a sermon on Matthew 18:21-35 for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time
preached on September 11, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
(Author’s note: An earlier version of this sermon was posted here, and I keep both versions on the blog to expose a bit of my creative process.)
Where were you?
People have been asking that question all week, remembering where we were on that clear and beautiful September morning ten years ago today. But it’s not as if you really could ever forget it – moments like that are things that we cannot forget.
And so for the last ten years, people have been crying out, never forget –
never forget the horror of nearly three thousand people dying at the hands of a carefully coordinated terrorist attack on American soil;
never forget the faithful service of thousands of women and men working as police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders, bringing thousands of others to safety;
never forget the worldwide outrage and lament at these incredible things that somehow managed to unite us in grief as we sought to figure out what to make of this unspeakable tragedy;
never forget the stories of fear and hope from friends and neighbors and acquaintances all around us that made us cry and made us laugh and everything in between.
Our gospel reading this morning from Matthew tells us of another time when Jesus wanted to make it clear that we should never forget – this time, that we should never forget forgiveness. This reading that centers on forgiveness is difficult to stomach on any day, but the memories we bring with us here today certainly don’t make it any easier. Even after ten years, it is really hard to bring up the idea of forgiveness around the horrors of September 11, 2001, for the pain and hurt and terror are still very, very raw for us, and talking about forgiveness seems to deny so much of what we are feeling. Too often, though, I think we’ve twisted our understandings of forgiveness into some part of the trite and easy saying, “Forgive and forget,” but that’s not at all what Jesus says here – in fact, he almost seems to say the exact opposite: “Forgive and never forget.”
Peter starts things off in the story, following up on Jesus’ words that immediately precede this passage, words that we heard last week about how to deal with wrongdoing in the community of faith. Clearly a bit confused and concerned about Jesus’ call to forgive, Peter asks him directly: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus, ever the generous interpreter, responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Now this isn’t a limit on forgiveness that suggests that Peter can add ten extra rows of checkboxes to his spreadsheet as he tracks how often he forgives his friends. No, in suggesting seventy-seven offers of forgiveness, Jesus insists that there is no limit to the kind of forgiveness that he makes possible. As commentator Charles Campbell notes, “…there can be no limit on forgiveness, because it is a never-ending practice that is essential to the life of the church.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 69)
With this difficult word about forgiving seventy-seven times, Jesus also tells his disciples a parable in hopes that they will not forget his point. A king called in one of his slaves to pay off a debt of ten thousand talents. Now one talent was more than a year’s worth of wages for the average person, so this debt was astoundingly large and truly impossible to pay off. The slave asked the king for more time to make good on what he owed, but the king went a step further than the slave asked and forgave the debt entirely! As the slave made his way out of the king’s chamber, he saw another slave who owed him a small debt, and rather than showing any of the grace that his king had shown him, the slave had the debtor thrown into prison until the debt was paid. The king got word of this and called the slave back in to account for his actions. While the slave had forgotten how the king had treated him when he demanded immediate payment from his debtor, the king had not forgotten. The forgiveness offered the slave was taken back and the debt reinstated immediately – and the slave put into prison until he could pay back the insurmountable amount.
We may say, “Forgive and forget,” but Jesus clearly has something else in mind here. The king in the parable grants forgiveness with great generosity, forgiving a debt that could never be paid, but when the slave forgets and the king remembers, Jesus makes it clear that generosity and grace are never to be forgotten.
Just as we cannot forget the events of September 11, 2001, we cannot forget the gracious and generous forgiveness that Jesus describes and demands here. As we remember the indescribable horror of that day ten years ago, we also must remember that the perpetrators of these things are a tiny minority amidst millions of women and men who share our humanity and our faithfulness even as its expression might look a little different. As we remember the sights and sounds and smells that followed 9/11 – the overwhelming sight of watching two planes crash into two iconic skyscrapers and then those towers collapse to the ground, the sounds of mourning from so many whose loved ones were killed by such violence and evil, the smell of burning tires and unsettled souls, as one writer so aptly put it, that stuck with you long after you left Lower Manhattan for months after the attacks – we also must remember that Jesus offers us a new and different attitude in the face of unspeakable horror. As we remember the stories of fear and hope shared by our friends and neighbors, we also must remember that hope will triumph over fear and grace will always reign supreme because of the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
In the light of September 11, 2001, I don’t think it is so important for us to completely forgive those who perpetrated such horror upon our city, our nation, and our world, but I think there is some part of forgiveness that we must offer for our own sake because of who we are in Jesus Christ. As commentator Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn puts it,
Forgiveness means to release, to let go of the other. Forgiveness is not denying our hurt…. Forgiveness is a possibility only when we acknowledge the negative impact of another person’s actions or attitudes in our lives…. (Feasting on the Word, p. 70)
It is time for us – us as individuals, us as New York City, us as the United States of America, us as the world God so loves – to remember some part of this forgiveness again, to begin letting go of the horrors of this day a bit, to start viewing this difficult day through new and different eyes, to sort out how we can live in a way that stops the cycle of violence once and for all.
I think we are ready for this move, and we want it to happen, but somehow our individual readiness never quite translates into real change in the broader society. We are ready to put the cycle of revenge and oneupsmanship behind us, but not at the expense of our own preferences and safety. We are ready to bring an end to the culture of war and violence, but only once our side has won without compromise. We are ready to treat everyone as equals and put an end to abuse and torture, but not if it means that someone doesn’t get the punishment that we think they are due. We are ready to give up the fear that the attacks of 9/11 brought upon us, but not if we have to risk even the slightest minimal threat to our apparent safety.
But even if we are not fully ready for all these things, we can still remember and never forget the horrific events of ten years ago without letting them define us forever, and perhaps that is what we really need. That is what forgiveness is all about.
Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn relates a story told by Rabbi Harold Kushner:
A woman in my congregation comes to see me. She is a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. She says to me, “Since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?”
I answer her, “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you’re hurting yourself.” (“Letting Go of the Role of Victim,” Spirituality and Health, Winter 1999, 34. Quoted in Feasting on the Word, p. 72.)
May the extravagant, endless, incredible forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ inspire us this day and always so that we might be free from all that weighs us down, so that we can be empowered to remember and never forget what we will and should always carry with us, and so that we can live in the fullness of new life we have in Jesus Christ here and in the world to come, forgiving and never forgetting.