Sermon from September 17, 2017

No Future Without Forgiveness As a Way of Life
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
September 17, 2017
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Annual Meeting Sunday
Psalm 103; Exodus 13:21-12, 14:19-31; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter, the Episcopal priest Mpho Tutu, wrote The Book of Forgiving.  In it they say, “There are countless studies that enumerate the social, spiritual, psychological, and even physiological benefits of forgiveness.  The actual process of forgiveness, however, has often been left a mystery.  Yes, it is good and helpful to let go of resentment, but how do we…when we have been harmed?  Of course it is better not to exact retribution, but how can we [not]…when what has been taken from us cannot be restored?  And is it even possible to forgive and still pursue justice?  What steps must we follow to achieve forgiveness?  How do we heal all the holes in our hearts that come with being the fragile creatures we are?”  The Tutus’ book answers those questions.

Jesus and Paul are telling us that we had better read that book.  They call us to become masters of forgiveness and reconciliation and heal the holes in our hearts because being unforgiving and feeling unforgiven are pure torture, and tear the social fabric apart.  Beloved community, God’s realm of mercy and peace and a sufficiency for all, any positive future is possible for our church and town and world only if we practice forgiveness as a way of life.

Imagine being a follower of Jesus and hearing Peter ask how often we should forgive someone—as many as seven times?  The answer would have seemed obvious.  Jesus embodied the qualities of God described in the 103rd Psalm, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love….”  Jesus had shown compassion for everyone.

Seven represented completeness to the Hebrew people, so you would expect Jesus to say yes, we should forgive seven times.  Surprisingly, he says no, not seven, but seventy times seven times, as the King James Version does the math.  Jesus is saying not just always, but always always always, forever, without exception.

That is the first minor tremor in a teaching that would have been shocking at several points to his disciples.  The second shock comes in the parable.  It starts with a king who forgave a slave who owed him ten thousand talents.  One talent equaled the amount that a worker would earn in fifteen years.  The slave would have to work for 150,000 years to pay off ten thousand talents!  Jesus is saying we cannot possibly accumulate enough guilt to exceed God’s capacity to forgive.

The third shock is when the slave who had been forgiven 150,000 years wages turned around and would not forgive a fellow slave who owed him only about a third of one year’s wages.  He threw him in debtor’s prison.

The next shock comes when the king punishes the unforgiving slave.  Jesus has moved us into a state of outrage, so the punishment feels just at first, but then Jesus goes overboard again.  This king who proved himself to be infinitely merciful suddenly not only stops forgiving, but resorts to torture—eternal torture, because of course there is no way the slave could ever repay that size debt, and certainly not while being tortured in prison.

Then comes the final shock.  Jesus is talking about us.  We are the ones who owe God so much we cannot possibly repay it.  We are the ones God has every right to judge harshly, yet God forgives us every time.  And then, we are the ones who turn around after being forgiven everything and still keep track of debts and disappointed expectations and resentments.  We judge how others behave.  We fail to be gracious, compassionate and tolerant.  We are the unforgiving ones who are going to be handed over to be tortured until we pay off our debt—you and I.

Not really, of course.  Jesus was unconditionally forgiving and would never torture anyone, so what is it that he is trying to shock us into seeing?

Being a parent has given me some insight.  I am afraid I was no heavenly father, but I did feel compassion for my daughter, Cary, whenever I had to give her a time out.  Cary is an extrovert, so having to sit on a bench by herself was a form of torture.  I would try to explain to her that it was not about punishment, it was about consequences.  When we fall off the path, we land in a ditch and it hurts.  Life has a way of teaching us a lesson by causing us pain.  Cary hated that lecture every time, but it is true.

Jesus wants us to see that we are doing ourselves severe damage by not forgiving everything.  The consequence is pure torture.  It locks us in a prison of disconnection and negativity.  Not to forgive is hell, but to forgive is divine, it is to enter God’s realm, and that is to experience the opposite of torture.  We are freed from all debt and guilt, freed from blaming and hating, freed to live in peace and joy and love.

The amazing thing is, we do not have to earn that grace, we do not have to be perfect to enter the realm of God, but we do need to try to be aligned with it and keep returning when we stray.

The holiest people on earth experience the same struggles we do with this.  The monasteries of Mount Athos on the coast of Greece are famous for spiritual masters and spectacular miracles.  So when a Russian village heard that a monk from Mount Athos was coming for a visit, the church elders organized a tea and invited the whole village to welcome him.  At first everyone was too intimidated to talk.  Finally, one said, “Father, please tell us what you monks do on Mount Athos.”  The villagers held their breath and leaned forward expecting sensational spiritual feats.  The monk paused and said, “We fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up.”

God has love enough to forgive us when we fall and fall and fall.  All God asks is that we get up each time and try again to walk Christ’s way, and that we rise with more compassion and forgiveness for the weakness and stumbling of those around us.

The Apostle Paul saw that every church is called to create a little corner of the realm of God on earth.  Unconditional love and forgiveness make community possible between very different people.  If we can trust in being forgiven and accepted as we are, we know that we can let our walls down, and we can be one.

Being ready to forgive does not mean we will never get hurt, nor does it mean that we should let other people walk all over us or always have their way even when we feel it is wrong.  Trusting in forgiveness means that we will stay in community and keep extending compassion and lovingkindness to one another even when we disagree, and we will keep working to find healing or reconciliation and a common way ahead even when it seems impossible.

Paul says that the realm of God is not about rules and regulations, but about love and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  An axiom of the rapidly developing field of Appreciative Inquiry is, ‘what we focus on, we will become.’  If we focus too long on our grievances and judgments, we become a depressed and divided people.  We need to acknowledge our challenges and problems, but then as Paul said, “pursue what makes for peace and mutual up-building,” putting all our energy into following Christ’s way and creating a loving community.

This congregation exists because we have taken Paul’s advice.  This week I came upon the Stewardship letter from 1959.  It began, “Dear friends, As many people in the community can remember, there were several years when the town of Strafford had no regular minister.  Its three churches stood largely unused, with visiting ministers holding services only a part of each year.  In 1945 the Congregational Church of Strafford and Baptist Church of South Strafford founded as an association the United Church of Strafford and engaged a minister on a year-round basis and since 1949 each of these churches has held United Church Sunday services for six months of the year.”

Finally, on December 2, 1967, fifty years ago, those two churches formally dissolved and joined as one.

We need to understand that this was not easy or painless.  The two villages had historical rivalries, jealousies and judgments they held against one another.  Both churches had matriarchs and patriarchs who were set in their ways, and their ways were different.  We would not be here as a church were it not for the forgiveness the members found that freed them to focus on love and light and creating something more like God’s realm.

As a result of that forgiveness, Strafford has mostly healed the wounds and rivalries of old.  We have become one church and one town.  People of both villages respect and work with one another for the common good—not perfectly, but remarkably well.

The new united congregation has suffered hard times, there have been divisions and wounds, and a few remain unhealed years later, but after every challenging period people have worked hard to find a way through forgiveness to grace.

Forgiveness and grace are not the end, they are the beginning.  They are miracles that open up the possibility of greater miracles.  The hope and joy we feel today is evidence of that.

In a minute we will sing a song written by an 18th Century slave ship captain who participated in kidnapping, torturing and transporting 20,000 Africans across the Atlantic.  John Newton suffered deep guilt and remorse, he was haunted for a long time before finding forgiveness and grace.  Once he found it, an inner power flowed through him that inspired others to work to abolish slavery, and still today he inspires us to dare greatly whatever God is calling us to do.

Where will our own amazing grace lead us now?  What will we help God do in this world by being a beloved community, a model of God’s realm of mercy, justice and peace?  Those are questions we are looking to answer in the days ahead, starting with the questionnaire and small gatherings.  Let us pray in silence, opening to the movement of the Holy Spirit that wants to lead us from here…

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