When Forgiveness is the Way of Life
Sunday, February 26, 2023
Pastor Jason Bryan-Wegner
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
We’re beginning a new worship series today as we begin Lent called Focused Living. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’ve had to refocus how I see and experience so many things over the last few years. There are things that I would like to go back to before the pandemic, before George Floyd was a household name, before church was just one of a hundred options for people on a Sunday morning. From time to time, you may have too? But every time we try to look through these old lenses, it’s like digging an old pair of glasses out of a drawer – you know the ones that are like four prescriptions ago – and trying to navigate through that blurry old world without hurting ourselves or others. Unfortunately, someone’s bound to get hurt if we don’t refocus on what is right now, if we don’t recognize that we’ve been changed by all these events, and trust that God has the power to refocus our lives given what is happening now as we move forward. Because regardless, the circumstances, God always has the power to bring full and abundant life.
Today’s reading puts forgiveness at the center of our focus. Peter seems to understand this when he asks Jesus, “How many times should I forgive?” And then he offers a ridiculously generous guess of seven times. I mean, seven times surely should be enough, right? Especially when once or twice is usually plenty for spats between friends. Jesus probably was somewhat impressed by Peter’s offer, but he’s also looking for more from this new community he is forming. He’s looking for more from us, who walk in his ways today. This whole chapter of Matthew’s gospel is about how we as Christians are to live together, and by extension, how we live as the embodiment of God’s vision for the world, in what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the Beloved Community.
The early church that gathered around Jesus were a totally different community than the wider Roman world. In Roman society, all the different groups were separate, and any interactions between different cultures, genders, or economic classes were strictly regulated. Yet, the church had Jews and Gentiles, men and women, children, slaves and free people, rich and poor all freely associating. You didn’t have to be from a certain class or culture to be a leader, the gifts of everyone were recognized as coming from the Spirit.
This was a completely different way to be community. No one had done it this way before! Followers of Jesus were deeply committed to this new way of being in community because they were convinced that the radical love of God changed everything.
We’ve already seen how Jesus centers the marginalized in this community, when he called a child into the spotlight and told us that unless we change and become like children, we’ll never enter the kingdom of heaven. We’ve seen him heal those that others wouldn’t touch, give voice to those who society never wanted to hear, and how if we are to truly want to be part of this community, we’ll do likewise.
Jesus recognizes how messy and difficult it is to be a community. He saw how the disciples bickered and jockeyed for position within the twelve. He saw how they resisted the radical teaching of love for enemies and outsiders when it threatened their own sense of security. He knew that the kind of community God envisioned and that he was asking the disciples to live would be like nothing anyone had ever seen before.
At the center of this teaching on what it means to live in community, Jesus places two essential elements – Repentance and Forgiveness. Repentance is an act of humility that acknowledges to God, and more importantly to those we’re in relationship that when we’ve hurt them in we’re sorry and willing to change.
When I meet with couples before they are married, I often ask them two questions. The first is “How do you fight?” In other words, do you have healthy ways to express disagreement and work out difference? And when you don’t, because nobody gets it right 100% of the time, “How do you repent and how does the other offer forgiveness?” I ask them to come up with a plan and ritual for repenting and forgiving. What if Christians, all of us, were known for showing the world how to work through conflict and transform relationships through forgiveness?
It sounds simple enough, whether it’s couples, friends, siblings, or whole groups of people, right? But way too often, we’d rather tuck those offenses in an emotional bank account so they can be withdrawn as arsenal for the next round of battles. Or, like the unforgiving servant in Jesus’ story, we withhold forgiveness and refuse to offer what we’ve so freely, and undeservedly, been given. Or, we convince ourselves that the offense wasn’t that bad, so we dismiss it rather than go through the emotional process of true forgiveness. None of these options lead to the beloved, transformative community that Jesus is calling his followers to live. Forgiveness is a spiritual practice, one that brings the power of God’s transforming love into our everyday lives. That kind of forgiveness can change everything.
In 2006, Charlie Roberts barricaded himself in an Amish one-room school with a gun down the road from his house. And then he did the unthinkable. He killed five school children and injured five others, before he turned the gun on himself. His mother, Terri, was in the car when she heard the report come over the radio. When she pulled in the driveway, she was met by her husband and the sheriff. As she got out of the car, her husband said, “It was Charlie.” The Roberts lived on a farm among the Amish. They were their neighbors. The first thought Terri had was, “I will never be able to face my Amish neighbors again.” She was so angry and hurt. How could her son do something like this? She wondered if she’d ever be able to forgive him. When the time came for Charlie’s funeral, the family held a private graveside service in the cemetery down the road from their house. As the service began, Terri and her husband looked up and saw 30-40 of their Amish neighbors approach and surround them in the cemetery. “Love just emanated from them”, Terri said. One of the fathers, whose little girl was killed, approached them and said, “I believe I have forgiven your son, though there are days I question.” That was enough for Terry and her husband Charles. For days, Amish neighbors showed up at the Roberts’ door with reassurance. “We forgive your son. We don’t believe this is your family’s fault. You are our neighbor, and we want you to be at peace.” The community’s forgiveness opened the door for a kind of relationship that would have never been possible.
After the funeral, Terri befriended one of the survivors, named Rosanna. Because of her injuries, Rosanna was in a wheelchair and had frequent seizures. Her life was forever altered by Terri’s son’s actions. For nearly ten years, Terri went over to Rosanna’s house to help care for her. She read books to her, bathed her, and brushed her hair. She wasn’t ever sure if Rosanna knew who she was, but she sensed she did. In 2016, the community marked the ten-year anniversary of the tragedy, at the gathering one of the Amish fathers said, “’None of us would have ever chosen this. But the relationships that we have built through it, you can’t put a price on that.’ Terri agreed. “I will never forget the devastation my son caused, but their choice to allow life to move forward is healing balm for all of us.”
Forgiveness allows life to move forward. It has power to bring life from death, and healing from the worst of tragedies. This is Christ’s story, this is our story, as followers of Jesus. This is the great gift of God; that because we are forgiven through Christ, we can and are called to be forgivers. But it can’t be cheap or obligatory. This life from death comes from relationship, trusting deeply that God’s forgiveness has changed us.
We might think that repentance always needs to precede forgiveness in order for restoration to happen, but it’s not always that straight forward. Terri Roberts and her husband did not go to the Amish seeking forgiveness first. Forgiveness found them and freed them to turn their son’s actions into something life giving, to believe that relationship was possible again. Despite their differences and the pain their son caused, they committed to trusting in a future together.
There are times when repentance never comes. Relationships this side of heaven are sometimes irreparably broken. That’s the pain of being human. Sometimes, the offender isn’t able or willing to admit harm. In cases like this, to forgive someone who is unrepentant for their sake, does more harm than good, like in the case of an abuser who refuses to stop abusing. Sometimes forgiveness is for ourselves rather than the other person. I think that’s why Jesus instructs us to forgive, not just 7, but 77 times, because more often than not, it takes perpetual forgiveness to move forward from anger or bitterness and find hope for the future.
What if Christians were known more for our forgiveness and commitment to healing relationships than for the things the loudest Christians stand against? What if forgiveness really is the focus Jesus calls us to? What if Christians were best known for how we heal relationships and communities in an all too divisive world? Imagine the power that could have for our communities, our churches, and our public policies. Friends, Jesus is calling us to be the kind of radical community that transforms relationships and paves a way for Christ to lead us into the future with hope and forgiveness. As we hear the call of Christ to focus our lives in this season of Lent, how is Jesus calling you, and how is Jesus calling all of us, to be part of this radical movement of grace? Amen.