Back in 2007, you may remember an Amish community, where a man burst into their school and shot ten little girls.  Five of these little girls were killed in the shooting.  It was a terrible tragedy by any measure.  Yet, what people were blown away by was the forgiveness shown by that Amish community.  Their donations to the widow and children of the killers, and their presence at the burial of the one who perpetrated such violence against their community seemed unimaginable.  However, those Amish folks made it clear that their actions came as a result of their understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.[1]

Yet, even I imagine to some of us as fellow Christians, such forgiveness seems unimaginable.  This is where Jesus takes us this week.  Last week we considered what it means to handle discipleship as a community, with a disposition always towards reconciliation.  Peter’s question to Jesus immediately after Jesus’ counsel calls us now in these moments to struggle with the practical living out of a community that is always predisposed towards reconciliation.

Peter asks the question pointedly.  “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”  It is important to note that Peter’s suggestion is probably not meant as a literal limit.  Rather, since seven is a number of perfection in the Bible, Peter is more than likely asking something like, “Must I practice perfect forgiveness?”[2]  When Jesus responds “not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” or “seven times seven” depending on your translation, what he means is that our practice of forgiveness must be beyond perfect.[3] What Jesus means by this is that the very nature of the church as the body of Christ includes forgiveness even beyond what we can often imagine.

Yet, if you’re like me, you may be wondering, how can we really live like this?  If you’re not wondering that yet, think about some of the implications of such radical forgiveness.  Consider the Amish folks who lost all those little girls.  Or perhaps consider women or men who are being abused by their spouses.  What do Jesus’ words here mean for them?  Are they called to continually return to their abusive spouses?  Or what about registered sex offenders?  What happens when they want to become a part of the church’s fellowship?  How are we to receive them while still protecting the vulnerable persons among us, such as our youth and children?

What it comes down to is that our working understanding of what forgiveness means has real, tangible consequences in our lives.  Perhaps that is why Jesus felt it necessary to share a parable to clarify the character of forgiveness in the church.

My favorite novelist, Flannery O’Connor, said that when your audience does not share the same vision as you,

have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.[4]

I think that is what Jesus is doing in this parable.  This parable, often called the “parable of the ungrateful servant” is particularly exaggerated.  The characters Jesus describes are drawn as caricatures, so that his point is abundantly clear.

Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.  The slave in the story owes his lord ten thousand talents.  “Ten thousand talents” suggests an absurd amount of money.  It would be likes you owing me a bagillion dollars.  Suffice it say, the slave owes the king a debt that cannot be paid by any circumstances.  Because he cannot pay his debt, his lord decides to sell the slave, his wife, and his children into prison in order for the payment to be made.  It was against Jewish law to sell someone into slavery, and while it was legal in Greek and Roman law, it was a seldom practiced.  This detail suggests that king in this parable is especially severe.[5]  Yet, the king’s severity makes his mercy towards the slave all the more surprising.

The slave pleads with his lord for more time, and the king unbelievably has mercy, not just giving the slave more time to pay, but also forgiving his servant’s unpayable debt.  The story then takes another surprising turn.  A fellow slave owes the first slave a hundred denarii.  This would be like me owing you fifty bucks.  Yet, even for this small amount the first slave puts a choke hold on his fellow slave because of the debt.  When this slave who owes such a relatively small debt appeals for mercy, the slave who received such mercy shows no mercy at all.  He throws his fellow slave in debtors’ prison until he can pay the debt.  Some other slaves see all this activity, and they report it to their lord.  Their lord turns severe again because he cannot believe that this slave could not show forth the mercy that he was shown.

The picture Jesus paints here is surprising.  The lord we encounter in this story is clearly like God, and we fellow slaves of our common are like the servants.  However, it is important also to recognize that the lord we encounter in the parable is not identical to God.  Thus, we should not get too hung up on the details of the lord in the parable torturing the slave.  Jesus paints his picture with such stark imagery to jolt us out of our normal routine in order to show us the surprising and counter-cultural nature of the church’s practice of forgiveness.

He is shouting because Peter and we are having a hard time understanding the nature of his kingdom.  He is drawing with large figures because Peter and we aren’t very good and seeing what the kingdom of heaven looks like.  What is most clear is that God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness of one another are related.  God’s forgiveness should effect in us forgiveness for others.  This is what we pray each week in the Lord’s prayer, that God would “forgive our trespasses as we forgive the trespasses of others.”

As we approach Jesus’ words more closely in context, as Jesus jolts us to attention, we receive a clearer vision of what forgiveness looks like in the Christian community.  Our forgiveness first and foremost flows of our deep sense of humility and gratitude.  We first understand ourselves as ones who have received gracious and undeserved mercy.  Therefore, when we encounter the sin of another, no matter how small or large the sin, we remember that it could be us.  We remember that in many cases it was us.  Recognizing this, we are moved towards understanding.  We are moved towards mercy.

Perhaps more accurately, that is how we should act.  In reality, we are not so merciful.  We forget what it is like to be the recipients of such grace and mercy as God has shown us.  Instead of holding on to one another in an embrace of love, we grab one another with a choke hold.

As a Christian community, we are called to the difficult and delicate task of holding in tension what we heard last week about community discipline with the community we hear about this week whose very life is shaped by an unending stream of forgiveness.  As one commentator notes, “The forgiveness Jesus calls for is inseparable from truth telling and accountability within the church.”[6]  It means that when the abused man or woman is in our midst, we do not simply send him or her back into the hands of the abuser to be hurt again.  Rather, we care for the abused and empower that person by taking one, then two or three, and then the whole church if necessary to deal with the abuser, always with the hope of reconciliation.  If the abuser will not repent, then we may be forced to submit the abuser to disciplinary action.  In this way the church cares for the abuser and the abused.

This commitment to a community that balances accountability and forgiveness is written into the promises we make when people are baptized in our midst.  We promise to

surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others.  We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.[7]

The balance is between this “community of love and forgiveness” and our responsibility to help one another to be “true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”  To enter into this community is to enter into a community that will call us to costly grace, to a life of discipleship.  Yet, we also acknowledge that as we encourage one another towards growth in love of God and neighbor, we ourselves are recipients of an unimaginable and indescribable mercy.  This humbles us, and when we share that mercy and forgiveness with one another we create that community of love and forgiveness.  It is a community that knows that God welcomes us as we are, yet we are also a community that recognizes that God does not leave us that way.

The Gospel lesson for this morning, this thing we receive as good news, is that we aren’t as good and deserving as we think we are.  It chips away at our entitlement.  It chips away at our notion that we someone deserve the place in which we find ourselves.  It chips away our secret inklings that we are where we are because we are better than others.  It lays us bare before our Creator who we constantly run away from.  As the scales fall from our eyes, we see the way in which that same Creator constantly reaches out to us definitively in Jesus Christ, whose body of love and forgiveness consumes us as we consume the simple elements of bread and wine.

As we are consumed in this way, a mercy, a forgiveness, arises in this community that we never thought was possible.  It is not a forgiveness that allows us to take advantage of each other.  It is not a forgiveness that leaves the vulnerable more abused.  It is not to pretend that nothing has happened and move on. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we pretend we aren’t hurt.  It doesn’t even mean that we pretend that problematic and hurtful behaviors aren’t condemned.  Forgiveness means that we give up our desire for vengeance and retribution.[8]

This is what happens when we take Jesus seriously.  We look strange to the world around us.  This is why the Amish who forgave the one who murdered five of their little girls looked strange.  We may even look strange to each other, considering that many Christians, many of us, included were not sure we could be so faithful in the midst of such tragedy.  Yet, the forgiveness those Amish folks offered did not mean that they weren’t hurt.  There was an assumption by those watching the story that the forgiveness shown by the community suggested that the community members had quickly gotten over the tragedy.    This could not be further from the truth.  Many of the members of the community sought counseling, and I would imagine many of them continue to be affected by those events.  Yet, their forgiveness meant that they released this man and his family from the vengeance that many of us would demand in the face of such tragedy.[9]

Last week, I noted that one of the reasons that “binding and loosing” is a mark of the Body of Christ is that the church is called to be a sign and instrument of God’s glory in the world.  We are called to be a blessing to the world.  The kind of unbelievable forgiveness that is found in the life of the church has the effect of drawing the attention of the world around us.  Our reaction matters.  Our life as a community of love and forgiveness means that in the face of unimaginable hurt and pain, through the grace we find in Christ we find ourselves able to show unimaginable mercy.

This is an important thing for us to remember as we reflect on this tenth anniversary of the deaths in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.  There are all sorts of folks who are going to use this anniversary for their own agenda.  News companies will seek ratings, politicians will seek to score points by blaming one another, and those who speak words of hate will use the memories to spark hate and fear in our hearts.  There will be a lot of talking, a lot of words about these events.

Yet, what may be the best thing in these moments is silence.  It is in the silence where we meet ourselves as persons who have received an unimaginable mercy.  It is where we are confronted with our own tendencies towards hate and violence.  It is also where the Holy Spirit, who leads us into the truth that we are called to be this community of love and forgiveness, so that the world might know what God’s love and forgiveness look like.

If we are to take Jesus’ words seriously, what does our continuing response to the tragedy we experienced ten years ago look like?  How are we to get beyond agendas, be honest about our pain, and yet get beyond the feelings of vengeance that well up in us?  Put a different way, how do we find ourselves responding in a way that that is an alterative to putting our proverbial boot “you know where”?  The answer to this question is not easily arrived at.  I don’t think it’s an answer than any of us can arrive at on our own.

I think the beginning of the answer comes in Jesus’ call to a seventy-seven kind of forgiveness.  We, as this alterative community called the church as called to struggle with what it means to offer this same love and forgiveness even to those who we would consider our worst enemies.  It is not something I can do without you, nor you without me.  It must come out of our common agreement that our calling as disciples of Jesus Christ is to be part of a community where forgiving seventy-seven times is the rule, not the exception.

To move towards forgiveness is not to dishonor those whose lives were lost.  Rather, it is live authentically as the community created by the one who conquered death.  It is to speak life into the midst of a narrative that is dripping with death and violence.  It is not to suggest that such death and violence can be overcome.

Rather it is to speak authoritatively that such hate and violence has already been overcome by Jesus Christ, God’s decisive answer to a world fascinated by vengeance and death. 

The church’s character as a community of love and forgiveness is the witness that such a victory has already been achieved through our grace-assisted ability to live as such a community.  The church demonstrates that there is an alternative to the world as it is because it shows the world as it could be.

What made the forgiveness of the Amish so surprising and even appalling to so many people, even to us as fellow Christians is that we didn’t believe it was possible.  Despite what we might say, we didn’t really think that kind of love and forgiveness, that kind of seventy times seven, was possible.  What would it do to the world around us if the church were to take that kind of posture towards the tragic events we remember today?

We are humbled as we consider the gracious mercy offered to us.  Perhaps God in these reflective moments is calling us to consider how we might share such a gracious mercy with a world so full of pain, so full of hurt, so poisoned by a desire for vengeance.  This morning, I saw words on facebook from another pastor that I think ends a sermon that I wasn’t quite sure how to end.  She said, “God does have a way of combating evil. It’s not punishment and it’s not retaliation, fear or anger. It’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is God’s way of combating evil.”[10]

[1] Joseph Shapiro, “Amish Forgive School Shooter, Struggle with Grief,” NPR News,, (October 2, 2007) cited September 11, 2011.

[2] Lewis R. Donelson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 69.

[3] Donelson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 69.

[4] Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country” The Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor, (New York: Library of America, 1988)

[5] Ibid., p. 71.

[6] Charles Cambell, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 71.

[7] “Baptismal Covenant I,” United Methodist Hymnal, (Nashville:  UM Publishing House, 1989), p. 35.

[8] Marjorie J. Thompson, “Moving Toward Forgiveness,” Weavings, March-April 1992, p. 19.  Cited in Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting, p. 72.

[9] Shapiro, “Amish Forgive School Shooter,” NPR, cited September 11, 2011.

[10] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Facebook post, cited on September 11, 2011.