Prayer of Remembrance
There are days we never forget.
Years pass, and still, we ask each other, “Where were you when you heard?”
And each of us knows the answer.
We were at school. Or at work. Or out in the field.
Perhaps we watched as the plane hit the second tower.
Or perhaps we were so busy we didn’t find out until later.
Perhaps we thought immediately of loved ones in harm’s way.
Or perhaps we prayed for strangers.
Wherever we were, however we heard, we don’t forget.
Not in nineteen years. Not in ninety.
What was once a wound is now a scar, and still, on September 11th, we pause.
We remember. We pray.
We remember those whose lives were lost:
the mothers and fathers and children and sisters and brothers and spouses and beloved friends who never made it home.
We remember the brave people who stormed cockpits,
who ran into burning buildings instead of away from them, and who sifted through rubble.
May their courage be a witness to what is possible
when we are guided by love and dedication to our fellow human beings.
We pray for those who still carry emotional and physical scars.
May your spirit breathe new breath into clouded lungs,
new life into troubled minds, and new warmth into broken hearts.
And may all of us who remember find ourselves moved
from suffering to hope, from brokenness to wholeness,
from anxiety to courage, from death to life,
from fear to love, and from despair to hope.
Help us to become instruments of your peace in this world
and to be living examples of your love and grace poured out for all people.
The Math of Forgiveness
Matthew 18:21-35 [NRSV]
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 ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment 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 slave, 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 had mercy on your fellow slave, as 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.”
When we think about the power of forgiveness, we tend to think about the stories of people who have offered the kind of forgiveness that seems almost unimaginable to us. These stories grab our attention and perhaps bring tears to our eyes. They are so powerfully counter-cultural that they even tend to make the news.
We think about the community of Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where a small group bible study welcomed in a young man, who then turned around and killed nine of them. Only forty-eight hours later, congregants who had lost mothers, sisters, sons, husbands, and wives, appeared in the courtroom to speak at the shooter’s bond hearing. Nadine Collier, who lost her mother Ethel Lance, stunned the courtroom and the nation when she looked at her mother’s murderer, and told him, "I forgive you ... You took something really precious from me. I will never talk to her ever again, I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you and have mercy on your soul." Other family members offered similar words of forgiveness.
Or perhaps we think of the Amish community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, whose lives were shaken when a man opened fire in their one-room schoolhouse, killing five young girls before taking his own life. The killer’s family held a private burial service for him and were shocked when dozens of their Amish neighbors, some of whom had buried their own daughters only the day before, began walking across the cemetery to surround them with love. "Love just emanated from them," the mother said. In the years since the families have become close friends. The mother has a metal plaque hanging in her home, a gift from her Amish friends, that simply says, “Forgiven.”
The forgiveness the loved ones of the members of Mother Emmanuel offered didn’t stop their hearts from breaking, but it did stop hatred from taking seed in their hearts. The killer had hoped to start a race war, but instead, it was forgiveness that made the headlines. The families of the girls of West Nickel Mines School didn’t alleviate their own grief when they showed up for the grieving family of the man who had killed their daughters, but they knew that all sorrow is easier to bear when it is shared. The gunman’s actions of anger were overshadowed by their witness to the power of love.
The New Revised Standard Version translates Peter’s question as, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” The church as we know it didn’t exist at the time though, and the word for church isn’t being used here. A more accurate translation might be, “If one of us sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Which of course, makes us question who counts as “one of us.” Perhaps Peter intended his question to be limited to the disciples or Jesus’s followers, but the rest of Jesus’s teachings tell us that there are no such boundaries. Certainly, the people in the stories I referenced were able to forgive because they understood that there is no one who isn’t one of us. They knew that even our enemies are our neighbors.
But sometimes forgiving our actual neighbors, the people closest to us, is just as hard as forgiving our would-be enemies, even if it’s difficult for entirely different reasons. Stories like the ones above move us and encourage us, but they are also mercifully rare. If we limit our ideal of forgiveness to those kinds of major events, we can miss the forgiveness that we are called to in our everyday lives. Even if we are called to that kind of deep forgiveness at some point, we are almost daily called to broad forgiveness, which is just as countercultural.
Peter seems less concerned about the gravity of the forgiveness he is being called to and is more concerned about the frequency of it. He wants to know just how often he’s going to have to forgive the people around him. Where’s the limit? Surely there’s a tally we can all be keeping, right? We know all too well the ways both small and large that others injure us, and how quickly offenses can stack up. At what point do we decided we’ve had enough and it’s time to cut our losses?
of us are familiar with the idiom, “Fool me once, shame on you.
Fool me twice, shame on me.” In other words, to forgive once
might be generous and Christlike, but after that, you should keep
your guard up. To forgive someone twice is just making yourself a
doormat, the saying argues. But Peter has been hanging out with Jesus
for a while now, and he’s catching on. “Should I forgive
as many as seven times?” he asks.
Seven is a nice, odd number. It’s one associated with holiness and completeness, so Peter naturally thinks it seems like a generous and reasonable cut-off. But of course, Jesus isn’t letting Peter (or us) off the hook so easily. “Not seven times,” he says, “but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Other translations say “seventy times seven.” Seven. Seventy-seven. Four hundred and ninety. Even if it isn’t clear what number Jesus meant, his point is perfectly clear: whatever number you think is enough, it’s more.
Perhaps the lack of clarity about what number Jesus meant is part of the point: if you get caught up in the number itself, you’ve missed the idea entirely. We are called to forgive our siblings beyond our ability to keep track. If we are keeping score and holding on to our receipts, we aren’t really forgiving at all. Oh, we may seem like we are kind and gracious, but we are really just watching the people we are supposed to love inch ever closer to a line we’ve drawn in the sand. Jesus calls us to erase the line, throw away the receipts, and lose track of the scorecard.
Just to hammer the point home, Jesus tells them a story. There was a servant who owed the king 10,000 talents. That doesn’t mean much to us today, but one talent was about 6,000 denarii, and a single denarius was worth a day’s wage for a laborer. The servant owes about 60 million denarii. It’s a ridiculous, impossible amount that he could never hope to repay. And so the king simply forgives the debt, in an outrageous act of mercy.
There is another servant who is in debt to the first one for 100 denarii. It is a sizeable amount of money—the work of over a third of a year—but like Peter’s suggestion of seven, it is comprehendible and manageable. The forgiven servant does not pay it forward though. He refuses to extend the same compassion he has received, and so he finds that compassion no longer extended to him.
When I first read the text for this week, my first thoughts were of the newsworthy stories of forgiveness that inspire us all. But the more I dwelled on this parable and on Peter’s question, I wound up thinking about all the stories of forgiveness that I don’t remember. It’s easy for me to think about the moments in my life that have demanded big, weighty forgiveness of people who had done truly terrible things because there have been relatively few of them. However, when I think about the people I have loved the best and the longest—members of my family and my lifelong friends—I couldn’t tell you how many times forgiveness has passed between us.
I couldn’t tell you because I don’t keep track. If I were pressed, certainly I could name a few instances where our relationships were fraught and we hurt each other, but there have been many more instances when we simply hurt one another and forgave one another because that is how we have chosen to live together. At some point in the decades we’ve spent with each other, forgiveness became the necessary default. It’s necessary for living in relationship—whether that relationship is with a romantic partner or your parents or your friends or your church.
In her book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, Nadia Bolz Weber writes, “It’s my practice to welcome new people to the church by making sure they know that [the church] will, at some point, let them down. That I will say or do something stupid and disappoint them. And then I encourage them to decide before that happens if they will stick around after it happens. If they leave, I tell them, they will miss the way that God’s grace comes in and fills in the cracks left behind by our brokenness. And that’s too beautiful to miss.” It is one of the guarantees of relationship: we will hurt each other. We will offend each other and snap at each other and disappoint each other. Because we are all human. And then we have to decide whether we will forgive. Not just once, but each time. We chose forgiveness, even when we don’t feel forgiving, trusting that we can forgive first and then work through the emotions of it. And we trust that when we choose forgiveness, God will fill in any cracks left behind.
None of this is to suggest that restoration of relationship is always possible and necessary. As Debie Thomas notes, “Forgiveness is not synonymous with healing or reconciliation.” Healing can’t be forced; it has to be lived into. And there are times when the trauma or danger is too great, and we have to sever ties with our offenders. But even then, we can choose forgiveness. “In this sense,” Thomas writes, “forgiveness is not an end; it’s a beginning. An orientation. A leaning into the future.”
That orientation is what unites both the deep stories of forgiveness and the broad ones, what unites forgiving a murderer and forgiving the person in the pew behind you. Instead of dwelling in what is past, which cannot ever be changed, we orient ourselves toward what is ahead. We live into the freedom of forgiveness. This is the freedom both of being forgiven and being forgiving. In the short story “Pardon,” Carol Shields tells the story of a woman inspired to forgive. She forgives her father for giving her a name she doesn’t like and her sister for having pretty legs and her husband for being insensitive. And as she forgives, she feels lighter and lighter. “All this dispensing of absolution emptied [her] out and made her light as air,” Shields writes. “She had a sensation of floating, of weightlessness, and it seemed to her that bells were chiming inside her head.”
We can allow arguments and grudges to drive a wedge between us, or we can pull the wedge loose and let God’s grace fill in. We can allow heartache to make us hard to make us gentle. We can walk around under the weight of unforgiveness, or we can float freely, with bells chiming in our heads. If one of us sins against you, and one of us will inevitably sin against you, which will you choose?