A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, march 15, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 13:1-17 and Matthew 18:21-22
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

There were times in my childhood when I was enough taller than the other kids in my neighborhood that it made a difference. This was especially true when we played hide and seek or kick the can. I was tall enough to be able to jump up and grab a branch in the pine by the Stuarts’ barn and pull my up into the tree and climb until I was above the roofs of the 19th century colonials at that end of the street.

This was a great hiding place and a horrible hiding place. It was a great hiding place because no one could find me. It was a horrible hiding place because no one could find me. If you’ve ever played hide and seek with a four-year-old, you know that the only thing they like more than hiding is being found.

I think that’s true of all of us. We spend lots of time and energy hiding. We’ve done it since adolescence or earlier. We create façades to hide behind, masks to present an acceptable self to the world. All the while, our deepest desire is to be found, for someone to look behind the façade, to lift up the mask and find us. We long to be fully known.

It is also one of our deepest fears. It is a fear because there is a part of us that thinks if people really knew us, they would reject us. We don’t just long to be found and known. We long to be found and known and accepted.

I suspect the main reason we form communities is biological. Our species needed clans and tribes to survive. So, natural selection formed us into a species that seeks community. Still, there is another reason, I think, that we seek community: our desire to be found, to be fully known, and still to belong.

I know there are friends, and then there are friends. You know what I mean? There are the people you connect with and then here are the people you really connect with. There are the people you know you can call if it’s before 9:00 in the evening and then there are the people you know you can call in the middle of the night and who know they can call you in the middle of the night – no matter what.

I think it’s like that with community. The deeper the sense of community, the more deeply we reveal who we really are. The deeper the sense of community, the more we bring out the best and the worst to our relationships with each other. The deeper the sense of community, the deeper our sense of belonging, and, therefore, the more vulnerable we are to deep wounding.

Communities that gather around Jesus have a hope that other communities don’t. We have a model in Jesus. We have a promise from Jesus that his revolutionary way of love can transform our relationships at every level. As Mark Scandrette points out, “The vision of belonging that Jesus embodied and taught calls us to a love that is far more ruthless and tender than seems humanly possible. It is a kind of love that can empower you to treat your worst enemy as your dearest friend and to keep hanging on, forgiving, believing and hoping against hope for love to win. An apprentice of Jesus learns to love as God loves.”[1]

We see how Jesus embodied and taught this in our reading from John’s gospel. Jesus is with his disciples, sharing a meal. John tells us that Jesus knows that Judas is going to betray him. He knows that the other disciple will soon deny him and abandon him. And Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his robe, and puts a towel around his waist. Their teacher, their rabbi, their Lord is now dressed as a servant, a slave. And he kneels and washes their feet.

Peter (Rocky) resists. You’re doing it wrong Jesus. You shouldn’t wash my feet. Okay, okay, but if you wash my feet, then wash all of me; make me clean. I’m so grateful Peter was a disciple because, listening to the man himself kneeling at his feet, Peter still doesn’t get it. If Jesus can call him a disciple, than maybe Jesus will call me a disciple, too.

What do you think it was like for the disciples to have their rabbi wash their feet? What do you think it was like for Judas to have Jesus wash his feet? What do you think it was like for Jesus to kneel at his disciples’ feet and wash them? Especially Judas’ feet – what was it like for Jesus to take the towel from his waist and dry Judas’ toes?

The gospel writer says that this was an act of love. Jesus had loved his disciples, and here, right up to the end, he was loving them still. And so he washed their feet. One of the things that amazes me about Jesus is his ability to love everyone. Loving the people who loved him – that was easy. But loving the people who hated him? Loving the Romans who were going to kill him? Loving a trusted friend, part of his truly intimate community, who was planning to betray him – perhaps that’s the most amazing of all.

Betrayal cuts deeply, hurts deeply. I’ve experienced hurts in my life. People have done things that hurt me physically, emotionally, even spiritually, but I’ve healed from those hurts. However, when I’m honest with myself, I know that I’m still carrying one wounding I haven’t fully forgiven. A close and trusted friend betrayed me.

That’s probably not fair. My friend made a series of choices that she thought were for the best and I experienced them as betrayal. And I still hurt from that. And I’m still angry at her. Because I’m withholding forgiveness. And there’s no way she and I can return to a sense of community with her until I forgive. It amazes me that Jesus could wash Judas’ feet. He must have forgiven him even before he was betrayed.

In our reading from Matthew’s gospel, Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive a “brother” who sins against him. The word, “brother” is translated “member of the church” in the NRSV, and not just to use gender-neutral language. The Greek word can mean both a male sibling and a member of a believing community. In context, Peter isn’t just asking about forgiving anyone who sins against him and he’s not asking about forgiving his brother Andrew in particular. Peter is asking about forgiving a member of the community. Peter thinks that forgiving as many as seven times shows patience and love.

But Jesus’ response is to forgive seventy-seven times. In other words, don’t bother counting: forgive. If you want to keep the community together, you’ve got to forgive.

I think it’s important to remember what forgiveness isn’t. It’s not denying our hurt. It’s not resigned martyrdom. It’s not putting another person “on probation.” It’s not excusing an unjust behavior. It’s not forgetting. Forgiveness is – well, consider this definition: Forgiveness is a conscious choice to release a person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and our desire for retribution, however fair such punishment might seem. The behavior remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effects as far as the forgiver is concerned.

Consider the consequences of this understanding of forgiveness.[2] Forgiveness means giving up the right to retaliate. It means being willing to allow something that happened to have happened the way it actually happened. It means that it is possible to forgive anything, that forgiveness is a matter of the will, and that we always have that option. It also means that forgiveness is never dependent on what the other person does or does not do. It is always under our control.

“Anger has been called a judicial emotion – a reaction to injustice.… [W]hen we experience any form of injustice, most of us react with a clenched fist, a closed heart, and a sense of resentment. These reactions are a natural effort to defend ourselves emotionally against further injury. And it works, in the short run. Like a scab, it protects the tender wound from infection, but if the scab stays too long, the wound never heals.”[3] Forgiveness is how we do the healing.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “Forgiveness will not be possible until compassion is born in our heart.”[4] Pastor Brenda shared another quote from Thich Nhat Hanh that speaks to how we find that compassion and do the forgiving. “Someone who is angry [and in that anger hurts you] is someone who doesn’t know how to handle their suffering. They are the first victim of their suffering, and you are actually the second victim. Once we can see this, compassion is born in our heart and [your responsive] anger evaporates. We don’t want to punish them any more, but instead we want to say something or do something to help them suffer less.”

The themes for our Lenten sermon series have come out of various lines from the Lord’s Prayer. Today’s line also speaks to forgiveness. In this church, we typically pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” A better translation is actually, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”[5] “Have forgiven” – an assumption that we have already forgiven before we approach God seeking forgiveness. Suddenly, in order to be forgiven by God, we need to forgive others first.

On the surface, I’ve got to tell you, it sure make God seem kind of snotty to me. But consider this: “If we remain unwilling to forgive those who wound us, how can God set us free from the knot of a twisted relationship? God wants more than anything to free us … to give us a way out of our impenetrable morass of sin. But if we refuse to pass the gift of grace along to those in our debt, we prevent the grace of God’s forgiveness from entering our own lives fully.… [I]t is not that God, in ornery fashion, is bent on punishing our hard hearts. It is simply that an unforgiving heart of itself blocks the mystery of divine grace. It cannot freely receive what God freely gives.”[6] So don’t forgive just seven times, but seventy-seven times, for when done authentically and in its own time, forgiveness makes the future possible.

Remember, I said that forgiveness is a conscious choice to release a person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. On the surface, that seems to be about the other person, but it’s also equally about us. When I forgive, I’m choosing to let go of my righteous anger and my need for revenge and judgment. That’s why I can forgive someone without talking to them. That’s why I can forgive someone who is dead. Because forgiveness is a conscious choice of letting go.

There’s an old story[7] about a father and son who had a major fight. The son ran away, and after a time, when the father cooled down, he set off to find his son. He searched for months to no avail. Finally, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in a newspaper (I said it’s an old story). The ad read: “Dear John, meet me in front of the fountain in the park at the center of town at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father.”

On Saturday 300 men named John stood around the fountain, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers.

Pastor Brenda and I have been giving you homework during this sermon series. Here’s this week’s assignment. Identify a place in your life where community is suffering because of a hurt or an anger you are holding on to and take at least one concrete step toward the conscious choice of forgiveness, the conscious choice of letting go, so a future is possible.


[1] Mark Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 151.

[2] These consequences were shared with me years ago by a colleague who told me they were from For Everything There Is a Season © 1988 by Upper Room Books; I don’t have more information than that.

[3] Dan Gottlieb, “Forgiveness is hard but it lets you heal,” Inside Out, quoted by Mark T. English years ago in note #5126 in the ecunet.org meeting “Bottom Drawer.”

[4] “Compassion, the antidote,” Sojourners, Vol. 36, No. 2 (February 2007): 30.

[5] This is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the passage in Matthew’s gospel.

[6] Marjorie J. Thompson, “Moving Toward Forgiveness,” Weavings, VII, 2 (March/April 1992), 23.

[7] I’ve heard or read a version of this story many times over the years. I have no idea what the original source of the story is.