Forgiveness…a lesson from some children.
Sermon for Adel Parish church 13th Sept 2020
Matthew 18: 21 – 35
They were the sort of class you get once in a teaching career. Sparky, creative, with enough lovely kids to affect the behaviour of the whole class. They weren’t all perfect, or clever, but somehow together they made something very special.
Then, a new child arrived. A difficult start in life had left her angry, frightened, and lashing out at anyone – especially other children. Lessons were suddenly punctuated by nipping, punching, spoiling of work.
Those children were amazing. Every morning our newcomer was greeted with smiles; no one avoided sitting by her. They didn’t ignore her poor behaviour…they told me…and they expected me to do something about it. But once action had been taken, it was finished with. The injured party would happily work with her…she was never short of a playmate.
And they did this again and again and again.
It was the best example of the power of forgiveness I’ve ever seen. By seeking justice but never revenge, that group of 6 year olds showed how true forgiveness changes us. How it’s not just about doing the right thing, or being kind, but allows the forgiven person to grow and flourish. How it enables a person to confront and accept their own sin, knowing it won’t be made to define them.
Our new child, let’s call her Amy, wasn’t labelled ‘the naughty child’, she was just Amy. She was allowed to learn that upsetting people doesn’t make you happy, but being kind can. By October half-term you could rarely pick Amy out as ‘troubled’, she was just part of a lovely class.
I think that example of forgiveness within a community illustrates something of what Jesus was saying in today’s gospel.
As usual, Jesus paints a ridiculously exaggerated picture to make a point. Ten thousand talents represent an impossibly large amount. That a slave could owe so much, that he could ever pay it off, that a king would just forgive the whole amount, would all have seemed incredible.
So, the slave’s next action, his refusal to forgive a tiny debt, comes as a shock. It seems outrageous because instinctively we know, as my class did, that true forgiveness changes. We can’t imagine that the first man – forgiven so much – would not forgive in turn.
Perhaps Jesus is saying to Peter – if that story seems ridiculous, it’s because you already know the answer to your question. As my followers you know just how much God has forgiven you. You know the change being forgiven has brought to your lives…so surely you can’t imagine being like that slave and not forgiving others.
It seems to me that Jesus teaches us to forgive one another over and over again, not because it is ‘good’ in some abstract sense, but because it allows each of us to grow and change. It’s not about ignoring wrongs; it’s about facing them and moving on. Being part of a community based on forgiveness is to be part of a community where people can change.
Had ‘Amy’ been met with hostility, I suspect she would have become more defiant, convinced herself others were the problem. But being met only with forgiveness gave her the chance to change quietly and without a fuss. She was able to accept that her actions were wrong, without feeling that she was a bad person.
That story is a good reminder to any group of Christians of how we should behave towards one another and ourselves. I’m sure Adel Parish church isn’t full of people bearing grudges and wanting revenge…but I suspect there are people who struggle to forgive themselves, or accept that God can forgive them. And most of us have times when we don’t want to admit we need forgiving.
Sometimes it’s hard to accept we need forgiveness because it means admitting guilt. We live in a society where people are quick to condemn, and one poor choice is used to define people as bad. Confronting our need for forgiveness makes us vulnerable.
I’ve experienced this powerfully in my response to racial injustice. Recent events have brought home that Racism is not just a problem of the US or extreme rightwing groups…it’s a problem here. This means it’s my problem too but it’s a difficult one to face.
I’m realising that growing up in a world where ‘white’ is normalised as right…as somehow superior…means I’ve internalised these ideas without ever choosing to. It’s uncomfortable to admit…because racists are really bad people, aren’t they?
A group of us from Adel church have begun to listen, read and consider what our response should be. Our first session, sharing a very non-confrontational video by a Methodist minister proved surprisingly emotional.
One person, watching the clip, said, ‘I’ve discovered I’m racist.’ One friend was reduced to tears at the same thought.
Facing it together as a group of Christians though, means acknowledging our need for forgiveness in a place where our sins don’t define who we are. We’re able to explore and admit to difficult things because we already know we can be forgiven.
I’m not talking about forgiveness from non-white brothers and sisters – that’s not a matter for me. I’m talking, as Peter was, about forgiveness within a Christian community. I’m talking about the power of an atmosphere of forgiveness rather than condemnation…power that allows us to admit and accept our failings…which then allows us to change and grow.
I’ve focused on that issue, because today is Racial Justice Sunday, and because it’s live for many at the moment. But whatever issue faces us – this is a model of what a church community should be…a community based on forgiveness, which enables those who join it to grow and change.
I pray that Adel St John’s will always strive to be a community of forgiveness, a place where followers of Jesus, new and old, can face their sins together whilst never being defined by them; where, surrounded by love and forgiveness we can grow and change together.