There is a story in the Bible that goes like this. A man is sitting with a group of his friends in a town that some of them call home. There are thirteen of them – the man and twelve companions, let’s call them twelve disc…erning followers. They have been traveling together, hiking up mountains and passing through new towns, healing the sick and talking about taxes, and they have stopped here for a moment to rest and catch their breaths. Inexplicably, the followers choose this moment to ask their guide questions about status and prestige. Who is the greatest in this kingdom he talks so much about? They aren’t quite jockeying for position – at least not yet – but you can see that the question of “…and which one of us is most like that person who is the greatest?’ isn’t too far off.
Except, in our story, that question never gets asked. Because the leader, as he often does, redirects the conversation. You want to talk about who is the greatest? Okay, let’s talk about that. The greatest in my kingdom is like – he looks around – her. He points to a little girl romping up the hill towards them with her mother. This is what the greatest in my kingdom looks like, and woe to anyone who puts a stumbling-block in front of any children such as these.
Suddenly the twelve followers aren’t so interested in asking their follow-up question, which now seems to be, “…and which one of us is most like this little girl.” And anyway, their guide is still talking. He tells them that they should be on the lookout for those who are weak, those who are powerless and dependent, the one lost sheep amongst a hundred. These are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, where the humble players are given pride of place.
And if you’re looking for a place to start practicing finding these little lost ones, he goes on, why don’t you begin in your own community? Rather than letting people simply fall away from this movement, he tells them, you should follow after them and find them. If someone has sinned against you and the Church, go find them. Go find them and offer them a chance to repent. Go find them, even if it takes three tries. Go find them so that you can forgive them, mend that relationship, and bring a lost sheep home.
One of the followers, who has recently been a bit of a stumbling-block himself, asks what he thinks should be a simple follow-up question. And how many times should we forgive this lost sheep? He searches in his mind for a number that seems appropriate, a number that’s generous, even overly-generous, without seeming preposterous. 7? 7 times? 7 times I should slog around looking for the same lost sheep before deciding that he just really wants to be lost? 7 sounds good. I mean, 7 is a lot. Let’s say my brother here, oh, I don’t know, abandons and betrays me. I go to him, we talk it out, he realizes the error of his ways, asks for forgiveness, I say okay. Then, two days later, he abandons and betrays me again. I go to him, we talk it out, he realizes the error of his ways, asks for forgiveness, I say okay. He does it again, I forgive him again. He does it again, I forgive him again. He does it again, I forgive him again. He does it again, I forgive him again. He does it again, I forgive him again. That’s 7. Seems fair. Seems like a goodly, biblical number.
But the leader, once again, redirects the conversation. He isn’t interested in the lowest-common denominator, the reasonable, or the limited. Not 7, he says, but 77 times. He sins, you forgive him. And again and again and again and again and again and again…and we, who are listening to this story, begin to get the point. This story is about not just forgiveness, but extreme forgiveness. This story is about forgiveness that is truly massive, the fatberg of forgiveness. And if we’re going to forgive this way, we need to get ready, to start training for this Iron Man seventy-septathon of Forgiveness.
We’ve seen examples of this kind of extreme forgiveness before. The Amish community that reached out to the family of the man who had walked into their schoolhouse and killed three of their children. The families of those killed at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston who prayed for the killer. The grieving father who publically forgave the shooter at Sandy Hook, the mother who reached out to the man who had killed her daughter in a drunk driving incident, the child at Our Little Roses whose mother had abandoned her who wrote in a poem that her time without her family felt like “a knife trying to get inside a rock” but then told God “when I am finally somebody in this world…I will go straight to Mexico where my mother lives and I will stare at her like I stare at the stars and with a voice that cracks like thunder I will say: i forgive you.”*
We’ve heard of examples of this kind of extreme, Iron Man forgiveness in the world, and it seems that our story is telling us to prepare ourselves for just this kind of forgiveness. Let’s go, the leader seems to say, get out your cross-trainers, set your alarm for oh-dark-hundred, and get ready to work. Get ready to forgive even if it’s through gritted teeth, get ready to sweat as you welcome someone back into the flock, get ready to wake up morning after morning aching from the grind of your extreme forgiveness.
Except that our story does not end there. In our story, the guide decides to tell his twelve disc…erning followers a story of his own. There once was a man who owed his master a great debt. Not just a great debt, but like, a million-bagillion dollars. And when he could not pay his master back the million-bagillion dollars, and his master was threatening to ruin his life, the man fell on his knees and begged his master to forgive what he owed. Which, unbelievably, his master did. The man, chuffed with this new development, immediately walked over to his nearest companion and asked for the hundred bucks he owed him. When his companion couldn’t fork over the money, the man had him arrested and locked up without bail. The master, getting wind of this, changed his mind about the million-bagillion dollars and had the man tortured until he could pay every single cent back. And so – the leader tells his followers – so will happen to you if you do not forgive your sisters and brothers from your heart.
Now the first story is true. It is, of course, the story of Jesus of Nazareth teaching his disciples about forgiveness. The second story is, of course, also true. It may not be factual, but it is certainly true. Because in this parable, Jesus reminds his disciples and us of the great truth that in order to forgive others, we must first know ourselves to be so forgiven. And to begin to know ourselves as those who are forgiven, we must take that one additional, challenging step deep into truth: we must first acknowledge that we ourselves have sinned. We are sinners, we sin: we abandon and betray, we deny Christ three times thirty times, we lie and gossip and hate and steal and misuse our bodies and neglect our prayers and forget the poor and blame the victim and make bad choices again and again and again. We are part of systems that have spent centuries setting up stumbling blocks before people of color, women, the gay, lesbian, and trans community, and countless other least of these. We have sinned, O Lord, we have sinned, and we know our wickedness only too well.
All this is true. Also true is that God will forgive us. If we confess our sins, repent and return to the Lord, the Lord forgives us, forgives all, every cent of sin that we have misspent during our lifetimes. This, finally, is the point of our story – not that we need to buckle down and forgive 77 times, but that God freely forgives us a million-bagillion times. This is the true extreme forgiveness – not that we must become Iron Men of Forgiveness but that this man stretched out his arms upon a cross of wood and iron and offered himself in obedience for the sins of the whole world. We have sinned, O Lord, we have sinned, and we need to know our forgiveness too, and well.
As followers ourselves of this Jesus of Nazareth, we must learn to forgive. But in order to do this, we must first learn the whole story. We must read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the truth of God’s forgiveness. We must recognize ourselves as broken and humble, as those who are as weak and helpless and dependent as a little child, so that we can move into our world with mercy and love, looking for the connection of our mutual brokenness so that we can first speak truth with love, work for justice with kindness, empathy, and compassion, and finally forgive others in the radical, life-changing way that we have been forgiven. "For as the heavens are high above the earth, so is his mercy great upon those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us. And as a father cares for his children, so does the Lord care for those who fear him." This is forgiveness; this is our own true story.
*This poem may be found in Voices Beyond the Wall: Twelve Love Poems from the Murder Capital of the World
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
17 September 2017
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia