LENT THRU THE EYES OF PETER…
LIFE’S HARDEST TASK
March 29, 2015…Palm/Passion Sunday
It was one of those off-the-table, out-of-the-blue questions that catches you by surprise…kind of like when your 5-year-old inquires from the back seat of the car, “Mom, why am I left-handed?” or when Grandma, whose filter and hearing aids no longer work, asks you in loud voice in front of Easter brunch guests, “Reginald, are you still dating that tramp?”
Yes, Jesus and Peter are walking along when Peter suddenly poses this very random question, “Master, how many times do I have to forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?”
Now we all know Peter is about as human as one can get. He hasn’t lived some pristine life sequestered behind stained-glass. He’s been a commercial fisherman out in the real world. He’s dealt with a lot of crap and a lot of crappy people. And no doubt there have been more than a few who have stabbed him in the back and left him bearing seething grudges.
Peter has often heard the rabbinical teaching that you need to forgiven someone three times for an offense, then after that the gloves are off. He figures he’s being generous by doubling that and raising it one. Seven times you forgive. Then you bring the hammer down. Surely Jesus would be proud of him for thinking this way!
But Jesus responds with a most bizarre answer: “Forgive seven times, Peter? Not hardly. You need to forgive someone seventy-times-seven!”
And Peter thinks to himself, “Now ain’t that a crock!”
I wonder…of all the difficult tasks that confront you and me on a daily basis, could there be anything harder than forgiving someone who has harmed us. And, according to Jesus, we’ve got to do it again and again and again and again — seventy times seven–which means 490 stinking times! Jesus calls Peter and us to roll up our sleeves and do some very demanding work. In our justice-oriented world, we expect that insults are going to be followed by apologies and crimes are going to be followed by punishments, but Jesus turns this system upside down by saying, “Just forgive!”
Maybe 490 times. The point being your forgiveness should be beyond calculation. Well, that stinks, doesn’t it?
Now some of us, including yours truly, object to this open-ended approach to forgiveness, believing it turns Christians into doormats, fails to hold sinners accountable, and invites abusers to continue their abuse. We’ve got a point, and I cannot imagine that Jesus wants us to throw justice completely out the window. But still he says, “Forgive.” Not just seven times, but dozens or even hundreds of times. Why does Jesus say such a thing?
Well, Jesus illuminates things a bit by telling us a parable–the story known as the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. Let’s read a portion of it:
23-25″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.
26-27″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.
Beyond a doubt, Jesus is affirming that…
GOD IS LONG ON FORGIVENESS, NOT JUSTICE
You have a fellow here with something far worse than an overdue mortgage payment, and the King lets him off the hook. The King shows mercy beyond belief. And Jesus tells us this is what God is like.
It is God’s character to go the second, the third, the fourth mile and beyond in forgiving us.
It is God’s character to forgive us far beyond what we are able to repay.
God chooses to blot out our transgressions, wash away our iniquity, scrub off our sin. It’s an act of mercy that reaches its greatest expression on a hill called Calvary, when our God gives even his only Son to die for us that we might be truly free to live, and to live eternally.
None of us deserves this mercy, but this still doesn’t sway our Lord from his mission to reach down and drag us out of the sin-clogged, storm drain of hell.
Yes, Jesus is telling us we are indeed blessed to serve a God and King who is long on forgiveness, not justice.
But having said that, it is equally true that…
WE ARE LONG ON MEMORY, NOT MERCY
Let’s continue the parable:
28″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!’ 29-31″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.
A certain married couple had many sharp disagreements. Yet somehow the wife always stayed calm and collected. One day her husband commented on his wife’s restraint. “When I get mad at you,” he said, “you never fight back. How do you control your anger?”
The wife said, “I work it off by cleaning the toilet. ”The husband replied, “How does that help? ”She said “I use your toothbrush!”
A motorcycle patrolman suffered a minor accident that put him in the hospital for a couple of days. His injuries had been to his foot and his ankle. Then why, he wondered, did he feel what seemed to be a huge bandage on his chest?
With some effort he was able to pull his hospital gown down far enough so he could examine the bandage and figure out its purpose. When he did, he saw it was indeed a large bandage, the kind that is exceedingly painful to tear off of a hairy chest. On the bandage was written this message: “A gift…from the nurse you gave a speeding ticket to last week.”
Many of us live with the motto To err is human; to forgive is out of the question! It outrages us to hear about this servant who received such a magnanimous outpouring of mercy, thousands of dollars worth, from his master, only to turn around and refuse to show forgiveness to his fellow servant for a few measly bucks.
And yet, how many of us who worship here Sunday after Sunday receiving the joy of God’s mercy refuse to show the same to our family members, our co-workers, our neighbors, our fellow students, and yes, even our fellow church members? We hold on to lingering ill will, vindictive spite, downright hatred toward persons over the grievances they have perpetrated upon us.
Unforgiveness can kill you. It is a cancer of the soul. Yes, refusing to forgive can be deadly.
Someone has said that harboring such resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die. Letting that hatred simmer within you, eating at your emotions and your body, it’s like burning down your house to get rid of a mouse.
It’s certainly not bothering the other person, but it is taking its toll on you. And that’s why Jesus tells us to forgive—it’s for our own sake, our own wellbeing, our own good.
You can’t go back to the future. Remember that delightful movie from a while back starring Michael J. Fox.
His good friend, mad scientist Christopher Lloyd, created a time machine out of a DeLorean automobile. Fox traveled back to the 1950’s to the days of his parents when they were teenagers. He soon found out he could alter the present and the future by what he did back there in the past, the1950’s.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could go back in time and revise the nature of things before certain incidents, certain hostilities, certain exchanges took place between us and another person?
The reality is we cannot. And we have to accept the past is past, and we can’t change it.
How many of us here today are not speaking to a family member, a former friend, a business associate, a fellow student, over something that occurred months, maybe years ago?
Sure, what they did was wrong. It cut you like a knife. But it is in the past. Is the burden, the memory, the rage worth carrying around and replaying over and over and over day after day after day? Or would it not be more prudent to ask God to help you put it behind you–to forgive and move on with your life?
Mercy empowered by God can indeed be more powerful than memory.
Let’s get to the punchline of the parable:
32-35″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.”
Yes, when it comes to forgiving, bottom line is…
IF WE DON’T, GOD WON’T
If we cannot bring ourselves to forgive others, then God certainly cannot forgive us. There is an unbreakable bond between the forgiveness of God and the forgiveness we are to offer one another, making it illogical and impossible for us to accept the mercy of the Lord and then refuse to extend mercy to others.
This morning, as we do each and every Sunday, we bowed our heads and devoutly prayed Forgive us our trespasses, Lord, as we forgive those who trespass against us. That’s the Lord’s Prayer–Jesus’ teaching in a nutshell.
Forgive us our trespasses – that’s what we ask of God.
As we forgive those who trespass against us – that’s what God asks of us.
And in the divine economy of God’s kingdom, you can’t have one without the other.
Are you practicing what you pray?
Forgiveness is ultimately a gift we choose to give to others. It is the same precious gift God has chosen to give to us in measure far beyond what we have to offer to others.
It is this staunch belief that has guided the Amish community of Nickel Mines, PA. The world’s spotlight was thrust upon these quiet Christian folk in October, 2006, when they had to deal with the unspeakable horror of a school shooting.
The slaughter of five young schoolgirls and the wounding of five others — by a gunman who then shot himself — was an unimaginable trauma, for any community, but especially for a deeply religious, nonviolent people like the Amish. The world watched to see how the elders of this community would respond. What the world saw was a remarkable Christian witness.
One of the first things the Amish did was reach out to the gunman’s widow, and her children. They brought them food. They raised money to help them pay their bills (for, on top of everything else, that family had lost its principal wage-earner).
Ten days after the shootings, a bulldozer crashed through the walls of the Amish schoolhouse at Nickel Mines. Anyone familiar with the Amish knows bulldozers aren’t their style. They don’t use that kind of machinery — and, besides, they’re a thrifty bunch. When demolishing a building, they typically descend upon it with nail-pullers and crowbars, laboriously salvaging as much lumber as they can.
Yet, on this occasion, the Amish hired an outside, non-Amish contractor to drive his bulldozer through the building, reducing it to splinters. They wanted the world to see that they were absolutely determined to forgive and forget–and to do it quickly.
To them, that public witness was well worth the cost of hiring the bulldozer and giving up the salvage value of the scrap lumber. They refused to let what had transpired defeat their faith and poison their souls.
Yes, to this grieving Amish community, forgiveness was a gift they chose to give, because they had first experienced God’s forgiveness themselves.
During this Holy Week of 2015, we will revisit the cross of Jesus. We will see the crown of thorns crushed into his scalp, the nails piercing his hands and feet, his bloodstained body contorted in agony, his chest heaving heavily to breathe. And from his lips we will hear the cry, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing!”
Forgiveness- unconditionally, infinitely, totally. It’s what Jesus offers to his executioners.
And it’s what Jesus is telling us to do--for the wellbeing of our bodies and souls–for the wellbeing of our families and community and world. Be long on mercy and short on memory. Forgive.
To be honest, I don’t know if I can do it. In every circumstance, at all times. I don’t know if I am up to it. How about you?
And even if we forgive someone, how do we ever forget what they have done to us?
All we can do is pray, Lord, help me! And He who has promised we can do all things through Him who strengthens us is there to empower us to do that which we cannot do on our own.
Corrie Ten Boom, that saintly Dutch Christian woman who offered safe haven for many Jews during the Holocaust of WWII, only to be arrested and suffered the brutalities of a concentration camp herself, once wrote about forgiveness. She told of not being able to forget a wrong that had been done to her. She had forgiven the individual, but she kept rehashing the incident in her mind. She couldn’t sleep. Finally Corrie cried out to God for help in putting the problem to rest.
She wrote, “God’s help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor to whom I confessed my failure after two sleepless weeks. ‘Up in the church tower,’ he said, nodding out the window, ‘is a bell which is run by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. First ding, then dong. Slower and slower until there’s a final dong and it stops.'”
Corrie said the pastor continued, “‘I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.'”
Corrie said, “And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of chimes when the subject came up in my conversations, but the force–which was my willingness in the matter–had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at the last stopped altogether. Yes, we can trust God not only above our emotions, but also above our thoughts.”
Dear friends, let us this day let go of the rope of our grievances, our grudges, our unforgiveness–that the peace of God might begin to fill our hearts and lives again.
As Peter and we know all too well, forgiveness is life’s hardest task. But it is also life’s greatest achievement.
Jesus has forgiven us. May he help us to do the same for others.