In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The preacher got up into the pulpit to talk about forgiveness. As a way of beginning he asked everyone, How many of you have forgiven you enemies? About half of the people raised their hands. He then said, the rest of you pray with me and he led them in this long prayer about the importance of forgiveness. Again he asked, How many of you have forgiven your enemies? This time about 80% of the people raised their hands. Once again he asked the folks to bow their heads and he prayed that God would help them all to forgive. A third time he asked the same question, How many of you have forgiven your enemies? All responded except one elderly lady. Mrs. Jones you are not willing to forgive your enemies? the preacher asked. I don’ t have any. She replied. Mrs. Jones, that is very unusual. How old are you? Ninety-three. She responded. Mrs. Jones, the preacher said, please come down front and witness to us. Tell us how a person gets to that spiritual place where they have no enemies. The little old lady tottered down the aisle turned to face the congregation and said, It’ s easy, I just outlived those jerks!
At 8:45 a.m. on this day in 2001 an airplane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. At 9:03 a.m. a second airplane crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. At 10:05 a.m. the South Tower will collapse, followed shortly by the North Tower. How strange it is then (or perhaps grace filled) that on the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history we should be sitting here listening to Jesus tell us about forgiveness. Let me be honest, I didn’ t pick our gospel for today. Every three years it just happens to be the text for the 17 Sunday after Pentecost. How strange it is then (or perhaps grace filled) that a little less than two weeks after the worst hurricane disaster in modern U.S. history when many people along the Gulf coast feel betrayed by their leaders or the system that we should be sitting here listening to Jesus talk about forgiveness. Today there are thousands of people who lives were changed forever by the events of September 11, 2001 or Hurricane Katrina, who are struggling to let go of anger, perhaps even hatred because of what happened to them or the people they love. What does it mean for these people to be able to forgive? How do they go about it? And more to the point for you and me who do not live in New York City or along the Gulf coast, how do we in light of Jesus words deal with the hurts and wrongs done to us by those close to us, by friends, family members, partners, co-workers? How do you and I live out forgiveness in our daily lives?
First, Jesus makes it pretty clear in our reading for today that we are expected to forgive because we have been forgiven. Jesus on the cross forgave his tormentors and everyday God forgives us for our failures, our shortcomings, our sins. You and I, we, are the servant who owes the 10,000 talents, the equivalent off hundreds of millions of dollars, a figure Jesus used to express a debt no person could ever pay. And our God, like the master in the parable has forgiven us this debt. How much more are we now expected to forgive others whose debt with us is so much less. Every Sunday we say, indeed every day many of us say the Lord’ s Prayer with that poignant phrase forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Here Jesus plainly links God’ s forgiveness of us our with our readiness to forgive others. Therefore as Christians our willingness to forgive is not a luxury but an essential part of our faith.
So what do we need to know in order to forgive? Let me share with you this morning what I think are some core truths about forgiveness that I find very helpful. These are some essential commandments that all of us have to confront if we really want to forgive another person.1
Always remember that forgiveness is not easy. It takes time and it takes effort. We don’ t just decide to forgive and then do it. Most often when someone has wronged us in our lives we have to forgive them over and over again. We make the decision to forgive them and then we take it back. We forgive them again only to discover perhaps months or years later that we are still harboring resentments, we still have not been able to get beyond what happened to us. The truth is, forgiveness is a process, a process of constantly letting go.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. It doesn’ t mean a change in memory. To forgive means a change of heart. John F. Kennedy once said we should forgive our enemies but we shouldn’ t forget their names.
Forgiveness does not overlook evil; it does not let go of the need for justice. Forgiveness is not pardon. When we forgive we do not let people off the hook for the consequences of their actions. In the same sense forgiveness is never destructive. It does not mean that we let the hurt and damage continue. We have not forgiven the co-worker who insulted us if I allow the insults to continue. That is not forgiveness that is cowardice.
Forgiveness is a matter of recognizing and admitting that people are always bigger than their faults. We begin to forgive when we begin to admit that there is more to a person than just the wrong he or she has done to us. Therefore, to forgive is to be willing to allow a person a fresh start, to start over again. That is what God does for us. Every time we confess our sins God allows us a new start, a new beginning. In the same way when we refuse to forgive what we are saying is there are no second chances! I will not ever let go and let you begin again!
Forgiveness recognizes our humanity in the humanity of the people who have done us wrong. Forgiveness means that we are willing to see in their failings and shortcomings a reflection of our own failures and shortcomings.
Now this is very important, when we forgive someone we have to be willing to surrender the right to get even. And as long as we harbor the wish to get even we have not forgiven. Gandhi once said, If everyone followed the eye for an eye principal eventually the whole world would go blind. We may seek justice, but never confuse justice with vengeance.
The final commandment and perhaps the most difficult one if you want to forgive someone you have to pray for them. That is what Jesus did on the cross. These are not prayers asking for their divine judgment, or for them to get what’ s coming to them, but prayers for their wellbeing, prayers for their happiness. When you can really pray for an enemy the way you pray for a loved one then you have traveled far down the road of forgiveness.
In closing let me say that it is only forgiveness that can open up the world to the power of love. Christ forgave his killers; indeed he died for them, so that God’ s love might redeem us all. I believe there must be forgiveness in order for there to be love. Not only love for another person but also love for ourselves. Because when we genuinely forgive we set a prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner we set free was us.”2 Amen.
1 The following are adapted from Father Brian Joyce’ s, 10 commandments of Forgiveness.
2 Philip Yancey.