In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Do you remember that day? Just over five years ago, back in June of 2015, when we witnessed what Peggy Noonan referred to in an op-ed at the time as the two miracles. They happened just days after Dylan Roof murdered nine people gathered together for a Bible study at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The first miracle took place at Roof’s bail hearing, when members of the victim’s families got up and said the most amazing, crazy, brave, and faithful things I think I’ve ever heard. As Noonan wrote at the time, “it should be underscored that their words were spontaneous unscripted and flowed like water pouring from deep wells.” Nadine Collier, whose 70-year-old mother Ethel Lance had been murdered, looked at Dylan Roof and said, “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. You hurt me. And you hurt a lot of people, but if God forgives you, I forgive you.” Alana Simmons, whose grandfather, the Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr. was killed, told the New York Times she didn’t plan to speak at the hearing, but found herself inspired by Ms. Collier. “We’re here to combat hate filled actions with love filled actions,” she said, “and that is what we want to get out to the world.” Noonan went on to say, “to me, the most moving was what Bethany Middleton Brown said of her murdered sister, ‘She taught me that we are the family love built. We have no room for hating. So we have to forgive.’”
I have no doubt that the second miracle, although not nearly as profound, was a direct result of the first, because three days after those family members spoke, the governor of South Carolina called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag, which had stubbornly flown over the state Capitol for almost 55 years. There is humbling and healing power in forgiveness. In our gospel for today, Peter asks – If I have a conflict with someone, if I have been wronged from some by someone, how often should I forgive? Should I forgive as many as seven times? Peter thought he was being clever by suggesting that one ought to forgive seven times. Jewish law said that the standard for forgiveness was three times. What Peter did was take the lost law of forgiveness, double it and add one. Peter believed he was being especially magnanimous by suggesting that forgiveness should be often offered seven times.
He must have been shocked when Jesus told him that he wasn’t even close. Not seven, but 77 times. Jesus goes on to illustrate this point by telling his disciples the parable we heard this morning. In this story, a King goes out to settle his accounts with the servants who manage his business. He discovers that one servant owes him 10,000 talents. Now in those days, the talent was the largest unit of money. It was equivalent to 130 pounds of silver or the amount of money a manual laborer might make in 15 years. So to owe someone 10,000 talents was to owe someone 150,000 years of labor. So this was Jesus’ way of saying that the servant owed his master an unbelievable sum and amount that could never be paid back.
When the servant admits he cannot repay such an amount and begs for mercy, the King, in an extravagant act of generosity, has pity on him and forgives the debt. Not long after this same servant encounters one of his fellow servants who owes him a hundred denarii, or about three months’ pay. Now this is a substantial amount, but you would expect that after being forgiven so much, this servant would forgive a debt, which by comparison amounted to very little. However, this servant is unable to offer anything close to the same kind of mercy he received. And so he throws this second debtor into prison. When the King hears what he has done, he revokes his forgiveness and orders the servant to be horribly punished.
The point here is that God forgives you and me for every wrong we have ever done in life. God does so freely and extravagantly, but in return, God expects, indeed God demands, that we do our very best to forgive others, not once, not twice, but endlessly. Forgiveness isn’t easy. As Bishop Mariann said in a piece that she wrote this week, “The work of forgiveness, both offering and receiving, takes courage, and sufficient internal strength to rebalance the scales of power. It isn’t the same as reconciliation, but at its best forgiveness leads to a mutual process of setting a relationship right. We can’t be reconciled until both sides are willing. We can, however, forgive on our own for our own soul’s sake. It isn’t easy. For some it’s impossible and we dare not judge. For all of us forgiveness takes practice.” She is so right. Forgiveness takes time and it takes effort. We should never minimize the pain of those who have been wronged. And the truth is we don’t just decide to forgive and then do it. Most often when someone has wronged, us deeply hurt us, we have to forgive them over and over and over again. We make the decision to forgive and then we take you get back. We forgive again, only to discover that weeks or months later, we are still harboring resentments.
The truth is forgiveness is a process, a process of constantly letting go. As Martin Luther King once said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act. It is a constant attitude.” If we really want to forgive another person, there are some essential truths about forgiveness that we ought to understand. A special thank you here to Father Brian Joyce for his wonderful little piece entitled The 10 Commandments of Forgiveness. First, 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 name.”
Second, forgiveness does not overlook evil. It does not abandon the need for justice. When we forgive, we don’t let people off the hook for the consequences of their actions. Rather, forgiveness is a matter of recognizing and admitting that people are always bigger than their faults. That there was always more to someone than what they have done. As an old friend once told me, we begin to forgive a person who has wronged us when we can look on that person’s face and see more written there than just what they did to us. In this sense, to forgive is to be willing to allow a person a fresh start. This is what God does to us. Every time we confess our sins, God allows us a fresh start in the same way. When we refuse to forgive, what we are saying is there are no fresh starts.
Third, forgiveness recognizes our humanity and the humanity of the people who have done us wrong. Forgiveness means that we are willing to see in their failings and shortcomings, some reflection of our own failings and shortcomings, as hard as that may be.
Fourth, when we forgive someone, we have to be willing to surrender the right to get even. 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 we must never confuse justice with vengeance.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if we want to forgive someone, then we have to be willing to pray for them. That is what Jesus did on the cross to his executioners. Father, forgive them for they not what they do. When we can really pray for an enemy the way we pray for a loved one, then we have traveled far down the road of forgiveness. On this weekend of the 19th anniversary of 9/11, let me say that I think it is only forgiveness that can open the world to the power of love.
Reinhold Niebuhr in his book, the Irony of American History, famously said that nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime. Therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history, therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous can be accomplished alone, therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.
This final form of love is the only thing that is going to keep us from tearing ourselves apart as a nation and as a global family. In our lesson for today, Peter wants to know how far this final form of love has to be extended. He wants to know if this love has a limit. How many times should he forgive? As many as seven? Not seven, Jesus tells him, but 77. Forgiveness knows no bounds because love knows no bounds. It’s not always easy to achieve and we may fail at it more than we succeed, but forgiveness is Holy work. And in the end, it is a powerful way to contribute to the healing of the world. Amen.