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Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity - November 19, 2000
Fr. William Sisterman
St. Dunstan's Anglican Church, Minneapolis, MN 
Readings: Philippians 1:3-11 and Matthew 18:21-35 


"Then Peter came up and asked Him, 'Lord when my brother wrongs me, how often must I forgive Him? Seven times?' 'No,' Jesus replied, 'Not seven times, I say, seventy times seven times.'"  

My friends, if there is any activity that you and I as Christians probably find very difficult, it is to forgive someone who has wronged us. It is so difficult because the hurt very often runs deep, lasting for years. We know that we are supposed to be people who forgive. It is a part of our Christian vocation to be forgiving people. And yet, if we have been hurt time after time, it becomes more and more difficult to forgive. It's not easy, to say the least. 

Jesus gave us a parable about forgiveness in this morning's Gospel. To translate it into modern language, the servant owed his king ten million dollars. He had no way of paying back that kind of money, so his king forgave him. Then he went out and grabbed a fellow servant by the throat who owed him twenty dollars. He would not forgive that person his debt but had him thrown into prison. When the unforgiving servant is punished by the king, Jesus draws some very startling conclusions, saying that's the kind of measure that we could be measured with. These are hard words indeed. 

We might say that we have an academic understanding of the Gospel mandate to forgive one another. In fact, in a few minutes, in our Eucharistic Service, we will pray the words that Jesus taught us, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Academically, it's right there. Even the example of forgiveness is before us. When Jesus our Lord was nailed to the bloody tree, He would pray, "Father, forgive them." So we know that forgiveness is a part of our vocation as Christians. And yet we find it so hard in practice. I would suggest to you this morning that the difficulty of forgiving others is a difficulty that runs throughout all mankind. 

Look at Jewish tradition. We can see just from the evening news how many Jews understand the Old Testament. They cannot forgive the PLO until the PLO admits its wrongdoing and changes its way - no longer bombs women and children. Then they can have forgiveness. But until then, never! The Jewish writer, Elie Weisel, is a survivor of the Holocaust. Should we forgive and forget the Holocaust? He says that the people who would do that become accomplices to the crime! Forgiveness gets even more problematic as we look around this strange world of ours. Ethnic Albanians and Serbs at each other's throats as they have been for centuries. Armenians and Turks. Northern Irish Protestants and Roman Catholics. Hatfields and McCoys. Montagues and Capulets. The list goes on and on. No matter where we turn in this world of ours, it seems as though there have been age-old grudges that cry out for forgiveness that isn't forthcoming. In fact, for many of these individuals, to forgive would be tantamount to treason. And so it goes on and on, generation after generation. Forgive? Forget? No wonder you and I have difficulty forgiving the slights and hurts that we experience. Think of some of these broader and deeper hurts. 

We find it difficult to forgive and yet here is the mandate from Jesus. We are supposed to be forgiving people. How do you do that? In order for us to understand how to forgive, we have to start with God, not with ourselves. How does God deal with us? Throughout the Old Testament we see a loving God who continually forgives the infidelity of His people, Israel. Over and over again, they were unfaithful to the covenant and had to come back and renew the covenant and once again pledge their love for God. Through all of their infidelities, He remained faithful to them because God is always faithful. In the New Testament, we have the witness of Jesus our Lord. For this He came into the world, born of the Virgin Mary. He preached a Gospel of salvation that meant reconciliation between mankind and God. He suffered and died on the cross; defeated sin and death by His resurrection, and ascended to His Father's right hand in order that He might constantly intercede for us in His glorified humanity. 

This is Jesus Christ our Lord. He has given to us an ideal: how we might practice forgiveness. I prefer not to give you a lecture about the philosophical and theological aspects of forgiveness. Rather, because this is a sermon, I would have you reflect on the Word of God and deal with it in your own hearts. Let the Lord speak to you individually and he'll deal with you individually about this matter of forgiveness. 

Now one of the things that we do want to reject is a notion that is not a part of our Anglican Catholic heritage. It is this: a wrathful God and sinful man with Jesus Christ standing between, so that as God looks upon man He doesn't see sinful man but sees His Son. We reject that notion of justification because what God has done for us in the person of Jesus Christ is to change us radically by grace. When we are reconciled to God, when we receive the forgiveness of God, He changes us and transforms us to the point that St. Paul would say, "We are a new creation!" We are cleansed by God; we are one with Him in grace. We are radically and wonderfully transformed. When He forgives us, He changes us; He transforms us. That transformation is the key to our understanding of forgiveness. Now here's the point. In order for us to be a forgiving people, we should become "sacraments" as it were; "sacraments" of forgiveness. 

See what God can do when He takes ordinary things and uses them in an extraordinary way. He can take ordinary water, ordinary bread and wine, and do some wonderful things. With the water, a child can be baptized and filled with grace. Ordinary bread and wine can be taken and given to us as the Body and Blood of the Lord. God can do that. He can take ordinary things and use them as instruments of grace. 

That's what I mean when I say that we can be "sacraments" of forgiveness. In other words, I have to be open to the idea that I can be a forgiving person, and set about doing it. Now when I do that, I can be an instrument of change for the other person. The other person is transformed by the grace of God. He can actually use me to change the person that needs changing. He uses me as He uses water or bread or wine. He uses me as a "sacrament" to change the heart of the other person. Does it matter whether or not in our act of reaching out to the person to forgive him that it actually brings about a reconciliation? No, it doesn't, because that's in God's hands. All we need do is to be the willing instruments that God can use in order to effect the change, the transformation, in that other person. That should make a little more sense to us as we wrestle with this very difficult question of forgiveness. 

Society can't just say to all of the criminals running around, "It's all right; we forgive you." No, justice is involved. Some penalties for hurting others should be forthcoming. It gets very complicated, but that shouldn't stop us from becoming instruments of change. We can be instruments of peace and reconciliation. That is what I mean by being people who forgive. How often must we do that? Seven times? No. Seventy times seven times. There is no limit to the number of times in which we can be open to having God use us as His instruments. It is up to the other individual then to take the grace that is offered, cooperate with God, and make changes. Those changes, fortunately, is not up to us. 

There is another place in the Gospels where Jesus talks about forgiveness. Remember when He said, "If you bring your gift to the altar and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave that gift at the altar, go first to be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Matt.5:23-24). Those are really hard words. And I confess that in 63 years I've never done that. Have you? 

Please note: These sermons are offered for your meditation. If you wish to use them for some other purpose or republish them, please credit St. Dunstanís Church and Fr. Sisterman.