The Rev. Rebecca S. Myers, CSW
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Corbin, KY
Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 19) Track 1
Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Matthew 18:21-22
Please be seated.
Well, when we hear this, don’t we just want to respond incredulously, “Seriously, Jesus?” Aren’t some things just unforgiveable?
Earlier this week, we remembered the events of September 11, 2001, now 13 years ago! Can it be so long ago? The images are seared in our memory, aren’t they? You mean we must forgive such evil? The writer for our Forward Day by Day wrote, “The terrorists who flew the planes on 9/11 forced us to confront the power of evil and challenged us to find a way to respond with forgiveness.” (Forward Day by Day, Vol. 80, No. 3, pg 44)
Last evening, I made a new Facebook friend. The profile photo shows a younger version of this man who turned 57 yesterday. In his profile photo, he looks about 5 or six and seems to be perched on his father’s lap. The father is looking straight out at us…with piercing eyes, a 60sslicked hairdo, gorgeous suit with pretty, thin blue tie and an almost smile on his face. The epitome of the good-looking early 60s man. Six years later, the father was murdered on the streets of Detroit. The boy was only 11 years old, left fatherless.
But that 11-year old boy wrote a letter to the judge in his father’s murder trial, pleading that the judge not sentence his father’s killer to death. Having lost his own father, this 11-year old boy did not want any other child to go through the same experience of losing their father.
Some things seem unforgiveable and our faith and followship of Jesus Christ demand forgiveness. Every Sunday, we say the prayer Jesus taught us to say, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Often we remember that Jesus hung on a cross, dying a most horrible death of torture, betrayed by his own community, yet asking God to forgive his killers.
But still, we want to live in the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” where everyone ends up blind and toothless world.
Why does Jesus demand extreme forgiveness and how in the world can we forgive?
Seriously, forgiveness is good for us, spiritually, emotionally and physically, according to the Mayo Clinic’s “Healthy Adult” website. (http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/adult-health/in-depth/forgiveness/art-20047692?pg=1) When we can’t forgive, the wrong done to us overtakes us. We spend lots of brain space to remember what happened, living it over and over. We spend plenty of emotional energy hanging on to our anger and bitterness. Not forgiving means we miss what’s happening in our lives today. We also cut off new and helpful relationships.
Forgiveness, according to the Mayo Clinic site can bring us the following benefits:
- Healthier relationships
- Greater spiritual and psychological well-being
- Less anxiety, stress and hostility
- Lower blood pressure
- Fewer symptoms of depression
- Lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse
Seriously, forgiveness acknowledges our deep understanding of the heart of God. Time after time, Jesus told stories about how God searches for us when we are lost; how God rejoices when we are found; how God opens wide God’s arms to embrace us when we return. In other words, God’s forgiveness of us never ends. There is nothing we can do to separate us from the love of God, Paul writes. God’s heart of love is rooted in forgiveness, because forgiveness sets us free, both when we forgive and when we know we are forgiven for what we do.
But how can we forgive?
First of all, forgiveness is not forgetting. People must still face the consequences of their actions. And if the one who wronged us has not acknowledged that wrong, nor repented of it, they may not be the best people for us to be around. Remember, we are clear-eyed and wise. We can forgive and remember.
Sister Joan Chittister, a Roman Catholic Benedictine nun, has written a book of reflections on forgiveness, God’s Tender Mercy: Reflections on Forgiveness (Twenty-Third Publications). I found an excerpt online, which I think explains a lot about forgiveness.
“A young woman, the [ancient monastic] story goes, who is heavy with child and terrified of being executed for dishonoring the family name, accuses a revered old monk, who prayed daily at the city gates, of assaulting her and fathering the child. The people confronted the old man with the accusation. But the old man’s only response to the frenzy of the crowd was a laconic, “Is that so?” As he gazed into space and went on fingering his beads, the townspeople became even more infuriated and drove the culprit out of town.
Years later, the woman, exhausted by her guilt and wanting to relieve her burden and make restitution, finally admitted that it was her young lover, not the old monk, who fathered the child. In fear for his life as well as her own, she had lied about the attack. Stricken with compunction, the townspeople rushed to the hermitage in the hills where the old man was still saying his prayers and leading his simple life. “The girl has admitted that you did not assault her,” the people shouted. “What are you going to do about that?” But all the old monk answered was, “Is that so?” and went right on fingering his beads.” http://oblatesosbbelmont.org/2010/11/19/the-secret-of-forgiveness/
You see, Sister Chittister explains, “The fact is, that there is nothing to forgive in life if and when we manage to create an interior life that has more to do with what we are than with what other people do to us. What we are inside ourselves determines how we react to others — no matter what they do.” When we are grounded in our faith, knowing deeply our humanity, knowing we are loved and forgiven by God, we are not pulled into the whirlwind of reacting to others around us.
Sister Chittister concludes, “Forgiveness is a gift that says two things. First, I am just as weak as everyone else in the human race and I know it. And, second, my inner life is too rich to be destroyed by anything outside of it.”
So forgive 77 times. Forgive from the heart so that you may have abundant life…so that you may have joy… so that you may have peace…so that you may live in the love of God.