SCRIPTURE – Matthew 18:21-22 – Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Live Like You’re Dying sermon series
#3 – Forgive Easily
March 23, 2014
I love Peter, God bless his heart. He tries so hard, and yet he is so human. Walking on water one minute, sinking like stone the next. In today’s passage, I love how Peter offers what he figures to be a pretty generous number of times to offer forgiveness. Mr. Brown-Noser tries to show Jesus just how merciful he is by suggesting an amount of times to forgive someone that only a saint would consider. Seven! Whoa now, Peter, let’s not overdo it. Can you see his jaw drop at Jesus’ response? Some of translations of this passage have Jesus responding, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy times seven times.” I can hear the mental calculators out there clicking. That’s 490 times, if you’re keeping score. Which you shouldn’t be doing, a point this example makes. Jesus isn’t given us permission to get to our 491st moment of forgiveness and go, “Aha! Not THIS time!” Jesus is telling Peter that any number he thinks of is too low.
Forget about the 491st time, or the seventh time. For some of us, it’s hard to forgive the first time. True forgiveness is very, very difficult to offer. So I’m not surprised that people who are actively dying listed the lack of forgiveness as one of the regrets they had about their lives. In this sermon series, we’ve been learning lessons from Hospice patients about what they would change about their lives if they could do it over again. So far, they’ve told us they would have taken more risks and they would have lived more in the present than worrying about the past or the future. Today, they tell us that they would have forgiven as easily in their lives as they were able to do at their deaths.
Why would forgiveness come so easily to those whose lives are ending? Because the dying have been given a unique perspective on the priorities of life, a perspective not driven by success or prominence or control. Those things don’t matter to them the way they matter to us. The things that are barriers to forgiveness for us – our pride, our fear of being hurt, or reputation – are trivial for those on their deathbed. The urgency of dying is a strong impetus toward forgiveness. So why do so many of us wait until then, if at all?
In all the reading I did for this sermon series, I was continually amazed at the level of peace the Hospice nurses saw in their patients. One nurse wrote, “The dying often find peace they lacked in life because dying and forgiving are both about letting go.” For them, it’s no longer about winning or holding a grudge or punishing someone. The dying do not think, “I have been so right, and in being so right, I can see how wrong you have been, so in my bigness I will forgive you.” Instead, they think, “You’ve made mistakes. I’ve made mistakes. But we’re both more than our mistakes.”
In order to understand the power of forgiveness that these patients have experienced and the peace that comes with it, we have to understand what it is and what it isn’t. First, forgiveness is not condoning the behavior of the other person. It doesn’t mean excusing the action or pretending it wasn’t bad. If someone wrongs you, it’s still wrong, even if you forgive them. We are called to be forgiving, not to be doormats.
Forgiving is also not forgetting. In some instances, that would be irresponsible. A lot of times we can’t forget what someone has done to us, which is exactly why we need to forgive. Forgiveness also doesn’t mean reconciliation. It’s great if it does, but sometimes the person we need to forgive is dead, or moved away, or no longer in our lives. Or maybe they’re not interested in reconciliation. Many folks who are dying have to give up hope of reconciliation with someone, but still need to forgive them to find peace.
Those are some things forgiveness isn’t; but what IS it? As I said earlier, forgiveness is essentially about letting go. Mainly, it’s about letting go of my right to hurt you back for what you’ve done to me. It’s about letting go of our desire for vengeance. That’s different than our desire for justice. In college, I worked for the school newspaper and once wrote an editorial questioning the need for our small school to have a baseball team when that funding could be used elsewhere, like for the school newspaper. The week that article came out, I was playing in an intramural basketball game, and the referee was one of the baseball players. The first time I contested a shot, I got called for a foul. The second time I contested a shot, I got called for a foul. The third time, I just stood there and let the other person shoot, and got called for a foul. When I protested, I got a technical foul. Finally, I said to the guy, “OK, you’re obviously going to call a foul on me no matter what I say. In that case, is it OK if I just think something?” He said, “Sure.” I said, “Good, because I think you stink!” I got a second technical foul, but at least I earned that one. At some point in that game, the referee moved from seeking justice to vengeance.
So forgiveness is letting go of our desire to see the other person suffer as much as they made us suffer. We might say that’s unfair, that they deserve to feel what we felt, but that’s exactly what we have to let go of. That’s the kind of “eye for an eye” thinking that Jesus reinterprets when he calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. He didn’t say we should pray for them to get fired from their job or suddenly gain 50 pounds. We can’t let go if we’re still holding onto a desire for payback.
There’s something else forgiveness is – forgiveness is costly. It’s scary to lay down your arms, to trade in your pride and your power. After all, one of the great benefits of having an enemy is that you get to look good by comparison, right? Mary Gordon wrote, ““To forgive is to give up the exhilaration of one’s own assailable rightness.” In other words, to forgive is to admit that not all the mistakes that were made were by the other person. It means seeing the other person as more than their errors. It means admitting they are fallible human being. They make mistakes, at times they are weak, insensitive, confused, and in pain. They’re faulty, fragile, lonely, needy, and emotionally imperfect. In other words, it means admitting they’re just like us.
The consequences of not forgiving can be brutal, a lesson that some of the dying folks learned too late. They held onto their grudges so long that by the time they tried to unwrap their fingers, it was too late. Bitterness had hardened their heart to the point that forgiveness wasn’t possible, and they learned the hard lesson that the person who was most hurt by withholding forgiveness was themselves. Writer Anne Lamott said, “I went around saying for a long time that I am not one of the Christians who is heavily into forgiveness – that I’m one of the other kind. But even though it was funny, and actually true, it started to be too painful to stay that way. In fact, not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”
In my reading, I was surprised to learn that forgiving others was not the hardest thing for people at the end of their lives to do. Like I said, in most cases it came relatively easy because there was nothing worth holding onto at that point. Several of the patients said they struggled more with forgiving themselves, and I believe that challenge is the same one many of us share, as well. And not being able to forgive ourselves can have serious ramifications for us.
I read a story once about the trick animal researchers used to trap chimpanzees in the wild. They would place a plexiglass box in a clearing. The box would have a small hole in its side, and inside of it would be a banana. Soon enough, a curious chimp would come and check out the box. After some investigation, the chimp would stick its hand in the box hole and grab the banana. But when he tried to take it out, the banana wouldn’t fit through the hole. The chimp would start jumping up and down, squealing and screeching. The researchers would then walk up to it and capture it. It would have been very easy for the chimp to escape capture. All he had to do was open his fist and let go of the banana.
This is tough stuff. We can be our own worst critic, setting expectations unreachably high, then beating ourselves up when we don’t attain them. We create voices that remind us of all the things we have done wrong, replaying them over and over again on a masochistic loop in our brains. I said a couple weeks ago that one of the greatest fears we have is the fear of not being good enough. If we feel we’re not good enough, we also can feel that don’t deserve forgiveness.
When we do that, we are usurping God’s role as merciful judge and putting ourselves in God’s place. We are taking a gift we have been given – God’s unmerited, unlimited grace – and rationing it out only when we feel as if we deserve it. We are forgetting the message we receive each week at this table that we are more than our mistakes, more than our bad decisions, more than our lapses in judgment. We can be so hard on ourselves, can’t we? Sometimes we need to forgive ourselves because we’ve done the best we can. Other times we need to forgive ourselves because we haven’t done the best we can. And all the time, we need to remember that we serve a forgiving God, who even forgives our failure to forgive. Lord, have mercy.
What’s your banana? What do you need to let go of that’s keeping you prisoner? It’s time to unload those rocks we’ve been carrying around in our knapsack. It’s time to make room for God’s peace before our impending death gives this task a sense of urgency. We are God’s child, loved and forgiven. No matter what you’ve done, if you sincerely ask, God will forgive you. Not just once or twice or seven times or seventy times seven times. We are so imperfect that God stopped keeping score a long time ago. So maybe we should do the same for ourselves and for each other. Maybe we should put down the score sheets and just take a walk, or make a phone call, or say a prayer. One of the Hospice patients told his nurse, “I mourn my dwindling time, but I cherish the chance it gives me to make things right.” Make it right – with others, with yourself, with God. We won’t always have that time.