Matthew 18: 21-35 7-23-17 Rev. Tony Clark ACCUCC
At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, “Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?”
Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.
“The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn’t pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.
“The poor wretch threw himself at the king’s feet and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.
“The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, ‘Pay up. Now!’
“The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, ‘Give me a chance and I’ll pay it all back.’ But he wouldn’t do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.
“The king summoned the man and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?’ The king was furious and put the screws to the man until he paid back his entire debt. And that’s exactly what my Father in heaven is going to do to each one of you who doesn’t forgive unconditionally anyone who asks for mercy.’
Every week we pray the Lord’s Prayer, saying, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Other churches say every week, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” or “forgive us our trespasses, we forgive those who trespass against us.” Over the last few weeks, you may have noticed that I have been saying trespasses rather than debts, and I have done this purposely because it reminds me that it’s not so much the financial debts that I need to have forgiven, but the actions that I have done or have left undone that harmed someone else.
I must confess, though, that every time I say “Forgive us our trespasses,” I think immediately of Winnie-the-Pooh’s best friend Piglet, whose house had a sign in front that said, “Trespassers W--” with the rest of the sign broken off. Of course, the sign was short for “Trespassers will be shot,” or “Trespassers will be prosecuted,” or maybe “Trespassers will be asked in for tea and crumpets.” But Piglet declared that it was for his grandfather, who was called, “Trespassers William.”
Forgive me God, for trespassing on such a serious topic as forgiveness with my impertinent humor. Teach us, O Great Forgiver, how to forgive—one another, ourselves, and even you. May the words…
Here we are at the Sunday of Forgiveness.
Last week we heard from Dorothy what forgiveness is not—it is not forgetting, it is not reconciliation or renewal of relationship, it is not a free pass out of punishment nor a release from the effects of acting badly. Forgiveness is not immediate, nor is it a miracle. Forgiveness is not for the offender.
“Forgiveness is,” as Papa says to Mack, “first for you, the forgiver, to release you from something that will eat you alive; that will destroy your joy and your ability to love fully and openly…. When you choose to forgive another, you love him well.”
So, if forgiveness is for the forgiver, why do we ask God to forgive us every week? If we believe God is first and foremost all-loving, then God has already forgiven us before we even ask. And yet, the asking is important. The asking itself acknowledges our wrong doing, our sin and separation from God, our trespassing on another’s property or crossing another’s emotional boundaries. Saying “I’m sorry” is an important thing in relationships.
We say, “forgive my sins, God; forgive me for those times when I became angry at you for not giving me what I wanted, and then turned my back on you. I know you did not leave me. I wanted, wished, hoped for something so badly, that it became a need, an expectation that I demanded that you fulfill, and when you didn’t, I pouted, I stomped my feet, I slammed my bedroom door and said, ‘I hate you!’ Forgive me, God.”
At that moment of yelling and door slamming, don’t we humans expect God to react the way an angry parent might, marching up to the door, pounding on it and saying, “Listen here, you ungrateful brat…,” and grounding us for the rest of our natural born lives? At that moment, it takes everything for even a good human parent to remain calm and loving.
Yet God is not human, and God doesn’t react that way. God responds with love, with immediate forgiveness. So perhaps asking for forgiveness from God is really a way to say, “I’m sorry,” acknowledging or admitting something we did wrong to ourselves and God, and expecting wrath, we ask God to forgive, which we intuit will release the anger, the wrath, the rage we know comes from humans who are broken and hurting.
And so we ask for forgiveness. Still, asking someone else for forgiveness does not guarantee they will forgive us; that action is theirs to take, not ours to demand. We cannot demand that God forgive us; we can only say, “I’m sorry, and I hope you find it in yourself to forgive me. Not because I need your forgiveness, but because you need to forgive, to let it go, to release the anger, the pain, the suffering I caused, so that you can become more whole.”
However, God is already whole, God is loving, God has already forgiven even before we ask. So why do we ask God week in and week out to forgive our debts, or our sins, or our trespasses?
I think it is really a plea to our inner self to forgive our own actions. Can I forgive my own debts, my own sins, my own trespasses?
Forgive me God, I am sorry for slamming the door between us. And then, O God, empower me to forgive my own debts, my own sins, my own trespasses--those times when I crossed a boundary I didn’t know was there, or a line I knew was there but crossed it anyway in defiance. Give me the fortitude to face and acknowledge the times when have I stepped on someone else’s toes either literally or metaphorically.
I said a few weeks ago that I get anxious when I am late, in part because my mother was always late, and I hated the feeling of coming in late, being looked at by everyone, and having to catch up to whatever was being said. My answer is to try to be early.
The reason my mother was often late was that she was a single mother, and sometimes worked two or three jobs to make ends meet. She was a busy professional, with two active teenagers, and sometimes she had to be Superwoman just to bend time and space for us. That I could forgive pretty easily, even though I was still left waiting or was late to an event.
My mother also drank lots of whiskey, and sometimes she would stop by a bar on her way to pick us up, and then she might lose track of time. Some weekends were focused on her need to drink, which meant my sister and I spent time as the only underage people at adult parties or clubs. She often forgot our needs in her need to self-medicate her pain.
For years, I was held in the grip of anger; it was many years after her death that I began the process of letting it go, of releasing my grip on those events, and I began the process of forgiving my mother. I had to acknowledge that my emotions were valid, that I could both love my mother very much and also have unkindled anger because although she was often a very good mother, there were times when she was not. My expectations and hopes that she would think about my needs went unfulfilled. I had hoped my mother might say she was sorry before she died, I had hoped that God might cure her and take away her alcoholism, I had hoped that I would be a better person. For forgiveness to even begin, I had to acknowledge all that had gone between us, and I had to accept that sometimes, in spite of the best intentions, we humans hurt each other. I recognized that my mother was human, and I know she had the best intentions for me and my sister; nothing she did was meant to be personal.
Not forgiving held me in a loop of anger for several years. When I began to see and accept the humanness of it all, I began to forgive my mother, myself, and even God, and I could release the anger, release the grip it had held on me. To forgive my mother, I don’t need to forget what happened, and I can address my own needs by trying to be early to appointments and being aware of how alcohol affects me and then how I that affects those around me.
Forgiveness does not happen once, though. As new things come up, as new slights, or sins, or debts, or trespasses occur, I must move through all the steps again and again, remembering that the emotions are valid, that I hoped for my needs to be met and they weren’t, accepting the humanness of the situation, and allowing the initial good intention to still give me hope for the next time. Uggh. Hard work. However, I know that forgiving is for the forgiver, not the forgiven, which means that where my soul is broken, I must step into that perpetual cycle of forgiveness to move my soul toward wholeness.
Forgiveness frees me from difficult encapsulating feelings. Forgiving my mother, even after her death, allowed me to be more loving in my memories of her. And forgiving can also work when I feel I have trespassed on my own boundary or when I feel like God has not lived up the holy bargain I thought we had made. Forgiving myself moves me into better relationship with me, allowing me to become more fully human in that moment, as I acknowledged my failings and recognized my desire to do better. Forgiving God moves me into closer relationship with God, repenting and turning back--or “re-turning”--to a relationship that I acknowledge I was the one to sever. And then I begin the process of returning to wholeness.
In the tale about Piglet and the sign in front of his house that read “Tresspassers W—,” maybe Piglet’s grandfather had learned the art of forgiveness. Maybe Piglet’s grandfather had more than a warning to give us, but a spiritual practice to teach. Maybe that sign was really short for, “Trespassers will be forgiven.”
Holy, gracious, All Forgiving One, forgive us, and teach us the spiritual practice of forgiveness so that we may be made whole again. May we forgive those who trespass against us. Amen.
 The Shack, William P. Young, (Newbury Park, CA: Windblown Media, 2007), p. 225.