SERMON Lectionary 24a 2017
Forgiveness; Seventy Times Seven Times
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
Peter comes to Jesus today with a loaded question about the limits of forgiveness: if another member of the church injures me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Jesus’ answer is as clear as it is radical: forgiveness has no limits. This is a hard teaching, but it is the sun of our Christian solar system – the gravity of forgiveness holds everything together, draws everything up. Forgiveness is a really big deal. Forgiveness is not optional. Forgiveness as Christ gives it is unconditional, total, radical.
Just to demonstrate the how radical Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness is, let us take another case: when another member of one of our own ELCA churches, St Paul’s in Columbia, South Carolina a very stupid young man named Dylan Roof, drunk on white-supremacist internet garbage, shoots up the Wednesday Evening Bible Study of the Black mother church in Charleston – how many times do we have to forgive him? This is exactly Peter’s question.
How many times do we have to forgive this guy? He’s not a mythic monster like Hitler, he’s just a kid who apparently slept through confirmation. I think I heard that all the various indictments came to something like 234, with all the hate-crime stuff. Do we have to forgive him 234 times, including the murders of 9 people because and only because they were Black?
How many times do we forgive him? Can we forgive him at all?
I know that some of us will vote NO. I get it. If ever a crime deserved to be punished by immediate public crucifixion it is this one.
The one who would undergo immediate public crucifixion answers Peter’s question with astonishing clarity: Not seven times, seventy times seven times. By this Jesus does not mean 490 times and that’s it; he means that forgiveness has to be immediate and unconditional and forever. Again, forgiveness is not optional.
That may not come so naturally to us, but the Black church people of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston know it. Maybe you saw the footage of Dylan’s arraignment where a young woman whose mother he had killed, through her desperate sobbing, cried out, I FORGIVE YOU. She tore her heart out to say it, there was heartbreaking rage and pain in her voice, but she said it. I FORGIVE YOU.
This would be absurd except for one thing: the cross. Jesus took on himself the punishment that Dylan Roof so richly deserves. And as they drove the nails through his wrists, Jesus showed us what Christian forgiveness is made of: he cried out like that amazing Black daughter, FATHER, FORGIVE THEM FOR THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO.
He might have said: for they know not who they are.
And this is really the heart of the matter, and why Jesus’ is so radical and so clear about it: we forgive one another because we are ourselves already forgiven. If we accept forgiveness – like the slave in the parable whose master forgave a debt amounting to billions of dollars – Jesus teaches that we must likewise forgive our own debtors. We must pass forgiveness on. It’s another word for love, for the unconditional, universal love that pours out of the heart of God like light pours out of the sun, all the time, in every direction, without limits. God is the sun of love, we live by God’s light. As Paul tells the Athenians, we live and move and have our being in the light and love of God. It’s who we are, it’s who God made us to be, it’s what God wants us to become.
We will know ourselves better when we shed – when we shred – all the grudges and resentments and disappointment and guilt and recrimination that we carry with us. It’s a pack of lies, but we human beings have a particular talent it seems for holding onto that stuff. It can be passed down the generations and injure millions of innocent people. We get all riled up about abortion, but if we really care about the unborn we will take apart the matrix of lies that keeps our world in the grip of evil down the centuries. If we claim God’s radical forgiving love as the only real power there is, and live into that claim, the world will be a very different place. Making the world a different place is why Jesus came among us carrying the cross, making his own horrific suffering and death THE sign and measure of God’s amazing grace.
So I have an assignment for you this week: I want you to listen to the thoughts of your heart, and every time you find yourself thinking about somebody who owes you, somebody who wronged you or injured you, whether it was yesterday or 50 years ago, every time you pass judgement on someone else for being … what? Too old, too fat, too poor, too foreign, too rich, too sexy or just for being in your way … notice it. You may be astonished at how many times in a day – in an hour – we have thoughts like that. Riding the subway and driving the streets of New York as I do every day, my list gets long quite soon. And meanwhile I have a warehouse full of unhealed grudges and issues going back many years; more than half of them are grudges I hold against myself, for the wrongs I have dealt to others, the lies I believed and the stupid decisions I made. All this accumulated resentment and self-recrimination is like a flooded basement in Miami: full of ruined, moldy stuff that has to be cleared out and thrown away, and the sooner the better.
Sunlight, they say, is the best detergent. The unconditional, loving forgiveness of God is the sunlight that dissolves our accumulated selfishnesses and opens the way into God’s heart. If forgiving others is too heavy a lift, start by accepting God’s forgiveness for yourself. Find the smallest trickle of living water and follow it to the ocean.
God has forgiven us. God is forgiving us. God will forgive us. Forgiveness is who God is. And who God is, is who we are. That, I think, is wonderful news, don’t you?
Let us pray.