May 1, 2016 Forgiveness
Jesus was a story teller. That’s how he taught. And his followers repeated those stories - and told some of their own - about Jesus. That’s how we got the New Testament. So in Matthew 18: 21-35, when 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.
And then he told them a story:
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.
But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt.
When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
Stories are how we remember the lessons. They are how we relate the lessons to our own lives. A year ago I was at the Festival of Homiletics in Denver, hearing some of the best preachers in the country. What kept us on the edge of our chairs? - the stories they told. We learn from our life experiences, and those of others. Those of us who preach have our radar out all the time for a good story. We collect them. It’s what moves our hearts.
So today our lesson is on forgiveness. C.S. Lewis once said, “Everybody thinks forgiveness is a good idea, until they have something serious to forgive.” When I look at our world today - at the wars, the genocide, the terrorism, drones dropping bombs on innocent people, the refugee crisis , homicides increasing in our cities here at home, I think, “O my God, we have whole generations traumatized. How will they ever learn to forgive? Who will be there to teach them?
So let me begin today with a lesson Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master, was teaching to a group of 12 Palestinians and 12 Israelis who he brought to Plum Village, his meditation community in France, the summer before 9/11. For three weeks he taught them how to meditate, to cultivate compassion and loving kindness for each other; how to look beyond the outward exterior, to see into each others hearts and souls - to see each other as brothers and sisters. When they returned home they wrote him saying how, for the first time in their lives, they had experienced real peace - and they were determined to teach it to those in their homeland.
He told this story to 3,000 of us at the community theatre in Berkeley two days after the horrific events of 9/11. That same week I heard the Jewish chair of the mid-eastern political science department at Cal and head of the Peace coalition in the Bay area, speak at a forum at Pacific School of Religion, where I was in seminary. He had spent a good deal of time in Israel.
He told us that whenever an Israeli looked at a Palestinian, he saw the holocaust and centuries of oppression. Whenever a Palestinian looked at an Israeli, he saw centuries of oppression and persecution his people have endured. The professor told us until they can let go of all of that baggage they have been carrying around for all these years, and see each other with new eyes, as sisters and brothers, there can never be healing and peace. Sadly, for many, that still hasn’t happened.
This is the first lesson in forgiveness. Without it there can be no peace - in the world, or in our individual souls. But God can’t do it for us. God can help us, but only if we open our hearts to God’s love and forgiveness, and let it flow through us to others. That is precisely what Thich Nhat Hahn was teaching.
That is what Jesus is teaching in this story. The King (who represents God) is willing to forgive a huge debt (sin). 10,000 talents would be equal to 23 million dollars today, but only if his slave is willing to forgive others, in this case a much smaller debt. 100 denari would be about $50 today. By refusing to forgive the slave was cutting himself off from God.
Wayne Muller has provided me with many insights into the topic of forgiveness in his book Learning to Pray. He suggests that perhaps the most distinguishing mark of our humanity is our “inexhaustible capacity for imperfection.” And yet, it is so difficult for most of us to admit our imperfections - to ourselves, to God, and most important - to those we may have harmed. Why is this? Why is it so hard to fess up and ask for forgiveness?
Are we so consumed with our desire to be perfect, that when we fall short, we are filled with such shame - afraid of being discovered - that we lie about who we are? Or are we afraid of the repercussions?
“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Words we are all too familiar with. We are called not only to ask for forgiveness, but also to forgive, a lesson the slave had missed along the way. This is the only requirement made of us in the Lord’s Prayer.
In the scripture passage this morning, Peter asks Jesus: “If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus says: No way! seventy - seven times! If you’re keeping track of how many times you’re forgiving, then you’re not forgiving. It’s beyond calculation.
In refusing to forgive, Muller tells us: “Again and again we relive the suffering, calling it up over and over, as if sheer repetition could somehow erase the tape. But each repetition deepens the rut of anguish that corrodes our peace. When we hold our abusers hostage, the recollected hurt simultaneously holds us hostage. We are forever locked in an inner prison of our own making. If we want to be free, we must choose to leave our self-imposed exile in the past, and move boldly into forgiveness.” That, I believe, is the torture the King inflicts on this slave, one that is actually self-inflicted.
In this state we are in danger of being trapped in an endless cycle of retribution. Look at Northern Ireland, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Bosnia, South Africa, Sudan, Syria, just to name a few. With each act of war or terrorism, new names are added. I pray our country does not end up in the same vicious cycle.
The year before I entered seminary, I heard one of the most remarkable stories of forgiveness. I was so moved I wrote down as much of it as I could remember. It’s the story of a Vietnam Vet from a very poor family in Chicago. After high school he decided one way to escape poverty was to enlist in the army. Army fatigues and boots were the first new clothes he had ever known. After boot camp, this naive young man was shipped off to Vietnam, with no idea what awaited him.
His first encounter with the enemy came while alone in the jungle. He came around a bend and found himself unexpectedly face to face with a Vietnamese soldier, about his own age. They stopped dead in their tracks and just stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. It was a situation of kill or be killed, and so he pulled the trigger first.
He remembered being offended by the actions of some of his fellow soldiers - who arrived on the scene and started looting the body. During this activity a picture fell out of the dead man’s wallet, the size of a postage stamp, and he picked it up. In it the dead soldier was standing next to a young girl looking very serious. He stared at the picture for the longest time and then, for some unexplained reason, he put it in his wallet. He carried it with him through the rest of the war and many battles and back to the states after he was wounded.
For twenty years or more, each time he got a new wallet, he transferred the picture. For some unknown reason it haunted him and he could not throw it away. He could not let go of the image of that little girl, and each time he looked at it he was depressed for days.
One year he visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC with his wife. In the hotel room that night it finally occurred to him what he had to do with the picture. He sat and wrote a letter to the soldier, telling him how sorry he was for killing him, and how it had haunted him all these years, and he asked for forgiveness. The next day he left the letter and the picture at the memorial along with the many other remembrances that had been left there. He felt better - relieved of a burden that he had been carrying around all these years.
Another Vietnam Vet worked at the Memorial, cataloging and storing all of the mementoes that are left at the wall. He was quite moved when he saw the picture and letter. He had never seen anything like it left there, never a picture of an enemy soldier, and he couldn’t get the face of the little girl out of his head. He remembered it for another seven years, until one day a publisher approached him about doing a book about the mementoes that had been left at the wall. Immediately he knew that the picture and letter had to be included.
After the book was published, it was sent to a man living in the same town in Illinois as the soldier who had carried the picture all those years. He had never seen the picture but he had heard the story from his friend and when he saw it in the book, he dropped everything he was doing at work and took the book over to the former soldier’s office and told him to open it to page 56. When he saw the picture and letter after these seven years, it opened up a floodgate of emotions. He realized he still had not reached closure, and he knew he somehow had to try and find the girl in the picture. But how? This picture was 30 years old. He had no idea who she was or even if she was still alive.
An article was printed in his local newspaper about the picture and the events surrounding it and he sent a copy of it to a diplomat from Vietnam in Washington. He was intrigued, but realized there was one chance in millions of ever finding the girl, now a woman, but he sent a copy of the article to people in Hanoi. An enterprising journalist there, recognizing a good story, wrote an article for the Hanoi paper that included the picture.
In Vietnam newspapers are used to wrap presents. As fortune would have it, the newspaper with the picture and article was used to wrap a package that was being sent to relatives in a small village about two and a half hours from Hanoi. When the woman received it and looked down she recognized the soldier and little girl as people she knew in a neighboring village and ran over to show it to them.
The little girl was now a grown woman, living in this village with her brother and extended family. Word was sent back to America that she was found. The former American soldier had always thought he would send the picture to her, but now he knew he had to deliver it himself. They corresponded by letters first and then he arranged a trip over.
He was terrified. He said it was more frightening than going into battle. He had no idea how they would receive him. After all, he had killed her father. The day he arrived, the whole little village was waiting for him. He was carrying flowers. He knew who she was the minute he saw her. As he started to speak to her through an interpreter, he reached out to touch her hand and they both collapsed in each others arms sobbing. He knew he was forgiven.
They welcomed him into their home and they had a feast and treated him like one of their family. They told him that it was their religious belief that he carried the spirit of her father back to them. The picture he brought was the only one they had. It was taken right before he went to war. They prayed together at her father’s grave. And through their forgiveness, he was finally able to forgive himself and heal at last.
I believe God’s grace was at work here. God had forgiven him, but he had to learn to forgive himself. In order to do that, he needed the forgiveness of the girl and her family, and he was miraculously led to them and healed.