The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Reverend Casey Rohleder, Priest Associate

Matthew 18:21-35
Peter is never one to shy away from blurting out the question that everyone else is probably thinking. He asks Jesus, “if someone in the church sins against me, how often must I forgive him or her. Is seven times enough?” And Jesus responds with a somewhat mysterious “seventy times seven.”

Basically, Jesus says, “Peter, you need to forgive people over, and over, and over again”

Jesus’s command extends to all of us, too. Practicing forgiveness without ceasing is an essential characteristic of the Body of Christ. It is not optional.

That’s a WHOLE lot of forgiving people who sin in thought, word, and deed. A ridiculous standard.

And if Jesus’ “ seventy times seven” command weren’t enough to convict me of my own shortcomings, Jesus tells a doozy of a three-act forgiveness parable.

Act One: A slave owes his king 10,000 talents. Now, before you think 10,000 talents is something like $10,000 dollars…and, that IS a chunk of money…let me clarify that 10,000 talents was an astronomical amount of money. More than a slave could repay in MULTIPLE lifetimes. And so, when this man begs for his life and promises to repay his debt…that wasn’t even a possibility! But yet, the king has mercy on this slave and forgives every last penny.
The absurdity of the slave’s debt, the absurdity of his promise to repay it, and the absurdity of the king’s mercy would not have been lost on Jesus’ first followers. It shouldn’t be lost on us, either.

Act Two: A fellow slave owes the first slave a considerable amount of money, but rather than extending the mercy he himself was shown, the first slave chokes the guy and has him thrown into debtor’s prison.
How quickly he forgot the mercy he was shown. How little he understood the gift he had been given.

Act three: The king finds out what this first slave had done, summons the slave to stand before him, and sentences him to be tortured until his debt could be paid. Remember, this was a sum of money that COULD NEVER be repaid. Ever. Essentially, this slave would be tortured forever.
And, Jesus says, so is it with all of you who don’t forgive your brother and sister from your heart.
For Jesus followers, the stakes are high.

As a concept, forgiveness seems so easy, so straightforward, but in practice, if we’re honest about it, it’s one of the most difficult things we do as Christians. A few of us got really honest about this topic at Beverages and Big Questions earlier this summer.

I don’t know about you, but Jesus’s command to Never Stop Forgiving (and the consequences of NOT doing so) feels impossible sometimes.

Because forgiveness can be extraordinarily difficult…
• When a spouse abandons you
• When a friend betrays you
• When a boss belittles you and makes your work life a living hell
• When a partner physically abuses the person he or she supposedly loves.
• When unspeakable crimes are committed against the most vulnerable

Forgiveness is difficult because some people have injured us so deeply that we don’t WANT to forgive them. Because some people have done such horrible things to us or to someone we love that we don’t know HOW to forgive them.

What are we to do then, Jesus? Are we to forgive even those people?

Jesus says yes. But that does not mean that we must always be reconciled or in restored relationship with certain people. I need to be clear that reconciliation is NOT necessary for forgiveness to “take”. But that is a topic for another day.

I’d like to share a deeply personal story with you of how I was once confronted with my own need to forgive someone. One that I’m not really sure I want to share, but the Holy Spirit has not relented this week. At all.

A little over a decade ago, my now ex-husband left our marriage.

About a month after he left, a young woman reached out to me online – and she wanted to meet with me, face to face. I remember reading that message, so filled with anger and hurt and hatred (yes, hatred) that I could barely breathe. My life was in shambles due to women like her, and she wanted to talk?!

But I knew with every fiber of my being that I had to meet with her.
My motives were not entirely pure.

I met with her in a coffee shop. She walked in and sat down. After a few awkward words, she asked me how much I knew about her, about them. Turned out, not as much as I thought. Then, visibly shaking, she told me how sorry she was and asked me to forgive her.

I was stunned.

In no way did I want to do that. Not at all. I didn’t want to choke her like the slave did in today’s parable, but I wanted to hurt her as much as I was hurting.

Before I knew what was happening, words of forgiveness flew out of my mouth. And, strangely, I meant them. Not entirely at that moment, but it wasn’t a lie, either.

I will never forget how her body language changed in response. The burden seemed to leave her, both physically and emotionally.

In this moment, we both experienced an absurd – and unexpected – amount of grace. Forgiver and forgiven.

Although she sought forgiveness to free herself from guilt and shame, forgiving her freed me in a way I never imagined possible. I suddenly understood God’s love and mercy for ME in a way I never had before. For the first time, I felt in the depths of my soul how God’s forgiveness transforms us and creates something new. I experienced liberation.

Yes, I still had mountains of hurt and anger and rejection to deal with, but the joy and peace and grace and humility that resulted from that moment set me free.

Don’t those feelings seem way better than the side-effects of un-forgiving – Anger. Bitterness. Denial. Pain. Victim-hood. But, truthfully, starting the walk towards forgiveness often seems harder than living with the side effects of those hurts. At least in the beginning.

Forgiveness is more than a singular act, a moment in time. It is a pattern of life for a disciple, where we remember and incarnate the grace and mercy which God has poured out in our own lives.

Forgiveness takes intention. It takes discipline. It is an act of will every bit as much as an act of the heart. It isn’t a warm-and-fuzzy response. It is a deep, sometimes difficult – but transformative – decision – to act with the heart of God as we conform our own lives more and more into the likeness of Christ. And the side-effects seem to be humility, and peace, and grace, and power.

In that sense, perhaps we are best off thinking of forgiveness as a process, one that takes time, and patience, and a whole lot of prayer, to reach the point where we have the capacity forgive the sins of another against us. It’s not always cut and dried. It isn’t always easy. We are not always like Jesus, who, tortured and nailed to a cross, could say, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

I wonder if, in part, Jesus requires that we must forgive over and over again so that we dramatically re-experience how completely God has forgiven us. How Jesus has set us free. Reading parables about forgiveness is far different than practicing it! Forgiving one another, for hurts and sins small and large, reminds us how immense God’s mercy is that has been poured out over us. Forgiving reminds us how great God’s love is for his beloved daughters and sons.

God offers us an absurd amount of grace – a slate wiped absolutely clean when we truly repent. Something that does NOT make sense by our human standards of justice and retribution.

As we practice forgiveness, we discover what true love, grace and peace feel like. As we practice forgiveness, we better understand what justice looks like in the Kingdom of God. As we practice forgiveness, we grow closer and closer to the heart of God.

This ongoing, never-ending practices of forgiveness shapes us as individuals and shapes us as the Body of Christ. Forgiving and being forgiven gives us the STRENGTH and POWER to proclaim the absurd Good News of Jesus Christ beyond our red doors.