Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
February 25, 2018
Matthew 18: 23-35 (CEB)
23Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. 25Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. 26But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 27The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.
28“When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’
29“Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 30But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.
31“When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. 32His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. 33Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.
35“My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
I have exercise-induced asthma. Those of you who have asthma or exercise-induced asthma, you know what that means. There come these moments, in my case when I am exercising, when breathing becomes exceedingly difficult. I have been able to learn how to live with and manage my asthma, as most people do. But I still have occasional attacks, and it’s hard to describe exactly what an asthma attack feels like. All I know is that I’ve learned that whenever an attack comes, I have to slow down my exercise and settle myself down so that my heartbeat will stop racing and my breathing will relax.
Asthma is a condition where your airways constrict. I learned several years ago, though, that asthma does not cause a problem with taking air and oxygen in, but instead getting the air out. As we all know, the exercise of breathing is about getting oxygen into our bodies and getting the carbon dioxide out. We don’t often think about this fact, but breathing out is just as important as breathing in. I want you all to do an exercise with me for a minute. (I won’t be able to do this with you because I’ve got to talk you through it, but trust me when I say that I know how this feels.) So take in a nice, deep, full breath and just hold it for a second. Okay, now, without exhaling, take in another nice, deep, full breath. And now another…and another…Alright, we’re done. Go ahead and exhale all that air. Now, am I right that at some point in that exercise, it became almost impossible to take in any more air? If we are to get air into our bodies on a continual basis so that we can live, we also have to be able to push air out.
So it goes with forgiveness. In order for forgiveness to be received, it also has to be given. This parable of the unforgiving servant is a story about how receiving the fullness of God’s forgiveness means willingly offering our forgiveness to others. It’s a prayer we pray every week, if not everyday, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This is the parable that illustrates why we pray that prayer. This is the parable that reveals to us the terrible consequences of denying forgiveness to those who have wronged us. It starts with us not being able to receive the fullness of God’s grace (like not being able to take in another breath of air), but the effects ripple out into other parts of our lives—we become vengeful, we harbor anger, we are consumed by hatred or depression, we are sapped of our energy and happiness.
Often, we do not really want to forgive someone or to ask for their forgiveness, even though we know we “should.” One reason may be our desire for revenge; we just want to get back at someone for what was done to us. But we might also resist offering forgiveness because we think that the person who hurt us ought to do or say something to mend our hurt, or to repay us for what we have experienced. We want to put conditions on forgiveness. We might resist offering forgiveness because of our own pride. But what good is pride? What good is selfishness? What do we gain from vengeance? In my experience, these are the kinds of things that raise our blood pressure or send us into long bouts of depression. And medicine now shows that unforgiveness, or holding on to past hurts and resentments, can deeply affect our emotional and physical health. And that speaks nothing of our spiritual health, which is our focus today.
Sometimes, we might not forgive because we have no true sense of how much God has has forgiven us. The unforgiving servant, this servant who has been forgiven an impossible amount by his master, he in turn is unwilling to forgive the small debt of his fellow servant, and it is because he has no sense in his heart or mind of the generosity and graciousness that has been shown to him. He was too caught up in his own stuff. He wasn’t expressing gratitude to his master. He was disconnected from his Lord. This saps us of life. This is not the abundant life that God intends for all people.
We need to forgive. Forgiveness is release. Forgiveness is freedom. Forgiveness connects us with the generous and abundant life of God by freeing us from the bondage of resentment, and anger, and selfishness, and forgiveness. But here’s the thing, forgiveness doesn’t mean we deny the hurt or the pain we feel. When we minimize what has happened to us, or gloss over it, or tell ourselves that it wasn’t all that bad, then we cannot really forgive then either. Forgiveness is possible only when we are willing to acknowledge the negative impact of another person’s actions or attitudes in our lives. We have to know the hurt and name the hurt before we can forgive the hurt. And here’s the thing, if we know the hurt and name the hurt, we will not forget it. Just because we forgive doesn’t mean we forget.
Rabbi Harold Kushner tells an important story about a woman in his congregation who came to see him. She was a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. She said to Rabbi Kushner, “Since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he’s living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?” And Rabbi Kushner responded to her, “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. It wasn’t; it was mean and selfish. I’m asking you to forgive because he doesn’t deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I’d like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out as he is out of your life physically, but you keep holding on to him. You’re not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you are hurting yourself.”
We have to offer forgiveness, otherwise we will lose our life, the same way the unforgiving servant did. I want you all to hear the story of Scarlett Lewis, whose son was murdered five years ago in his classroom at Sandy Hook elementary.
Did you catch how she described her hurt and her pain, and how forgiveness changed that? Ms. Lewis said that for a long time it was like she was attached to the shooter with an umbilical cord. And it sapped her of her energy and her happiness. But forgiveness was like taking scissors and cutting that umbilical cord, detaching herself from the thing that was hurting her. It didn’t change what happened. It doesn’t mean that she’s saying what Adam Lanza did was okay. What she is saying is that she isn’t going to let this take her life away from her anymore. By forgiving the shooter, she is able to live her life free of anger and vengeance, and to celebrate all that her beautiful son was for his six short years.
When we don’t offer forgiveness, we become consumed by feelings and emotions that drain us of our life. The servant lost his Lord’s grace, he lost his life, when he was unwilling to forgive the small debt of his fellow servant. When we don’t offer forgiveness, we don’t experience the fullness of God’s grace and forgiveness in our own lives. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that what happened is okay, it means only that we choose not to let what happened imprison us or end our lives; and instead we choose the abundant life that God graciously offers even us.
At the end of that interview we watched earlier, Scarlett Lewis says this, “I didn’t write this story, I didn’t start the story, but I can write the ending through forgiveness.” Forgiveness changes things. Forgiveness frees us. Forgiveness connects us to the abundant life of God.
Let’s be people who forgive with the same generous, gracious forgiveness of our Lord. Let’s be people who change the story through forgiveness.