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How Many Times?

September 11, 2011

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
on the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, September 11, 2011

The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary

Matthew 18: 15-35

 Jesus teaching about forgiveness is at the heart of his teaching. It is at the heart of what he had to teach us about God and God’s way with us. And practicing forgiveness is necessary for building the kind of church that can be a provisional demonstration of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Our Gospel passage this morning is the conclusion of a conversation Jesus has been having with his disciples and with Peter in particular. Jesus has been trying to make clear that when it comes to forgiveness, there is no counting, no keeping score, no bookkeeping.

But Peter must have wondered about such profligate forgiveness.  Perhaps he was worried the way the great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, that people would just keep on sinning and then ask for forgiveness.  Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace.  Surely the church shouldn’t be enabling something like that.  Peter must have been saying things like this to Jesus because Jesus sets up an elaborate joke.

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 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. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

You see, Jesus seems to say “Sure, I’ll join you in keeping track of offences and counting your own virtues. How about this, three strikes and you’re out? How does that sound? If a member of the church sins against you, speak to them in person. If that doesn’t work, confront them with witnesses. And if that doesn’t work, drag them before the church and let them be treated as gentiles and tax-collectors. But the joke is in the punchline: let them be to you as gentiles and tax collectors. These are the very people Jesus spends time with, seeks out for healing and welcomes at his table. These are the ones who Jesus welcomed as his disciples; Matthew, was a tax-collector!

But Peter doesn’t seem to get the joke. The step by step careful confrontation builds to the same end:  “forgive them!” But this flies right over Peter’s head.  Peter assumes that excommunication after three offenses is the reasonable route.  So in an attempt to show his faithfulness, and perhaps believing that more would be demanded of Jesus’ disciples, he asks, “When I am sinned against, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

To give Peter his credit, he thinks he is being generous. In fact, he is striving for perfection. In the ancient world, seven was considered to be a perfect number, the number of perfection. There were seven days of creation and seven colors in a rainbow. There are seven wonders of the world. The church spoke of  seven deadly sins; we speak of seven dwarves. There were even seven Harry Potter books! See? Perfect! “How about seven times?” Peter asks. But you see, Peter is still counting.

“Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Or perhaps it is seventy times seven, the language is unclear. If it is seventy times seven that would be, who can do the math? (wait for an answer)

I like seventy times seven because once we do the math we fall into the trap. We’re still counting. In either case (seventy seven or seventy times seven), what Jesus seems to be doing is giving us an impossibly large number. Jesus is saying that “forgiveness must beyond perfect, it must beyond counting.”[1] If you haven’t lost count, you’re not through forgiving.

Jesus then solidifies this lesson by telling a parable.

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”

What I want you to see is that the king in the parable is an accountant. He begins by wishing to settle accounts, to call in what is owed to him. The second thing I want you to see is that forgiveness has consequences for more than the sinner. Our slave in the parable owes a considerable sum, but his entire household, wife, children, possessions, are to be sold the settle the account. The third thing I want you to see is what the slave asked for: he wanted time, time to make things right. “Only give me a little time and I will repay everything I owe.” But forgiveness is what he gets. The king who wants to settle accounts decided to forget bookkeeping altogether and simply forgives the debt. No more score keeping.

Now here is the important part: the king has changed. But the slave has not. Being shown forgiveness has not changed him. He is still counting what he owes. So when he sees someone with a debt toward him, he immediately seizes the person with a demand for payment. For this behavior, the king chastises him harshly and imprisons him till he can repay the debt that he still believes he owes.

How many times have we become imprisoned by our own inability to forgive?  How wretched is life within these jails of our own making?  Is there a way to break free?

It has been ten years since September 11, 2001, when two airplanes were crashed into the twin towers in NYC, another plane was flown into the Pentagon, and another plane was crashed in Pennsylvania. I know that most of you can remember just what you were doing on that morning when you heard the news. I know I do. I know that many of you know someone who was working in NYC or Washington DC that day, who experienced the confusion and fear, or you know someone who lost their life in the falling buildings, on the planes, or in the rescue and recovery efforts. I know I do.

We experienced personal and collective grief, anger, and above all fear. And from out of our trauma we responded as individuals and as a nation. We remember that anniversary today, so that we can commit ourselves to a different future, one born out of our faith and hope, not fear and anger.

On this anniversary, we are invited to count as we remember.

          Americans as well as 236 citizens from more than 90 other countries

          2977 victims and 19 hijackers

          246 people on the four planes (excluding the hijackers)

            40 aboard United Flight 93 that went down in Shanksville, PA

            87 aboard American Flight 11, which was the first to hit the World Trade Center;

  and 60 aboard United Flight 175, which was the second plane to hit the World Trade Center;            

  59 aboard American Flight 77 that hit the Pentagon

          2606 in New York City in the Twin Tower and on the ground

          125 at the Pentagon, 55 of which were military personnel

          411 emergency workers who responded to the scene, including 342 firefighters,

          10 paramedics, 23 NYC police officers and 37 Port Authority officers

 In the immediate wake of the attacks, we experienced a great outpouring of compassion; congregations held prayer vigils and we became those who mourn. We grew accustomed to new security procedures in our airports, and even though President Bush said explicitly, “No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith, […] certain types of people were being singled out and searched in airports. While persons from historically dominant cultures, races and religions said that they were willing to give up some of their rights for the sake of security, […] systemic prejudices and discriminations against historically dominated groups were practiced openly all in the name of security.”[2] All of Islam was demonized and the Arab world was declared an evil empire. Every one of the children who came forward for the children’s message this morning has grown up within the shadow of two wars, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, as well as a permanent war on terror, to the tune of somewhere between three and five trillion dollars.[3]  From the Patriot Act to torture in Guantanamo prisons, fear festered and was fostered in America.

So on this anniversary; it is important to remember that there was another way and that there still is another way.  The path of forgiveness is not popular, but it can be transformative.  Let us this day remember that we have seen other unspeakable tragedies and other responses.

In October 2006 following the tragic shooting of ten young schoolgirls in a one-room Amish school, the Amish community reached out with grace and compassion toward the killer’s family. An Amish grandfather of one of the girls who had been killed expressed forgiveness toward the killer, Charles Roberts. Amish neighbors visited the Roberts family. The Roberts family was invited to the funeral of one of the Amish girls, and Amish outnumbered non-Amish at Charles Roberts funeral.[4]

 In July, Anders Breivik, an anti-immigrant, anti-Islam Christian fundamentalist bombed a government office in Oslo, Norway, and subsequently went on a shooting spree at an island youth camp, leaving 91 dead. The immediate response of the nation was an outpouring of patriotism, displays of solidarity and invocations of national ideals. But when the Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg addressed the nation, he said that Norwegians would combat terrorism with “more democracy, greater political engagement, and a commitment to freedom of thought, so long as extreme views don’t spill over into violence.” “I think what we have seen is that there is going to be one Norway before and one Norway after July 22,” he said. “But I hope and also believe that the Norway we will see after will be more open, a more tolerant society than what we had before.” Another lawmaker said “If one man can create that much hate, you can only imagine how much love we as a togetherness can create.”[5]

There is a line in Jane Eyre that captures an important aspect of forgiveness: “Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity, or registering wrongs.” Holding on to the anger or resentment we feel toward others only diminishes our own happiness in the long run.

There is a stack of seventy seven bricks at the front of the sanctuary. This is intended not only to be part of our display of what seventy-seven looks like, but to be an invitation to spiritual practice. For many years I have been distributing bricks to small groups studying forgiveness – youth groups, adult bible studies, church school teachers-in-training. A brick is a weight; these bricks weigh five pounds each.

I have said something like: “take this brick, this five pound weight, and spend some time investing it with a burden that you carry around.”

To a high school student: Let it become the hurt you feel because of a relationship broken by a friend who betrayed you.

To a college student Let it become the loneliness you feel because you are not part of the crowd, and you are unwilling to do ‘whatever it takes’ to fit in.

To an adult: Let it become the anger you bear toward a sibling because of the way they acted when mom died, or the resentment you bear toward the co-worker with the charmed life.

People have often taken markers or crayons and written on their brick, expressing their burdens. I remember the brick of a particular teenage girl who was an extremely talented actress and very pretty – every inch of her brick was covered with tiny writing describing a boyfriend who simply wanted to use her, about a friend who was jealous of her, about another friend she was jealous of; she described broken relationships, misunderstandings, hurt feelings.

If you were holding a brick right now, what would you invest it with? What do you carry around with you?

I then ask folks to carry this brick with them everywhere they go for a week. The physical act of carrying the weight around is important. So much of what we bear we keep hidden; and we are adept at denying, or ignoring it. At our very worst we blame others because we ourselves are encumbered.

I have learned the most amazing things from people who have participated in this exercise. I had a junior high student once who carried his brick in his backpack to school every day. You’ve seen school backpacks these days – they’re huge. Students lug giant textbooks back and forth to school each day. It’s already hard to imagine how students stand up straight. Then add five pounds of useless weight. This particular student told me that he had to leave some of his books out of his backpack in order to participate in the exercise. And isn’t that what happens to us when we carry burdens around – we have to leave out some of the good, some of the important, parts of life because there is not enough room for them.

I had another student who carefully cushioned her brick with layers of cloth so that it wouldn’t bump or scratch the iPod and cell phone in her pack. How many of us carry burdens and expend energy to keep our burdens under wrap so as to keep them from affecting the rest of life?

Jesus teaching about forgiveness is at the heart of his teaching. It is at the heart of what he had to teach us about God and God’s way with us.

I invite you at the conclusion of the service to come forward, and take a brick. I invite you to carry it wherever you go, for the next ten days.  On World Peace Day (Wednesday, September, 21 at 8:00) we will have an opportunity to return the bricks and discuss our experience of carrying this burden. Then together, if we are ready, we may lay these burdens down during a service of worship.  Let us do this as a sign of our commitment to practice forgiveness as individuals and as a church.


[1] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Common Lectionary. Year A, Volume 4.

[2] Eric Law. From his blog, . See his Finding Intimacy in a World of Fear, written in the context of 9/11 and the Katrina hurricane.

[3] Joseph Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes, The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict. Norton and Norton, 2008. (This book is already three years old!)

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