Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one who forgives and calls us to forgive. Amen
Our lessons for today
deal with forgiveness,
this complex action that rests at the heart of Jesus’ ministry
and the way of life to which he calls his disciples.
all throughout his teachings
he has reinforced the idea
that forgiveness is key,
even to the point of teaching them to pray,
“forgive us our debts as we forgive the debts of others.”
now Jesus and the disciples
are talking about what happens when relationships in community are broken,
earlier in the conversation
Jesus has detailed a path to reconciliation with specific steps
So now seems like a good time to clarify
once and for all
what Jesus expects
and our friend Peter jumps into the breach.
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
by opening his mouth
Peter shows that he has missed the point,
Jesus responds “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Forgiveness is not always a one and done thing,
it is a continual action, a process,
a way of life
and often has more to do with the one doing the forgiving
than the one being forgiven.
The best definition of forgiveness that I have come across
came from a speaker I heard when I went to Israel/ Palestine in seminary,
she was a part of a group of families
who had lost loved ones to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict,
families from both sides
came together to share their grief and to work for peace,
so for this presentation there were two speakers,
a Palestinian woman whose husband had been killed by Israeli defense forces
during a random traffic stop
and an Israeli woman whose son had been killed by a Palestinian sniper
while he was on patrol as part of his monthly army service.
It was the Israeli mother
who tried to define forgiveness,
and while I’m sure it is not original to her,
I always associate it with her.
She said that for her,
her working definition of forgiveness
was giving up the right to revenge.
This definition rings true to me for a couple of reasons,
first it is from the perspective of the one who has been wronged,
and it acknowledges that in many cases
the wrong would understandably be cause to seek revenge,
the old an eye for an eye justice,
which according to Jesus
makes the whole world blind
and Revenge has a way of consuming the individual seeking it.
In the movie the Princess Bride,
the character Inigo Montoya
has spent his whole life seeking the six fingered man who killed his father.
His waking hours have been practicing sword fighting
and he knows exactly what he will say when he meets the man
“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.”
In the course of the movie the six fingered man is killed
and then Inigo reflects
“I have been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I do not know what to do with the rest of my life.”
In seeking revenge
Inigo allowed the six finger man
to take his life as well as the life of his father.
Forgiveness as giving up the right to revenge
also allows space for anger,
often the words forgive and forget are paired together,
but more often
that is not possible, nor is it practical
and it is right for the one wronged to be angry.
Forgiveness does not mean that the wrong done to a person is okay,
it means that the person who has been wronged
has chosen to stop the cycle of violence,
and to move forward with their life
and this takes time,
not seven times but seventy-seven times,
committing again and again
to moving forward with life,
working for peace in community
when the one who has sinned is repentant,
relationships are able to be repaired.
Our reading from Genesis is one such example,
the scene is the culmination of a long and tumultuous relationship
between Joseph and his brothers.
Remember Joseph is the youngest brother,
the favorite Daddy’s boy
who gets the fancy coat.
His brothers are jealous
so they sell him into slavery
and fake his death to their father to cover their tracks.
Joseph ends up in Egypt
and after much hardship rises high in the ranks of advisors of the pharaoh.
When the brothers come to Egypt seeking food during a famine
Joseph recognizes them and pulls a couple of tricks on them
before revealing who he is,
forgiving his brother’s and sending them home with food.
Now we have another forgiveness scene,
Much time has passed and Jacob dies,
Now Joseph’s brothers are worried
that Joseph only forgave them
while their father was alive
and now that he is gone
he will take revenge on them,
so they plot to secure their safety,
through inventing a final wish of their father,
that Joseph forgive his brothers
and once again they fall before their brother weeping
and seeking forgiveness
Joseph’s response is remarkable
he says “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”
Over the long arc of his life
Joseph has not only given up the right to revenge
but he has been able to see how God
was able to make the best of a bad situation,
to bring good out of evil,
Joseph has made it to a place
where he and his brothers can be in relationship,
even without their father.
This didn’t happen overnight,
it took a lifetime.
When Peter asks Jesus
how many times he must forgive
he’s missing the point of forgiveness,
he’s looking to see how many boxes he must check off
to be right with God before moving on.
Jesus’ reply shows
that forgiveness is a way of life
and that God expects us to be changed
by both the giving and receiving of forgiveness.
And Jesus practices what he preaches,
making forgiveness a way of life,
constantly offering us grace and mercy,
setting us free in our relationship with God
and turning us back out to the world to forgive others,
and Jesus knows this is not easy,
that we will need some encouragement and strength along the way,
which is why at the last supper with his disciples
he promised to come to us
in bread and wine, body and blood,
forgiveness tangible in the crumbs between our teeth
and the wine sliding down our throats,
forgiveness becoming a part of who we are,
all because of the grace and mercy of God. Amen