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The Forgiveness Loop

Updated: Feb 26

Sermon preached by Jack Cabaness

Covenant Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, CA

First Sunday in Lent

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Sermon Text: Matthew 18:15-21

I once heard a story about a six-year-old boy whose mother asked him to stop running through the house because he might stumble and fall and hurt himself or break something.

So, of course, he ran and stumbled and fell and broke a vase.

His father saw it all happen, picked him up, dusted him off, and said,

“Don’t worry about it. It’s just a vase.”

His mother, however, knelt down and gathered up the shattered pieces and said softly,

“It wasn’t just a vase.

It was my favorite vase.

My mother gave it to me,

her mother gave it to her,

and I looked forward to giving it to my children.”

And she wept, and the little boy wept, and the mother took him in her arms

and hugged him and he hugged her back.

Now, here’s a question,

“Who forgave here, the father or the mother?”

Forgiveness is hard.

And if it doesn’t seem hard, then we probably haven’t done it right.

I’m struck at how often my own reactions are like the father in that story. I have a tendency to say, it’s okay, it was no big deal, don’t worry about it.

But oftentimes it is a big deal, and the hurt and the wounds have to be acknowledged and not glossed over.

It’s with very good reason that mental health professionals say to be very careful about advising victims of abuse to forgive the abuser.

They warn against enabling evil by overlooking it or minimizing it or trivializing it.

And they are absolutely right.

We should never minimize or trivialize evil.

And true forgiveness in the theological sense does not minimize or trivialize evil.

True forgiveness confronts evil and pain and suffering,

names the evil for what it is

and calls it out,

and then, with great care and prayer,

discerns the path forward.

Jesus talked a lot about forgiveness.

In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught the disciples to pray,

Forgive us our debts,

as we forgive our debtors.”

One time Peter asked Jesus about it. “How often should I forgive?

As many as seven times?”

The religious tradition, by the way, was that you ought to offer forgiveness three times,

so Peter probably imagined that he was being extra generous when he said,

“as many as seven times,” and perhaps Peter was even thinking that if someone offended him for the eighth time, then surely by then Peter could let them have it.

And then Jesus says, no, not seven times but

and here is where the translation from the Greek isn’t perfectly precise.

It could be that Jesus said, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

So, then, if someone offends you 78 times, then you can really let them have it.

But the Greek could mean seventy times seven.

Holy Cow! So then, if someone offends you for the 491st time, then surely be then you can really let them have it!

So, which is it, 77 times or 70 times 7 times. It doesn’t matter because in Jewish tradition the number 7 is a complete number, so to speak in multiples of seven is really the equivalent of saying a bazillion times.

That’s how often you forgive. A bazillion times.

Jesus continues the hyperbole with the story he tells next, which is the Parable of the Unforgiving servant, which one commentator has called a rip roaring story about forgiveness.

It’s the Parable that I summarized for the children earlier.

The Parable is a vivid, funny story in a painful sort of way.

And the torture scene at the end should be viewed in terms of the hyperbole of the entire parable, in my opinion.

A servant owed the king ten thousand talents.

A single talent was worth more than 15 year’s worth of a typical daily wage.

It’s a debt the servant could never repay.

You might as well say that the servant owes the king a bazillion dollars.

As an aside, we might wonder who was more foolish:

the servant for getting into that much debt, or the king for extending such an outlandish line of credit?

At any rate, the king forgave the servant’s massive debt.

The same servant then encounters another who owes him a few hundred denarii, or to make the math plain, over a half million times less than the first debt.

But the servant refuses to forgive this much smaller debt that is owed to him.

When the king hears about it, he becomes very angry, reverses his decision to forgive, and puts the first servant in jail until he pays, which, given the amount he owes, means forever.

In the words of one commentator:

the unforgiving servant has not only missed the point; he is in the process of missing the rest of his life.

He has not accepted and embraced his own forgiveness by putting it to work in his relationship with others.

No lasting, enduring relationship is possible without forgiveness.

Once we realize that we are all floating on a vast ocean of mercy, we dare not try to ration forgiveness one drop at a time with an eyedropper.

Corrie Ten Boom was a writer and speaker who talked to people about her faith and about forgiveness.

She and her sister had been arrested for concealing Jews in their home in Holland during WW2.

They were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp for their crime.

In 1947, she was speaking to a crowd of Germans about God’s forgiveness,

and how that forgiveness was even for them.

After the talk, a man walked toward her. He had been a guard at Ravensbruck.

Many years ago, she wrote this story:

Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out:

“A fine message, fräulein!

How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”

And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand.

He would not remember me, of course–how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?

But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt.

It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying.

“I was a guard in there.”

No, he did not remember me.

“But since that time,” he went on,

“I have become a Christian.

I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there,

but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein”

–again the hand came out–

“will you forgive me?”

And I stood there–I whose sins had every day to be forgiven–and could not.

Betsie had died in that place–could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out,

but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

For I had to do it–I knew that.

I knew it not only as a commandment of God,

but as a daily experience.

Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality.

Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars.

Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids.

It was as simple and as horrible as that.

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart.

But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too.

Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.

And here ends the direct quote from Corrie Ten Boom’s memoir.

Corrie prayed for Jesus to help her,

and she offered her hand to the former Nazi prison guard in forgiveness, transformed by the act.

Corrie’s story reminds us of the cost of forgiveness.

Nobody would have judged her for not wanting to take the hand of the Nazi who subjected her to such cruelty.

Writer Anne Lamott says that “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past.”

And doesn’t that make sense when we consider Corrie Ten Boom’s story?

Maybe to recognize the grace we have received, we have to participate in it.

Forgiveness is an act of the will, she wrote.

So she forgives him his hundred denarii debt so she can live into her 10,000 talent debt that has been relieved.

The nazi still has his own journey toward grace and forgiveness. And it isn’t clear, quite frankly, from her story, if he’s changed.

And there was probably no way for Corrie Ten Boom to know whether or not he had changed.

And it seems doubtful that she and the guard became best friends.

To quote a preacher colleague of mine, Changing someone else’s heart isn’t our job.

At the same time we shouldn’t dismiss the power of forgiveness working in someone else’s life.

Maybe our forgiveness will help someone else on their own path to restoration.

Maybe not.

Maybe it happens in a second.

Maybe it takes years to work its way into our souls.

God doesn’t call us to fix other people. God calls us to tend to our own spirits, and to not carry around hatred and resentment,

to work it out with each other,

so that we can be the church.

Here’s some homework for this season of Lent.

This week, as you pray the Lord’s prayer, I invite you to first think about whether or not you’re able to seek and accept God’s forgiveness. It begins here. Whatever you’ve done, take it to God. Nothing is beyond God’s ability to redeem.

There may be amends you need to make, but nothing we do is beyond God and God’s desire to be in relationship with us.

Next, consider whose forgiveness do you need?

Who needs a phone call or visit from you so your relationship may be restored? What do you need to do to work at a relationship that matters to you?

And then, who do you need to forgive?

What is required for a relationship to be healed?

We can’t force people to do their part, of course,

but we don’t have to hang on to the resentment and anger.

Some people don’t want restoration, of course.

And some don’t want to do the work to get there.

Jesus said, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church;

and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church,

let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

But the forgiveness loop doesn’t end there.

Remember that Jesus himself ate with tax collectors and showed mercy to Gentiles.

Indeed, the forgiveness loop continues.

Just think how our relationships might come to be restored if we stuck close together, sharing in life with each other, and participating in the grace that saves us all.

All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.


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