September 17, 2017

Exodus 14:19-31
Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21
Matthew 18:21-35

“Beyond Perfect Forgiveness”

It was lovely to begin our Tuesday morning Bible Study this week. I appreciated the opportunity, early in the week, to get together with a group of faithful and thoughtful Christians to explore and discuss the Gospel text assigned for this morning’s service.

Biblical interpretation and application to our lives is often better when we do it in dialogue both with the wider Christian community through commentaries and reflections of other pastors and theologians, as well as with real live people who are a part of our own community of faith. (If any of you would like to join us, know that you are always welcome on Tuesday mornings at 10:30 am.)

Anyway, in our study on Tuesday we talked about Peter’s question to Jesus about how often we should forgive another member of the Christian community who sins against us. Of course, this text comes just after the one we talked about last Sunday about how to work out conflict that arises in the church from time to time.

That text encouraged us to do everything that we can to work things out with someone who has hurt us – first, going to speak to them about it alone, then with a couple of witnesses if needed, and finally asking the church to intercede for us. And if even that doesn’t work, we should never ever give up on that person, but keep on reaching out in love with the offer of reconciliation.

So, Peter then asks the question that perhaps others were thinking too. How many times do we need to forgive the person? I mean, there has to be a point at which it’s just too much and we can’t do it anymore! How many times? Seven times?

Now, the number seven is not just a fairly generous number of times to forgive someone who hurts you. In the Bible, seven is a symbolic number. Seven is a number that represents completion or perfection or wholeness. Like the seven days of creation, or we might think of the seven days of the week, Peter might be asking Jesus something like this: “Do we need to forgive others completely? Do we need to forgive them perfectly?”

And Jesus says, “No Peter, not only seven times. You need to forgive seventy-seven times.” Some translations of the text say “seven times seventy times.” And so, Jesus is saying, “Yes Peter, you need to forgive others completely and perfectly – plus multiply that by completely and perfectly again, and then multiply that by ten! I am asking you to learn to forgive like God forgives… beyond perfect forgiveness. I know it sounds like a lot to ask, but God has forgiven you like that already. Now all you have to do is pass it on to others.”

Jesus then tells a parable to help explain what he wants his disciples to learn about forgiveness. The Master in the story forgives the absolutely massive debt of his slave who is unable to pay. To put it simply, that’s God forgiving you for all that you have done wrong, for all that you will do wrong, and for all of the good that you have neglected or refused to do instead. God forgives you for all of that!

And now you have a choice to make… forgive your neighbour, forgive your friend, forgive your spouse, forgive your fellow church member who has sinned against you, hurt your feelings, hurt your pride, or harmed you in some way by intention or through neglect. You have a choice to make… forgive them or hold a grudge.

Of course, this forgiveness business is easier said than done. It’s not that hard to preach a sermon about it. It’s quite another thing to enact it in our relationships, especially when we’ve been counting the rude comments, keeping track of the nasty looks, or tallying up the number of times we have felt wounded by someone in our community.

I had a conversation a few weeks ago with someone who is working on a doctoral degree in psychology. I asked about her topic, and she explained that she is studying “narrative therapy.” She said that “narrative therapy” assists people in making changes in their lives and relationships through the process of telling their stories.

You see, when we tell the stories of our lives, we tend to cast people in certain roles, and this form of therapy assists us in casting the roles differently and understanding things in a new way.

For example, when you tell about your life, you’re likely the main character most of the time. But what if you made your spouse the main character, and thought about yourself as the “best supporting actor” at least some of the time. How might that change your relationship in a positive way?

Or what about that family member who has become known as the joker, always having fun, always the life of the party. Could you see that person as someone with serious thoughts and concerns too, and give him the opportunity to open up about challenges he may be having or even questions of faith? Could you tell your family’s story differently, and make space for a deeper relationship?

The doctoral student pointed out that very often someone is cast in the stories of our lives as the enemy. It is someone who has repeatedly caused us frustration, who has hurt us, ridiculed us, or worked against our plans and goals. One of the most powerful things that can happen in narrative therapy is that we can adjust the way we tell our stories so that enemies can be forgiven and reconciliation can be achieved.

Have you noticed that a lot of the best stories have good guys and bad guys? I’m thinking of the Jedis versus Darth Vader and the Storm Troopers, or Batman versus the Joker, or James Bond versus the Nazis. But we know that real life is never quite that “black and white.”

Last week I watched the movie “Dunkirk,” which tells the story of the rescue of hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers who were surrounded and trapped on a beach on the French side of the English Channel. As the filmmaker told that story, we got to know and relate to a number of the characters – English soldiers trying desperately to escape, commanders who had to make difficult decisions, civilians who got in their boats to help in the rescue effort.

And all around, bombs were dropping, shots were being fired, and the faces of the “enemies” were never seen. We didn’t learn the stories of the young men on the other side, or share in their fear and anxiety, or find out about their wives or children back home. They remained faceless and nameless “enemies.” That’s how wars work, I guess.

Now, consider our readings from the Book of Exodus this morning. After all, they are an example of the Hebrew People telling their story. The Jewish tradition puts a high value on remembering and recounting the wonderful story of how God saved God’s People from slavery in Egypt and led them out into the Promised Land.

It is a story that celebrates God’s faithfulness, power, and love. It is a story of oppressed people being raised up. It is a story of victory over enemies. It is a story with good guys and bad guys in which the good guys escape and the bad guys end up drowned in the sea.

And when they make it safely to the other side, turn back and see that the Egyptians are not going to make it, they give thanks to God, and they rejoice. We read that the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, takes a tambourine in her hand; and all the women go out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sings these words: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”

That’s how the People of Israel told their story. At least, that was the version that ended up in the Torah, what would become the first part of our Christian Bible. But as time went on, Jewish teachers and scholars and prophets continued to reflect on their history and began to tell their story in new ways. And there is a story in the Midrash that adds a comment from God after the deaths of the Egyptians.

The women are shaking their tambourines, and they’re dancing and singing and rejoicing because of their new-found freedom and victory over their enemies. And God looks down and asks them, “How can you dance and sing while my children are drowning?”

You see how the rabbis are re-framing the story? We are invited to consider those who were type-cast as the villains, and to see them as God sees them – as God’s very own precious children. Children who have done wrong, children who have made mistakes, children who owe an enormous debt… but nonetheless children of God who can be forgiven, and freed, and given the chance to do the same for others.

I wonder if there is someone in your life right now who needs to be given that chance as well… someone who has lived into their role has your enemy, someone that you no longer expect to be kind, or respectful, or loving towards you… someone for whom you are running out of patience to forgive.

I have one more story to share with you today. I came across it in a novel I was reading this week. The main character in the story is Henry, a fifteen-year-old boy who has struggled for years with the bully in his class, a boy named Eddy. In recent weeks, Henry has had several run-ins with Eddy, and one in which Eddy and his gang are drunk, and end up hurting and badly scaring Henry and his girlfriend.

Unfortunately, the two boys end up in the same gym class at school and have to play together on the same basketball team. The anger Henry feels against Eddy flashes out in occasional pushing and shoving, and a consistent effort not to work together with Eddy as a member of the team, and one day they get into a scuffle right in the middle of the class.

Henry’s teacher calls him into his office to have a chat, and Henry is sure that he’ll get scolded and probably punished. The teacher acknowledges the fight, and confirms that such behaviour will not be tolerated at school. But then he goes on to tell Henry that he would like him to take on the task of being the coach for the school’s basketball team. Henry is great at the game, and has the leadership skills to be successful. But there is one condition. Henry must commit to work with Eddy so that Eddy can make it onto the team and do well.

You see how the teacher is helping Henry to change the roles in his story? I wonder, if Henry agrees to doing this, can he turn Eddy from an enemy into a friend?

Of course, it’s not automatic, and it’s not easy. Some time later, as Henry struggles to forgive Eddy for all the things he has done, he says to his friend and mentor, “I’m trying to bury the hatchet with Eddy but I’m going to make darn sure I know where I buried it.” And the friend encourages him, saying, “Keep trying, Henry, and ask the good Lord for his help.”

We need God’s help too, if we are going to forgive one another and make peace in our relationships. God has already helped us a great deal by the amazing grace shown to us in Jesus Christ. God has offered us “beyond perfect forgiveness” and given us the teaching and the example of Jesus to follow.

Perhaps as we tell the stories of our lives and relationships, we can do so with Jesus’ parable in mind. The story is not just about us, about us struggling with our enemies, with those who owe us, with those who are difficult to forgive. But the story begins with God who has loved us, and trusted us, and been betrayed by us, and forgiven us. The story begins with Jesus who has turned us from enemies into friends, and who calls us to do the same for others.