A Sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Steven L. Thomason at St. Paul’s Episcopal
The readings for Proper 19, Year A are:
Matthew 18:21-35Peter came and said to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
"For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, `Pay what you owe.' Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, `You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
Is there anyone to whom you would not offer the peace of Christ? I mean, is there anyone who has offended you so severely, whom you so mistrust or even dislike, that you could not in good conscience offer them a sincere blessing in the name of Christ? Of course, the question is a set-up, because if we really think about it, I would be willing to bet that we are all reluctant to offer Christ’s peace to someone who has wronged us.
One of my favorite authors is Rick Lischer, a Lutheran pastor and professor at Duke Divinity School. A few years ago, he wrote a book entitled The End of Words. The subtitle says it all—“The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence.” It has given me much food for thought this past week—especially as I approached this intersection of the anniversary of 9/11, and the preparation of a sermon of words to be preached on a gospel text about forgiveness this day.
The fact is we live in a society now that models for us all too well how words and actions can quickly rise into a flood of emotions, leaving broken relationships, contempt and defiance in their wake. Hatred festers in these murky waters, and there is little hope of relationships surviving under such conditions.
How normative has incivility become in our time—this penchant for treating our relationships as expendable by-products in the course of our lives. We need look no further than the state of affairs around the world and around our country to see that this is the case.
It has been a decade since the World Trade Centers fell and, despite the earnest efforts of some to mend relationships, it seems that a wall of mistrust and even hatred has been raised in their place. Certainly not all was peachy prior to that day, but since then the vitriol has escalated and words of peace have largely been lost—replaced with words of accusation and contempt.
I need not rehearse the myriad ways our words have become darts directed at others, but surely we can all agree that the discourse of civility has declined in recent years—in government, in business, and even in the church, and I would propose that the language of reconciliation is being shelved in this culture of violence more readily than ever, and that should be deeply disconcerting to us all—in matters of global security and in our homes, workplaces and even the church.
And try as I might to find a way to rationalize my not wanting to offer someone the peace of Christ—anyone—this passage from Matthew’s gospel stops me dead in my tracks, and I am left squirming uncomfortably, because Jesus has left no wiggle room at all—none, nada, zilch.
How often should I forgive, Lord?—not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. Of course, it is a play on the number, but we should hear Jesus clearly—in today’s email it would be all caps, bolded, underlined in a broad font—you must always seek to forgive one who has wronged you.
Jesus was all about the relationships—healthy relationships that emanate respect and dignity. But he was quick to move on from relationships with those who were unwilling to receive the peace and good news he had to offer.
I do not think that Jesus’ call for forbearance in relationships is calling for the battered woman to suck it up, or the abused child to endure the pain, or anyone to play the victim for victim’s sake.
But the peace of Christ is a powerful potion that can heal the heart of all kinds of ailments—sometimes, the offer of forgiveness can pour into the offender’s heart and change them; sometimes it is our own heart that can mended by the peace that we allow to flow through it.
And so, is there anyone to whom we would not offer the peace of Christ? Is it possible that in such denial, we end up starving our own hearts of the peace, too?
I have told this story once before while standing in this pulpit, a couple of years ago, but it is such a remarkable example of the power of forgiveness that I want to share it again, begging your indulgence for the repetition. Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells the story in this way:
“In an emotionally charged courtroom, a South African woman stood listening to while police officers acknowledge their atrocities. [She was there as a victim of heinous crimes endured as part of apartheid in
. This courtroom was the scene for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose focus was not primarily to punish wrongdoers, but rather to seek the truth, the full truth, from those involved in the atrocities, and to afford victims and their survivors a “dignified hearing” to relate their own accounts of suffering. South Africa
[Desmond Tutu writes:] “Officer van de Broek acknowledged that along with others, he had shot her eighteen year-old son at point blank range. He and the others partied while they burned the son’s body, turning it over and over on the fire until it was reduced to ashes.
Eight years later, van de Broek and others returned to seize her husband. She was forced to watch her husband, bound on a woodpile, as they poured gasoline over his body and ignited the flames that [consumed him]. The last words she heard her husband say were ‘forgive them.’
Now van de Broek awaited judgment.
’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission asked the woman what she wanted. South Africa
‘I want three things,’ she said calmly. ‘I want Mr. Van de Broek to take me to the place where they burned my husband’s body. I would like to gather up the dust and give him a decent burial.
‘Second, Mr. Van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him.
‘Third, I would like Mr. Van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him, too. I would like to embrace him so he can know my forgiveness is real.’ As the elderly woman was led across the courtroom [toward him], van de Broek fainted, overwhelmed.”[i]
It is a remarkable story of the power of forgiveness—and the desire for relationship. This elderly woman is modeling for us how we might reclaim the language of reconciliation in a culture of violence.
This language—our language as followers of Jesus Christ—begins with the words: May the peace of Christ be always with you…It is not something we insert as a segue in the liturgy on Sundays. It is our intentional response immediately after we rise from our knees—having been forgiven by God. It is not a cordial greeting of pleasantries or a time of conducting business; it is a blessing in the name of God that we each share, both here and through the course of the week.
And so the question remains: Is there anyone to whom you would not offer the peace of Christ?