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Call to Forgive


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Sermon delivered on Sunday September 11, 2011 by Dr. Charles Yoost, Senior Minister at the Church of the Saviour in Cleveland Heights, OH. Dr. Yoost begins the fall sermon series on text messages from God: Did You Get My Call? with the sermon “The Call to Forgive — What a Coincidence!”

Believing that coincidence is really God working incognito, the Lectionary text for this Sunday is the parable of the Unforgiving Servant. What is God saying to us on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack?
Peter is willing to forgive seven times, but Jesus expects us to forgive without measure. That’s easier said than done! Jesus sets the example by forgiving those who crucified him as he hung on the cross. Who do we need to forgive? From whom do we need to ask forgiveness?

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Call to Forgive

  1. 1.   “THE CALL TO FORGIVE --- WHAT A COINCIDENCE!” Matthew 18:21-35 Dr. Charles D. Yoost, Senior Pastor I see it there. Don’t you? There’s a pack on your back! Oh, with your Sunday clotheson, it’s not too noticeable. Don’t worry. It’s not obvious. But I can tell: you have a pack onyour back. You’ve got a lot of stuff in that pack. Sometimes it gets pretty heavy, doesn’t it?Hey, I know. I’m wearing one, too. You know what I keep in mine? I store things there, justlike a squirrel getting ready for winter. When somebody embarrasses me, I jot that down, andput it in the pack. When I am humiliated, I note carefully who said what, and that goes in thepack. All my hurt feelings are stored there. Every little injury, each unkind statement, and allthe collected grudges of the years: they’re all in my pack. It’s getting heavy, almost too heavyto carry. But I’ll make it. Just watch me. I can handle it. I always have. You can handle yours,too. You have to. My pack comes in handy. For not only do I use it to collect all the hates and cruelties andinjustices of my life, I also use it to dispense some zingers of my own. When I have a chance,and I see you in a vulnerable spot, why, I just reach back into my pack very cautiously and getout one the bits and pieces that have your name on it, one of the things you have done to me. Itake careful aim, and hurl that bit of poison back at you. My pack comes in handy. I never put itdown! I never know when I’m going to need some ammunition, and I wouldn’t want to getcaught off guard. I even sleep with my pack on! Oh, it wasn’t very comfortable at first, but I’vegotten used to it. I’d feel strange without it now. One afternoon as I was struggling along underthe weight of my pack, someone stopped and asked if I wanted a ride. I gratefully accepted. Henoticed that I didn’t put the pack down, even though there was plenty of room in the back seat.Obviously, he didn’t realize the importance keeping my pack handy at all times. Some peoplejust don’t understand. Like this Jesus fellow. He says to take off your pack and let your shoulders have a restand see what it’s like to walk around without that load on your back. He says that there’s morepower in letting go of all that stuff than there is in hanging on to it with one hand and reachinginside for little bits of ammunition with the other. He says that taking off the pack --- with God’shelp, of course, is the key to understanding the new life that he keeps talking about. It suresounds attractive: freedom from the weight of that heavy load; power that brings healing to 
  2. 2. 2   relationships that have steadily deteriorated through the years. He says all this is a gift from God--- giving us power and setting us free. I wonder. What I am talking about, of course, is forgiveness: that basic experience that makes sucha difference to everyone and everything it touches. Forgiveness is the key to the Christian life.It is the cornerstone in our relationship with God. It is the only way to get the packs off ourbacks and begin living the full, free life that God intends for you and for me. The dictionarydefines forgiveness as “giving up resentment against a person or giving up the desire topunish.” That’s what God has done for us. That’s what God calls us to do for others. For every American, September 11 will never again be just another day on the calendar,the day after September 10 and the day before September 12. From those who were grade schoolchildren at the time, to those who are senior adults, all of us can remember where we were andwhat we were doing at the hour we learned that terrorists had attacked our country that day in2001. When we began planning for the fall kick-off, I noted that by coincidence, the big day wasgoing to fall on Sunday this year, the tenth anniversary of that horrific event. Then I looked atthe lectionary Scriptures for the day. As many of you know, the lectionary is a cycle of Biblereadings, designed to cover the major themes and events and stories of the Bible in three years.The appointed Scripture for today is Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant. What acoincidence, I thought! Then I remembered what I heard my friend and mentor, Joe Harding,say many times. Joe Harding, the designer of Vision 2000 and many other evangelistic tools forthe United Methodist Church, preached here at Church of the Saviour on several occasions. Joeused to say, “There is no such thing as a coincidence. What we think of as a coincidence isreally God working incognito.” Then I began to ask myself, what is God saying to us today?What does God want us to do on September 11, 2011? Does God want us to take the packs offour backs? Are we ready, are we able to forgive? When Peter suggests that seven is the appropriate number of times to forgive a brother orsister, he seems to be demonstrating to Jesus how much he has learned under the Master’stutelage. Seven is an important number in biblical numerology. It is the number ofcompleteness, as in the seven-day week in the Genesis creation account. We often set up criteriabefore we are willing to forgive someone: he must say he is sorry. She must be willing to makeamends. But it appears that Peter is willing to forgive without any sign of repentance on the partof the offender. Thus Peter demonstrates his understanding of a gracious and generous heart bysuggesting the unthinkable: offering forgiveness not once or twice, as might be expected for arighteous person, but seven times. Jesus, of course, has more to teach Peter. He begins by saying that though Peter is on theright track, he is not there yet. “Not seven times,” Jesus says. Seven is a good start, butcomplete love is shown by those who forgive without measure. Bible scholars do not agree as towhether Jesus means “77” or “70 times 7,” but the point is clear: we should be so generous ofheart as to forgive beyond the ability to count. Those who keep score are, in a sense, not reallypracticing forgiveness. They are merely collecting offenses, putting them in their packs andallowing them to accrue until the pack gets so heavy that anyone would see the obvious need towrite the offender off. To illustrate what he means by forgiveness, Jesus tells a story. In that story a kingforgave a servant who owed a huge debt, an inconceivable amount of money. In these difficulteconomic circumstances, what could be better than the news that all our debts are canceled? Nomore house payment, no more car payment, no more medical bills, no more credit card debt.The debts are canceled; the ledger thrown away. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? 
  3. 3. 3    But the servant left that experience where he had received extravagant mercy, for the debtwas larger than ever he could hope to pay, and who should he bump into but a fellow servantwho owed him some money (a small amount by comparison), and grabbed him and ordered himto pay up! When the poor fellow could not pay, the man had him thrown in prison. When theking learned this, he called the man whom he had forgiven and had him imprisoned. “I forgaveyou all that debt …and should you not have had mercy on your fellow servant? “ Then the hardwords of Jesus: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgiveyour brother or sister from your heart.” Did you read the fine print? Did you hear that last condition? Grace is offered. God willforgive. But, in order to receive forgiveness, we must be willing to forgive others. May I remindyou that every time we say the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgivethose who trespass against us.” God’s forgiveness of us is linked to our forgiveness of others. Forgiveness is not a quality that comes easily to most of us. The wounds are too deep.The pain is too severe. The damage is too extensive. So it is that the way of Jesus comes as achallenge to us when he asks us to forgive those who have trespassed against us. Now if it wasjust anybody saying it, we would have a tendency to ignore them. But when Jesus says it, it hasa different ring to it, for here is a man who practiced what he preached. Not only did he teachabout forgiveness in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus practiced forgiveness in his own life. Thecall to forgive that I want you to think with me about this morning is not a philosopher’s theoryor a social scientist’s formula for successful living. No, the spirit of forgiveness is a viablelifestyle, demonstrated by Jesus. A Sunday school teacher asked the class what impressed them the most about Jesus. Onelittle boy said, “The thing that impresses me most is when Jesus forgave the people from thecross.” Intrigued, the teacher asked, “Why do you say that?” The boy replied, “Because I couldnot have done it.” I’m not sure I could have done it. But Jesus did. And he bids us to follow inhis steps. Peter Storey, who was our Myers Lecture speaker here at Church of the Saviour severalyears ago, was one of the architects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.The world watched as apartheid was dismantled, and forgiveness, rather than vengeance becamethe order of the day as that country began a new chapter in its history. Eighteen years after the fact, a member of the secret police confessed that he had shot ayoung man, then went to his home and dragged his father out of the house and shot him, in frontof his wife, and forced her to watch as he and his drunken friends dragged both bodies away. Ashe confessed this crime, the horrified court sat in silence as the judge asked the wife and mother,“What would you like to see done to this man?” The old woman, who was both a grieving mother and a grieving widow, said softly, “Thisman has taken away from me all that I had. But he has not taken away all of my ability to love.I want him to gather up some of the dirt from where my husband is buried. And I want him tovisit me twice a month.” (1) This woman could have asked for revenge, but instead she chosethe path toward reconciliation. The day the United States invaded Iraq, confident that the most evil and threatening forcein the world was Saddam Hussein, a worship service was held on the campus of Easter College.Tony Campolo was the preacher, and during his sermon, he proposed that, rather than dropbombs on the Iraqis to try to force Hussein from power, the U.S. should send ships to Iraq ladenwith medical supplies, food and other items, dump these on the Iraqi people for free, and see 
  4. 4. 4   what would happen. Campolo said, “If Hussein is still in power in six months, attack if youmust.” (2) Of course, few took Tony Campolo seriously. His seemed a ridiculous proposal. Did henot care about justice? Wrong had been done, and somebody had to pay. The United Statesproclaimed that Iraq was a just war, a war on terror, and we spent $ 700 billion dollars and lostnearly 5,000 American military personnel, including our own Augie Schroeder, who was 23years old at the time of his death. In 2006, a crazed gunman burst into a one-room Amish schoolhouse near Lancaster,Pennsylvania, and shot ten girls, ages 6 to 13, killing five of them, and then committed suicidethere in the classroom. Amidst shock and grief, the Amish leaders emphasized the concept offorgiveness and offered reconciliation to the family of the man who had murdered their children,even inviting the widow of the gunman to one of the funerals. I learned through one of ourmembers, Pete Krouse, a reporter for the Plain Dealer, that when a high-level delegation ofChinese visitors came to Cleveland as part of a trade mission, one of the things they requestedsee was an Amish community, because they had heard about the shooting in Lancaster,Pennsylvania, and were intrigued by the Amish community’s ability to forgive. This fall we are focusing on text messages from God. I believe it is no coincidence thatthe parable of the Unforgiving Servant is our text for the day. Did you hear the phone? Did youget the text? Let September 11, 2011, be a day of new beginnings. Let it be the day we answerthe text message from God: the call to forgive.Prayer: Dear God, How hard it is to forgive! How hard it is to take the packs off our backs andlet go of the hurts and injuries we have experienced through the years. Yet we know thatoffering forgiveness is the only way to the full, free life that you intend for us. Help us to askourselves who you are calling us to forgive, and from whom do we need to ask forgiveness.Thank you, Jesus, for taking all our sins upon yourself and forgiving each and every one.Having experienced your forgiveness, help us to go and do likewise! Amen.“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you!” --- AnonymousNotes: 1. Pulpit Resource. Vol. 39. No. 3, p. 38. 2. Ibid., p. 39.© 2011 Charles D. Yoost