*Sermon on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, 9/11/2011 at St Christopher's, Portland, TX.*
Jesus tells Peter to forgive seventy-seven times. And if you grew up on the King James Version (God’s own translation, some folks will tell me) it’s even more, seventy-times-seven, or 490 times. The word order in the original language is what makes the confusion. Did Jesus say ‘seventy times and seven’ - you know, like four-and-twenty blackbirds? Or was he testing the disciples’ knowledge of their multiplication tables? That’s the question in the translation. That's why the difference. But you know what? Something tells me it doesn’t matter. That, either way, Jesus doesn’t expect Peter to keep track. Do you get that sense, too?
Ask me to do something three times, or even seven times – like Peter suggests – and each time will feel like the first. I’ll stop. I'll take a step back. I’ll think through it. I’ll start with step one and move on to step two. I’ll remember step one and step two after the fact. Ask me to do something seventy-seven - or 490 times - and at some point, if I make it all the way to the end, not only will I not be able to remember each step, at some point, in a real sense, I will have stopped doing the task; I’ll have simply become it.
And so I wonder if that's what Jesus wants for Peter, to become forgiveness. I wonder what it means to become forgiveness. Like a cloth soaked through with holy oil, drenched with forgiveness, such that forgiveness is the fragrance others smell on me. We’ve all known people whose perfume has a way of announcing, “I may have left the room an hour ago, but don’t dare forget I was here!” Aunt Mildred. Would that forgiveness would be such a scent on me! Is that what it means to become forgiveness, I wonder?
On most days, I can’t imagine becoming forgiveness, what it would look like, but I still believe that it is theoretically possible, even for me. I’ve simply encountered too many living cloths soaked through with holy oil to dismiss the possibility out of hand.
One such holy cloth in my life is Mark. Mark was a paraplegic young man at the summer camp for the physically and mentally challenged where I was a rookie counselor after my junior year of college. Mark had attended Michigan State, and though he couldn’t speak, he finished two years there. He was a remarkable man with a soft spot for Dr. Pepper and the Chicago Cubs. My first interactions with Mark were unbelievably awkward. I didn’t know how to start. I was nineteen and had never helped a grown man use the restroom or spoon fed the same man apple sauce. My awkwardness melted quickly, however, because Mark was a holy cloth drenched in forgiveness. His eyes spoke compassion, and his sound board emitted the absolution that his mouth couldn’t speak. He found something in even my broken efforts to love. Mark’s patient forgiveness of me opened a friendship more real than any I had imagined was possible on this earth.
Another holy cloth in my life is Father Tony. I'll be honest, I don’t know Father Tony well, but once a year, every year, he’s there, a retired clergyman hunched over and reading the lessons as we travel through the church of the Holy Family at a midweek Eucharist on our way to the beach. And he reads the Scriptures so slowly and tenderly it’s like he’s speaking them back to God as a love song. As if he’s singing a beautful descant in harmony with the written words and the descant says, “Look! Look! My forgiveness and the whole love of God are here in these words and if it’s all the same to you I’m going to linger in these words and stay awhile.”
I wonder what it means to become forgiveness.
Ten years now after the first 9/11. And I am still wondering what it means to become forgiveness.
Whatever it means to become forgiveness, I believe that it at least means being dipped in the holy oil of this morning’s gospel.
I love and hate this morning’s gospel. Like a mirror that magnifies your image too much and the zits and warts show up. I always catch myself, for example, at the words: “and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’” Seizing him by the throat. I know that emotion. I’ve felt it rush through my neck like hot blood. Seizing him by the throat. The very opposite of forgiveness. (If you don’t know forgiveness, there’s still a good chance you can pick out its opposite.) The erosion of the soul. The first hint that I have forgotten the Good News that changes everything.
This morning’s gospel reminds me that my judgment of you leaves me forgetting that, once, a very long time ago, he died for me, too. Because I also had a very large debt. Much larger than the one you owe me. And it’s not that the line of credit has been perpetually extended. He didn't raise my debt ceiling. It is not that I’ve refinanced divine favor at a lower, more advantageous, rate of interest. That’s not Good News; that’s a noose. No, the Good News is that the debt itself has been forgiven. Every last red cent. It’s gone. I’m free.
Once upon a time, the promise of this freedom was wasted on me, because I had always assumed I was already free. But then I learned that there’s a real difference between the freedom of an un-captured man on the run and the freedom which tells a man he doesn't have to run anymore. My freedom had been a kind of running away, a hiding. But he tells me I’m free, no more running. “You’re free. Stop your panting.” It is a wonderful thing to be that kind of free.
So I come up for air, dripping with oil after being dipped in this gospel. And maybe you owe me a debt. Whatever you owe me, I no longer need it, because the debt for which I was pinching my pennies, the debt for which I was saving, is gone. I am free.
I have noticed some things that people drenched in forgiveness seem to have in common: for starters, they aren’t afraid to fail. Good Lord, can you imagine what a life delivered from the fear of failure might feel like? A friend on my twitter feed posted this week: “Today’s challenge: fail early and often!” That's a friend of forgiveness.
Another thing I’ve noticed about people drenched in forgiveness: they take time to love. They seldom seem rushed. Like the old priest and his love song. They talk with you as if you are worth the time it takes to visit. They don’t give many answers, but they take time and listen with a purpose. They tell you when they don’t understand. Because more than appearing to hear you, they really want to hear you.
A last thing that I’ve noticed about people drenched in forgiveness: they laugh a lot. At themselves. With others. It doesn’t matter. Not the cynic’s laugh you learn from TV, but the laugh of one whose joy is not dependent on her standing. The joy that receives the present moment and the universe, the whole cosmos, as if it were a gift from God himself to share. Because they understand that it is.
Do you know what I enjoy most about people drenched in forgiveness? They open the future. They walk in a future wide enough for both of us. That can imagine us together. Forgiveness is what makes a Sunday marking the 10 year anniversary of 9/11 wide enough to also hold a barbecue luncheon at a small Texas church and the vision we have gathered to share. Forgiveness makes it possible to celebrate the future without betraying the pain of the past.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once wrote a book called, “No Future without Forgiveness.” We have received forgiveness - we receive it as often as we gather and drink the cup of this table - and so the future is open to us. Standing on the edge of that future this morning, can I make a request? Let’s make our way boldly, leaning full-weight on the forgiveness of Jesus. Let’s not hold back. Let's need him all the way. Let’s make our way joyfully, remembering the true freedom made open to us. Let'ss make the way generously – giving of the forgiveness that has been given to us. Freely you have received, says St Paul, freely give. Forgiving into a future wide enough to share, because God is Christ Jesus is sharing his future with us.
Jesus tells Peter to forgive seventy-seven times - or seventy times seven if you're old school and prefer the King James. The word order in the original language is what makes the confusion. But you know what? Something tells me he doesn’t expect Peter to keep track.