The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 14, 2014
Proper 19A: Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
The Rev. Jennie Talley, Transitional Deacon (ordained priest 9/27/14) sponsored for Priestly Ordination by St. Michael’s Church
Good morning, dearly beloved of St. Michael’s! This is a bittersweet moment for me, as this is the last Sunday that I will be serving as a deacon. As so many of you know, I have been spending a good part of the summer discerning a call to a parish that would coincide with my ordination to the priesthood, which is scheduled for the end of this month. And for those of you who have not already seen the announcement on Facebook, I am so grateful and excited to share that I have been called as priest-in-charge to serve the good people of St. John’s parish in New Rochelle. It is a vibrant and diverse parish, and although it is small, it is bursting with enthusiasm and love.
I will celebrate my first Eucharist there in two weeks, so today I say farewell for now, taking all of you in this beloved community with me in my heart. In the nine years since I first walked through those big welcoming blue doors, you have lifted me up, you have been patient with me, you have given me opportunities to grow and learn, you have stretched me, and you have helped form me for ordained ministry. It is here that I first experienced what it means for a faithful community to be as the body of Christ. And I am so grateful to you all, and to Fr. George Brandt, Mo. Kate Flexer, Mo. Susan Hill, to Margaret Cotterell and members of my discernment committee, to Andrea, to Fr. Sam, and especially to Mo. Liz for her incredible mentoring and leadership. It is with tremendous love that I thank you all, St. Michael’s!
It seems rather appropriate today to be focusing on the Gospel lesson and the 18th chapter of Matthew because it is this section of Matthew that contains Jesus’ very important instructions to his disciples on what it takes to maintain a thriving community of God. Jesus teaches that it requires a childlike humility, as well as unbounded forgiveness to keep those relationships and the bonds of love healthy and strong. This morning I would like to focus on Jesus’ message of forgiveness that comes at the end of his discourse.
Perhaps it is prescient that three days after the 13th anniversary of 9/11, when 3000 too many lives were lost, and too many more lives lost since in the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Gospel reading today from Matthew resounds with the antithesis of revenge! Yes, the practice of forgiveness that Jesus is teaching his disciples, in the context of how to maintain true and vital relationships in the community of God, is indeed the polar opposite of revenge.
The practice of forgiveness itself can be so very difficult for us, no matter what degree we have been trespassed against. Even a minor slight can sometimes seem impossible to forgive, let alone losing a loved one to a terrorist attack. And one wonders, is that huge amount of forgiveness possible, or even expected of us? This question takes me to what I consider to be the Rwandan “saints of forgiveness,” having seen snippets of their amazing stories from the New York Times Magazine earlier this year. Twenty years removed from the genocide in Rwanda, where a million people were murdered, several photos of various “survivors,” standing in the same frame next to their corresponding “perpetrator” appeared in the Times’ story titled, “Portraits of Reconciliation.” In one photo of reconciliation, Jean Pierre Karenzi, the perpetrator, stands with his side facing the camera, and his long face downturned. Next to him, with her arm perched on his shoulder, the survivor, Viviane Nyiramana, stands looking at the camera with a straight face.
Jean Pierre, the perpetrator, says: “My conscience was not quiet, and when I would see [Viviane] I was very ashamed. After being trained about unity and reconciliation, I went to her house and asked for forgiveness. Then I shook her hand. So far, we are on good terms.”
Viviane, the survivor, says of Jean Pierre: “He killed my father and three brothers. He did these killings with other people, but he came alone to me and asked for pardon. He and a group of other offenders who had been in prison helped me build a house with a covered roof. I was afraid of him — now I have granted him pardon, things have become normal, and in my mind I feel clear.”
The giant forgiveness of Viviane and her reconciliation with Jean Pierre, like that of many, many other Rwandans, seems too impossibly difficult, and beyond the capacity of human beings. Others might see it as weak, too readily caving in, not taking a stand to the evils done, cowering with no backbone, not holding tight to a sense of justice. Yet, in the 18th chapter of Matthew, Jesus is not calling for a partial or measured forgiveness. No, Jesus is calling us to a forgiveness that has no limits! Peter asks Jesus, “How often shall I forgive? As many as seven times?” Now seven is the number for completeness, for perfection, so Peter is really asking, “Shall I forgive completely, even perfectly?” And Jesus responds to Peter with the familiar words, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven” (the Greek here is not clear). What is clear is that seventy-seven or seventy times seven both mean that the expectation for forgiveness is an unbounded one, it is infinite and beyond perfection. And Jesus teaches forgiveness because he understands the harm, the bitterness, and the damage that comes to individuals and a society from unforgiveness.
So we ask ourselves, what is forgiveness? In her workshop on forgiveness, Episcopal priest Barbara Crafton teaches what forgiveness is not. First, she says, it is not forgetting. “The Bible does not say forgive and forget.” There are some things that should not be forgotten, like 9/11, like the Holocaust, like the evils of slavery, like the horrors of abuse, like the killing of unarmed black men by police.
And second, Mo. Crafton says that forgiveness is not about acquittal, it is not saying that what was done is OK, and it is not about erasing consequences. Forgiveness —both our human forgiveness and God’s magnanimous forgiveness — “does not take away the earthly obligation of paying the consequences for our actions.”
In his parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus grounds unlimited forgiveness in the nature and grace of God through the allegory of the king. In the first scene, a slave is found to owe his king 10,000 talents. Now this is an exorbitant amount of money, for just one talent is worth 15 years of wages for one laborer. So it would take practically 150,000 years of hard labor for the slave to pay back this huge debt, with no realistic way for the slave to actually be able to do it. But seeing the slave begging for mercy, the king took pity on him and released him, forgiving his enormous debt. Scene two has the debtor slave becoming a creditor, for the same servant, who was just forgiven, seizes a fellow slave by the throat and demands the one hundred denarii that are owed him. Now one hundred denarii is a mere pittance when contrasted with the 10,000 talents, and could reasonably be paid, being the equivalent to a laborer’s wages for 100 days. But when the debtor slave pleaded for mercy, unlike the forgiving king, the creditor slave threw him in prison. Finally, in the third scene, the king has summoned back the mean-spirited slave, handing him over to be tortured for his lack of forgiveness until he is able to pay his impossible debt back to the king.
Jesus seems to be saying that when we realize how much God loves us and unconditionally forgives us, that it is God’s grace that flows through us as a gift, helping us to forgive others. We can’t help but be forgiving when we are humbled by the tremendous stores of forgiveness that God heaps upon us. And like the unforgiving slave, when we are unforgiving, it is like being locked in a torture chamber, a torture chamber of our own making that is full of vengefulness, pride, hate, and fear, where we have thrown away the only key, which is forgiveness. As Nelson Mandela said, holding onto the resentment that is bound up in unforgiveness is “like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” And Nelson Mandela should know! He was able to miraculously unite a nation because he understood the power of forgiveness. During his 27 years in prison, he made friends with his white Afrikaner prison guards. Mandela talked to them, studied their culture, and his heart was changed. And Mandela knew that forgiveness is a process. “I am not a saint,” he said, “unless a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.”
According to Dr. Frederic Luskin of the Stamford Forgiveness Project, the practice of forgiveness is a matter of grieving, then releasing the wrongs done to us in the past that we are clinging to so tightly. It sounds so simple, but from our own experience, we know it’s not. These burdens of unforgiveness — even the little ones — not only lock us up, and literally tighten our hearts and increase our blood pressure, while pushing us out of relationship with each other, but they also weigh us down.
So if we are feeling stuck and unable to forgive, through the grace of God let us unload whatever burdens of unforgiveness we carry at Jesus’ feet, to the one whose yoke is light, and whose burden is easy. Let us set our heavy burdens down, one by one, at the foot of the cross, recapturing our lightness and freedom. And through this divine gift that is forgiveness, may we enrich our present and future by healing our past. May we continue in the breaking forth of God’s kingdom, while walking humbly with our God, with a cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night, together in peace. And may God bless you all. Amen
 http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/04/06/magazine/06-pieter-hugo-rwanda-portraits.html, accessed September 12, 2014.