Serrmon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 19

Text: Matthew 18:21-22
Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?”
“No, not seven times,” answered Jesus, “but seventy times seven”.

Forgiveness means letting go

What problem in your life causes you the most amount of upset and pain?  Now some of you might jump in and say, my husband, or my wife, my parents, my kids, or my boss.  But what is it about our relationship with these people and others that agitates us, worries us, gets us angry, builds up resentment, gets us on our high horse and raise our voices?  You know the answer.  I’m talking about conflict.

This whole matter of conflict causes Peter to ask Jesus a very practical question.  If someone offends me, hurts me, aggravates me, upsets me, makes me angry, how many times should I forgive that person?  Peter suggests that seven times might be a good number, after all, seven is the perfect number.  That number of times is being super generous.  From your own experience you might well say that even seven is being very generous.

An article on forgiveness begins this way, “Forgiveness can mean different things.  When a friend misses a lunch appointment we might be miffed, but we usually forgive.  However, a cheating spouse or a friend’s betrayal is not so easy.  Whatever the case, without forgiveness, we are stuck in a revolving door of rehashing, resenting and rearview mirroring”. (Karen Tilstra, Forgiveness – The core of innovation, Ministry, Vol 95 No 7).

Forgiveness isn’t easy but Jesus’ somewhat mathematical response of “No, not seven times but seventy times seven” (Matt 18:22) is a call for us to be generous forgivers, to forgive one another because God forgives us – generously, graciously, continuously. 

It’s interesting to note that the word Jesus uses in our text for ‘forgive’ means ‘to let go’, ‘to release’.  He is saying, 
‘Let go’ of the hurt, the anger, the bitterness; everything that has built a wall between you and the other person. 
‘Let go’ of your hurt pride and ‘let go’ of the skewed image you have of the person in your mind for whom you now have total disregard.
‘Let go’ of the need to justify your thoughts and feelings. 
‘Let go’ of any obligation you think the other person owes you.

 Before I say more about forgiveness, let me say a few things about what forgiveness is not.

Forgiveness is not forgetting.  You’ve heard the saying, ‘Forgive and forget’.  I’m not sure where that saying comes from, but it’s not from the Bible.  We can find the power to forgive a person but that doesn’t erase the memory or the scar that has been left behind.  That scar may stay with us for the rest of our lives.  We can let go of the anger and resentment and bitterness, but we still remember the impact that offense or harsh action has had on our lives. 

It’s like lying in bed trying to sleep and your brain won’t switch off.  The harder you try to switch off the more it fires up.  That’s like an old bad memory.  The more your try to turn it off the more it fires up. 

Visiting an elderly man in one of the congregations I served, he told how he was a gunner and radio operator on a bomber that was shot down over Germany in 1942.  Half the crew died, and he and two others ended up in a POW camp in Poland.  Later in the war as the Russians advanced, he and other POWs were marched by the Nazis westward in freezing weather.  As he told me his story, every now and then he wiped away a tear as he recalled mates who were too weak to continue and were executed by the guards on the side of the road.  This elderly man explained that he no longer felt the anger or bitterness that he once did, but the faces of those who fell along the frozen road and those who forcefully drove them onward remained vivid in his mind.  Those memories scared him for the rest of his life. 
That leads me to say that …

Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.  Let me explain.  Forgiveness is letting go of the hurt and pain and bitterness caused by someone who has offended us.  Forgiveness let’s go of any obligation we might feel that those with whom we are conflict might owe us.

Forgiveness frees us from constantly rehashing in our minds the need for revenge and frees those with whom we are conflict from the need to continue the cycle of anger and bitterness.  Hopefully seeing us ‘letting go’ of the conflict may influence them to also ‘let go’ and to turn down the heat and move on.

On the other hand, reconciliation starts with letting go of the hurt feelings, but continues with remorse over the hurt and anger, and repentance over the brokenness and everything that has contributed to it, and with the help of Christ and his love, trust and renewed friendship is rebuilt. Complete reconciliation, a restoration to best friend status, probably will take a long time especially when the hurt has been deep.    

An example of forgiveness without reconciliation is C.S. Lewis who said he finally forgave the schoolmaster who abused both he and his brother, but it was 30 years after the schoolmaster died. For Lewis, reconciliation wasn't possible because reconciliation requires the rebuilding of trust and good faith on the part of both parties.

From what I’ve said so far, it’s quite clear that …

Forgiveness is not easy.  We all know what it’s like when our emotions are caught up in the heat of what has been said and done.  We get angry and upset.  It’s not easy to ‘let go’ of the cycle of hurt and anger especially if we want to hold on to the high moral ground and insist that we are the ones who have been offended and need the other person to make amends.  So we have people in families, in churches, in neighbourhoods who have ongoing unresolved tension. 

So, what is forgiveness?

Forgiveness involves understanding.  On the way to forgiveness, we need to try to understand as best as we can the person who has hurt us.  As hard as it might be, step back from the emotion involved in the conflict. Take a long look at what happened and see how the rift unfolded and your part in it.  I know when I do that, I’m pretty embarrassed by my own lack of self- control.  

As tempting as it might be don’t give the other person labels like hopeless, argumentative, belligerent, aggressive, uncaring, difficult, or whatever.  That’s not helpful.  Rather see the other person as a human tainted with the same evil as you and I are.  Inflicted with the same sinfulness, lovelessness, lack of control etc as we are.   

See that person as someone valued by God just as you are valued by God.  That person is a creation of God.  No-one is beyond the reach of God’s love and so also no-one is beyond of at least our understanding.  We see that person as someone for whom Christ came into the world and died and offers the hope of eternal life.  This might seem really hard to do, but forgiveness requires hard work and a lot of practice.

In talking about forgiveness like this, I don’t want to trivialise those deeply hurt.  A person who has been abused, experienced violence at the hands of another person, been verbally, emotionally, physically injured will not find forgiveness, letting go, an easy road.  It almost seems impossible at first.  If that person is closely connected to you in a family or the family of the Church, where trust has been destroyed, it is highly likely that at first, understanding will deepen the pain that has been experienced. The road to forgiveness will be longer. 

I don’t say this to be discouraging and make forgiveness seem impossible, but truly, it is possible.  Forgiving means letting go of the bitterness, hatred, anger, resentment, and all the other ugly feelings that come with a betrayal of trust.  They no longer rule your life and destroy your physical and emotional health.  These things will no longer dominate your thinking. 

Not forgiving sucks a lot of energy out of us.  It’s like carrying around a heavy backpack.  As long as we carry it around with us, we’re wasting precious time and energy.  While our anger and resentment are taking control of us, it keeps us from putting energy into the people we love right in front of us.

How is forgiveness possible when the hurt is deep? 

Forgiveness is a choice.  Without a doubt it’s hard to choose to forgive, especially if we believe we are the ones who have been wronged.  We find it easy to hold on to the resentment and if possible, add more fuel to the fire with more anger, more argument, more cold shoulders, more finger pointing.

Jesus gives the opposite advice, “If a brother hurts you, you go to him and tell him how you have been hurt” (Matthew 18:15).  Forgiveness is an act of the will, a choice, guided by God’s Word and the Holy Spirit.  Forgiveness is not an act of our emotions but an act of our will.  It can be hard because our emotions take a while to calm down and so forgiveness will take time. 

In the meantime, we need to pray.  To choose God’s way, to forgive and let go willingly and readily, as Jesus urges in our text today, is so hard for us, we need to talk to God. “Lord, I need your help.  I’m so overwhelmed with hurt and resentment.  Give me the grace to let go of my anger and forgive”. 

Forgiveness is a matter of discipleship. Jesus said to Peter, “No, not seven times but seventy times seven” meaning that forgiveness is an ongoing thing, it’s never ending, it’s an ongoing process in some cases, meaning that for some people the hurt has been so deep that it takes years to let go and move on.  If we want to forgive, we need to start with God and his never-ending forgiveness, just as God has given us the gift of forgiveness for our persistent and blatant wrong against him so also, we are to forgive one another even though we think the other person doesn’t deserve it. 

As people of God, we are led by the urging of the Holy Spirit to let go of everything that has given heat to the breakdown of the relationship and let go of every bit of resentment and bitterness that has filled our hearts.  Letting go of these things brings peace and hopefully we can reach out to the other person calmly and peacefully and no longer be imprisoned by anger and hurtful feelings. 

Theologian and author Lewis Smedes once said, “When you forgive you set a prisoner free and then you discover that the prisoner was you”.

Rabbi Harold Kushner tells this story.
“A woman 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 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.”

“How often should I forgive?” Peter asked.  As people of God, we know how much we have already been forgiven.  God let’s go of his anger and hurt toward us every day.  Seventy times seven is not nearly enough times to describe how our Father in heaven forgives us.  With God’s help, leaning heavily of his love and guidance and strength, we too can let go, find peace, and move on.

 © Pastor Vince Gerhardy
17th September 2023

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