A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 14, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 18:21-35 (with Genesis 50:15-21)
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

In last week’s gospel lesson, we heard about a detailed three-stop process for dealing with a community member “who has sinned against you.” The process ends with the expulsion of the offending community member if the three steps fail. It’s a sort of three strikes and you’re out.

This week, picking up where we left off last week, Peter poses the question about how often we’re supposed to forgive. Jesus tells him, “seventy-seven times.” Some translations say, “forgive 70 times seven.” Regardless of the translation, many have interpreted it to mean we are to offer limitless forgiveness.

So which is it – “three strikes and you’re out,” or 77 times, or 490 times, or forgiveness without limit?

And then there’s that troubling parable in today’s lesson. If we do not forgive “from our hearts,” will God really hand us over to be tortured as it says in Matthew 18:35?

Sometimes I think it’s a mistake to try to impose an interpretation on Jesus’ parables. They are stories, and sometimes a better way at understanding them is to let the parable inspire another story. And I happen to have one, written by a Brit, as best I can tell, though I’m unable to figure out who it is.[1] Anyway, I’ve adapted it a bit.

They say lightening never strikes twice. John Rogers knew better. Everyone said how amazingly he had coped with being canned. A “reduction in force,” his boss called it.

It is no easy task to begin again, aged 55, after a lifetime working for the same company. But John had a plan. With a lightness of heart he sank his entire severance package into his new enterprise.

He rented a small space in a strip mall that was a little too far out of town, so it was zoned for manufacturing and retail. It was one of those places with a large, empty parking lot, a mom and pop diner, and a play area that was supposed to make it “family friendly.”

Equipping it with tools, buying and storing the lumber, and creating a display and sales area took all his cash, but it didn’t matter. What was important was that he could now make things. His specialty was wooden toys. Sometimes very traditional things – rocking horses, the grain of the wood dictated the racing shape of the animal.  Sometimes new things that seemed strange as wooden toys – alien space creatures that came apart, and docking satellite stations with flashing lights.

The business-advice woman at the bank said his margins weren’t large enough. He was covering his costs and making enough to live on – just – but he’d never be able to expand, and if supplies and sales got too out of kilter he’d have cash flow problems. He nodded and made some encouraging noises, but in his heart he didn’t care. He was making things. He was happy, perhaps the happiest he’d been in his whole life.

The arson attack was so mindless. A teenager fooling around, oblivious to just how paint and wood and varnish would blaze. He was a new to the area, in a foster home that was supposed to give him safety and structure. John knew nothing of him. He was pleased that the magistrate thought the matter serious; pleased that the sullen youth would serve some time in detention. But that didn’t make up for what he’d lost; somehow all his motivation had gone up in flames, too.

The insurance company paid out. The site manager was efficient in the rebuilding of the unit. Customers urged him on. But as the smell of the burning lingered about the place, so did the dead weight of John’s wounding. It was as if the fire had burnt from him all the enjoyment he’d once had. He was a victim, and he couldn’t shake it off.

And sure enough the business began to fail. His toys didn’t have the same originality about them anymore. The first Christmas after the fire, John just got by. The second Christmas was a disaster. “It won’t survive,” they said. “It was obvious from the start that it wasn’t a sensible thing to do with his severance package.”

The last thing people expected was that he would take on staff: a young man called Andy, a scraggly beard and a pony tail, a ring in his nose and in one of his ears. No one knew where John found him. It was all so unlikely; another indication that John had really lost it.

How surprised the scoffers were when the business started to turn around. Andy had a talent for working wood, and John was soon able to build on it. Teaching Andy rekindled his enthusiasm. For the first time for two years he had ideas for new toys.

And Andy brought something new to the business as well. Computers were his thing. Before joining John, Andy had been on an intensive course and he put his learning to good use. When their work featured in the “Living” section of the local paper, orders started to come thick and fast. They started selling from their own website. The woman at the bank was impressed.  “The business has turned a corner,” she said. When people asked John, “Are you thinking of retiring?” “Never,” was the reply.

But lightening can strike twice. The kid who broke into the workshop/store was after the computer. Why then did he smash the rest of the place up? Why wrecking the stock, smash the lathe, throw files everywhere, pour varnish over everything?

The police seemed to know who he was, but there wasn’t enough evidence to arrest him. “We’ll start again,” John told Andy. “There’s nothing here that a few weeks’ effort won’t put right.” But John’s optimism found no echo in Andy. The younger man burned with anger.

John had no idea how Andy knew who the suspect was. He had no idea either of the revenge he intended. It wasn’t until the police came to tell him that Andy was charged and in jail that he knew something had happened. Andy had followed the suspect to a local fast food place, cornered him in the restrooms, and beaten him until an arm and a nose were broken.

Minutes after the police left, John put the notice on the door. It simply said, “Closed Down.” With a heavy heart he turned off the lights, and locked his workshop for the last time.

A few days later the site manager came to see him. “Don’t you realize how much money you’re going to lose giving up the lease without notice? The business was going so well. Why end it now? You recovered after the fire, you can recover from this.” And sensing the real cause of John’s hurt, he added, “Surely the court will take into account why Andy did it? They’ll be lenient on him. After all it was his first offense.”

“No, not his first,” said John, “he’s already served time for arson.”
Forgiveness is not innate. The three typical responses to threat or hurt are flight, flight, or freeze. Forgiveness may start with “f” but it’s not a standard response. What evolutionary purpose could forgiveness serve? Fighting back, running away, freezing in an attempt to become invisible – these have potential evolutionary benefits. But forgiving? Forgiveness is not natural.

No wonder it’s such a challenge. The thing is, forgiveness does serve a purpose, perhaps not an evolutionary purpose, but a purpose nonetheless. The power of forgiveness is that it gives life.

Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu knows has done more study and teaching on forgiveness than anyone else I can think of. In some of his writing on the subject he tells about his own story.[2] Desmond Tutu’s father was an alcoholic who verbally and physically abused his mother. Young Desmond was a repeated witness to the abuse. He writes, “I can still recall the smell of alcohol, see the fear in my mother’s eyes, and feel the hopeless despair that comes when we see people we love hurting each other in incomprehensible ways.”

Years later, decades later, Tutu writes that if he lets himself dwell in those memories, he feels the anger and the desire to hurt his father.

He recognizes how normal this is, but, he notes, “hurting back rarely satisfies. We think it will, but it doesn’t. If I slap you after you slap me, it does not lessen the sting I feel on my own face, nor does it diminish my sadness as to the fact you have struck me. Retaliation gives, at best, only momentary respite from our pain. The only way to experience permanent healing and peace is to forgive.”

But forgiving is a challenge. It is not an easy thing to do. “Intellectually, I know my father caused pain because he was in pain,” Tutu writes. “Spiritually, I know my faith tells me my father deserves to be forgiven as God forgives us all. But it is still difficult. The traumas we have witnessed or experienced live on in our memories. Even years later they can cause us fresh pain each time we recall them.”

The thing is, forgiveness also has a power – the power to heal. When we choose not to forgive, we compound the pain of the hurt. And we compound it not just for us. We are all connected and when we choose not to forgive, we compound the pain for family, for community, and ultimately for the world.

Consider the impact on families. Siblings quarrel. They refuse to speak to each other. Years pass and their children only know that they don’t visit that aunt and that they don’t really know those cousins. “Forgiveness among the members of the older generations will open the door to healthy and supportive relationships among younger generations.”

Consider what would have happened to the descendants of Jacob if Joseph, who had good reason to hate his brothers, hadn’t chosen to forgive them. The invitation to forgive is not, however, an invitation to forget. “Nor is it an invitation to claim that an injury is less hurtful than it really was. Nor is it a request to paper over the fissure in a relationship, to say it’s okay when it’s not.  It’s not okay to be injured. It’s not okay to be abused. It’s not okay to be violated. It’s not okay to be betrayed.

“But it is okay to forgive.”

How, then, do we forgive? We start by recognizing the reality of the hurt, the violation that lies between us and the perpetrator. We invite the perpetrator to recognize the reality of that hurt as well. And then we seek out the humanity within the perpetrator.

Tutu writes about forgiving his father: “My father has long since died, but if I could speak to him today, I would want to tell him that I had forgiven him. What would I say to him? I would begin by thanking him for all the wonderful things he did for me as my father, but then I would tell him that there was this one thing that hurt me very much. I would tell him how what he did to my mother affected me, how it pained me. Perhaps he would hear me out; perhaps he would not. But still I would forgive him.

“Since I cannot speak to him, I have had to forgive him in my heart. If my father were here today, whether he asked for forgiveness or not, and even if he refused to admit that what he had done was wrong or could not explain why he had done what he did, I would still forgive him. Why would I do such a thing? I would walk the path of forgiveness with him because I know it is the only way to heal the pain in my boyhood heart. Forgiving my father frees me.”

Perhaps more difficult than forgiving others, is the act of forgiving ourselves. I know that for me, accepting forgiveness, especially from myself, is one of the hardest things. I now I’m not alone. We can become so mesmerized by the gravity of our own mistakes in life, that we have trouble believing there can be true forgiveness.

Reflecting on his childhood, Tutu realized that he was not just angry with his father. He was angry with himself. He had failed to stand up to his father and protect his mother. You or I would look at the situation and say, “Of course you didn’t, Desmond. You couldn’t. You were just a kid and he was an adult.” But Tutu held himself to a higher standard and it took him some time to realize how forgiving himself was just as important as forgiving his father. Perhaps more so.

“When I no longer hold his offenses against him,” Tutu writes, “and can also forgive myself, those memories of him no longer exert any control over my moods or my disposition. His violence and my inability to protect my mother no longer define me. I am not the small boy cowering in fear of his drunken rage. I have a new and different story. Forgiveness has liberated both of us. We are free.”

We, each one of us, has been forgiven. Each one of us is the beneficiary of God’s grace. And as recipients of that grace, we are called to extend it to others, to accept the challenge and to harness the power of forgiveness, and in so doing, to heal the world.


Sources used and footnotes:

Laurel Dykstra, “Pay Attention to Power,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/pay-attention-power (accessed 7 September 2014).

Will Willimon, “Forgiveness Is Not Innate,” from an email from sermons.com dated 9 September 2014.

Stephen Charleston, status update posted on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/steven.charleston.5, on 2 September 2014.

[1] “If you do not forgive (a story),” PreacherRhetorica, http://www.preacherrhetorica.com/proper-19a.html (accessed 11 September 2014).

[2] Desmond Tutu, “An Invitation to Forgive,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/desmond-tutu/an-invitation-to-forgive_b_5050747.html (posted 28 March 2014; accessed 10 September 2014).