Mathematics of Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35 – the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for September 11, 2011

“. . . how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21)

In Matthew 18:21, the disciple Peter ponders forgiving another seven times. In Matthew 18:22*, Jesus challenged Peter—and therefore us—to forgive seventy-seven times.

Ah-oh. Note the asterisk by 22. Don’t race to the bottom of these words to find what it refers to . . . I’ll deal with it now. Almost every Bible has a footnote or asterisk linked to Matthew 18:22 because different ancient manuscripts, and different ways of interpreting Greek, lead to a different number. Instead of forgiving another seventy-seven times, Jesus may have exhorted Peter to forgive seven times seventy. Gulp. Take a breath. Now do the math. How many times should I be prepared to declare, “I forgive you?”

7 x 70 = 490

Iforgiveyou-Iforgiveyou-Iforgiveyou-Iforgiveyou-Iforgiveyou
Iforgiveyou-Iforgiveyou-Iforgiveyou-Iforgiveyou-Iforgiveyou

10 down, 480 to go.

Jesus must have been kidding, right? He exaggerated, used hyperbole. It’s all about shock value.

In the faithful mathematics of forgiveness, whether the answer to Peter’s question is 77 or 490, there’s always a crucial, single number at the start . . .

1

Me. You. One nation. A corporation. Every giving or receiving of forgiveness will begin because an individual or an institution steps forward and truthfully says, “I forgive you.”

And yet, if one person doesn’t begin . . . Continue reading →

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Scares The ____ Out Of Me

Matthew 18:15-20 – 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for September 4, 2011

“If another member of the church sins against you…” (Matthew 18:15

For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them (Matthew 18:20) has been a source of great strength for me. It reassures that a handful of people can make a difference.

When I attended seminary in the mid-1970s, I never heard the term “megachurch.” By the 1990s, it seemed commonplace, a go-to description for congregations with 2,000 or more in weekly worship attendance. Megachurches were likened to shopping malls. Size matters. Choice matters. The bigger the better.

The bigger are better. Really?

Nearly every pastor I’ve known would love to preach to thousands on a Sunday morning. However, for many it doesn’t matter how open they are to God’s guidance, their church won’t become a booming megachurch. Often the reason’s as simple as the old real estate mantra: location, location, location. Some churches were once perfectly positioned in a neighborhood . . . then a new freeway made access a maze of wrong turns and dead ends.

But nearly every pastor I’ve known—whether preaching to twenty or two thousand—relishes moments in a hospital room or a supermarket aisle that become a transformational encounter with another. Christ is present! In the hospital, hands are held and prayers are whispered and honest fears are shared. In that supermarket aisle, a pastor learns from a woman about her miscarriage. It was her secret until that moment. Both had their shopping lists of juice and a loaf of bread and then, because two or three have gathered, God’s grace allows for a private hurt to become a burden shared and a hope to be glimpsed.

And yet there’s a raggedy edge to “where two or more are gathered.” The verses leading to Matthew 18:20 also trouble me. They are sharp fingernails on the chalkboard of the soul. When Jesus speaks in the 18th chapter, the Nazarene cautions about one person sinning against another. What you must do, so says Matthew’s Jesus, is “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

Frankly, this suggestion scares the ______ out of me. (Every day I clean up something my dog deposits in the backyard and it’s an awful lot like that blank space . . . see, I can be polite.)

It’s one thing to sit beside others and prayerfully support them. To listen to them, guessing they’ve rarely had anyone take the time to hear their story. To speak with them, giving them the simple gifts of honest praise and trusting support.

Where are you so “right” that it’s hard for you to learn from and listen to another?

But how can I confront another when they’ve “sinned” against me? Continue reading →

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But He Looks Back

Exodus 3:1-15 – The 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for August 28, 2011

“. . . and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’” (Exodus 3:13)

With sandals again strapped to his feet, did Moses gaze back toward the burning bush after his encounter with the Holy?

You know what happened in the fiery confrontation between Moses and God. Aren’t we grateful Cecil B. DeMille happened to be there with his camera crew and Charlton Heston conveniently served as a body double for the handsome Jewish shepherd? (As an alternative to Mr. Heston, I’ve placed an interesting YouTube link at the end.)

Whether possessing deep faith or no belief, whether a Christian, Jew, Muslim or even if you’re the solitary member of the church of Me-Myself-and-I, you know something about a desert shrub that flames couldn’t consume.

The sacred chat between God and Moses wasn’t short, covering most of chapters 3 and 4 in Exodus. Once Moses removed his sandals, his best and worst sides were revealed. He’s a clever enough fellow and talked God into revealing the divine name. And yet he also whined about how he couldn’t speak well—even as he speaks well to the Holy Flame—and implied the Lord God Almighty should choose a sweeter-tongued servant to deliver the Children of Israel from bondage.

You know this.

You can thumb through your Bible and “read all about it.” Or you can watch a clip from the TEN COMMANDMENTS, feel slightly guilty for taking the easy route, but could still convey the basics of the Holy/human chat beside a glowing plant.

What is a nickname you have (or had) that reveals something about you?

This is the moment of Moses’ call. What will he do when confronted with a new path, a new task, a new way of seeing himself? Will he acknowledge his gifts and God’s invitation? Moses in this moment is every person. This passage is not anchored to one religion or one period of time. Are you engaged in what brings you great joy? In my first year of seminary, a fellow student declared, “You better feel the call to ministry. Do you really want to serve God?” He asked those questions with more conviction than any of the clergy who were on the endless committees guiding my ordination process. But it’s not a question unique for clergy. You better feel the call to teach, fix cars, defend clients, drive a bus, raise a child, sell stocks, repair toilets, insert catheters. Whatever it is you do, do you want to do it? Have you seen the burning bush, or are you still wandering in the wilderness, eyes averted, life avoided? This question should haunt us. Honestly answering it dares us to declare who we are. Continue reading →

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