15th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
We talk just a little bit in the church about forgiveness. Maybe, it seems, we bring up forgiveness to the point of excessiveness. And why wouldn’t we, right? After all, God sent His Son among us. The angel said to Joseph, in a dream, about the child that Joseph had learned Mary was carrying: She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. For He will save His people – which Paul keeps trying to convince us, in Romans, is all of us – from our sins. Jesus’ purpose was to save us from ourselves, from our violence, our anger, and all the things that would separate us from each other. “God did not send His son into the world” – yes, this old verse again – “to condemn the world but so that through Him the world might be saved.” Establishing us as forgiven people was Jesus’ reason for living. One of the great Welsh poet R.S. Thomas’ most enduring poems, the Coming, goes like this
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many People
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel, in about as clear a way He as ever did or could, that just as we are bound to love, we are bound to forgive each other, too. Forgiveness is another way of loving, really, Jesus would probably say, at the risk of putting words into Jesus’ mouth. Our Lord reminds Peter, in the Gospel today, that there is no bottom to the well of forgiveness which is very good news for creation but awfully hard news for us who are bound by it: that commandment to forgive from our hearts. Forgiveness – extending mercy – is, however, a liberating force and Jesus tells us all that forgiveness is impossible for us to escape because, you see, He will offer Himself for the whole world.
We want to ask Jesus, don’t we, “Lord, I understand I am to forgive over and over again but how can I forgive this ______ … fill in the blank. We have all been wounded, maybe even repeatedly, and perhaps by the same toxic people. There are people who have injured us in such a way that it is hard for us to imagine forgiving them. People who have abused us, cheated or betrayed us, and, perhaps worse, people who by their actions – intentional or not – have taken away a person we love. So many movies glorify vengeance but, we must ask ourselves: who do we follow and how do we follow the One who died for us if we are not willing to wrestle, at least, with His most difficult teachings which, by the way, tend to also be the most transformational?
Near Joe Avila’s home, in Fresno, California, there is a sign on the freeway that admonishes: Don’t drink and drive. Under that sign there is another sign that says, “in honor of Amy Wall.” As he tells his story, Joe then says, “I was driving drunk on the freeway, in 1992, and I killed Amy Wall.” She was 17. Joe Avila was a chronic alcoholic and drug user, and had been since an early age, on the night he crashed into Amy. He does not remember the accident, but was certainly aware when California State Troopers came to his house and arrested him, he was booked into the jail in Fresno and charged with second degree murder.
Joe recounts that for the first few days in jail; he looked for a way to kill himself. He was overwhelmed by what he had done, what he had become. While awaiting trial, he stayed at a halfway house. A chaplain came to see him and during an hour-long conversation, Joe made the decision to invite Jesus Christ in His life, understanding that Christ had died not just 2000 years ago, but he continued to die for even him, and what he had done. Joe changed his plea to guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He prayed, while in prison, with dying prisoners in hospice, spent as much time as possible in the chapel, worked in the hospital, and tried to live a life worthy of Christ’s sacrifice and to honor the life he had taken. After 6½ years he was moved from a maximum-security prison to a minimum security one. He served his last year there, being released in 1999.
New Hope Community Church in Fresno welcomed Joe into their community, even preparing for his arrival, tying yellow ribbons around every tree on their property on the day he and his wife made their first visit. About a month later, Amy’s brother, Derek, called through Joe’s mentor and said he wanted to meet with him. And Derek told him how much he loved his sister, missed her, all the things that they used to do together and how, after the accident, he wanted Joe to go to the electric chair. But he had followed how Joe was doing in prison and was beginning to see him in a different way. Next, Rick, Amy’s dad, asked to meet with Joe and forgave Joe before Joe even had a chance to ask. He, too, had been following Joe’s progress. Finally, Amy’s mom asked to meet with Joe, but sent him a video of Amy’s life that she asked Joe to watch on the night before they met. It was three hours long, following Amy from infancy to high school. It was really hard for Joe – watching again the life that he had taken – but he says that it is supposed to be hard; forgiveness and reconciliation are not easy.
The Walls forgave the man who killed their daughter, and sister; a man who is now the regional director for Prison Fellowship, an organization that works to bring the reconciling love of Jesus to men and women in prison, out of prison, and to their victims. We always wonder if we would be able to forgive a person who killed our son or daughter. I have a daughter about the age that Amy Wall was when she was killed by another person’s recklessness. Could I forgive? I would like to think so.
My Uncle George died last week, my mother’s only sibling. They were not close; in fact, in the last 30 years that both of them lived, they had almost no contact with each other. Many wounds that had been inflicted were from childhood and I am not sure my Uncle ever really understood the magnitude of my mother’s mental illness. She died in 2012 and now he has gone; they are past reconciling, save whatever God can do with them in the larger life.
Jesus promised that we if we know Him, we will know the truth, and that truth will set us free. The forgiveness that God offers to us in Christ is final, absolute, and born of a love far greater than we can fathom. The kind of love that could say, as nails were hammered into His wrists, “Forgive them father ...” Repairing breaches in relationships sometimes seems nearly insurmountable and often are conditional – we will forgive a hurt when the other says they are sorry. We will forgive another when they show remorse. We will forgive another when they … do what? Paul reminds us, elsewhere in Romans, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Before forgiveness was asked for, God acted in the world, out of love. We, my brothers and sisters, are followers of Jesus. Following the way of our strong, demanding, expectant, yet compassionate Lord is not easy but it is freeing, liberating us to love with an openness that cannot be crushed, broken, or ended because it has been given to us by the loving One, who paved the way for our liberation at Calvary.
Let us be reconciled during these living years; let us not hold onto anger, malice, hurt – even if it would be totally understandable if we did. Freedom awaits us on the other side of our pain and woundedness, whether it is between us and a sibling, parent, or friend; or if it is a society or group who have cast “the other side” as enemy. We are God’s children; let us open our hearts, forgive from that place, and be one at long last. Amen.