Do We Hear What We Say?
I often wonder, when we speak the Lord’s Prayer in unison on Sundays, whether we pay any real attention to the words — whether, in the words of my sermon title, we “hear what we say.” It’s understandable that we may not. The problem churches have with incantation — the frequent recital of familiar creeds, phrases and prayers — is that after awhile the words, and the ideas they express, are lost in the quiet melody of habit. There’s no question about how comforting tradition is: people like to know that certain familiar things will happen or be said when they come for worship. But the other side of that coin is the numbing effect of unaltered ritual, especially when it involves language. We end up saying the same things over and over until our critical faculties have been lulled to sleep. We speak, without feeling the words we speak. And nowhere is that more apparent than in our recital of the Lord’s Prayer, which — be honest! — so easily becomes mechanical that our mouths and our minds go on automatic pilot.
If we really pay attention there are some troublesome things in that prayer. How much passion can we put into “Give us this day our daily bread” when the refrigerator is crammed and the kitchen shelves are bulging with food, and when even if they aren’t we have the money to fill them from Dillons or Safeway. The people to whom Jesus gave that prayer as a model had none of those escape hatches; they actually had to worry about daily bread — enough to put passion into such a prayer. But for us, aren’t those words just perfunctory sounds we make without really hearing what we say? I don’t intend to use this pulpit to fret about all the perfunctory things we do in our church life, but it won’t hurt us to recognize some of them for what they are: moments of inattention, when we go through the motions of mindless mumbling — what can become the Sunday morning sleepwalk.
But there is a line in the Lord’s Prayer that we sleep through at great risk if we actually believe in the authority of the Bible. Right in the middle of that prayer is a dangerous request which is read or spoken in most churches either as “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” — where the point is blunted by a 16th century word whose meaning has changed — or as “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” — where the point is blunted by another word we commonly use to mean something quite different from what Jesus had in mind. Take away the archaic meanings, as we have done in this church by using the New English Bible translation, and you hear exactly what Jesus meant: “Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive those who have wronged us.” Please think about that line for a moment
Do we really want to be forgiven only as we forgive others? Isn’t that a rather frightening contract to make with God? To agree that we be forgiven only to the extent that we have forgiven others? This could be scary, considering how hard it is to forgive people at times and how often we have simply refused to do it. It must have been a serious problem among people Christ knew because he talks about it in such hyperbolic language. For example: Peter asks one day how many times a person ought to forgive someone, and then — knowing that in Jewish law it was three times — doubles that number in what he undoubtedly feels will make him look astonishingly generous. When he says “How about seven times?” I’m sure he expects a handsome compliment . I would love to have seen the look on his face when Jesus says, “Not seven times, Simon Peter, but seventy times seven.” Simon Peter is not always quick. I can see him struggling to get the sum of seventy times seven — until the smile on his teacher’s Jesus’ face suddenly makes him realize that this is not math we do in our heads, but celestial arithmetic we do in our hearts — that it’s simply a way of saying, “There’s no count-down when it comes to being willing to forgive.”
The idea is so important to Jesus that he makes the point again for Peter by telling a parable about how forgiveness works. A certain king with a mind to balance the royal books first tries to recover from one of his servants a debt so incredibly immense that it’s obvious Jesus is using hyperbole again — one of his favorite verbal strategies. The debtor, we are told owes 10,000 talents — which has been estimated to represent an astonishing 165,000 years of daily wages. So he falls on his knees and begs for more time, promising to pay what, of course, he cannot ever hope to pay. But in this parable told to make a point, the king is moved by the plea, and instead of just granting his servant a delay, he forgives the whole enormous debt.
But that’s not the end of the story. Immediately after he has been forgiven the equivalent of our national debt, the servant turns around and insists on payment from a fellow servant who owes him not the wages of l65,000 years but of a paltry three months. And when this second debtor pleads for more time, our newly-forgiven servant refuses and has him thrown into jail. Word gets back to the king, who is infuriated that the man he forgave a fortune would not forgive a few dollars. He sends the ungrateful wretch to prison, demanding that he now repay his debt — which, of course, it will be impossible for him to do. The parable ends by making its point: that we are without hope unless we extend to others the mercy God has shown to us.
Jesus tells another story on the same theme. The famous parable of the prodigal son is really not so much about his mistakes as it is about his father’s eagerness to forgive and his self-righteous older brother’s sour feeling that the forgiveness comes too easily. The wild kid who left home to waste his inheritance money on scruffy pals and prostitutes, and wound up feeding pigs to keep from starving — here he is back home, and being welcomed, but where’s the lecture? It was bad enough a few minutes ago when father lost his dignity by running out to hug the young scamp, but it gets worse by the moment. He showers gifts on this boy who has broken his heart, and then with tears of joy running down his face he tells us all to get ready for the biggest party we’ve ever seen! So my ne’er-do-well brother has gone out and lived it up (is there a hint of jealousy?) and then dragged himself back home when he hit bottom — shouldn’t Dad at least tell him off before we begin the barbecue? Like, ‘Have you any idea, young man, how you have disappointed and embarrassed all of us, and broken your mother’s heart? We’ll find it in our hearts to forgive you, but it’s going to take a while. You need to prove yourself.’ That’s what my parents and the rest of these silly people should say to my brother, and instead here they are planning a party! Well, I’ll be damned before I show up!” Which, the story says, is exactly what will happen to him unless he changes his mind.
So, one obstacle to forgiveness is the idea that it really translates into tolerance, even to condoning the wrong itself. I was listening when the mother said to her daughter, “What are you doing?” “I’m packing my suitcase.” “Where are you going?” “I’m going home.” “You’re going home….to Jim….after what he did? How can you do that?” “Mother, I love him. He asked for forgiveness, and I forgive him.” “Well! I never thought a daughter of mine would condone a thing like that!” “Mother, I’m not saying it doesn’t hurt or that it will be easy to pick up the pieces. I’m not saying I condone what happened; I’m saying I have chosen to forgive him.” “Well, they look the same to me!”
Forgiveness looks for all the world to some people like acquiescence, like giving in, like not standing your ground. And besides that — let’s be honest — there are some benefits to not forgiving. It’s a form of power, because forgiveness is always a kind of “letting go,” a surrender of the control that comes with having someone forever in your debt. In a counselling session one night it was the husband who spoke first. “You said you had forgiven and forgotten. Why do you keep finding ways to remind me of my past mistakes?” She replied, “Well, I have indeed forgiven and forgotten…..but I want to make certain that you don’t forget that I have forgiven and forgotten.”
It’s hard to let go of the power, the enormous power, that the unforgiven sin gives to the one sinned against. I read once about two sisters who kept up a bitter feud for 30 years. On Matilda’s 70th birthday, Alice felt a pang of remorse and thought about sending a card. She decided not to be the first to give in, but some regret must have been at work in her heart because a year later, when she heard her sister was gravely ill in the hospital, she felt compelled to visit. It was an awkward meeting, and Matilda didn’t make it easy. She looked sternly at her sister while they made small talk until finally, in a faint voice, she made a conditional surrender. “The doctors say I’m seriously ill, Alice. If I pass away, I want you to know you’re forgiven. But if I pull through, things stay just the way they were before.”
It seems incredible that intelligent human beings could be that stubborn, but life is full of proof. I read just the other day that the great musical team of Gilbert and Sullivan spent the final years of their partnership not talking to each other. It seems that after they had jointly purchased a theater, Sullivan recarpeted it without consulting Gilbert. When the bill came, Gilbert was furious and took Sullivan to court. There was a great lawsuit, and so much anger that neither spoke to the other for the rest of their days. Sullivan would write the music and send it by messenger to Gilbert, who would then write the lyrics and send them back by messenger. Their wonderful work would open on stage, and at the end of the performance they would each come from opposite sides to take their bows….but they never looked at each other….and they never spoke.
When we are too proud to ask forgiveness, or too stubborn to give it, we miss the whole meaning of grace and we flunk the course we call the Gospel. Over and over Jesus made the same point: to receive beyond our deserving obligates us to extend to others that which is beyond their deserving. God, he insists, is wildly generous even though we are so often stingy. God is incalculably merciful, even though we are so often mean-spirited. God is infinitely patient and ready to forgive, even though we split hairs and saw pennies in half and would rather die with a grudge than risk living the reconciled life.
Forgiveness is always a two-way street. In those beautiful words of Shakespeare’s Portia, “It is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.” Or to say the same thing in contemporary language, here is Frederick Buechner: “When somebody you’ve wronged forgives you, you’re spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience. When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you’re spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride. For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside one’s own skin and to be glad in each other’s presence.”
Forgiveness and freedom — forever linked. Freedom for the one who forgives, freedom for the one who receives forgiveness. But often terribly difficult, especially for the one who is asked to forgive. In that light we understand better the famous words of Alexander Pope: “To err is human, to forgive divine.” Or in those more poignant words of sacred scripture which I sometimes like to speak to bride and groom: Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another.
I have been surprised often, while working on a sermon, by how a newspaper item or a letter or a phone call will illustrate beautifully what I am trying to say. So it was last week when my minister son called to tell me about an incident that had moved him profoundly. There was an unhappy woman in his church who had hated him pathologically for years, who would never meet his glance or respond when he said “Good morning.” Any effort he made to open a conversation was rebuffed, so he had no idea what had caused her hatred — whether it was because he was young and sometimes brash, whether it had to do with his liberal theology or his stance on the Gulf War, or whether it was something else he could not even imagine. Her husband had left the church, but whether it was because of the minister or because of her hatred of the minister, no one knew.
Not long ago, my son heard that the woman was in the hospital, critically ill with a failing heart. You can imagine his dilemma. If he were to call on her at Deaconness Hospital, how would it affect her weak heart to look up and see her mortal enemy standing beside the bed? He decided he had to be her minister anyway, even if she chose to stare at the ceiling. So he went, and when he reached her bed he saw that she would have a perfect excuse for not responding to him because she was hooked up to all sorts of monitoring devices, with needles sticking into her arms and tubes in her nose and mouth. But even if she couldn’t speak, he could, so he said about as lamely as you would guess, “Hello, Betty. I’ve come to tell you that all of us at church have you in our prayers and we hope you’ll be better soon.”
This time she met his eyes, but for a long moment there was nothing else….until with a weak wave of her hand she motion him to lean down. He dreaded what she might say, but he bent over and as he leaned closer she reached up, pulled his head down, and with the mouth she could not close, tubes and all, she kissed him on the cheek. He said, “Dad, I could hardly see to get out of the room!
Forgiveness: the freedom to be at peace inside one’s own skin and to be glad in each other’s presence.
Remind us, Almighty God, that we must be always eager to
forgive, not because we are so good, but because knowing
what we do about our own flaws and weaknesses, to do
otherwise would be hypocritical. Amen.