“…As We Forgive”
Scripture – Matthew 18:21-35
Sermon Preached by Randall T. Clayton
Sunday, October 12, 2014

The play, “The Black Angel” tells the fictitious story of a man named Herman Engel who was sentenced to a 30 year prison term because of the atrocities that were committed by the army he commanded during the Second World War. Upon the completion of his prison sentence, Herman Engel and his wife built a cabin deep in the woods where they intended to live out the rest of their lives, quietly. However, there was a journalist whose family had been massacred by Engel’s army who was still seething with anger, filled with rage, and consumed by bitterness toward Engel’s army even after more than 3 decades had passed. When he realized where Engel was living after Engel’s release from prison, the journalist began to rile up the people in the nearby town. He so successfully ignited their anger and fueled their rage at Engel so that they hatched a plan to murder Engel and Engel’s wife.

But the journalist wanted some answers from Engel about his family’s massacre before Engel died, and the journalist himself felt such rage that he wanted to be the one to kill Engel, so he made the trek to Engel’s cabin deep in the woods early on the day that the townspeople were intending to do their terrible deed. As he talked with Engel that day, he began to question his own intent to kill the man. Engel didn’t seem like a monster he had made him out to be. Suddenly that afternoon the journalist blurted out to the elderly Engel that he and his wife better leave the area immediately because the villagers were planning to come and murder them that very night. Realizing the extreme danger Engel was in, the journalist offered to lead Engel and his wife out of the woods to save their lives.

But Engel said, to the journalist, “I’ll go with you on one condition.”

“What condition?” asked the journalist.

“That you forgive me.”

“That you forgive me,” Engle replied.

It turns out that the journalist was unable to let go of his bitterness and anger and say to Engel, “I forgive you.” And so Engel did not leave his cabin in the woods, but met his death that night when the townspeople came with torches and weapons. [John Tornfelt, Is Reconciliation Possible, Crosswalk.com]

Forgiveness….that’s all Engel wanted, and isn’t that what we want as well?

In 1999, a Presbyterian clergy person named Marc Benton brought suit in the ecclesiastical court system against his Presbytery because he believed some of their actions were out of accord with what he thought the Bible said. He won the case in the church court, and the decision in that case has had had strong repercussions throughout our denomination since that time. The decision in that case has caused hurt and struggle for many of our faithful members and clergy; it has caused numerous clergy to be brought up on disciplinary charges; and most seriously, it has caused many persons who have traditionally been excluded by the church, and their mothers and fathers, and their sisters and brothers, and their friends and allies, to wonder all over again, are all of God’s people really welcome in my church?

But within the past year, as a result of conversations that Benton has had with lesbian and gay Christians and after a careful and thorough re-reading and serious study of the Bible, he came to realize that the Bible didn’t say what he though it said; and that his position on the issues had been wrong; and thus that he should never have filed suit in the church court; and that the court’s decision was wrong too.

He has written a moving letter to his Presbytery acknowledging his change of heart and his new understandings of scripture, writing with a request that his statement be shared broadly in the hopes it might help others in our church at this time as we are considering refining our description of marriage in a way that would essentially un-do that sad and difficult ruling. He says in part, “Here I am, some 15 years later to apologize for what I did back then…for pain and trouble I caused…for the part I played in holding back some of God’s children from full acceptance in the Church…for trying to prohibit some of you from being the people God created you to be. I accept responsibility for what I did in judging others rather than extending the love of Jesus to them…I am grateful to God for changing my heart. I am so sorry…I feel ashamed for taking so long to come to see what now seems to be so self-evident to me…please forgive me.” [“Benton: A Change of Heart, A Plea for Forgiveness,” September 9, 2014, Covenant Network of Presbyterians]

Like Engel in the play, Benton too has asked for forgiveness. And, isn’t that what we all want? Forgiveness?

But as we think about forgiveness, we may begin to wonder about it. How much should we forgive when we suffer a wrong? How many times must we forgive when someone hurts us? What are the limits and boundaries of forgiveness?

As Peter was trying to understand the boundaries of forgiveness he came to Jesus and said, “How many times should we forgive someone? Should we forgive as many as 7 times?” Since conventional wisdom in that day said you had to forgive a wrong up to 3 times, and only 3 times, Peter’s suggestion of forgiving 7 times was quite magnanimous.

He probably expected Jesus to say something like, “No, you only need to do it 4 times, or perhaps 5. Surely 7 is way too many times to forgive.” But Jesus said, “No Peter, Not 7, or 8 or 9 or 10 times, but 70 times 7.”

And I don’t think Jesus meant forgive only 490 times either. I think he meant that we are simply to forgive, to forgive early, to forgive often, but always in fact to forgive generously, to forgive without limits, to forgive others just as God has forgiven us. And then to illustrate his point Jesus tells a parable.

Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven with a king who wants to settle accounts with his servants and when he looks at his ledger book, he discovers that one servant owes him an incredible amount of money-10,000 talents. It was an amount that is almost unimaginable; it was actually more money that was even in circulation at the time in Judea. Any reasonable person would have to ask, “How could anyone rack up that kind of debt? How?” And maybe more importantly, “Why would the king have not stopped making loans to this man long ago? Why had the king been so foolishly generous?”

Since the servant couldn’t pay the debt the king ordered him sold into slavery. While legally one could sell a debtor who was unable to repay the debt into slavery, the king went even further, decreeing he would also sell the servants wife and children into as slavery. At this point the servant, however, fell on his knees. “Have patience,” he begged, “and I can pay you.”

But, of course, both the king and the servant knew that no amount of patience was ever, ever, ever, going to give the man the ability to repay the debt. And the king’s response was staggering: he completely wrote off the debt, freeing the man from his legal responsibility to pay back any portion of the loan.

Now it seems that this same forgiven servant had loaned some money to one of his colleagues. It was the total of something like 3-to4 months of wages – definitely a significant sum of money but not an astronomical amount. Over time, surely it could have been repaid.

Well, the forgiven servant decides he wants his money back now so he goes to his colleague, roughly seizes him by the throat and demands the loan be paid back immediately. And just as the forgiven servant had said once to the king, the forgiven servant’s colleague now said to his lender, “Have patience and I will repay you.”

But his lender, the recently forgiven servant said, “No. Off to prison you go.”

When the news of this reached the king’s ears the king summoned the servant he had forgiven, called him wicked, and threw him into the torture chamber saying, “I forgave you…I showed you mercy. But you, in turn, didn’t show mercy to others.”

And according to Matthew, Jesus concluded the parable saying, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

We pray each Sunday, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” And today we will pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Quite simply, there is a connection, between God’s forgiveness and ours for others. And that, I think, is the central message of the parable. God has shown incredible love and mercy to each of us, a love and mercy so visible in Jesus Christ. Can we not respond in kind? Why should we limit our forgiveness, when God has not limited God’s?

“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” we pray.

Whether it is a dispute with a family member over an inheritance or the driver who while texting, ran into us and put the first dent in our new car; whether it is a spouse who was not truthful, or a thief who broke into our home and took what was ours; whether a bully in school, or a terrorist flying a plane into a skyscraper; there are times when forgiveness seems foreign to us, when we’d rather let our anger burn than let it go, when getting even would seem to feel so good. But then, we find ourselves praying in church, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Sometimes, even though we know God forgives us, it is really difficult to offer it to others. In times when forgiveness is toughest, perhaps it helps to remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean we condone a terrible act. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we are saying what happened was OK. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we always should, or even could, forget what happened either. And while reconciliation is important, forgiveness doesn’t even mean that relationships are always restored.

A guest on a prominent talk show once said that forgiveness is “giving up the hope that the past could be different.” [http://www.oprah.com/oprahs-lifeclass/Oprahs-Forgiveness-Aha-Moment-Video] What he meant, I think was that forgiveness entails accepting that we can’t change the past? I wonder if perhaps that’s at the base, what forgiveness is truly all about…giving up the hope that the past could be different, and in so doing, allowing ourselves to give up the need to hold onto the anger and hurt and bitterness and all that tears away at our own emotional and physical selves, and which also tears at the fabric of our relationship with others and with God.

“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” we pray.

With God’s help, we can. We can forgive and be freed.

Some of you may remember a famous photograph taken during the Vietnam War. It showed a small girl running down the road, naked, with an expression of unimaginable terror on her face. Her clothing had been burned off her body and her body had been scorched by napalm. It was a chilling photograph depicting the horror that happens in war.

The man who coordinated the raid on that child’s village in 1971 was a U.S. Army Pilot named John Plummer. The day after the raid was conducted, Plummer saw the photo in the military newspaper and was completely devastated. He said, “It just knocked me to my knees and that was when I knew that I could never talk about it.” The guilt tormented him, causing him to suffer frequent nightmares which included the scene from the photo accompanied by the sounds of children screaming.

The girl in the photo did survive-although it took 17 operations to repair her body. 25 years after that event, this woman was speaking at a Veterans Day observance in Washington and Plummer decided he had to go hear her.

That day he heard her say in her speech, “If I could talk face-to-face with the pilot who dropped the bombs, I would tell him we could not change history, but we should try to do good things for the present. Sitting in the audience, Plummer scribbled a short note, saying, “I am the man” and he asked an officer to take it to her. After her speech, he pushed his way toward her in the crowed and when they were face to face and she realized who he was, he said, “She just opened her arms to me. I fell into her arms sobbing. All I could say is, “I’m so sorry. I’m just so sorry.”

“It’s all right,” she responded. “I forgive, I forgive.” [Robert Karen, “The Forgiving Self”, 2001 and Robert Zanicky, “The Freeing of Forgiveness”]

We can’t remake the past, but we can move into the future; and with God’s help, forgiving as generously as God has forgiven us. And when we do, we free ourselves and those around us to experiencing the joy and welcome of God anew.

Let us pray: O God, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Amen.