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May 7, 2017

“The Potential of Forgiveness”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Psalm 32.1-5

Matthew 18.21-35

May 7, 2017

            Last week I mentioned an interview with Alyssa Parker on NPR. Parker recently wrote a book called An Unseen Angel, written about her journey of grief.[1] Parker’s daughter, Emilie, was killed in the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. In the interview, Parker discussed the process she went through in forgiving Adam Lanza, her daughter’s killer. She told about a conversation her husband had with one of her three daughters, Madeline. The two were talking shortly after the tragic event. Madeline asked Parker’s husband when they would see Emilie again. Being devout Mormons, he gave a faith based response. Then, Madeline asked what would happen to Adam Lanza, who committed suicide after the shooting. Parker’s husband paused, and asked Madeline what she thought God thought about Lanza. She replied, “I think God still loves him, but is sad about choices he made.” This statement was what convinced Parker to begin letting go of her anger and to begin the path of forgiveness.

            Alyssa Parker’s story is amazing. For a mother to forgive her child’s killer seems nearly impossible, but with such compassion and love Parker makes it seem achievable. Her story is full of love and hope and compassion. It reminds us that we can forgive, too. It also reminds us that children have more wisdom than we can often muster up. In a world with such anger and frustration and tension, it is a message we need to hear. It is a message that has been preached often but isn’t simple – because if it was, we wouldn’t need to hear it over and over again.

            Parker’s forgiveness was faith based, because God encourages us to reconcile with one another. The Matthew passage begins with a question from Peter – how many times should we forgive? Jesus gives a number, but the number is more about how there is no number. Seventy-seven is a way of saying that forgiveness is not about a tally or a number.[2] You don’t check off forgiveness because it is something on your to-do list. It is something we have to work at and it takes time and effort, and there is no way to quantify how many times we will forgive.

            Next, Jesus offers a parable about forgiveness, which is often entitled “The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.” A king looks to settle some of his accounts and asks for a servant to pay him back. The amount of money is absolutely unbelievable – we’re probably looking at millions of dollars in our day and age. We might even wonder why the king even let this become so out of hand in the first place. The king suggests that the servant and his family be sold to help settle the debt. The servant begs the king to forgive him, and, graciously, the king does.

            Fast forward, and we find the servant in the place of the king. The servant is demanding repayment from someone else, for probably less than five bucks. The person does not have the money, but the servant is not forgiving. Did he forget what just happened with the king? Does greed drive him? We don’t know what is happening in his mind, but we see that he is not as forgiving as the king. Eventually the king finds out and becomes so angry. God is compared to this king. God offers us grace and forgiveness and we are expected to extend the same to others.

            Do we keep extending forgiveness? Even when others are not forgiving? How many times do we forgive? In a conversation about forgiveness it is important to recognize some boundaries. Even God set up boundaries. God decides in this parable that if forgiveness is not extended, there is some justice that needs to be served. Now, the end is quite violent. It is not to be taken literally, but is a way to show God’s seriousness about forgiveness.[3] There are some limits. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. It does not offer a blank check for anything to happen. It does not mean an abused wife goes back to her husband. It does not mean putting someone back into the position of harm again. 

            Forgiveness is not just to make us look good or to appease God. Forgiveness is about wholeness. This is a wholeness within ourselves and within our relationships.[4] Alyssa Parker talked about letting go of anger that controlled her. She was so furious with Adam Lanza, and said she saw him as a “monster.” It consumed her. Though, she found some health in letting go of that anger, bit by bit.

            The psalm tells us about happiness found in forgiveness. We are healthier when we can offer forgiveness, and when we can accept forgiveness from others. Our spirits are lighter and we are not weighed down by the worry and concern and obsession with negativity. Some commentators on this passage suggest that forgiveness really isn’t for God. God knows what we have done, and that we are sinful. Confession is actually to help us heal.[5] When we confess we begin to recognize something is not right and can correct it, and heal from the experience.

            Forgiveness is difficult but so important in our current political climate. As I mentioned last week in Parker’s story, she talked about connection. There is a connection between individuals and God and a connection among humanity, and with the earth. When we feel that connection we feel compassion. What does it look like to offer compassion to someone who is against everything we stand for? Compassion tears down walls and builds bridges to help us find new ways of understanding.

            Walter Brueggemann says, “Empires aren’t built or maintained on the basis of compassion.” He’s referring to the fact that Jesus spent his ministry loving people who were oppressed. Jesus offered compassion in places where hatred was keeping people oppressed. Jesus was forgiving to topple the terrible system and to show a new way. Forgiveness doesn’t always come natural to us and so we have to consciously make an effort to be compassionate to some people.

            Are you holding on to anything? I’ve given you a sheet of paper. You might notice this is from the children’s curriculum. We used it in BGLAD at the beginning of Lent as we talked about this passage and what it means to forgive. It may come from children’s curriculum, but as noted earlier, I think we have much to learn from children. This paper is helpful in learning a process of forgiveness.

            What do you find hard to forgive? Is there anything that you hold onto because it is too difficult to forgive someone for? The next question is about your feelings – how do you feel? It is important to realize your emotional state when you go through a process of forgiveness. You won’t feel instantly happy. Your emotions are important.

            I think this next part is really significant – what does this tell me about myself? When you can reflect on how this situation and your emotions tell a story about you, you are able to identify what is at the core of the issue. What really bothers you about this? How can you move forward? Finally, it asks you what you can do.

            I want you to take a few moments and fill this out – it is just for you. Meditate on whether there is anything you need to forgive. What will you take from that experience? How will you behave differently in the future?

            Let us give thanks to God, who loves us, who forgives us, and calls us to forgive one another. Amen.


[2] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year A. (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), 441.

[3] Charles Campbell, “Matthew 18.21-35” in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 73.

[4] Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, “Matthew 18.21-35” in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 4. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 68.

[5] Andrea Wigodsky, “Psalm 32” in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 34.