Going the Extra Mile to Forgive 

Sunday, June 16, 2024
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner 

Matthew 18:10-22


When my daughter, Ellie was about six years old, she got a Beta fish named Chippy. It was the first animal she was responsible for caring for. It lived in a tank in her room. She loved this fish, and for a six-year-old, she took pretty good care of it.

That summer our friends came to visit from out of town. They had a daughter just a little younger than Ellie, and she loved animals. Ellie was excited to show her little friend her fish when they got to our house. So, they ran up the stairs to Ellie’s room and were playing together for a while. Ellie came down to get a snack for them or something, and shortly after she came down, we heard our friends’ daughter shriek from the top of the stairs and yelled, “Mom, the fish isn’t moving!” Our friend ran up the stairs to see what happened, and when she came down, she was pale and had a shocked look on her face. Her daughter, who loved animals so much, had scooped the fish out of the water, and “loved the fish to death.”

All I remember thinking after that, is “how do we teach forgiveness to a six-year-old, whose precious pet fish had just been murdered?”

You know how Scripture says, “And a little child will lead them”? Well, after some tears from both of the girls, and a sincere apology from our friend’s daughter; Ellie forgave her. She saw that the girl felt bad and was really sorry. What else can one do at that point? After that, we had a brief toilet-side funeral service to give thanks for Chippy’s life and commend him to his merciful redeemer. (We couldn’t not have a funeral when three of the four parents were also pastors.) And the girls went on their way.

Wouldn’t it be great if forgiveness were always so easy or came so quickly?

We know it’s not always like that though. In fact, several of you sent in questions for our Big Questions series coming up in July asking about forgiveness. So, we get the chance to dig into this question a little early.

There are a few things that make forgiveness so hard.

First, we’re really bad at conflict. We avoid it if possible, and we’re so uncomfortable in it that we have a hard time finding our way out of it when it shows up. That reptilian brain of ours that’s designed for survival jumps into hyperdrive in conflict, and we go into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Sometimes we get stuck in this pattern of relationship for a long time.

When we don’t deal with conflict, forgiveness is hard to come by.

Second, we like to be right – am I right? And in conflict, that same reptilian brain of ours encourages us to hold our position over being in relationship. This works at both an individual and societal level. We’re living in a time of such profound polarization. Forgiveness and compromise in a lot of places have become dirty words. Sociologists are calling this period of time the Great American Sorting. Everyone is sorting into ideological tribes. Purity of ideals has come to direct whether a person is in or out. So many of the external messages we hear almost demand that we stick together with those who think like us or act like us, and either cancel other voices out or ban them from being present.

Jesus is clear in his teachings from the gospel today that the way of God is to go the extra mile to forgive, to cling to the way of understanding and reconciliation. It may not be the way of the world, but it is the way of Jesus.

Before giving a step-by-step plan for what to do when someone offends or wrongs you, Jesus tells a story about a shepherd who notices that one of his sheep has wandered away, and he leaves the 99 to return the one to the flock.

We’ve probably heard this story as a benevolent act of a caring shepherd who is going to rescue one of the lost and vulnerable sheep.

But what if it’s more than that?

I mean, this sheep is disobeying the shepherd and maybe even choosing to separate from the rest of the flock. Maybe this sheep is different than others and the rest of the sheep have mistreated the one?  Separating from the flock may be the only way the sheep knows to survive.

So, the shepherd – our God – doesn’t just leave the other 99 to rescue the innocent from danger, but leaves the 99 to understand what has separated the one from the rest, and restore it to relationship with the others. This story starts with a gracious and forgiving God who goes after the lost one to bring restoration. But for the story to find its complete ending, the sheep – all of them and us – have an active role in the process of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is an inherently spiritual practice. It frees us from bitterness, resentment, shame, and isolation – all of which are obstacles to the abundant life God desires for us. And it is needed as much for the one who has done wrong as the one who has been wronged.

Forgiveness is possible when we turn to the shepherd’s voice calling us home when we feel estranged. The shepherd’s voice stands in contrast to the indignant voices shouting at us within the flock to cancel or ban others from our lives. You see, the loudest voices are not always the truest voices.

I recently read an article about the business behind cable and internet news. The article boiled down to one simple and powerful tactic: “Rage sells.” The more these channels of “news” inflame rage within its viewers – left or right, the more money they make. Gross, right? That’s not news. It’s emotional and social manipulation. It aims to drive people apart and weaken the fabric of human relationship. This is not the way of God.

Forgiveness is the spiritual path to a deeper life with God and a stronger relationship with one another. It happens when we choose relationship over being right – when we’re willing to admit that we might be wrong or that we don’t fully understand the other. One of the most powerful ways to break through to relationship in times like these is to let go of judgment and use the phrase, “I wonder…” I wonder how we got to this place in our relationship. I wonder what I might do to better to understand why you’re so hurt. I wonder how we heal our relationship even if we still disagree?

Granted, these are not easy conversations, and they require both parties to engage honestly and in good faith. It is faithful to hold those who harm us to account. And it is faithful when the goal is restored relationship rather than just being right.

Most of the time, the ongoing pain we feel from broken relationship is the inability or unwillingness of one party to do this.  Mutual repentance – literally, turning toward one another is the first step. When the shepherd goes after the lost sheep, the sheep has to turn around. And when the shepherd returns with the lost, the flock need to turn to receive the one who is lost.

There are times when the hurt runs deep, or the shame of what one has done seems too heavy, or the insistence on being right overpowers the relationship. Even in times like these, forgiving the one who has done us harm – even if it is only in your own heart – is a spiritual practice of turning in a new direction.

I have shared before that I have a complicated relationship with fathers. My parents were divorced when I was three and I didn’t have much of a relationship with my biological dad for the rest of his life. My stepdad who raised me with my mom and throughout most of my childhood and adopted me, had an alcoholic relapse when I was in middle school and ended up in prison while I was in high school. I was so hurt and so angry at him for so many years.  I was never able to reestablish a relationship with him, but there came a point where I had to forgive him, to release him from the grip of anger and bitterness that had its grip on me. I don’t believe this forgiveness came from me, but from God. I heard the shepherd’s voice. In forgiving him there was peace.

When we trust that God goes the extra mile to forgive and restore us, we can even find forgiveness for ourselves. This is a way of living, of receiving from God what we cannot always give ourselves. It leads us to courageous conversations more freely, to seek forgiveness more readily, and to strengthen the fabric of human relationship. Reflecting the presence of God’s forgiveness is a part of living an abundant life of faith.

Friends, if you have strained relationships with family members because something happened that broke trust to the point that forgiveness seems out of reach, or you live with regrets so great that you don’t know how to forgive yourself, or you’ve questioned whether God can forgive you, hear this…you are not alone. God knows you, whether you feel like the sheep that has gone astray or one that is part of the flock wondering when the lost will be found. Through the cross of Jesus, God not only went the extra mile, God went to the ends of the earth to redeem what is lost, and restore what is broken. What is unresolved will be resolved. What else can we do, but live in the freedom that it is true. Amen.

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