Since You Can’t Change the Past

Since You Can’t Change the Past

September 17th, 2017


Matthew 18:21-35

 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

 ‘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 should 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 should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

 

Late one summer evening in Broken Bow, Nebraska, a weary truck driver pulled his rig into an all-night truck stop. The waitress had just served him when three tough looking, leather jacketed motorcyclists- of the Hell’s Angels type- decided to give him a hard time. Not only did they verbally abuse him, one grabbed the hamburger off his plate, another took a handful of his french fries, and the third picked up his coffee and began to drink it. How do you think he responded?

He calmly rose, picked up the check, walked to the front of the room, put the check and his money on the cash register, and went out the door. The waitress followed him to put the money in the till and stood watching out the door as the big truck drove away into the night. When she returned, one of the bikers said to her, “Well, he’s not much of a man, is he?” She replied, “I don’t know about that, but he sure ain’t much of a truck driver. On his way out of the parking lot he ran over three motorcycles.

We love it.  Don’t get mad, get even.  The truth is: Forgiveness does not come naturally.  The first thing to be said of forgiveness is that it is hard work.  And forgiveness often takes time.  Never let anyone hurry you into an act of forgiveness for which you are not ready.  Forgiveness involves struggle.  

In 2006, Five Amish schoolgirls were killed, 11 wounded, by a shooter in Pennsylvania. The Amish community not only comforted the shooter’s wife and children, they forgave him. The Amish were reviled by many in the press because they forgave even as they mourned the death of their own innocent children.

Their ability to forgive came from the center of their theology, which is the Lord’s Prayer. They believe it when they say, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

 

Over and over, Amish leaders tried to explain to journalists and others who could not believe the parents of the dead girls could forgive. What we may tend to forget, however, which the Amish people also made quite clear, is that forgiveness did not take away the burning pain of loss, the near despair of losing children. There is the crux of the matter. This is where we might find the ability to begin learning to forgive. That old cliché “forgive and forget” just doesn’t work.

 

Forgiveness doesn’t numb our minds and hearts to the pain we feel. Forgiveness doesn’t mean justice does not need to be carried out. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that perpetrators must not be stopped just because our hearts have gotten all warm and fuzzy with our forgiveness of them.

Sadly, our world is not yet the fullness of the Kingdom. The wars going on in the Middle East, the genocide taking place in the name of God, the evils done to men, women and children because of lust and greed – all need to be eradicated, the perpetrators stopped.

The victims will be forever changed, and that breaks the heart of God. The perpetrators may not even want our forgiveness.  You and I can pray for change.  We can work for justice.  You and I might pray to find a way to overcome our reluctance to forgive.  

Whatever the circumstance, I believe you and I must learn to forgive.  We must forgive so often, so many times until the unnatural act of forgiving begins to seem natural to us.   I believe that is what Jesus meant:  Forgive without limit.  Forgive until the unnatural act of forgiving becomes natural.

If for no other reason, do it for your own sake. Who benefits most from forgiveness.  I’m inclined to think it is the one who does the forgiving.

When a person who has been wronged finally does forgive, he may find himself much more at peace than he was before. In that sense, forgiveness may benefit the forgiver more than it benefits the person who is forgiven.  Forgiveness is one of the ways in which you and I can begin to heal the hurts we never deserved.  Forgiveness doesn’t deny the pain, doesn’t deny the cruelty and it doesn’t bypass justice.  Forgiveness is a way of saying we don’t want to be bound in an endless cycle of recrimination and resentment.  

While forgiving comes at a cost, refusing to forgive may lead to becoming stuck in the past, brooding over a misfortune for which there can be no recompense.  Some folks begin to enjoy a self-perpetuating pleasure and pain of being angry, or seeking sympathy for old wounds.  Others will use past injustices to excuse their fears and their inappropriate reactions.  

Forgiveness means giving up all the excuses, the secret pleasure, all the pity-seeking—giving it all up and refusing to let the past determine one’s future.  Forgiveness frees us from the power and influence of past events.  

(In his book. Lee: The Last Years, Charles Bracelen Flood) It is reported that after the Civil War, Robert E. Lee visited a Kentucky lady who took him to the remains of a grand old tree in front of her house. There she bitterly cried that its limbs and trunk had been destroyed by Federal artillery fire. She looked to Lee for a word condemning the North or at least sympathizing with her loss. After a brief silence, Lee said, “Cut it down, my dear Madam, and forget it.” It is better to forgive the injustices of the past than to allow them to remain, let bitterness take root and poison the rest of our life.

My experience suggests that the hardest person for you and me to forgive is ourselves.  I have met people who are carrying a burden over events no one else remembers.  And others feeling guilt over something that was not their fault in the first place.  And, of course, many of us continue to carry a burden of responsibility for things we rightly regret having done.

Karl Menninger, the famed psychiatrist, once said that if he could convince the patients in psychiatric hospitals that their sins were forgiven, 75 percent of them could walk out the next day!

When I consider these things, I look to the second chapter of Ephesians where we are reminded that when you and I were doing our very worst, God was loving us.  The second chapter of Ephesians reminding you and me that we are saved.  

Saved from guilt.

Saved from perfectionism

Saved from narcissism

Saved from having the past determine our future

Being saved is not so much about going to heaven as it is about being made fit for heaven.  If God forgives you, what right do you have to cling to your guilt?

When I stand before you on a Sunday morning—or any other time—and say to you, “We are forgiven,”  I mean it.  Everything forgiven.  

I say “we” because I want very much to include myself for having failed in small ways to live up to the very values I profess.  Okay.  Sometimes I have failed in big ways.

So I remind you and me:  God loves us.  God forgives us.  One hundred percent forgives us.  You and I are set free from the burden of the past so that we may become God’s beautiful people, God’s faithful people, God’s generous people, God’s servant people, God’s forgiving people.

I’m not sure what forgiveness would look like on the part of that truck driver.  Or on the part of the three ex-motorcyclists.  I just thought it was a great story to start off a sermon.  Please, forgive me.

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