Sunday, September 17, 2017

Pentecost 15A

Matthew 18:21–35




At about 9:00p on Labor Day a Multnomah County Sheriff’s official knocked on the convent door of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist in Bridal Veil and told the mother superior, Sister Ternes, “It’s time to evacuate.” The smoldering Eagle Creek fire was about to blow up in the Columbia River Gorge. The ten sisters blew out their sanctuary candle, picked up their monstrance containing the consecrated host for the Eucharist, took a few possessions, and quickly left for a hotel in Troutdale. It has been almost two weeks since they left home.


While they wait to return home, they have been continuing to fulfill their day job: running St. Francis Montessori Earth School in Southeast Portland. This is the school our son Isaac teaches at and his three children attend.


Last Sunday Pastor Robyn referred to a piece Isaac had written about the Eagle Creek Fire and the young man who likely started it. “As an educator of adolescents,” Isaac writes, “I pray that we as a community can leave open doors of reconciliation, for this young man . . . There is little jail time would do to help this young man pay back his debt to the Gorge. Let this young man attempt to regain his nobility through work, not lose his dignity in captivity.” From what I have heard, many in the community would think Isaac is letting this young man off too easy. Is Isaac being too soft on sin?


Now Isaac is not alone in expressing concern for the dignity and well-being of this young man. This past Wednesday The Oregonian published an article about the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist. It was entitled “Nuns on the Run.” Sister Ternes was first quoted as saying, “We believe that God is in every event. And obviously God, in his providence, does not cause the many heartaches that we see across the world, but he is there.” She also commented that she sees the hand of human beings—“not God— behind natural disasters like wildfires rampant in the West. There are so many human choices we make in how we handle our environment.” Human beings have “the ultimate responsibility to care for the environment in a way that nurtures and preserves and provides the material world for [humankind].” It is not surprising that an order of nuns named after St. Francis of Assisi would express a deep concern for the environment. For St. Francis, Earth was our mother and all human beings and all creatures were our brothers and sisters. He even referred to sun, wind and fire as our brother and to the moon as our sister. It is also not surprising that Franciscan Sisters have a forgiving attitude toward the young suspect. They are, after all, Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist. The Eucharist, the sacrament of the body and blood of Jesus, is the preeminent sign of forgiveness in our Christian faith. According to The Oregonian reporter, Sister “Ternes offered a gentle counterpoint to the flood of outrage directed at the teenager.” “I can’t begin to fathom the heartache,” she said, “that he and his family are enduring. We only hold him and his family in prayer.” In their concern for this young man, are these Franciscan sisters letting this young man off too easy? Are they being too soft on sin?


In our gospel reading for today, Peter comes to Jesus and asks him, “If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter thinks he is being generous in offering to forgive seven times. In Rabbinic teaching a person was expected to forgive someone three times. As Rabbi Jose ben Jehuda taught, “If a man commits an offence once, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a second time, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a third time, they forgive him; the fourth time, they do not forgive.”[1] Biblical evidence for calculating forgiveness this way was found in the first two chapters of Amos. The Lord announces a series of condemnations on various nations for “three transgressions and for four.” Peter doubles the three and adds one more. Seven is the biblical number of completeness. Peter was probably proud of his way of calculating forgiveness. However, we may feel that Peter was being too easy on sinners. Was Peter being too soft on sin?


Jesus upped the forgiveness ante even more. He said to Peter, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times”— or as some translations have it, “seventy times seven times.” In effect, Jesus told Peter that when it comes to forgiveness, stop calculating. We need to forgive as often as is necessary for our own well-being, the well-being of those who have sinned against us, and the well-being of the community. If anybody is being too easy on sinners, it would appear to be Jesus himself. Is Jesus too soft on sin?


The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, immediately following his response to Peter, implies that Jesus takes sin very seriously. The slave owed an incredible amount to the king— the equivalent of millions of dollars. The slave fell on his knees before the king and pleaded, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” Filled with compassion, the king forgave his entire debt. A fellow slave owed this servant a pittance of what he had owed the king— about one five hundred thousandth. When this fellow slave pleaded for patience, he refused and had him thrown into prison until he would pay the debt. When the king heard what he had done, he became enraged. “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had on you?” Then the angry king ordered the unforgiving servant to be tortured.


It would be easy to allegorize this parable and assume the king is God. Biblical scholars tend to caution us against allegorizing too quickly. But in any case it is clear that forgiveness is a top priority of God and Jesus. Verse 35 makes clear that God will punish the failure to forgive. It is almost as if the failure to forgive is the unforgiveable sin. Notice that the unforgiving servant, in effect, brought punishment on himself. Though the king showed him amazing compassion, his heart remained hardened. That is why verse 35 stresses the importance of forgiving our brother or sister from the heart. Hearts filled with compassion are crucial to our own well-being, the well-being of others, and the well-being of the community. That is why forgiveness is so strongly emphasized in our faith tradition.


Emphasizing forgiveness does not mean ignoring the truth or the reality of sin. For example, when Nelson Mandela came to power in South Africa in 1994, he wanted to avoid a bloody civil war. To that end, he formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu to chair it. Notice that Mandela did not simply set up a Reconciliation Commission.


The Truth and Reconciliation Commission attempted to address grave injustices and wrongs in a third way between two extremes. The first extreme was the Nuremberg model, in which the effort was made to convict Nazi criminals and make them fully pay for what they had done. The other extreme was blanket amnesty. The people of South Africa would go on living as if no crimes or injustices had been done. As Tutu explains in No Future without Forgiveness, “that third way was granting amnesty to individuals in exchange for a full disclosure relating to the crime for which amnesty was being sought. It was the carrot of possible freedom in exchange for truth and the stick was, for those already in jail, the prospect of lengthy prison sentences and for those still free, the probability of arrest and prosecution and imprisonment” (30).


This summer I read The Book of Joy, which documents the experiences and insights the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu shared during a week in April 2015 at the Dalai Lama’s home in India. They identified forgiveness as one pillar of joy. One moving story the Archbishop shared was about Amy Biehl and her parents. After graduating from college in the United States, Amy had traveled to South Africa to help. She was brutally murdered in one township. The perpetrators received stiff prison sentences. Amy’s parents traveled from California to South Africa to voice support for granting amnesty to Amy’s killers. They said, “We want to be part of the process of healing in South Africa. We are sure that our daughter would support us in saying we want amnesty to be granted to her murderers” (230–31). They also set up a foundation in Amy’s name and employed her murderers in the township where the crime had been committed.


The Truth & Reconciliation process was not perfect. But it did help South Africa avoid a bloodbath. And it did provide healing for many and for the country as a whole. Perhaps this commission should have been called the Truth before Reconciliation Commission. Forgiving others is good for the heart and soul of the one who does the forgiving. But genuine repentance, with full acknowledgement of the truth, is essential in moving toward full reconciliation.


On Thursday a number of people from St. Andrew and from the wider community gathered to view “An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story.” Niebuhr was a master at cutting through pretense and exposing sin in its many forms. He sought to wake up individuals and groups not just to the sins of others, but to their own sins. He had no illusions about individuals or groups achieving perfect love or justice. But he insisted that truthful awareness of our sin is essential in increasing love and justice in ourselves, our churches, our communities, our nation, and our world.


Forgiveness is needed more than ever in our divided nation and divided world. Pursuing forgiveness is not optional for followers of Jesus. Every Sunday as we partake of the body and blood of Jesus we are reminded how forgiveness is at the core, at the heart, of who we are and what we are to be about. But make no mistake: for forgiveness to lead to genuine healing and reconciliation, it must be accompanied by truth.


Forgiveness is so important to our well-being and the well-being of the whole Earth community that I have opened up “The Forgiveness Files.” I am collecting hardcopies or electronic copies of stories, insights, anecdotes, readings, and other items related to forgiveness. This sermon is, in effect, a first installment. Feel free to give or send me any forgiveness items that you find especially helpful. For a number of years Donna and I have wanted to host a series of conversations on “The Power of Forgiveness.” Now that all our children are out of the nest, we need something to do—just kidding. In any case, stay tuned. We anticipate these conversations happening sometime in 2018.

In the name of the one who first forgave us, AMEN.











[1] Quoted in Barclay, The Gospel According to Matthew,” volume 1, in

The Daily Study Bible, 193.