who focus on visitation! Derry was reaching retirement, his son, daughter in law and grandchildren were in that church, and it seemed like a natural. It was not a great year, financially---it never is---but I persuaded the leaders to take this step. They did, and Derry would serve for eleven years, until his death, last Monday evening.

That is a little about Derry—here is what he taught me about forgiveness, not by his words, but the way he modeled it. Derry was serving a small mill village church in the piedmont of North Carolina. Who was a beloved pastor, and in fact shared a great deal in common with the people of his community. A member of his church was convicted of murder, and was put in Central Prison on death row. Derry began to visit him in prison, once a week, for several months, almost a year. The church loved this young man, who was from one of the longtime families in the church, and supported Derry for reaching out to him.

At some point another inmate was overheard to confess that he had committed the crime. The young man from Derry’s church was released. He was coming home. The church decorated the fellowship hall and through a great party. All was right, and justice had been done.

But this was not the end of the story. The man who had actually committed the murder contacted Derry and asked if he would visit him. Derry visited him once, and then again, and continued once a week. The church was not supportive of Derry’s visits with this man. He asked if Derry would be present when he was executed, and Derry was. He asked if Derry would preside over his burial, which took place in Forsyth County. Derry did.

The church’s reluctance to forgive was simply their living the question that Peter had asked Jesus, the question we are always asking: “How often should I forgive? Isn’t there a limit?” And Derry instinctively got it, the waiting father who wants all of the children to come home, the King who expects his forgiven servants to forgive others.

The end of the story is a picture of a man, hanging from a cross, who says to anyone who will listen, who says about us, you and me, “Father, forgive them”.

Sources: William P. Young, The Shack. Ben Witherington, Matthew. Thomas Long, Matthew.


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