The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE FREEDOM IN FORGIVENESS

Delivered 9/15/96
Text: Matt. 18:21-35 (Rom. 14:1-13)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Forgiveness. Great word. Great concept. We believe in it. We love it. We live it. Right? Say AMEN!

There was a man who loved dogs. He served as a speaker in various civic clubs to benefit the SPCA. He was known far and wide as a dog lover. One day his neighbor observed as he poured a new sidewalk from his house out to the street. About the time he smoothed out the last square foot of cement a large dog strayed across his sidewalk leaving footprints in his wake. The man muttered something under his breath and smoothed out the footprints. He went inside to get some twine to string up around the sidewalk only to discover dog tracks in two directions on his new sidewalk. He smoothed those out and put up the twine. About five minutes later he looked out and the footprints indicated that the dog had cleared the fence, landed on his sidewalk and proceeded as he desired. The man was mad now. He toweled the wet concrete smooth again. As he got back to the porch he saw the dog come over and sit right in the middle of his sidewalk. He went inside got his gun and came out and shot the dog dead. The neighbor rushed over, "Why did you do that?" he inquired, "I thought you loved dogs." The man responded as he cradled his gun in the crook of his arm. "I do, I do like dogs. But that's in the abstract. I hate dogs in the concrete."(1)

I wonder if it might not be the same with forgiveness. We love it in the abstract, but when we really have something to forgive, we hate it in the concrete.

Louis Untermeyer in his biography of poet Heinrich Heine(2) describes the spirit of the world: "Forgiving was not Heine's business nor his specialty. 'My nature is the most peaceful in the world', he wrote with deceptive mildness. 'All I ask is a simple cottage, a decent bed, good food, some flowers in front of my window, and a few trees beside my door. Then, if God wanted to make me completely happy, he would let me enjoy the spectacle of six or seven of my enemies dangling from those trees. I would forgive them all the wrongs they have done me - forgive them from the bottom of my heart, for we must forgive our enemies. But not until they are hanged!'"(3)

In our gospel lesson, I will give Peter more credit than that. I get the impression that he was genuinely trying to be generous in his quest for guidance. "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Seven times is a LOT! Have you ever had occasion to forgive someone SEVEN TIMES? "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me!" After three or four times, I doubt that I would want to get anywhere NEAR you! Even the rabbis taught that three times is sufficient. Peter was doubling that and adding one for good measure. But Jesus says, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times." Or depending on your translation, "seventy times seven!" Either way, a LOT!

Then comes this strange story about the king and his slave. The slave owes the king something akin to the amount of the US national debt. (By way of information, the annual tax revenues that King Herod collected were about 900 talents, so the 10,000 talents would have amount to the national revenue for more than eleven years.) The king forgives the debt, just writes it off when the fellow pleads for mercy. Then this stupid slave confronts a compatriot who owes him the equivalent of $16.00 and, ignoring a request for mercy, has him thrown into jail. The rest of the slaves cannot believe what has happened, so they tattle-tale to the king, and the result, as we all know, is not pretty. The point? A forgiving spirit is crucial to life together, and especially in the church (because remember, the hypothetical sin of a member of the church is what prompted Peter's question).

Even outside the church, the world knows that forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian message. Perhaps you recall last Easter and the half-dozen articles that appeared that day in the Greensboro News & Record.(4) All were about forgiveness. There was the one about Ron Cotton who went to prison in 1984 for two rapes he did not commit. Sentenced to life plus 54 years, the Gibsonville man was angry at police and prosecutors, his own lawyers and even the victims. But after three years in prison, Cotton began to change. "I learned I couldn't continue to live with the hatred and the bitterness," he says. Cotton spent nearly 11 years in prison before a new lawyer, using DNA evidence, won his release this past June. But from the moment he forgave, Cotton's spirit was free. There IS freedom in forgiveness.

There was the story of Chet Hodgin of Jamestown, a friend of mine (we are in Rotary together) who considers himself a good Christian, and he is pretty sure he understands what Christian forgiveness entails, but has a whole lot of trouble offering carte blanche absolution. Chet has two very powerful reasons: his son Keith, who was murdered in 1991 in Asheville by a man he had fired, and his son Kevin, a pizza deliveryman who was shot and killed in 1992 during a robbery. So far as he knows, the killers have not sought his forgiveness. From what he knows of them, he does not think that is likely, either. So he does not feel obliged to forgive them now. Could he ever forgive them if they repented? "I would not necessarily say yes; we'll talk about it when the time comes," he says. "You can play 'what-if' games all day long."

"Don't try to tell me that I should feel guilty, because I have no intention at this point to forgive the animals -- and be sure and use that word -- who viciously murdered my sons. And anyone who (disagrees) has never walked in my shoes."

We can identify with that. Will Willimon, dean of the chapel at Duke, writes: "Forgiveness is not natural; it is not a universal human virtue. Vengeance, retribution, violence are more natural human qualities. It is natural for humans to defend themselves, to snarl and crouch into a defensive position when attacked, to howl when hurt, to bite back when bitten."(5)

Did you hear about the pastor who quit to go to medical school? "Folks don't want spiritual health. They just want to feel good", she explained. After practicing medicine for three years, she quit to go to law school. "Folks still want to feel good," she said, "but, in the end folks just want to get even, and THAT is what makes them feel good."(6)

Of course, one wishes that folks DID come to church in search of spiritual health, and that they WOULD feel good once they found it. Sadly, such is not always the case.

A recent research project dealing with former members of Lutheran churches (and I am sure the same would apply to Presbyterians or any other denomination) found that they left, because the congregation "failed them in their time of greatest need (for example, when they were experiencing divorce, personal crisis, loss of job, emotional difficulties, problems with children, and so forth). Former members frequently used the term "judgmental attitude" (meaning being judged negatively) to describe their perceptions of the way they were viewed or treated by the pastor and members."(7) That made them angry, so they left.

Unfortunately, the stories of real or imagined hurts in churches could fill libraries. Someone gets upset because they were not recognized for bringing a package of napkins to the church dinner. Someone else is angry that this or that person failed to say Hello. Another one is mad because no one came to see them in the hospital (and that despite the fact that no one bothered to let the church know about being there). One is upset that she is always being asked to help, another is angry because she is never asked. The list could go on and on. Church can be a tough place.

For what it is worth, the phenomenon is not new. Even in the earliest days, church folk had their problems. No doubt that is what prompted Paul to write to the Romans telling them to stop quarreling with one another and criticizing each other's way of observing the faith. He says, "So then, each of us will be accountable to GOD. Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another..." I wish the church had taken his advice, but in almost 2,000 years, the record is not pretty.

A friend has suggested imagining having a brand new Cadillac sitting in your driveway.(8) It is painted one of those new exquisite colors. You open the door, get inside and look around at the luxury of the interior. You turn on the CD player and eleven speakers pour forth equalized music that is pure ecstasy. You turn on and start the engine. The feeling of power as you put it into gear and move out of the driveway nearly makes you swoon. You put the car into drive and press the accelerator. The car begins to take off then sputters and finally stops in front of the neighbor's house blocking his driveway. You look around the console to see what the onboard computer has to say. After punching some buttons, it reads, YOU DON'T HAVE ANY GAS IN THE TANK, EGGHEAD.

How embarrassing. You are sitting in the driver's seat of a vehicle that most people will never have the opportunity to ride let alone own and you cannot go anywhere. Not only that, you are blocking someone else's way. People walk by and look at you wondering what kind of person you are who would get this kind of vehicle but fail to give it what it needs to make it go. So here you are stuck looking good in this fine Cadillac but going nowhere, just sitting there blocking the way.

My friend continues, "The fuel that drives the Church that Jesus established is forgiveness. There is no Gospel without forgiveness. There is no relationship with God without forgiveness. One would expect that Church is the place where the fuel of forgiveness would flow like a mighty stream." Not often enough.

There was once a congregation that split apart over an unfortunate business incident which occurred between two families. Members and friends of one family sat on one side of the congregation on Sunday morning and members and friends of the other family sat on the other side. The tension between the two factions was palpable.

It was the custom of this congregation to celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper on the first Sunday of each month. On this first Sunday, the pastor moved through the first part of the service and then, when it came time to begin the Sacrament, she looked out and say a divided and hostile congregation before her. "Wait." She said, "We are not ready to celebrate this meal. It would be a travesty, a clear violation of scripture to come to this table when there is so much hostility between us."

The congregation did not celebrate the sacrament for six months. Finally there came a Sunday when one person from one family rose and confessed his sin and forgave the other side. Then someone from the other family rose and did likewise. That day, when the congregation moved to the Lord's Table, they moved with tears. All said that Christ was present as never before and from that day on they knew what being a real church was all about.(9) There is freedom in forgiveness.

A translator was trying to render 1 John 1:9 ("If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.") into the Inuit language. They were having difficulty with the phrase "he will forgive us our sins" because the Inuit language had no word for forgiveness in their language. The word they finally chose was "ihhumagiyunaiekvigigamitigut" which means literally "he will think that it never happened to us."(10) Not bad.

Here is an even better one. Yesterday I was talking with Judy Brewer (a lady in our congregation whose husband is currently hospitalized and near death) and mentioned the topic of this morning's message. She recalled a Sunday School class she taught years ago in which she asked her students to write a one-sentence definition of forgiveness. One answer has stuck with her. "Forgiveness is like meeting someone for the first time." She asked the young lad what he meant. He replied, "Well, if you meet someone for the first time, there is nothing he could have done or not done to make you mad. So forgiveness is like meeting someone for the first time." Neat, huh?

Did you happen to see NBC Nightly News this past Friday? Tom Brokaw's final story, the American Dream segment, recalled the Christmas Day, 1974 kidnaping of 10-year-old Chris Carrier. When the boy was finally found, he had been burned with cigarettes, stabbed with an ice pick, shot in the head and left for dead. Miraculously, young Chris recovered, the only permanent physical damage, blindness in his left eye.

Two weeks ago, 22 years after the kidnaping, David McAllister - 77-years-old, blind and dying in a nursing home confessed to the crime. Chris Carrier, now a minister of the gospel, has forgiven his abductor. Everyday, Chris visits McAllister. Chris prays with and for David, reads the Bible with him and is doing everything he can to help David make peace with God in his time remaining in this life.

Chris says, "I became a Christian when I was 13. That night was the first night I was able to sleep through the night, without waking up from my nightmares." He says it would be selfish not to share that same peace with David McAllister." Yes, there IS freedom in forgiveness.

Jesus knew that and he taught it to his disciples, not only in our gospel lesson, but even in those last awful moments on the cross. Remember? "Father, forgive them..."

Is there someone you need to forgive? Someone you need to meet again for the very first time? Do it today. This is not pie-in-the-sky Christianity. This is down-to-earth practical stuff. This is how we live God's kingdom here on this earth. Forgiveness makes us different. And there is freedom in forgiveness!

Let us pray.

(Our prayer was written by an unknown prisoner at Ravensbrueck concentration camp and left by the body of a dead child.)

O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering -- our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all of this, and when they come to judgment let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness.(11) In the name of Jesus. Amen!


1. Wilson Gunn, Peace Presbyterian Church, Roanoke, VA, via PresbyNet, "Jokes," #3465, 9/13/96
2. Louis Untermeyer, Heinrich Heine: Paradox And Poet,
3. John Storey, via PresbyNet, "Jokes" #3453, 9/12/96
4. The texts of the articles appear on the newspaper's web site at http://www.triadonline.com/forgive/index.htm
5. Don Padget, Allardt, TN, via PresbyNet, quoting Pulpit Resource in "Sermonshop 1996 09 15," #8, 9/9/96
6. Doug Behm, via PresbyNet, "Jokes," #3431, 9/9/96
7. Brian Stoffregen, via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday," #1667 ,9/11/96
8. Jim Boldman, Miami, FL, via PresbyNet, "Gospel Notes for this Sunday, #1637, 9/11/96
9. David Shearman, via PresbyNet, "Sermonshop 1996 09 08, #30, 9/5/96
10. Larry Warren, via PresbyNet, "Sermonshop 1996 09 15," #111, 9/13/96
11. This comes from The Oxford Book of Prayer (George Appleton, general editor)

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