Proper 19, Year A, 2014

Bernard Cooper, in his memoir, “The Bill from My Father” tells a story of a time when Cooper was a young man with a dying car. His curmudgeonly father, Edward, decided to buy him a new car, but Edward’s bravado at the car dealership got him humiliatingly nowhere, so they left without a car in hand. Edward promised Bernard that the car dealership would call them back with a great offer, but they never did. Bernard, desperately longing for this new car, kept calling his father to obliquely check in. His father, frustrated and embarrassed, told him to stop calling and sent Bernard an itemized bill for $2,000,000—the detailed costs of raising Bernard.

Edward expressed his anger and irritation by literally creating a record of debt, but without any means for Bernard to actually settle that debt. Bernard never got the car, by the way!

Sometimes, when we are in conflict with another person, it can feel like we’ve been saddled with a bill we cannot pay. We can feel weighed down by obligation, by miscommunication, by anger.

We aren’t the first generation to struggle with conflict. After all, even Adam and Eve argued! Last week, Eric talked about how to manage conflict in a congregation—and our Gospel passage this week picks right up after last week’s left off. Once you’ve had a conflict, how do you move on? How do you restore the relationship?

The answer of course, is forgiveness. Peter, ever the show off, asks Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who has wronged him. Seven, he ask? After all, seven is a LOT of times! Can you imagine scheduling a seventh lunch after someone bailed on you the first six times? No way. And yet, Jesus turns the tables on Peter and tells him, you must forgive someone seventy-seven times!

And I have to tell you, it’s right at this moment my alarm bells start ringing. Because this is another one of those passages that pastors have used to convinced people to stay in abusive marriages.   Women and men, trying to preserve their lives, their children’s lives, have been thrown right back into the lions with this passage. So let me be clear, Jesus says forgive. He does not say stay in the relationship. After all, Jesus also said love your neighbor as yourself, which implies that love of self is important.

So, how do we deal with this tension? What does it mean to forgive, but also protect yourself?

Desmond Tutu, who knows something about forgiveness, having been a leader in the healing and reconciliation that has gone on in South Africa after apartheid, has, with his daughter, recently published a book called: The Book of Forgiving. In it, he describes a four step path toward forgiveness:

  1. Telling the story
  2. Naming the hurt
  3. Granting forgiveness
  4. Renewing or releasing the relationship

Now for some of us, those first two are incredibly difficult. Avoiding conflict, or communicating through passive aggressive banging of pots in the kitchen is a lot easier than sitting the person who has hurt you down and telling the story of how they have hurt you. And naming the hurt means you actually have to do some honest soul searching and deeply experience the pain someone has caused you. Naming the hurt might not be a big deal in the scenario where someone keeps standing you up, but it could be incredibly difficult if you are coming to terms with the pain a drunk driver has cost you if he has caused an accident that killed someone you love.

Both these steps help you work through your experience and come to terms with what has happened to you.

Even if you cannot sit down with the person who has hurt you, these steps still help you integrate the experience you’ve had, so you can think through whether or not you are ready to forgive someone.

Next, comes the actual forgiveness. Desmond Tutu describes it this way: “The one who offers forgiveness as a grace is immediately untethered from the yoke that bound him or her to the person who caused the harm. When you forgive, you are free to move on in life, to grow, to no longer be a victim. When you forgive, you slip the yoke, and your future is unshackled from your past.”

Forgiveness is not just about releasing the offender’s burden, but releasing our own, as well. When we forgive someone, we acknowledge that they no longer have power over us. They no longer control us.

Once we’ve broken that hold, we can then engage in Tutu’s fourth step—renewing or releasing the relationship. Going through telling our story, naming our hurts, and granting forgiveness can draw us closer to another person. I think about times in my marriage where we’ve had to admit we were wrong and ask for forgiveness from each other. For some reason, I’m still surprised every time I’m forgiven for how freeing it feels, and how much closer I feel to my husband after we have worked through our conflict. On the other hand, going through Tutu’s steps may make you realize that while you can forgive, you cannot continue on in the relationship.

Sometimes forgiveness means saying goodbye. Sometimes forgiveness means setting new boundaries that substantially change the relationship.   And that is okay. Not all relationships can or should be saved. But even in these relationships, forgiveness can help both parties move on into the world in healthier ways.

We worship a God who loved us so much, he spent thousands of years trying to find ways to forgive us for all the ways we betray each other and him. He tried starting over with Noah, he tried forming a special community through Abraham and Sarah, he tried giving us kings and judges, he even sent prophets to nag us back to good behavior with the hopes that we would repent so he could forgive us. When all that failed, he sent his son, himself, really, to come down and be with us and love us. And even as he was dying at our hands, he extended forgiveness to us.

God knows the cost and the reward of forgiveness. He has wiped our slates clean. He has forgiven us of all the hundreds of times we have hurt other people or cheated or been lazy or did things that really hurt others or ourselves. God has forgiven us far more than 77 times. He knows we cannot forgive without first being forgiven, so he has done the hard part.

Now it is our turn.