A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on September 11, 2011.

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 18:21-35 

Today marks the ten-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., which claimed nearly three thousand lives and shook our nation to the core.  All over our country today, churches will commemorate this anniversary by pausing to grieve for the destruction that occurred and the lives lost, to remember the acts of courage and heroism, to recall our sense of solidarity and to pray for healing to continue.  But on this tenth anniversary, we also acknowledge that we are still feeling the repercussions of that event.  There are anxieties about future terrorist attacks.  Going through airport security is a radically different experience than it was pre-9-11.  In some quarters, there are still widespread fears and suspicion for those of the Islamic faith or of Middle Eastern descent.  There remain deep divisions in our country about how we ought to understand those attacks and what our response should be to those who planned and perpetrated those heinous acts.  I dare say that even in this sanctuary, there are Christians here today who differ vehemently about what our Christian response to 9-11 ought to be.     

In this midst of all this confusion is our assigned lectionary Gospel text for this Sunday from Matthew 18, in which Peter asks Jesus, “how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?”  Peter thinks he is giving the correct biblical answer when he says, “Up to seven times” because seven was the Jewish number for perfection and completeness.  But Jesus blows past Peter’s algorithm of forgiveness when he responds, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” You may also have heard it translated as “seventy times seven” – but either way, the point remains the same: Jesus commanded Peter to “forgive not seven times, but always, always, always.”  So, what does Jesus’ command to forgive teach us about the events of 9-11? 

First of all, forgiveness does not mean that we gloss over the evil that occurred.  Forgiveness is not saying, “Oh, forget it.  Don’t worry about it.”  When we do that, we minimize the real pain, the real damage, and the real suffering that occurred to real people. 

Secondly, forgiveness does not mean that we can’t be angry.  Father Robert Barron wrote in a column this week: “Anger is the natural response to injustice, for it is the passion to set things right.  Martin Luther King was angry at racial inequality in mid-twentieth century America; Gandhi was angry at the injustices born of British imperialism; John Paul II was angry at Communist oppression in his native Poland — and they were all justified in their anger.  This is why the Bible coherently speaks of God’s anger.  It doesn’t mean that God passes into an emotional snit; it means that God consistently desires to make right a world gone wrong.”  Father Barron asks, Can anger promote justice?  And he answers, “Yes indeed.”[1]

In order to forgive, we must first acknowledge the real wrongs that were committed.  We can even be angry about what happened.  But anger must be tethered to love, so that instead of avenging or destroying or annihilating those who have done us wrong, instead of ending a relationship with the other, forgiveness takes the next step of seeking to re-establish a relationship in which healing is the goal.  Father Barron continues: “Martin Luther King didn’t want to destroy White America, he wanted to redeem it; Gandhi didn’t want to annihilate the British, he wanted to convert them and see them off as friends; John Paul II didn’t want to kill the Communists, he wanted them to become better people.  In all of these cases, anger was situated in love.”[2]  Or in the words of Professor David Carlson: forgiveness is admitting that extremist groups around the world need our help to recover their humanity, even as we need the help of others to recover our own.[3]  What an interesting concept: Forgiveness is a practice that allows us to help each other to recover our own humanity. 

Hold that thought for a moment as I turn to Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant.  I have often wondered why that servant who was forgiven of a debt of over four billion dollars—that’s how much ten thousand talents is worth in today’s dollars—would immediately turn around and refuse to forgive a four thousand dollar debt that others owed him.  The common explanation is that this servant was a total ingrate.  Or perhaps he was just ignorant of the magnitude of forgiveness he just received.  But I want to offer another explanation of that servant’s behavior.  The clue is found in verse 26: The servant fell on his knees before the king. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.”  Of course, we hear this and we think: Yeah sure, what a liar!  The king will need a lot of ‘patience’ before he ever sees that four billion dollars!”  What if the servant refused to accept the king’s forgiveness because he really believed that he could repay the debt?  That explains why the unforgiving servant was shaking down all the poor slobs who owed him money!  He was working to pay back his four billion dollar debt!  But whether this servant was an ingrate or ignorant or refusing to accept forgiveness from the king, where’s the humanity in his actions toward those who were indebted to him?  There is none.  That’s why we are horrified by his actions. 

But what about the response of the king, who obviously is the God-figure in this parable?  When the king throws the unforgiving servant into jail to be tortured, doesn’t the king become the very model of vengeful, hurtful anger, and not the example of unlimited forgiveness that Jesus was commanding?  Maybe.  But consider this.  As much as God values unlimited forgiveness, what if, just what if, God values and honors human free will even more?  That servant chose NOT to accept the forgiveness of the king.  Instead, that servant chose to act on his belief that he must pay back his debt by collecting money from his debtors.  Therefore, the king honored the choice and free will of the unforgiving servant by giving him exactly what he believed.  Since he believed that his debt wasn’t forgiven, he went to prison. The same unwillingness to accept the king’s forgiveness of his debt prohibited the man from extending forgiveness to his own, much smaller, debtor.  The warning Jesus gives at the end of the parable is this: “God will give you exactly what you believe about God’s forgiveness for you.”  And if you can fully accept God’s forgiveness, it becomes a reality in your life that can inspire you to forgive others.

Forgiveness is a practice that allows us to help each other to recover our humanity.  Forgiveness involves seeking to re-establish a relationship in which healing is the goal.  Now sometimes, a relationship cannot be re-established because the other party does not want forgiveness, or maybe they are unrepentant, or maybe they’re dead.   In cases like these, forgiveness may mean seeking to re-establish a new relationship with the memory of the person who wronged us, so that healing takes place in us, so that our humanity is recovered.  Today, we’ll see a lot of “Never Forget” signs.  But the question is not that whether we will forget (because we won’t forget).  Rather, the question is, how we will remember? Will we remember with vengeance?  Will we remember by demonizing all those who’ve harmed us?  As theologian Robert Schreiter writes: “Forgiveness is often made possible by our ability to see the wrongdoer from a different angle: not only as a despicable, immoral person, but also as a weak, fragile and sometimes confused human being, as we ourselves often are.   Put another way, when we forgive, we do not forget—we remember in a different way.  We no longer reduce the wrongdoers to the deed that has been committed.  We see them from other perspectives.  But this does not condone the deed or dismiss what they did.”[4]

As we remember the events of September 11, 2001, let us also remember the event over two thousand years ago, when an innocent man hung on a cross and prayed for his perpetrators, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  Like the king in this parable, the king of the universe forgave us of our unpayable debt.  So how then shall we live and respond to those who are in our debt?

Songwriter Gary McSpadden expressed it this way: “He paid a debt He did not owe, I owed a debt I could not pay, I needed someone to wash my sin away. And now I sing a brand new song: Amazing Grace the whole day long.  Christ Jesus paid the debt that I could never pay.” 

As we come to the communion table this morning, we remember the One who came to forgive us our debts by suffering and dying in our place so that our relationship to God might be re-established and our ultimate healing might take place.  As we celebrate this memorial of forgiveness, may we fully accept the forgiveness of God through the work of Christ, so that we may offer God’s forgiveness to others.  Amen. 

[1] http://www.realclearreligion.org/articles/2011/09/06/we_should_forgive_on_911.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://www.henriettapost.com/highlight/x219207307/Online-Only-Now-is-the-time-for-forgiveness.

[4] Robert Schreiter, http://www.americancatholic.org/Messenger/Sep2006/Feature3.asp

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