"Forgiveness, A Self-Portrait"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 9/12/1999

Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

     One of our greatest stumbling blocks to making our faith visible comes from Jesus' teachings about forgiveness. Our lesson this morning begins with these words from Peter, "Lord, if someone 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."

     This admonition can be very frustrating to us. Does this teaching mean that we should allow people to be deceptive, controlling and manipulative while we stand by and do nothing to confront them? If so, are we really being responsible? Forgiveness does not seem fair, particularly when the consequences of doing so can affect us so adversely.

     Some years ago Bill Cosby did a monologue that featured his version of how our war for independence got started with England. Bill said that the war actually started with the toss of a coin between the captain of the Colonists and the captain of the British Army. After the British lost the toss, Cosby, mocking the voice of a football umpire, said this, "The British have lost the toss. They get to dress their soldiers in bright red uniforms and march in a straight line in open fields. The Colonists get to wear clothing that blends in with the natural terrain and can shoot their rifles while hiding behind rocks and trees." Why the British fought wars using that strategy is unclear to me. It never did seem quite fair.

     All of Jesus' teachings on forgiveness appear to support the one who offends. At first glance, what Jesus appears to be saying is that mean-spirited people can take advantage of us for any reason and we must stand there as if nothing happened. But is this really his message? Are we to allow the powerful bullies of this world to rule, while we bow to them and say, "I forgive you"?

     Jesus' teachings on forgiveness appear so difficult to master because of their implications to some very practical issues of life. For example, there are very sincere people who have stood in their churches and exchanged their wedding vows, ". . . for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part. . ."

     Sometimes when marriages fail, people feel very bad about breaking their wedding vows. They have said, "I feel so guilty. I really meant those words when I said them. I promised before God that I would always love my wife or husband "for better or for worse." But it is so hard. There were times when I would have preferred death rather than to stay where I could neither give nor receive love." How wonderful it would be if we could live so that all our choices were perfect.

     Under the worst possible circumstances that we can imagine, does Jesus really expect us to forgive seventy times seven? The answer is "yes." Love is not something we can withhold and still call it love. God does not withhold love regardless of how mean-spirited or irresponsible any of us have become. However, forgiveness is the self-portrait of who we are. In no way does that portrait prevent us from making choices. Forgiveness describes only the self-protecting spirit by which we live. The spirit of forgiveness prevents others from destroying us with their behavior.

     When I first learned to drive, I had to develop the courage to merge into traffic. Cars had to be at least half the distance of a football field before I would pull away from a stop sign. One afternoon while I was waiting for the traffic to clear, a person in a convertible behind me yelled, "The sign stays 'STOP' not 'STAY'!" I laughed and pulled out into traffic. That little mental snap shot has stayed with me through the years.

     After taking every possible step to save her marriage, a woman finally told her husband that she could no longer stay with him. After giving her decision a great deal of prayerful thought, she said to her husband, "I want you to know that I loved you when we were dating and I love you to this day, but I can no longer live with you. We do not dance the same dance. I do not wish to spend the rest of my life struggling to give you something I can never give you. I can never give you happiness. Happiness is something you must discover arising from within yourself. It cannot be found in all the places and people to which you have attached yourself."

     Had she forgiven her husband seventy times seven? Are we splitting hairs here with what love requires? Forgiveness has traditionally meant staying in a relationship because we promised "for better or for worse." Yet how many people stay in relationships dedicating themselves to long-suffering and martyrdom, neither of which can ever produce the fruits that come from forgiveness?

     In the Book of Worship of our denomination we have a ceremony that forgiving couples can use when dissolving their marriages. The Church has made room for our mistakes in choosing partners. The church has recognized that people do not need to stay where they are not wanted or loved.

     Once Jesus preached a message that was not received well by his listeners. Luke wrote about that occasion with these words, "When the people in the synagogue heard his message, they were filled with anger. They rose up, dragged Jesus out of town, and took him to the top of the hill on which their town was built. They meant to throw him over the cliff, but he walked through the middle of the crowd and went his way." (4:28f) Jesus did not stay.

     We are not splitting hairs. His decision made good sense. This episode in Jesus' life did not suggest that his love for these people was something less than his love for the people of Bethany, one of Jesus' favorite places to stay. His love and purpose for living helped him make another choice.

     Jesus had too much to do on earth to remain with people who did not want what he was offering. Jesus' portrait was one in which anyone who wanted to find acceptance could receive that from him. People who are always angry about something generally cannot move anywhere with their lives until they first deal with themselves. As someone once said, "If a hammer is the only tool you have, you will tend to see every problem as a nail."

     Forgiveness, then, is what happens within our nature when we very peacefully allow others to be whoever they wish to be. "No, not seven times," Jesus answered, "but seventy times seven." Jesus was telling Peter, "The only responses to life over which you have control are your own."

     When we study Jesus' life, the only occasion when Jesus experienced abuse was when others took away his decision-making ability. That occurred when the authorities arrested him, not before. We saw this same loss of personal power when Joseph was sold into slavery and later jailed on false charges. We saw this again when Paul and Silas were put in jail. While they could do nothing about their circumstances; they could still live with the spirit of forgiveness.

     We found Jesus turning the other cheek. We found Joseph being a model prisoner. We found both Paul and Silas singing and praying while in jail. Even God revealed the nature of forgiveness when Good Friday was greeted with an Easter morning.

     Our ability to allow other people to be who they are communicates a portrait of who we are. Forgiveness is not selective. If we choose to withhold it when life becomes insane, frustrating, or unjust, we do not understand forgiveness. There is no better time to show what Christ has done in our lives than when the behavior of others gives us the opportunity to do so.

     But again it needs to be emphasized that forgiving persons do not need to stay with people or remain in an environment that is abusive and destructive when they still have the power of choice. Have we not all known couples who have divorced, thus ending the long bitter war that had existed between them, and yet today they treat each other with respect? That is how forgiveness has healed them.

     There was another occasion during Jesus' ministry when he was denied entrance into a Samaritan village. This rejection so infuriated James and John that they said, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" All the author of Luke says about this question is that "Jesus turned and rebuked them."

     There are some other ancient manuscripts, however, that have added additional words. In these manuscripts Jesus said, "You do not know what kind of spirit you belong to by saying such a thing. The Son of Man did not come to destroy human lives, but to save them." These words accurately capture the portrait of Jesus. Holding on to anger destroys us and no one else. We do have other choices.

     One day a woman spoke to Wayne Dyer following one of his appearances. She said, "Mr. Dyer, my daughter and I have not spoken to each other for over 20 years." Wayne said, "Why not?" She said, "Oh, it was over something ridiculous. Words were said and we parted ways. I would give anything for our relationship to be healed."

     Wayne said, "Why don't you pray about it. When you get up in the morning, allow your thoughts to reach out to your daughter. Try seeing her happy. Try letting go of every negative thought you have ever held about her. Use everything you have to surround her with your love every day. Do this week after week and let me know what happens."

     The woman followed his advice and nothing happened. She continued month after month until she came to the point where she almost gave up hope. Suddenly, something urged her to pick up the phone and call her daughter. She thought to herself, "The worst she can do is hang up on me or say to me that she never wants to hear from me ever again."

     She made that call. Her daughter answered and said, "Mom, I have been thinking about you every day for months. I don't know how many times I have wanted to call you but I just could not find the strength to do it. I did not want to feel the pain all over again if you did not want to hear from me." Isn't that interesting? They cried and had a wonderful reunion.

     Think of the pain and the longing that fear of rejection had created in both of them. God yearns to heal, hold us, and bind up our wounds. God makes everything possible when we open the door by giving away the very thing we most want ourselves, love and acceptance. Love and acceptance is another way of communicating forgiveness.

     There are many times when we are not in our best frame of mind. Sometimes we would give anything if we could take back certain words that were spoken in haste or actions we have taken without thought. How wonderful it is when the person experiencing our behavior becomes like a gigantic sponge that just absorbs, absorbs, and absorbs. They have made allowances for our short-comings, perhaps because they are so well aware of their own. This is the ultimate form of forgiveness. This is what Jesus meant when he said, "No, not seven times, but seventy times seven."

     When we are truly secure with ourselves and our relationship with God, there is never any need to play small. There is never any need to attack with our words or actions. There is never any need to withhold our love. If we can ever withhold our love from anyone, what we are withholding has nothing to do with love. That truth should make us think.


     We thank you, God, for sharing with us the essence of who you are. You have given us the ability to give without counting the cost, to forgive from a spirit that is not offended, and to point with our living to your loving nature. We welcome the opportunity to live inspired lives, to sow seeds of hope where there is despair, to offer encouragement where there is doubt, and to teach insight where purpose has been lost. Guide us, O God, to the understanding that our lives are useful everywhere. Inspire us each day to give away the very qualities of life that we most want for ourselves. Lead us to know that you constantly touch others through the spirit by which we live. Words are inadequate, O God, to express our appreciation to you for enabling us to fulfill our purpose in your marvelous world. We find that there is no higher calling than to remain as you created us to be. Amen.


     How wonderful it is, O God, to be a participant in so many dramas. While we sometimes wish that life would slow down and even become boring for awhile, we realize we would never be happy or fulfilled if we were not busy making a difference in someone's life, making a contribution in our workplace, or having a positive impact on the future our children will one day inherit.

     We are thankful that you called us to faithfulness rather than asking us to determine the exact meaning of life's events. We are grateful that you endowed us with the ability to love others even though we may never understand why particular persons have entered into our lives.

     Enable us to be accommodating and generous of spirit. Enable us to become the shoulders upon which others may stand to see more clearly their life's choices. May we resist the temptation to create others in the image we want for them. May we develop the courage to allow people to be just as you created them, and give us the patience of spirit to trust that you are working your perfect will in spite of the judgments we make. Cause us to remember that had Joseph not been sold into slavery by his brothers, thousands of people may have died of starvation.

     We ask this day that healing come to troubled hearts, that worried minds may find peace, that people whose lives have experienced sudden change may trust in your leading. May we all remember the words of Jesus, "Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world." We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray . . .