“Then Peter came and said, ‘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.” – Matthew 18:21-22
The lectionary, which tells us what Scripture to use each Sunday, repeats itself every three years. As I prepared my sermon this week, I couldn’t help but think of the last time that I had used this verse on forgiveness. About three years ago, one of my pastor friends, Steve, called me up and asked me to lead worship while he was away on vacation. Without thinking, I told Steve, yes, of course, I would be happy to help. And then I wet to prepare the service. When I went to do so, I suddenly saw that the Scripture I am supposed to use is on forgiveness and that the Sunday that I am supposed to lead worship is September 11th, 2011, the tenth anniversary of 9/11. I balked. I didn’t know what to do. When I sat down to put my pen to paper, my stomach turned at the thought of talking about forgiveness and 9/11 in the same breath.
A few weeks before Steve asked me to cover worship for him, I had been in New York City. While I was there, I walked to the 9/11 site and stood looking for a long time at the wall with the names of all who had died. As I read the names from the wall, I kept thinking that I could not begin to grasp the enormity of the event. The enormity of the people who lost fathers, mothers, and friends that day.
So when, I sat down with this passage about forgiveness and Jesus’ commandment to forgive not just seven but seventy seven times I became angry. I mean, how could I forgive something like 9/11? It broke my heart. What happened was not okay. It was the exact opposite of okay.
And so I wrestled with this Scripture.
I wrestled with the Scripture because I had bought into society’s idea of forgiveness. Society makes forgiveness seem so simple and cheap and easy. It tells us that all we have to do is forgive and forget. It paints forgiveness as a warm fuzzy feeling that you are supposed to get as you say to people, with a bright, cheerful smile, whatever you did, that’s okay, no big deal. In the words of Nadia Bolz Weber, society can make forgiveness seem like we are required to be a holy doormat.
I was not interested in being a doormat.
And then someone said something that caught my attention. Lo and behold, a guy I knew initiated a conversation about forgiveness with me. He told me that he had had a father who had been pretty demeaning to him growing up, always criticizing him and putting him down. He told me that he had forgiven his father and wished him well but he still felt very angry. His therapist had told him that this anger is a normal part of the healing process.
That was the first time that I began to see that forgiveness is not about tolerance or saying things are okay. Forgiveness is about choosing to heal. I began to see that society had gotten it all wrong. That forgiveness is neither cheap nor easy, that it is a reality hard-won that requires much work. Forgiveness does not require of us false smiles or warm fuzzy feelings. It requires of us a choice: In the face of hurt and woundedness and loss, are we going to choose to harm, to strike back, or are we going to choose to heal?
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a priest from South Africa who worked tirelessly to help his nation heal the nation from apartheid, tells us that, when we don’t forgive, “We remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound with chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped.”
Tutu suggests an exercise to help us understand the burden of carrying our resentment around. He invites us each to find a rock. Take the rock and hold in your non-dominant hand for six hours in a day as you can.
Wash dishes with one hand holding a rock. Type at work. Hug a loved one. Get dressed. Garden, Grocery shop.
He invites us to notice what this is like. You see, when you go about the day, the rock will slow us down. The rock will hamper us and make us unable to do what we need to do. Archbishop Tutu invites us to use this rock-exercise as way of thinking through how hatred or anger can hold us back, can weigh us down in our everyday life.
One pastor I know invites us to think of forgiveness as a way of wielding bolt cutters and snapping the chains that link us. As a way of refusing to let the evil others have done to us from growing and taking root in our hearts.
Archbishop Tutu expands this point in the following poetic words: “I will forgive you, the words are so small, but there is a universe hidden in them. When I forgive you, all those cords of resentment pain and sadness that wrapped themselves around my heart will be gone. When I forgive you, you will no longer define me. You measured me and assessed me and decided that you could hurt me. That I didn’t count. But I will forgive you because I do count. I do matter. I am bigger than the image you have of me. I am stronger. I am more beautiful. And I am infinitely more precious than you thought me. I will forgive you. My forgiveness is not a gift that I am giving to you. When I forgive you, my forgiveness will be a gift that I give myself.”
Tutu reminds us that we are all broken. And out of that brokenness, we hurt others. Forgiveness is the journey we take toward healing the broken parts it is how we become whole again. It is how we bring peace to the world.
And so I invite you to hold your rock and to take some time to think about our life. What rocks of resentment and hatred are you carrying in our life? In what ways do you need to wield bolt cutters from chains of pain and bitterness and anger that link you to others?
In the Scripture today, Jesus calls us to forgive not seven but seventy-times. One interpretation of this verse suggests that Jesus calls for such extravagant forgiveness because he knows that it will take that long for it to really sink home. It is something we need to choose to work at each and every day.
In other words, forgiveness is hard. I was stuck by this hardness when I heard the story of Azim Khamisa and Ples Felix. Their story started in 1995, when Ples’ grandson killed Azim’s son. At the time, Azim’s son, Tariq was a twenty-year old college student studying heart who worked part-time as a pizza delivery man. He was a charismatic young man with a lot friends who lived life very fully. On the evening on January 21st 1995, four teenagers planned a robbery from a pizza place. They ordered a pizza and Tariq came to deliver it to them. One of the teenagers, Tony went up to Tariq and demanded the pizza. When Tariq refused, Tony- a fourteen year old at the time – shot and killed him. When Azim got the call that he had lost his son, anger set in… the whole situation just seemed so senseless … Tariq was killed over a pizza. Azim says that he saw immediately that there were victims on both sides of the gun. Tony had been the son of a teenager mother. His father had left him straight away. And his mother had not wanted him. He passed from relative to relative until Ples, his grandfather took him in and began to care for him. But at that point, the wounds in Tony were already deep and he fell to spend time with the gangs on the streets of LA. It was the only place he find a sense of community.
Forgiveness can be a lengthy process and after some years. Initially, Azim also decided he wanted to do a good deed and so he created the Tariq Khamisa foundation in his son’s memory and began to work to end gun violence in the streets. He asked Tony’s grandfather, Ples, to help. Ples had been racked with guilt and shame over Tony’s actions and so he quickly agreed. And together, they began a journey toward healing and working toward a world where no other children had to die from gun violence. They went from school to school teaching children about forgiveness. That there was another path possible. That even when you are wounded, you do not have to choose to follow the path of an eye for an eye. Azim and Ples began to teach that you can choose to forgive. And then, five years after his son death’s, Azim met with and forgave Tony.
Today’s video clip picks up there (Clip from the movie “The Power of Forgiveness” was shown here … my apologies to our Internet readers, it is not available on YouTube).
While it worked out the Ples and Tony were repentant for what happens, it may happen that the people you are angry are not sorry. You can still forgive them. As Archbishop Tutu said, forgiveness is not something you do for the other person, it is something that you do for yourself. The choice to release your rock of resentment is yours and yours alone. And once you forgive the person, it is for you to determine whether to renew or release the relationship. While Archbishop Tutu says we should take releasing relationships very seriously, there are cases, for instance relationships that are abusive or where you are not being respected, where it may be required.
And so we come back to today’s Scripture, Jesus call us to forgive seventy seven times. We live in a broken world and Jesus calls us to forgive our debtors that we too might experience forgiveness. Jesus calls us to forgive so that in our places of brokenness, we might experience God’s healing and love. So that our fractured world might be made whole. So that there might at last be an end to the cycles of violence in our world. And that we might experience peace on earth. Amen.