Sunday, September 11, 2011

Forgive Us Our Debts As We Forgive Our Debtors...

In its way, this is a 9/11 sermon. How could it be anything else? My heartfelt thanks to the work of Sharron R. Blezard, Rosemary Thornton, Connie Knighton, and many others in writing this sermon.

Exodus 14:19-31
The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.“ So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

Romans 14:1-12
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

Matthew 18:21-35
Then Peter came and said to him, “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.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Just like we do every Sunday, you and I are going to recite the Lord’s Prayer following the Prayers of the People today. If you’re like me, you’ve been hearing the prayer since about nine months before you were born, and reciting it since you learned to talk. There’s a line in the Lord’s Prayer that pertains to the Gospel reading today. In fact, when you think about it, it’s a little frightening: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

I love talking about forgiveness, about how deep the grace of God is, to forgive us of our sin and how wide the love of God is, to welcome us into the Kingdom and into eternal relationship through Jesus Christ.

“Forgive us our debts… as we forgive our debtors.”

Anytime we venture into the realm of forgiveness – and I mean the necessity to forgive others based upon the fact that we ourselves are forgiven so much – we tend to step lightly, to try and be careful, not hurt feelings, not start arguments. Forgiveness is messy work, hard, backbreaking, and very often thankless toil… not to mention the fear of forcing someone to make a dangerous choice in the guise of forgiveness – forcing an abused spouse back into a violent relationship, for example.

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Forgiveness, for the Christian, is not optional. Throughout Scripture, we learn two things about forgiveness: First, we are to seek the forgiveness of others – for example, Matthew 5: 23 and 24, where Jesus says, “Suppose you are offering your gift at the altar. And you remember that your brother has something against you. Leave your gift in front of the altar. First go and make peace with your brother. Then come back and offer your gift.” Second, we are to forgive, and to do so extravagantly, egregiously, vastly. Our Gospel reading today is just one of the illustrations of exactly how far we are expected to go when forgiving.

We are told of a slave who is brought before the king to pay an impossible debt. Ten thousand talents was equivalent to the lifetime earnings of three thousand people – something like twelve billion dollars in this day and age. Not so much if you are a corporation getting a bailout, or a country, I guess, but for a common worker? And a slave at that? It’s almost hilarious that, in pleading for himself and his family, he promises to pay it all back.

And the king forgave the debt. Just like that, the specter of a short, hard life of pain, spent in some mine shaft, his family sold into slavery and a world away, all that crushing hopelessness, that’s what twelve billion dollars of debt meant, and in an instant, it was all gone!

Imagine all the credit cards in your wallet maxed out, your bank account’s overdraft has broken the national debt ceiling, your mortgage is hopelessly behind and so far underwater you can see the fish, Operation Repo, Lizard Lick Towing and Dog the Bounty Hunter are looking for your car, and you just found out you are at the top of the IRS’ “Most Wanted” list. One day, a log black limo pulls up, and Donald Trump steps out. He tells you that he has acquired the bank, the mortgage company, the loan office, and the credit card companies you owe money to, and he’s here to collect, or else. The Sheriff’s Department pulls up, and they aren’t happy. Behind them are the Men In Black from the IRS, and they’re less happy.

Then, just as the deputies are pulling out the cuffs, Trump says, “Y’know what? Never mind. I’m cancelling your debts. Have a nice day.” He climbs back in his limo, the Sheriff’s deputies drive away, the black Suburbans carry off the IRS agents…

How would you feel?

And how on Earth, with this slave having been forgiven so much, could he not turn right around and give the guy who owed him what today would have been eight thousand dollars? Sure, eight grand is a lot, but in comparison to billions? Really? Do you blame the king for taking back his forgiveness and throwing that fellow in debtor’s prison? The very idea!

And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the lesson is not about kings and slaves, but about God and us. We have been forgiven. The price paid was more than we can imagine: Jesus’ death on the cross. And as a response, we cannot do anything but forgive.

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

CS Lewis said, “Everyone thinks forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” And isn’t it the truth? I mean, surely God understands that, well, in most cases, yes, we should forgive, but what this person or those people or that company or that agency did to me, well, it is unforgiveable! There’s no way God can really expect me to lay aside my hurt, my anger, my righteous indignation!

“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtor.”
Think, for a moment, about the psychology behind unforgiveness. When we hold on to a wrong committed against us, we ruminate on it, we turn it over and over in our mind. Our anger smolders, our bitterness ripens, and our grudges grow like kudzu. We curve inward, consumed by the injustice we harbor—whether real, perceived, or a little bit of both. Our view of the world and the other becomes warped and clouded. Our bitterness takes on a precious but poisonous tang. Studies have shown that cortisol – a hormone produced by stress – increases in the bloodstream. Our blood pressure rises. Our heart rate increases. Our immune system is even compromised! Nelson Mandela said “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting on it to kill your enemy.”

There are group therapies, individual therapies, self-help books galore on the subject of forgiveness. It’s a big deal psychologically, and spiritually.

Oh yes, make no mistake, there is a spiritual aspect to unforgiveness as well. It is an inescapable fact that whatever we think most about – whatever commands our emotions, our reflections, whatever we are most passionate about – has become an object of worship. And if the object of our worship is anything other than the living God, we are committing idolatry, pure and simple.

So if unforgiveness is bad for our health… if unforgiveness is detrimental to our relationship with the one true and living Creator, it makes sense that we, who are forgiven so much, should in turn practice forgiveness all the time and everywhere, as frequently and naturally as breathing.

But forgiveness isn’t at all natural, is it? Revenge, punishment, recompense, these are the natural reactions when we are offended in one way or another. “Fight or flight” responses are thought, by some psychologists and scientist types, to be leftovers from the days when reacting quickly to stressful situations – like being attacked by a saber-toothed tiger – was, well, life and death. And there are, of course, many situations where fight-or-flight reactions can save our lives.

But nursing a grudge – fantasizing about revenge – wanting someone to hurt like they have hurt you? There is no good that can come from it, and if we are honest, we can admit that we know it.

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

How? How do we forgive?

For the Christian, forgiveness is very much a spiritual discipline. And like all disciplines, forgiveness takes time, effort, and practice.

It’s a hard fact to swallow, but the resentment we feel toward someone who has wronged us doesn’t harm him or her in the slightest. Chances are, they’ve gone on with life and hasn't given it another thought. So let yourself off the hook! The Aramaic word for "forgive" means literally to "untie." The fastest way to free yourself from the physical and psychological and spiritual poison of holding a grudge is to forgive. Untie the bindings and loosen yourself from that person's ugliness. Release yourself from the resentment and bitterness that ties you to the person responsible for your pain. Your forgiveness enables you to start walking away from him or her and the pain.

This is key: forgiveness is for you and not the other party. Freeing yourself through forgiveness is like freeing yourself from chains of bondage or from prison.

A word of caution: Forgiveness does not equal trust. Nothing requires us to trust a person who has caused us harm, who hasn’t acknowledged that harm, and who continues acting in harmful ways. This person isn't likely to ever be trustworthy -- you must keep a distance. Acknowledge; move on.

Simply put, an offender who wants reconciliation must do his or her part: offer a sincere apology, promise not to repeat the offense (or similar ones), make amends, and give it time. If you don't see repentance, well, again, move on. Forgiving that person is a benefit to yourself, but balance that forgiveness against the certain knowledge that evil exists, and some people enjoy harming others, and those people should be avoided.

There are over one point six million results when you type “How do we forgive” into Google, and I hesitate to offer myself as some kind of authority on the mechanics of forgiveness. All I have are broad suggestions.

Suggestion number one is to retrain our thinking about a person, a group of people, a situation, a company, an entity that has hurt us. And retraining our thinking has a couple of different approaches. You know how, in Scripture, Romans 12:14 to be precise, Paul writes, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse”? Try it! When a person or a situation or a company or whatever has offended us comes to mind, send him or her a blessing. Wish our enemy well. Hope the best for him or her. This has two effects. One, it neutralizes that acid of hate that destroys us, individually and as a community. Two, if it is true that the evil we wish for another has a rebound effect, the same must be true for the good that we wish for another. And if the Scriptures are true, then as we make ourselves able to return blessing for hatred, we know we are becoming more like Christ, who forgave even the ones who called for his death, even the ones who nailed him to the cross. Of course it’ll feel fake, even hypocritical at first. It’s a new thing, and we will stink at it. But eventually, it’ll become a habit. And we will be untied! Free!

Suggestion number two is to learn to mentally and emotionally change the subject. One of the things I teach in sales training is how to warm up with people, develop rapport. When you’re getting to know someone in the context of a sales presentation, it’s a cardinal rule to avoid politics and religion – unless they bring it up, and then you should only proceed if you’re comfortable discussing politics or religion. If not, you can change the subject.

“Oh, you’re a practicing Satanist? Fascinating. So, that’s a nice flower arrangement, did you do it yourself?” “Ah, I see, you’re a member of the American Communist Party. Interesting. So how many grandchildren do you have?”

Similarly, we can focus on other things when we begin to ruminate over past hurts and offenses. We remind ourselves that we have made a conscious choice to forgive, and we move on. Perhaps we think of someone who was especially kind to us in the situation, or we focus on some good that came out of the situation.

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Y’know, mathematically speaking, the kind of forgiveness God gives to us is not rational. It is an unequal equation of which we are the beneficiaries. Like the slave in the parable, there is no way we can ever repay the debt we owe. We are totally and completely reliant on divine love, grace, and forgiveness. Thanks be to God that heavenly math is different from what I learned in school. And in seeing what I have been forgiven of, I am humbled and challenged by what God requires of me in forgiving my neighbor and my enemy—not just from my rational self but from my broken, wounded, and very human heart. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, I will make mistakes. I never was very good in math; I pray that through continued practice I become better at forgiveness.

Let us pray.

Oh God,
Give us hearts of compassion where we seek an understandable revenge.
Open our minds to your wider justice.
Help us not to fear those who would kill our bodies but those who would maim and ruin our souls.

(prayer for individuals)

(The Lord's Prayer)


1 comment:

  1. I have discovered in my own life that forgiveness is a daily act not a one time cure all. I have to choose to forgive almost daily and in my dark times I may have to choose to forgive several times a day.