The Prayer of Release

A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA

Aug 14, 2022

Matt 6:9-15
Matt 18:15-35

Today we are continuing our sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer. Last week, Joann spoke about asking God forgiveness. Today we get the other half of that sentence—where we talk about why we forgive others. 

So let’s start with scripture. Here’s Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer: 

Matt 6:9-15

‘Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

 Give us this day our daily bread.*

  And forgive us our debts,
 as we also have forgiven our debtors.

  And do not bring us to the time of trial,*
   but rescue us from the evil one.*

And then Jesus goes on to say:
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

In Matthew’s version, we are to forgive our debtors before we go to God for our own debts. Our forgiveness is deeply connected to the way we live as forgiving people. If we want to turn to God to seek forgiveness in our own lives, we first have to look around at our own lives with that same intention. 

One of my favorite books is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. 

It is a letter from an old preacher writing to his very young son. Knowing he won’t be around throughout his child’s life, he wants to leave him with some history, some wisdom, and perhaps give him a chance to know his father after his death. 

There’s one paragraph in the book that I go back to again and again. And I offer it to us as we begin worship this day, pondering forgiveness: 

When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person.”

Forgiving others is a form of participating in the grace that saved us.

Peter is great. He’s not afraid to say the ridiculous things we are all thinking, trying to set himself up to be the best disciple Jesus has ever seen, while also trying to look humble and magnanimous.  “How many times, Lord, should I forgive someone? As many as 7 times?

And Jesus, to make sure we get that forgiveness is about redemption and restoration, says, “bless your heart. No Peter, not 7 times. but seventy times seven. ” Jesus throws out numbers that are so big that the message is this—forgiveness can’t be quantified.

I confess I want to quantify even this. I recognize 70 times 7 times is supposed to be hyperbole, a number so high we wouldn’t keep track.

I still want to keep track.

She is up to 23 times I’ve forgiven her. He’s made it to 40. Maybe I should think about prizes to offer when they get to the 50th time I’ve had to forgive them”.

I kid. Sort of. I want to be like Jesus.

But come on.

He doesn’t really want someone in the family of God if they require 77 forgivenesses, does he?

Yes, Marci. Yes he does. Which is how you get to be here in the family too.

We are supposed to stay together, to keep working at this, until we get along.

This text reminds me of the connections between salvation, grace, forgiveness, and life in community. Just as Peter is instructed to forgive someone a seemingly infinite number of times, so have we been forgiven by the God who loves us, so we have been called to keep working—infinitely— at being the family of God.

After Peter’s questions about forgiveness, there’s a parable. And it’s kind of awful in its starkness.

A ruler rightly plans to sell a slave, and his wife and kids, in order to pay off a debt the slave has. This is a big debt. One talent is the wages of a laborer for maybe 10 years. This man owes 10,000 worth of 10 years salary. It’s a debt a slave could never pay.

The slave begs for mercy and the owner erases the debt.

So far, so good.

But when that same slave encounters a man who owes him a few hundred bucks, a minor debt, he grabs him by the throat, demands the money, and hauls him off to jail.

As he has received mercy, he responds instead with physical violence and a cruel kind of justice. It is true the man owes him the money. But it doesn’t seem just in light of what has just been forgiven him.

How often do we do that? We accept grace that forgives our sin and we judge and condemn everyone else’s sin, as if we somehow had been perfect all along.

The slave owner, who had relieved the huge debt, hears about his cruelty, and loses his ever loving mind. He un-forgives the debt, and hands him over to be tortured. 

With parables, it’s always tempting to cast ourselves as the ‘good guy’ in the story. And we’re usually wrong when we do that. It’s tempting to also cast people we don’t really like as the bad guys in parables. Oh, that unforgiving servant is just like______on the news. When we do that, we are often missing the way it applies in our own life.

And I am not sure who the good guy even is in this parable. 

Is it the slave owner who forgives the big debt but then un-forgives it and sends him off for torture? 

It’s clearly not the guy who received mercy and refused to offer any in return. 

I actually think it might be the fellow slaves who turned in the unforgiving slave. They caught a glimpse of a world of grace, mercy, and forgiveness when the huge debt was forgiven. That is the kind of world they wanted to live in. When their fellow slave doesn’t participate in the grace that had saved him, they call it out. 

It is hard to see where God is in this parable too. The depth and height and breadth of God’s love seems big enough to forgive 10,000 talents. It’s harder to know what to do with a Lord who hands someone over to be tortured.

This parable reminds me that God’s ways are not our ways. And whenever we think we really know who God is, when God likes all the same people we do, we’ve made god in our image, and not the other way around.

And maybe forgiveness, or the lack thereof, is the one thing that really really gets God good and fired up.

Forgiveness is the whole enchilada. It’s how we build meaningful community. It’s how we bring glimpses of God’s kingdom here on earth. It’s how we seek restoration and redemption with each other.  If we can’t figure out how to forgive each other, how can we possibly be able to receive God’s grace and forgiveness?

Or maybe it’s the other way around. If we cannot recognize the gift of forgiveness we have already received, we’ll never figure out how to forgive someone else.

We can’t truly know what it is to be forgiven people until we become forgiving people.

Corrie Ten Boom was a writer and speaker who talked to people about her faith and about forgiveness. She and her sister had been arrested for concealing Jews in their home in Holland during WW2. They were sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp for their crime.

In 1947, she was speaking to a crowd of Germans about God’s forgiveness, and how that forgiveness was even for them. After the talk, a man walked toward her. He had been a guard at Ravensbruck. Many years ago, she wrote this story:

Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”
And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course–how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me.
“But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein”–again the hand came out–“will you forgive me?”
And I stood there–I whose sins had every day to be forgiven–and could not. Betsie had died in that place–could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
For I had to do it–I knew that. I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality.
Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.

She prayed for Jesus to help her, and she offered her hand to the former Nazi prison guard in forgiveness, transformed by the act.

Her story reminds us of the cost of forgiveness. We have to let go of the reasons for our anger and hurt. And those reasons may be perfectly legitimate and understandable. Nobody would have judged her for not wanting to take the hand of the Nazi who subjected her to such cruelty.

Writer Anne Lamott says that “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past.” I don’t think I understood fully what that meant until I thought about it in terms of Ms Ten Boom’s story. 

Maybe to recognize the grace we have received, we have to participate in it. Forgiveness is an act of the will, she writes. So she forgives him his hundred denarii debt so she can live into her 10,000 talent debt that has been relieved. The nazi still has his own journey toward grace and forgiveness. And it isn’t clear, quite frankly, from her story, if he’s changed.

I was talking about this with some friends this week and one of them asked, “but how did she know his apology was sincere?” And that’s the issue. We want that to be the point, but that’s not the point. 

The truth is, she didn’t know if he was transformed. And I doubt she and the guard became best friends after the encounter. I do trust, though, that offering love is always worth it. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Forgiveness is the final form of love.”

Changing the guard’s heart wasn’t her job, but don’t dismiss the power of forgiveness working in someone else’s life. Maybe her forgiveness did help his heart on its journey to restoration. Maybe not. Maybe it happens in a second. Maybe it takes years to work its way into our souls.   

God doesn’t call us to fix other people. God calls us to tend to our own spirits, and to not carry around hatred and resentment, to work it out with each other, so that we can be the church.

20th century theologian Lewis Smedes wrote: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

This week, as you pray the Lord’s prayer,  I invite you to first think about whether or not you’re able to seek and accept God’s forgiveness. It begins here. Whatever you’ve done, take it to God. Nothing is beyond God’s ability to redeem. There may be amends you need to make, but nothing we do is beyond God and God’s desire to be in relationship with us.

Next, consider whose forgiveness do you need? Who needs a phone call or visit from you so your relationship may be restored? What do you need to do to work at a relationship that matters to you?

And then, who do you need to forgive? What is required for a relationship to be healed? We can’t force people to do their part, of course, but we don’t have to hang on to the resentment and anger.

Some people don’t want restoration, of course. And some don’t want to do the work to get there. Jesus said, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Rev. Jennifer Barchi wrote a post for the Presbyterian Outlook a few years ago that is relevant for how we treat people who won’t do the work of being in relationship with us. She writes:

I think of Jesus and how he interacted with the tax collectors and Pharisees and prostitutes of his day.…  They were the ones whose minds and lives Jesus wanted to change — and he did it by sticking close to them, by eating with them and sharing in life with them.  They didn’t have to cease and desist their behaviors before he would spend this time with them.  He met them where they were, he was present with them, and he heard them.

How might relationships come to be restored if we stuck close together, sharing in life with each other, participating in the grace that has saved us? May forgiveness be the final form of our love. Amen

2 thoughts on “The Prayer of Release

  1. Thanks a lot for steppin’ all over my unforgiving heart with this sermon! Obviously there’s work I need to do. Thanks for the good Word sister!


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