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.
We continue with our series on the Lord’s Prayer, and tonight we focus on the human need of forgiveness. Lord, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Now, of course, we are used to saying “trespasses”, which always makes me think of a “no trespassing” sign in people’s yard. I always wonder if people with those in their yard are Christian, and whether they forgive those who do trespass in their yard.
Or sometimes you’ll hear the word debts. All of it is to say forgive us of the ways we have wronged as we forgive others who have wronged us.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Once again, we have that word “us.” We are just praying that our sins are forgiven, but that the sins of others are forgiven as well. We include our neighbor’s sins in our prayer. And the prayer assumes that we are also striving for forgiveness.
So I’m curious, what does forgiveness mean to you? How would you define forgiveness?
Whatever it is, forgiveness isn’t to justify someone’s actions. It doesn’t deny the fact that their actions hurt you.
As I have been thinking about forgiveness the past couple of days, I’ve come to realize how complicated forgiveness is. And what I’ve learned is that we all need it. And we all struggle to give it to others.
We all need it. Have you ever done something where you were in need of real forgiveness? Not the tiny stuff, like you forgot to do something, or you accidentally stepped on someone’s foot. But the real deep cutting things of life – where you’ve done something or said something that really hurt someone? Have you ever just full on lost it with someone? Where they didn’t deserve what you gave them?
Mary Gordon once wrote an essay on the sin of anger, and how familiar she was with it. “One hot August afternoon, she wrote, she was in the kitchen preparing dinner for ten (people). Although the house was full of people, no one offered to help her chop, stir, or set the table. She was stewing in her own juices, she said, when her seventy-eight-year-old mother and her two small children insisted that she stop what she was doing and take them swimming. They positioned themselves in the car, she said, leaning on the horn and shouting her name out the window so all the neighbors could hear them, loudly reminding her that she had promised to take them to the pond. That, Gordon said, was when she lost it. She flew outside and jumped on the hood of the car. She pounded on the windshield. She told her mother and her children that she was never, ever going to take any of them anywhere and none of them was ever going to have one friend in any house of her until the hour of their death – which, she said, she hoped was soon.” Then the frightening thing happened. “I became a huge bird,” she said. “A carrion crow. My legs became hard stalks, my eyes were sharp and vicious. I developed a murderous beak. Greasy black feathers took the place of arms. I flapped and flapped.”
After someone had to drag her off the hood of the car, it took awhile before she could calm down. And when she did, she was appalled, because she had really frightened her children. Her son said, ”I was scared because I didn’t know who you were.”
“Sin makes the sinner unrecognizable,” Mary Gordon concluded. And the only antidote is forgiveness.
Have you ever felt unrecognizable to yourself, because of something you’ve done? And you know, the one thing you desperately need is forgiveness from those you’ve hurt.
We all need it. But it can also be really hard to forgive people. So why is it so hard to give, when we are the ones who have been hurt?
There are those phrases out there, “I will forgive, but I will never forget.” Which never sounds like forgiveness to me. Or there is, “Don’t get mad, get even.” Right, an eye for an eye. You hurt me, I’m gonna hurt you. And sometimes the way we hurt people back is through not forgiving them. By holding the grudge.
I handed out blank slips of paper. I invite you to write on there the name of someone or some situation that you have been struggling to forgive.
Why is it so hard to forgive that person? Maybe it’s hard to forgive because it is something that keeps happening over and over again. And so, we, like Peter, wonder…how long are we supposed to forgive someone? 7 times? And Jesus says, “No, 70 times 7” – which is to say, an endless number of times. You shouldn’t even be counting the number of times you forgive someone or else it isn’t really forgiveness.
Which is hard, right? Especially if someone keeps hurting you. Which is why I think that whatever forgiveness is, it isn’t tolerating wrong or letting people get away with something.
Someone once said that staying angry with someone is how we protect ourselves from them. The problem with not forgiving is that it can be like a boomerang, where it comes back at us, only hurting us again. Not forgiving someone, holding onto a grudge quickly leads to resentment and bitterness. And resentment and bitterness are like the cholesterol that clog up the arteries of life. If you have ever met someone who is bitter and resentful, it has this way of ruining their whole life.
I’m certain you’ve experienced it where you were mad at someone, but then you took it out on someone else? And so it can be this contagious dis-ease that gets passed from person to the next. And the only anti-dote is forgiveness itself.
Still, what is forgiveness? I’m not entirely sure, but it is what gives us the chance to live free again – free from bitterness and resentment. Both towards ourselves and towards others. It is the way to bring life out of a moment of death.
Recently, Brian Fitch Sr. was convicted for the murder of Mendota Heights police officer Scott Patrick. He is condemned to life in prison without parole. The police officer was shot during a routine traffic stop in West St. Paul last summer. As Fitch was led from the courtroom, he shouted obscenities, blaming others for his sentence. In the midst of his diatribe, Officer Patrick’s widow, Michelle, said “God bless Fitch.” Speaking slowly and between sobs, she continued: “I hope he can come to a realization of what he has done. He has taken so much from us. He didn’t need to. I just want to bless him and hope that he realizes what he has done. Amen to him.”
The truth, I think, is that we are all in debt to one another. We all have done things that have hurt others and so we owe them something. But we all have also been hurt by others, and they are in debt to us. And, here’s the thing, none of us can pay that debt. None of us can fully payback all the wrongs we’ve committed. And no one can fully pay us back for the wrongs committed against us. And so it seems like the only thing we can do is wipe the slate clean and start again.
Which is really hard. And that is why we pray for God’s help. God, you keep on forgiving us and we’ll keep on forgiving others because that’s the only thing that makes sense in a broken world.” In the end, it is God who creates the miracle of forgiveness, whenever it may come. It is God who transforms us and our hearts so that we can live free again.
So, what ever you wrote on that piece of paper, I invite you to put it in your pocket and place it in your car, or on your mirror at home, or in your sock drawer. Whenever you stumble across it, I invite you to pray to God to help you forgive that person. And over time, maybe that is exactly what God will help you to do. To loosen your grip on them so that they and you can once again be free.
Lord, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. May it be so. Amen.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, pg. 12-13.