Sunday, September 25, 2005

'Forgive AND Forget?' - A Sermon for 9/25/05

Recreated from my outline...

Matthew 18:21-35

Forgiveness is one of those Christian virtues most revered. It is a hallmark; a staple of Christian life. It is one of the things Jesus is known for, and one of the things that got him in trouble with religious leaders. Forgiveness of sins is only something God can do, after all. And on the Sabbath! For shame.

As such, the church has always lifted up forgiveness as one of those actions we most treasure and are most called to show others. It’s a wonderful concept; an honorable act. But how easy is it?

Peter seemed to have some notion of the difficulty to forgive. His question tries to quantify forgiveness. He tries to set a limit, a minimum requirement. When is enough forgiveness truly enough? He probably thought he was being generous by suggesting seven. It’s the perfect number, after all. Surely, seven would be enough.

‘Not seven, but seventy-seven (or seventy times seven).’ Jesus implies that forgiveness is beyond quantification. You don’t stop at seven, if it still hasn’t ‘taken.’ It’s something that cannot be measured. That’s part of the scandal and the difficulty. Jesus’ answer to Peter is, for all intents and purposes, ‘As much or as long as it takes.’

There’s more to the scandal. Fast forward to Jesus’ parable of the servant in debt. This servant owes his master 10,000 talents. To give you an idea of what this means, one talent was equivalent to about 15 years’ wages for the average day laborer. 10,000 talents is ridiculously impossible for someone to pay off. The servant won’t be able to do it. But the sheer vastness of the debt is important to the story. Jesus has just made a statement about an infinite amount of forgiveness and now he is telling a story about an infinite amount of debt.

There really are multiple points of scandal in this story: the amount owed, the master actually forgiving such an outrageous amount, the treating of the other servant, the master taking his forgiveness back (is it a good idea to say that the master represents God?).

It gets even more scandalous once we begin to think about modern application. Consider this bulletin cover, taken from [a neighboring UCC church]. This bulletin was for September 11th, the Sunday for which this text was intended in the lectionary. The image is provocative enough. It gets you thinking about how difficult forgiveness truly is. It features Peter's question, 'How often shall I forgive?' and sets it against a picture of Manhattan, pre-9/11. Immediately, the difficulty of forgiveness brought before us.

Let’s take it one step further. If this picture were tailor-made, personalized for your life, what would the picture be? Who or what would you find on the page? Would it even be a reflection?

Memory is a funny thing. When it comes to forgiveness, maybe there’s nothing funny about it. In one moment, you can be transported back to a time of pain, of being wronged, of anger, of shame. Before you know it, you’re holding a grudge all over again. Feelings from the moment return. This is what makes forgiveness so absurd and so difficult. Saying the words is easy enough, but our memory takes a little longer to come around. That must be what they mean by ‘forgive and forget.’ The two in some sense go together.

Every preacher has a few favorite themes that they like to preach on. I’m not ashamed to admit that one of mine is transformation. I like Jesus’ parable because it deals with transformation. A servant is forgiven a ridiculous debt, one he had no chance of paying off. The damage was too great for him to repair. He's basically been given a new life. He walks out to a fellow servant who owes him considerably less. Up until this point, one may think or hope that a massive debt washed away will transform a person, that the second debt will be considered a blip in the radar screen, that thankfulness, graciousness, will rule the day. In the servant’s case, it doesn’t. It hasn’t sunken in at all.

Forgiveness is about a transformed relationship between two transformed people, two transformed groups, even transformation within oneself. One lets go of something, attempts to rise above the anger, the shame, the heartbreak. The other accepts such forgiveness with gratitude,
with thankfulness, with repentance.

And forgetting? Well, that’s another issue, isn’t it? Memory is indeed a funny thing. It can take a lifetime for some scars to heal. To look into our personalized pictures is to look at the most difficult memories we are harboring. The human race is comprised of debtors to one another, in various stages of forgiveness, in various stages of transformation. To completely forget, that is, to pretend an event never happened, would really be our loss. And it would be asking the impossible. Should Israelis and Palestinians pretend that centuries of destruction to one another never happened? Should this bulletin cover be rendered blank?

Miroslav Volf has a suggestion from ‘Exclusion and Embrace.’ He suggests a certain type of forgetting. He suggests that a perpetrator shouldn’t just pretend that he or she never inflicted harm. He suggests that a victim shouldn’t just pretend that he or she wasn’t harmed. Instead he suggests forgetting in terms of letting go of the anger. He suggests forgetting in terms of letting go of hatred.

At the same time, one must remember so that the future might be transformed. Remember so that others will not have to endure similar pain. Remember to break cycles of retribution and revenge. Remember in order not to destroy, but to build up God’s world and the kingdom within. Remember the new life that God in Christ is enacting in each of us, and our role as forgiven and forgivers.

May it be so. Amen.