By Charles Rush
June 22, 1997
Matthew 18: 21-35
e never been a big fan of country music, but I do love the
lyrics and last March I had the chance to drive for 14 hours to Chicago
with two sleeping teenagers so I listened to a lot of country music.
Country music is real life. I love titles like "
You Stomped on my Heart and Knocked that Sucker Flat,"
"If Heartaches were Wine, Iíd be Drunk All the Time"
I Donít Know Whether to Kill Myself or go Bowling".
Thatís the way you feel sometimes. Itís not like the
esoteric stuff that our academics are writing on. I was looking
through a recent copy of some dissertations. How about this one
ĎSocial Constructivism and the Hypertextual Portfolioí
or ĎCytokine Gene Expression During Constitutive and Inducible
It doesnít exactly make you want to leap from your barstool does
it? Tear open that cover and bore in
I think country music is so apt because our behavior with each
other is so child like and childish most of the time. Here is another
You Stuck My Heart in an Old Tin Can and Shot It Off a Logí.
How about this
"Youíre the Reason our Kids are so Ugly".
And this one speaks volumes in all of its rudeness "
Get Your Tongue Outta My Mouth Cause Iím Kissing You Goodbye".
Or this one "
Mama Get the Hammer, Thereís a Fly on Papaís Head".
Pretty Grounding isnít it? Not hard to understand. The Bible
does that to us from time to time. You can get lost reading these
wonderful stories thinking lofty thoughts about the origin of the
universe, about the nature of justification by grace and how it relates
to sanctification. Or more likely around here, you can become
propelled about some issue of social justice and try to think through
the implications of welfare reform and equal education in New Jersey
and what the Christian response should be, when suddenly youíre
grounded like a barefoot boy standing in a puddle during a
thunderstorm. The lighting strikes and cuts right to the heart of your
existence. It hits you where you live. And suddenly, God deals
directly with your heart.
Thatís the kind of text we are dealing with today. Peter
comes originally with this question ĎIf someone sins against me,
how often should I forgive? As many as 7 times?í Itís not a
rhetorical question. Iím betting Peter has his mental ledger open
to a particular account, maybe many. Iím guessing John has
interrupted or ignored or insulted Peter for about the eighth time now,
and Peter has had enough! He has smiled and gritted his teeth and been
civil long enough and now he is ready to stuff it down his throat. But
he comes to Jesus to get permission first.
Thatís real life isnít it? We want Godís blessing
when weíre cursing somebody, so we can feel righteous about giving
them what they deserve. And it is usually somebody you know pretty
well. You donít really get mad at people you donít know.
Who cares if they ignore you? You can ignore them right back. But
when one of your own family or your best friend or someone in your
church crosses you, now that really hurts. You expect better from
those people. They are your interdependents, and when they damage you,
you suffer the additional pain of betrayal, that they-of all
people-have committed this terrible offense against you. That when
itís hard to forgive; thatís when itís impossible to
forget. That is when you start singing that wonderful country song
Youíre the Cross I Canít Bear
Iím betting that when you hear Peter ask about forgiving seven
times seven some real face pops up in your mind and you know exactly
what Peter is after when he asks this question. He isnít after
forgiveness; heís after revenge! Heís wanting to know when
itís time to lower the boom, when itís acceptable to launch a
retaliatory strike. Heís wanting to know how much he has to take
from these turkeys that surround him.
Forgiveness isnít natural when youíve endured repeat
offenses. You get weary with overlooking, worn out with those spots
where people keep rubbing you the wrong way until you say, "Thatís
it, no more, IĎve had enough!" Weíre all relational
accountants at heart, who figure "If you burn me, Iím going to
burn you back or at least make sure you canít ever do that to me
again." Or maybe you store it away for later, for when you really need
it, like "Oh I hurt your feelings, huh? Well, you remember that time
you did that thing to me? That was much worse than this, you know! So
donít be bustiní my chops about this!" But we all know a
relationship is in big trouble when you get to keeping score.
Peter thinks he is being pretty generous here. Seven times is
pretty patient. The Rabbis said
times. Way before baseball, the Rabbiís were saying, three
strikes youíre out. Somebody disses you three times, you are free
to wreak Godís wrath on their hide. Makes sense, because if
somebody does something to you three times, thatís not an
accident, itís a pattern. Itís a habit. Or itís a
character flaw, and the hardest thing in the world is to forgive
somebody for who they are. Hard enough to forgive them for what
theyíve done, but when theyíve done it so many times
youíre blue in the face telling them about it, you start attacking
their being. This is familiar to married people. You start saying
"You know whatís wrong with you is you always" You always is a
dangerous road to drive. So is itís partner "You never"
Therapists will tell you that it is not wise to use
Ďalwaysí and Ďneverí in disputes because it never
helps and itís always unfair. But it is close to fair because
people are habitually hurtful whether they mean to be or not. And when
the people who are supposed to love us hurt us again and again and
again, it isnít long before weíre ready to walk away singing
another country song "
If you See Me Getting Smaller, Itís Cause Iím Leaviní
And you walk away from the people who have hurt you but pretty soon
you will change your tune to another great country song Ď
The Last Word in Lonesome is ĎMeí"
because you wonít have any family or friends or church community
left. Truth is, weíre all repeat offenders when it comes to
hurting the people we say we love. Every one of us. Says Garrison
Everybody has to live life, you know. You canít avoid it, whether
you follow your calling or not. And thereís no way to avoid doing
terrible things and making awful mistakes. And if you do, there will
be times when you do shameful and embarrassing things and people will
be angry with you and theyíll be right to be angry. And
thereís no way for you to avoid it. You still have to follow your
You canít have a relationship with other people without hurting
and being hurt. So you better find a way to deal with it. You
canít have a friendship or family or community or church without
an occasional wound. Thatís where we all live.
Forgiveness is serious business. Nobody is saying you should just
be a doormat and let somebody walk all over you. And Iím
especially not saying you should put up for one minute with verbal or
sexual or physical abuse or chronic neglect for that matter, from
anybody, without doing something about it. Jesus is talking about real
life here. They arenít talking about ignoring the damage we do to
one another. What would be loving about that? Forgiveness is a
transaction that recognizes the offense, and where possible makes
amends, and then finds a way to heal the wound thatís been
created. But forgiveness puts the responsibility for this healing as
much on the victim as on the perpetrator of the crime. The healing has
to happen from both sides. And often, thatís harder for the
victim than for the perpetrator to do.
Jesus tells this story as a kind of counterpoint. It is a story of
what our world is like most of the time because most of the time we are
not forgiving and look at the damage. The King only gives his servant
one chance. The King gets so angry with his servant for refusing to
forgive a fellow servant, he revokes his own forgiveness and sends the
servant to be tortured. Nobody is truly forgiving in this story and
thereís a lot of violence and torture. This is what our world is
like when we refuse to forgive. So what if somebody has hurt you?
What is their offense compared to the importance of your friendship?
What is their offense compared to what others have had to forgive of
you? What is their offense compared to what God has forgiven for you?
And if you hold a grudge, and you savor your anger what good is that
going to do anybody? What good is it going to do you to carry your
anger around like hydrochloric acid in a paper cup? You might as well
forgive, and if you canít forget, at least remember how much
youíve been forgiven, too. You really better be careful with your
anger because itís not just you and one other person whose
relationship you might damage. Itís all of us. Itís the
whole family, the whole church family, the whole community, and the
whole human family.
A friend of mine from Texas was recently sharing with me an episode
with his wife. He was speaking tongue in cheek with me and he said
"Chuck, I donít get angry; I get hurt. Sometimes, I get so hurt
that my face turns red and all the veins in my neck stand out and I
raise my voice and say things I later wish I hadnít said But I
wouldnít call it anger because Iím a Christian and a
His wife was giving him the business about something and she
started in on one of those dangerous screeds about he always or he
never, dangerous screeds, and he walked out of the door and slammed it
and got in the car to go get some milk or bread, anything to get out of
the house and away from that woman for a while. Now, they ought to
have a Ďtemper detectorí on cars, because we have too many
angry people driving these two-ton attack vehicles around as it is,
particularly here in New Jersey. Hardly a week goes by when someone
isnít laying on the horn, right near you.
My friend was so angry he backed out of the garage, hit the gas a
little too hard, turned the wheel a little too sharply and caught the
right side running light on the corner of the garage door rail. He
heard a loud scraping noise and a crash, and got out to find the light
broken and a big ugly scratch on his car! He no longer felt hurt. He
felt stupid! He was still angry but now he was angry with himself! He
was so disgusted he said ĎI want to eat worms and dieí.
People can be forgiving. Garage doors cannot be forgiving. He
eventually fixed the car but it doesnít quite look the same. A
lot of things are unforgiving and do violence. They are irreversible.
Hannah Arendt once remarked that it is the human capacity for
forgiveness which creates history because only we can redeem the past
from a monotonous and irreversible march from one event to the logical
unfolding of the next. Forgiveness opens a new horizon. By the mercy
of God, we can forgive. We can say "You are more important to me than
to hold this against you. Iím not perfect. I forgive you.
Letís move beyond this impasse." Weíve seen some real
miracles of forgiveness in our lifetime. Menahem Begin embracing Anwar
Sadat, Shimon Peres shaking hands with Yassar Arafat, mortal enemies
moving towards reconciliation. People can forgive very great debts.
My friendís wife forgave him. Eventually he went back inside
the house they got to the point where they could even laugh about their
behavior and they hugged. And soon they were near to singing another
famous country song Ď
Two of a Kind, Workiní on a Full Houseí.
Things were better than before. Of course, he didnít tell her
about the car for three weeks. But he is a lucky man. She forgave
Aside from the lofty concepts of the Bible and the mission of our
church and the wonderful work we are always about here, forgiveness is
where we really live, just about every day. Weíre all in the
country chorus singing the blues, and if we donít learn to
forgive, we wind up singing solo with the radio and no one else to take
our troubles to. To be honest, there are some of us here today who
could work a little harder at forgiving our children or our parents, or
each other. Or maybe the person youíve had the hardest time
forgiving is the one who looks back at you in the mirror every day.
But when we learn to love and to forgive, to accept each other with all
our chronic faults and flaws, even to accept ourselves, because we know
God accepts us and forgives those people we have such a hard time
forgiving, why, then we have a great time. And then we know that we
are Godís children. And we can start singing
ĎJesus loves Meí, and
ĎThis Little Light of Mine Ďandí If Youíre Happy
and You Know it Clap Your Handsí.
Because these little childrenís songs, that is also where we
really live isnít it? Amen.
Prayer: O God, thank you for loving us just as we are and helping us
to be better. Teach us how to forgive as weíve been forgiven, how
to live together in peace, how to admit our differences and discuss
them and settle them and move on in unity of your Spirit. Help us to
absorb your Word in our hearts that our faith will be as much a heart
trip as a head-trip. And let our lives be songs of joy and love and
grace and peace and praise in harmony with each other. Amen.
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