July 7, 2013
Rev. John Watts
Some time ago someone gave me an inspirational saying that I have treasured ever since and that I sometimes call to mind when I think of certain people.
May those who love us, love us.
And for those who don’t love us,
May God turn their hearts.
And if he cannot turn their hearts,
May he turn their ankles,
So we may know them by their limping.
Isn’t that beautiful! It may gave some of you an idea for embroidery. Something to frame and hang on the wall. A motto to live by. May God bless you, my friend, either by turning your heart or by turning your ankle!
We’re going to talk today about getting along with other people. This might be the single most important and most difficult thing we do in life. We’ve all had successes. We’ve all had failures. We’ve all had moments when, if the truth were known, we wouldn’t mind too much if God would twist a few selective ankles. Relationships with others have brought into our lives some of our greatest joy and some of our greatest pain. We can be facing terrible adversity but if we feel loved and supported by others, we can keep going. Or, we can be experiencing fabulous success, but if our closest relationships are strained, we feel that strain. We feel crippled and empty inside. We might be good at keeping that hidden. Some are better at that than others. But we know something very important is not right, and we feel that hurt.
So what do we do when there is a conflict in our interpersonal relationships? We can wish the other person ill. We can pray for twisted ankles. We can do better than that. We can do the twisting! Don’t get mad. Get even! Sweet revenge!
Of course, we would never do that. But actually we are part of the human race that has a consistent track record of doing exactly that. It comes naturally to us. You hurt me? I’ll hurt you! That’s the Arab-Israeli conflict in a nutshell. That’s also, all too often, our own lives in a nutshell.
There is a better way! Today’s text is about that better way. Jesus is teaching us in a most practical way how to deal with a most practical concern. Getting along with other people. The lesson comes in three parts.
Part one begins: “If a member of the church sins against you . . . ” It goes on with step-by-step instructions on what to do. There are five steps.
First, express your hurt in words. Don’t keep it inside. Get it out in the open. Talk about it.
Second, talk about it with the person who has wronged you. Don’t go behind his or her back. Don’t write a letter. Don’t send an
e-mail. Don’t send a text message. Don’t even use the phone. A face-to-face meeting is by far the best.
Third, assuming the problem is still there, bring in a third party. This should be someone you both trust and respect. It can be a friend, as long as it’s a friend who can be objective. Maybe a counselor. Maybe some kind of a mediator. Sometimes we need help to heal a broken relationship.
Fourth, assuming the problem has still not been resolved, bring your problem to church. Most people, in my experience, wouldn’t think of bringing their problem to church. Most people don’t want people at church knowing about their personal, private stuff. I can understand that. But I think there is wisdom in what Jesus is telling us here. I want to assure you that if you tell me something in confidence, you don’t have to worry about me breaking that confidence. This is something I take very seriously. But I’m not sure Jesus necessarily had in mind confiding in your pastor. You are always welcome to, but I hope you also have a friend or friends here at church, maybe a small group you are a part of, where you have developed such a level of trust that you can share from your heart without fear.
There is a fifth step. I have to mention it because if I don’t someone will call me on it. It is in the Bible, but to tell you the truth, I seriously doubt if Jesus said it. This sure doesn’t sound like Jesus. I’ll just read it as it’s written and see what you think. “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector”. Respectable Jews of that day had no dealings with Gentiles or tax collectors. So you might say Jesus is endorsing here a practice some churches observe of shunning. Just write the person off. Have nothing more to do with the person. Pretend the person doesn’t even exist. That sure doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know.
You may be able to help me this one, but I just need to tell you that when I read this passage, I skip step 5. I think steps 1, 2, 3, and 4 are exactly what we need to do and exactly in the right order, but when I get to step 4 I jump right over step 5 to the section on forgiveness.
This is part two of our text. “Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven'”.
Part two is all about forgiveness. Why forgiveness? Because you can follow steps 1,2,3,and 4, you can do all you can possibly do and do everything right and in the right order and still you can end up with an unhealed wound. It still hurts. It has not been healed.
So what do you do? You can become preoccupied with your pain and the unfairness of it all and be a bitter, angry person. Maybe even someone who enjoys being bitter and angry. That’s one option. Or you can forgive.
It might sound easy. Actually it is very hard. Lewis Smedes, one of my favorite authors, wrote two wonderful books on forgiveness. Here is a story he told in one of them.
One warm June day, in mid-afternoon, a cop in our little town of Sierra Madre, hot with zeal to keep village pot smoking under control, brutalized my youngest son, John, in front of my own house. He was large, 250 pounds or so of vigorous lawman, and he threw all his violent bulk against my slender 140 pounder who, unknown to the officer, had a liver ailment that made hard physical contact a hazard to his life. In any case, the policeman roughed up John excessively and then charged him with resisting an officer. The charge was quickly dismissed. But I did not so quickly dismiss my bitterness. I took my anger down to city hall and tried to persuade the chief to rebuke the officer, just a bawling out if you please, to help keep brute force in check. I offered signed statements by witnesses to the assault. But the chief of police in our peaceful village was not moved to criticize his own. He said he would look into the matter, but he never gave me a reason to believe that he did. Case closed. I did a secret dance of rage for several days, and the blue notes of anger gradually rose to cymbal-clanging hate. I controlled myself too well to knock anybody’s block off, but I hated, passively at least; there was not an ounce of energy in me to wish the Sierra Madre police force well. My hate almost became an instant addiction; I was infected by its virus, and I spread it to everyone who got close to me. To bring my hate to a spiritual crisis, I had a date coming up to preach a sermon on the grace of God at a Presbyterian church in Burbank. Before Sunday came, I confided my feelings to a good friend, expecting her to add female indignation to my male malice; we would, I thought, sing a doleful duet of rage. But she was on to me. “Why don’t you practice what you preach?” I was trapped. I had to decide then and there whether I really wanted to kick my hate before it got to be a habit. So I did. I opted out of hate. But how could I make it work on the spot? I tried a technique that everything in my temperament resisted. I thought about how a priest gives instant absolution to a penitent, right off the bat, in the confessional booth. And I decided to give this cop absolution. It wasn’t my style. I like to take my time when I solve my spiritual crises. But I tried it. “Officer Milando, in the name of God, I hereby forgive you. Absolve te — go in peace.” I said it out loud, at least six times. Well, it worked enough to get me going anyway. I felt myself pried a couple of inches off my hate. And I was on my way. (Forgive and Forget, pages 97-98)
Another of my favorite authors is C.S. Lewis. He had a hard time forgiving a school teacher from way back in grade school. It was not long before he died that he wrote this letter to a friend.
Do you know, only a few weeks ago I realized suddenly that I had at last forgiven the cruel schoolmaster who so darkened my childhood. I’d been trying to do it for years; and like you, each time I thought I’d done it, I found, after a week or so it all had to be attempted over again. But this time I feel sure it is the real thing. (Letters to an American Lady, page 117)
It may be this same teacher he is referring to in a letter written about the same time to another friend.
I really digress to tell you a bit of good news. Last week, while at prayer, I suddenly discovered — or felt as if I did — that I had really forgiven someone I have been trying to forgive for over thirty years. Trying, and praying that I might. When the thing actually happened — sudden as the longed-for cessation of one’s neighbor’s radio — my feeling was “But it’s so easy. Why didn’t you do it ages ago?” So many things are done easily the moment you can do them at all. But till then, sheerly impossible, like learning to swim. There are months during which no efforts will keep you up; then comes the day and hour and minute after which, and ever after, it becomes almost impossible to sink. (Letters to Malcolm, page 106)
These are examples of a first forgiveness. Peter says we can do better than that. How about seven times? And Jesus says that Peter isn’t even close. Seventy times seven is the number Jesus uses. But it’s pretty clear that we don’t reach our limit on number 490. He means to forgive without limit.
And then he tells a parable. The parable, by the way is the part three if you’ve been counting. Jesus tells the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.
A king had extended credit to a servant. It was time to call the note. He wanted his money back. He had loaned a lot of money. If you translate talents into dollars and account for inflation, it would be around 15 million dollars.
The servant didn’t have it. So the king did what it was his right to do. He ordered the servant, his wife, and his children sold and all his assets liquidated. It wouldn’t be close to $15 million, but he would take what he could get.
The servant fell on his knees and begged, “Have patience with me and I will pay you everything.” Not likely. The king knew very well that this servant owed way more than he could ever repay. So the king made a decision. He would forgive the debt. All of it. The servant could begin his life again with a clean slate. He didn’t even have to report the forgiven debt as income to the IRS like you or I would today.
The parable continues. This servant walks away with a new bounce in his step. Then he remembers something. He had loaned a friend $30 and never got it back. So he hurries over to the friend’s house and demands payment. His friend doesn’t have it. He says, “Have patience with me and I will pay you.” Does that sound familiar? But this time, no mercy is shown. The debtor owing $30 is thrown in prison by the debtor who had just been forgiven $15 million.
Is there something wrong with this picture?
The king hears about this and takes matters into his own hands. He’s more than a little upset that the one who had been forgiven so very much is now unable to forgive even a very little.
And of course, as is the case with every parable Jesus ever told, this is parable about us. You and I are in it. We are the servant who has been forgiven much and refuses to forgive a little. We cannot earn favor with God. It’s impossible. Our debt is way too big. But God graciously cancels the debt. God gives us a second chance, a seventh chance, a 490th chance, and just keeps on loving us.
But what do we do? We keep records, meticulous records of every wrong that has ever been done to us. We take out that record book now and then to review and remember and continue our secret dance of rage. We aren’t saying we’ll never forgive. Just not yet. No, we’re enjoying our misery too much. And we’re enjoying all those hateful thoughts, things we’d never do, but things we love to think about doing. But it’s kind of like enjoying a feast and then realizing to your horror that you are feasting on your own flesh. “The skeleton at the feast is you” (Frederick Buechner).
Forgiveness is important. Receiving it. We all need to be forgiven. And giving it. We all need to forgive. That wonderful little saying about twisted ankles is probably not one you’d want on your wall at home. But here’s one you might consider:
The first to apologize is the bravest,
The first to forgive is the strongest,
And the first to forget is the happiest.
Gracious God, we sometimes have trouble with our relationships. We acknowledge both that we have been hurt by others and that we have hurt others. We acknowledge that we have been too stubborn to take the first step toward reconciliation. We can succeed in many ways but if we fail in our closest personal relationships, we have failed. Help us to do what is within our power to do to be at peace with all people. O God, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Amen.