Malcolm Gladwell is not a person inclined to believe in things he can’t see. The author of The Tipping Point and several other books about how we look at the world, Gladwell’s recent book, David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, & The Art of Battling Giants, took him to the home of Cliff and Wilma Derksen of Winnipeg. Thirty years ago, their daughter, Candace, had disappeared and all of Winnipeg had searched with them. A week later, their daughter’s body was discovered less than a mile from their home where she had been held captive. Cliff was considered the top suspect, but as they stood in front of the news cameras thirty years ago, they had this to say about whoever had taken their daughter:
“We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives.”
Whoa!! What? The Derksens, who you can read more about here, said they weren’t ready to call what they felt ‘forgiveness,’ but there’s a lot more grace than they were expected to share, wasn’t there?
In our story today, there’s a man, let’s call him Frank, who owed ten thousand bags of gold, let’s call that $1 million dollars, to the king. The king was settling up with everyone, making right what they owed to him so that he could see where he stood. And when he was called into the king’s court, Frank had no way to pay the debt back.
The king ordered that Frank, Frank’s wife, Frank’s children, and all of Frank’s possessions be sold to repay the debt. The king was basically trading all of their lives and stuff, everything they had accumulated to that point just to pay back a little bit of what they owed.
Can you imagine that moment? Can you put yourself in the position of Frank, who is looking at his wife, his kids, his pile of stuff, and realizing that his life really is about to get worse? That you would never see your family again. That you would never go home again. That you would never be free again.
At which point, Frank falls down on his knees and begs. Not, casual on the side of the road, thumb in the air, kind of hoping that you’ll get a ride. No, this is leap in front of the car, throw yourself and go for broke, need. Frank begs his king to be patient, and to give him a chance to pay it back.
Now, I’m not sure why, but in this particular story, the king shows mercy. The king sees the begging and it appears genuine, it is heartfelt, and he cancels the debt and let them go. One minute, he is at rock bottom; the next minute, he’s on cloud nine! Not only did he not lose his wife, his kids, and all he had, but what he makes from now on is his, because he doesn’t owe the king anymore!
Happily ever after, no?
But on leaving the king’s court, Frank runs into another servant, a peer of his, let’s call him Joe. And Joe owes a hundred silver coins, let’s call that $400. Frank grabs Joe by the throat and demands that he pay back the money!
Joe begs, you can almost imagining him crying, sobbing big, snotty, inglorious tears, and he says what Frank has said moments before: ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
But Frank refuses, and has Joe thrown in prison. Frank, who was forgiven $1 million dollars won’t forgive a debt of a few hundred dollars. It’s like a bad case of Judge Joe Brown, here! But that’s not how Jesus’ parable ends.
It says that Joe and Frank’s peers see what’s happened and they report back to the king. The king who has now had his moment of magnanimous altruism undone. The king who set the example for what forgiveness should look like has seen it completely undone by a mere servant. So, the king calls Frank in, and recaps the situation.
“I freed you. I forgave your debt because you repented. Shouldn’t you have forgiven your friend, Joe?” And with a snap of his fingers, Frank is handed over to the jailer forever. Or until he could pay back his debt. Which he could not pay back while he was being beaten in jail.
And then Jesus closes with: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Do you think God puts a high value on mercy and forgiveness? Do you think that there’s something going on when Jesus cries from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!”? Maybe, if we’re going to say we’re followers of Jesus, we better take a good long look at this whole forgiveness thing.
After totally botching his job as king by lusting after Bathsheba, sleeping with Bathsheba, and having her husband murdered to cover it up, King David received his comeuppance and cried out to God in Psalm 51.
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.
“Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.
“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.”
Do you need to stop and pray that Psalm, that prayer? Let’s take a minute, and reflect on the ways we have sinned against God. Turn to Psalm 51 and pray those words.
One of the things about forgiveness is that when we recognize that we’ve been forgiven, then it allows us to be more forgiving ourselves. If we recognize how much God has saved us from, then we recognize that we don’t really have any room to not forgive someone else. Casting Crowns puts it like this
“Jesus, friend of sinners, we have strayed so far away
We cut down people in your name but the sword was never ours to swing
Jesus, friend of sinners, the truth’s become so hard to see
The world is on their way to You but they’re tripping over me
Always looking around but never looking up I’m so double minded
A plank eyed saint with dirty hands and a heart divided.”
“Oh Jesus, friend of sinners
Open our eyes to the world at the end of our pointing fingers
Let our hearts be led by mercy
Help us reach with open hearts and open doors
Oh Jesus, friend of sinners, break our hearts for what breaks yours.”
What would it look like if our hearts were broken? If we actually saw people around us the way that Jesus does. Our spouses. Our children. Our parents. Our co-workers, neighbors, high school nemeses and high school sweethearts.
I wonder what would happen if even when our lives hung in the balance, if we would be more like… You think I’m going to say, “Jesus,” don’t you?
When Phillips is finally taken prisoner by the Somalian pirate crew, the movie’s tension is dialed up to the point of near explosive forces. When the U.S. military arrived on the scene, I was reminded of a secondhand recounting of Phillips’ comment that went something like ‘one minute I was sitting there, surrounded by pirates, and the next minute, I was all by myself, and the blood all over me wasn’t mine.’ Someone had to pay, right?
The beauty of the film is that Phillips spends the entire time working to save lives. First, he ‘takes one for the team,’ by drawing the attention to himself and refusing his crew’s help. Second, he tries to talk Muse and the other pirates into peaceful submission, or at least, some way of saving face. He works harder to save their lives than he does to save his own! It literally plays out like “pre-emptive forgiveness,” like “Father, please forgive them for they know not what they do.” Phillips doesn’t want anyone to die, and even though he’s the first one in the line of fire, his goodness shines through.
If Captain Phillips didn’t choose that route, facing down armed men with malice, then why should we get so upset about getting cut off in the parking lot or, worse yet, some imagined slight? Maybe the next time, we should channel our own Captain Phillips and practice a little compassion.
Could that happen this week? Could you apologize for something that you weren’t directly responsible for? Could we as a community start to build reconciliation?
I want to apologize to you today for the times that the Church has hurt you, for the times it failed to be the church community you needed. Some of you reading this (or in church this morning) have never interacted with me before: I’m still sorry.
I want to apologize to you for the parents who failed to be the Father and Mother that made you see God as a loving Father or Mother. I want to tell you that I’m sorry for the times that church was more about judgment, more about criticism, more about ‘thou shalt not’ than ‘Jesus loves you.’
I want to claim in the name of Jesus, as we do in our Baptismal covenant, that you are forgiven, and I hope that some of you instantly responded, ‘In the name of Jesus, YOU are forgiven,’ back to me.
I want to live into a reality where we are ‘slow to anger and abounding in love‘. I want to recognize that I believe in the best of those around me, and that they believe in my best, too.
Forgiving a debt isn’t just financial, or relational, or an ‘easy out.’ Choosing to live that was is ridiculously different– and it impacts others.
Malcolm Gladwell, the sociologist/writer from the beginning of this sermon, has admitted that he’s re-examining faith after years of ignoring it as a trite mind control of humankind. Because of people like the Derksens who believe that “love alone is worth the fight” (Switchfoot). Their willingness to forgive their daughter’s killer changed them, but it also changed Gladwell, too.
What will your forgiveness do this week? Go and see.