Then Peter came and said to him, “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 ordained him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payments 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 salve, 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 mad mercy on your fellow slave, and 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.”
I don’t know what it is about weddings, but people really let themselves go when they gather to celebrate two individuals joining together. Maybe it’s the beauty of a ceremony focused on love, or perhaps it’s the atmosphere of family members and friends rejoicing together, or maybe its just the abundance of free alcohol, but weddings are a rare moment where people appear to be the truest selves.
If you were here last week you’ll know that I wasn’t. While Michael was bringing the Word I was flying back from Maine where I had just presided over a wedding ceremony for one of my best friends. And I want you all to know that I missed you. I missed being here in this place worshiping together, I missed the choir, I missed seeing all of your beautiful faces.
That’s not to say that I had a bad time at the wedding. On the contrary, I had a great time. People were so over-the-top with their compliments about the wedding sermon and ceremony, perhaps because of the libations, or maybe because many of the people in attendance had bad experiences of weddings in the past and I offered something different. I don’t know what it was, but people seemed to like it.
Now, I want to share with you all that I made a few mistakes at the wedding. During the prayer before the dinner at the reception I made an offhand comment about how people needn’t hide their wine glasses behind their backs when they talk to me because, after all, Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine. I even prayed about how we should celebrate together and learn to party like Jesus.
If only I hadn’t used those last three words. Because, throughout the rest of the evening, a slew of people who were really enjoying themselves would wander over, slap me with a high five and scream, “Party like Jesus!”
Another mistake: I never quite know what to do when the bride and groom kiss for the first time. I mean, I’m right up there next to them and that moment is a favorite for photographers. So, right before I said, “You may kiss the bride” I took a step back and bowed my head so as not to appear too creepy in any photographs. However, what I didn’t anticipate was how my baldhead would appear like a shining beacon in the photos that are now all over Facebook.
But all in all, it was a remarkable celebration and I count myself blessed to have been part of it.
During the reception, while I was milling about and striking up conversations with people, there was a youngish man who approached me and outstretched his hand. He made a few kind comments about the ceremony and as if he felt guilty due to my presence he said, “You know, I haven’t been to church in a long time.” I hear that kind of thing all the time and I never know how to respond so I just don’t.
And then he continued, “But,” he said, “If church was like that ceremony I’d be there every Sunday.”
I should’ve said “Thanks” and politely walked away. But instead I opened my big mouth: “Church shouldn’t be like that every week.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“Because, if church was like that every week, we wouldn’t need it.”
I’m not sure what has happened over the last few decades in the church, at least in the United Methodist Church, but there was a time when one could expect to hear just about the same sort of message every Sunday: we are sinners.
But no more. Instead of confronting that rather inconvenient truth, we want to make believe that the church is full of saints. We’d rather hear about grace than sin, we want to talk about mercy and not sacrifice, we want to be built up and not broken down.
We want our Sunday services to look more like celebratory wedding ceremonies than the confrontational and convicting services of the past.
It’s as if, because we want to appear so perfect on the outside, we have forgotten who we really are on the inside.
Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive someone in the church who has sinned against me? Seven times?” And Jesus said, “You’ve got to forgive seventy-seven times.”
Notice the context of Peter’s question, because it’s important. Forgiveness is often used in this overwhelming sense of totality. If someone gossips about me at work, should I forgive them? If someone cuts me off on the highway should I forgive them? But Peter doesn’t ask about anyone sinning against him, he asks about people who sin against him in the church.
Forgiving someone from the church is very different than just forgiving an individual from the community or even someone on the other side of the world. Frankly, its easier to forgive someone you’ll never see again than it is to forgive someone you’re going to see every Sunday for the rest of your life.
And notice the fact that Peter assumes he will be the one in a position to forgive. Which is to say, Peter assumes he will be the one who has the power to forgive.
Peter was a sinner, just like the rest of us. And, just like the rest of us, his chief sin was being blind to the fact that he was a sinner.
The inconvenient truth of our sinful and broken identities is that we expect the world, and others, to be perfect. Peter listens to Jesus and wants to know how many times he should forgive another person. A man goes to a wedding and wishes that church services could be filled with joy and happiness every single week. We want to know how many times we have to forgive someone because we are so convinced that others will sin against us and we forget that we sin against others as well.
Jesus’ response to Peter probes and prods us to ask ourselves, “How can we be at peace with one another?” But more than that, even more than forgiving one another seventy-seven times, Jesus’ words are all about how God has first forgiven us.
The man at the wedding just stared at me while people were gyrating on the dance floor. He thought about my comment for what seemed like a mini-eternity and then finally said, “Well, I think more people would go to church if it were like that every week.”
“Perhaps,” I said, “but the church isn’t in the business of growing for the sake of growing. The church is about telling the truth. And sometimes, offering and receiving the truth hurts.”
I don’t like preaching about forgiveness because I’m so bad at it. I don’t like having to stand it this place and talk to people like you about it, because in doing so it’s like I’m holding up a mirror and realizing, all over again, that I’m a sinner.
Maybe you’re like me and you hold grudges, or you get frustrated with people, or sometimes you just can’t imagine forgiving someone for what they’ve done.
Maybe you’re like me and you want to put conditions on forgiveness.
Maybe you’re like me and sometimes the golden rule of, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” turns into “do unto others as they have done unto you.”
Offering forgiveness isn’t easy.
Receiving it might be even worse.
Jesus doesn’t leave Peter and the disciples with the seventy-seven times of forgiveness. He goes on to tell them a story.
A king forgives the debt of one of his slaves, who then berates a fellow slave for a much smaller debt. When the king receives word of what happened, he confronts the first slave about his inability to be merciful and orders him to be tortured. And then Jesus ends with this: “so it will be with you if you do not forgive your brother and your sister.
Jesus’ story, this parable meant to shed light on the virtues of forgiveness, is purposely intense. It is meant to be shocking. There is no way a slave could ever owe a king so much money, there’s no way the slave would ever be able to pay it back, nor would a king ever forgive such an outrageous debt.
But that’s what forgiveness is really like. It feels impossible and out of touch with reality.
Someone can do something that seems so small to others, but to us it can feel like a debt that is unachievable. We can be so fueled with anger over what people have done to us that we might want them to be tortured for what they’ve done.
Jesus’ response to Peter, to be honest, is pretty irresponsible. I mean, how logical is it to grant unlimited forgiveness? What kind of community can be sustained where individuals will be forgiven over and over and over and over?
But Jesus’ parable isn’t about us! It’s about God.
God is the one who first forgives our debt that we can never repay. Our sin, who we really are on the inside, our prejudices and our judgments and our mistakes, the things that are only known to us are such that we should never be forgiven. If we took the time to lay out all of our sins on the altar, if we listened to one another confess who we really are, we might not be able to look at one another ever again.
My friends, hear this inconvenient truth: You and I, we’re sinners. We’re broken. Some of us more than others, but all of us are sinners.
That’s not something that’s easy to hear: I know it. I don’t like holding the mirror up to who I really am either.
Jesus knew that those who chose to follow him would wrong one another, that the disciples then and now would sin against each other, that there would be conflict. Therefore Jesus doesn’t offer a way to eliminate or avoid conflict, instead Jesus tells Peter and us what to do with it: We must remember who we really are.
If we are to be peacemakers capable of forgiving one another, we have to remember that God first forgave us.
If we are to take seriously Jesus’ command to forgive over and over again, we can only do so when we remember how God first forgave us.
If we are to be the church, then we have to know and believe that church is going to be messy sometimes. We’re going to hear and receive things in this place that will be hard to hear and receive.
The church cannot be a never-ending wedding feast.
Earlier in the service each of you were given an index card and you were asked to write down the name of someone from whom you need forgiveness.
I think it would’ve been all to easy to write down someone’s name you need to forgive and say, “when you leave church today, call them or text them and let them know they are forgiven.” But that would be too easy.
What’s harder is to look at the name of the person you wrote down and think about how, today, you can get in touch with them and ask them to forgive you. I promise it’s going to be hard to do, and it might actually make the situation worse than it is right now. When you have to ask someone for forgiveness you’re forced to recognize that you’re not as perfect as you think you appear to be.
This isn’t going to fix everything; it’s not going to make all the problems in your life disappear. And for that I am sorry. But we have no business, at all, talking about forgiving someone else unless we are willing to ask someone to forgive us for what we’ve done. Amen.