On Forgiveness in the Midst of Darkness
My internship congregation, Christ Lutheran Church in LaVale, MD has three worship services each week, two on Sunday morning, and a much more laid-back and low-key service on Wednesday evenings. Last night, I preached, choosing to reflect on the Gospel for this upcoming Sunday, Matthew 18:21-35. I was really thankful for the way that it came together; one of the first commentaries I read triggered me to remember the quote I include toward the end of the sermon and the emotion evoked by it kept me going the whole way through. We are not always so blessed to have sermons come together like this, but when we are, it is a wonderful thing.
The sermon, in its entirety, is below the break…
Waking up on the morning of April 9, 2014, it did not seem like a particularly unique day in Gettysburg. I was up early getting ready to help out at a funeral of a longtime member of a neighboring town’s fire department.
It was clear that the man had made a large impact in the community, as not only was their entire department planning to attend, but also members of nearly a dozen other fire departments and rescue squads were expected to come, bringing their own trucks and ambulances to participate in the procession.
My own fire department in Gettysburg had been asked to serve as a backup for our neighbors while they mourned their brother. One of our engines, parked in front of their firehouse, would be fully staffed, ready to respond to calls. Meanwhile, myself, and several other Gettysburg members trained as Fire Police Officers would be out in other department vehicles to direct traffic around the procession.
When I walked into the fire station that morning, there were a few folks sitting in the day room, drinking coffee, glued to the television as always. It was set to CNN or Fox News, and as I glanced over to the TV, the caption at the bottom of the screen caused me to do a double-take…
“Mass stabbing at Pa. School. Victims and students at Franklin Regional being evacuated.”
Franklin. Regional. I stared in disbelief.
That’s because where I grew up was right on the outskirts of two different school districts. Those who lived on my side of the state highway went to high school 20 minutes south at Greensburg-Salem. Families on the other side of the highway went 15 or so minutes west, to Franklin Regional. Franklin Regional, a school 15 minutes from my own home, the school that many of my friends from church went to, a school that I had been in dozens of times myself, was making headlines on national news for yet another senseless incident of school violence.
Alex Hribal, a troubled young man, only sixteen years old, walked into school that morning, planning to inflict harm. Just minutes before the first period bell, when the hallways were their most crowded, he walked down the hallway, a knife in both hands, slashing and stabbing, injuring 24 of his classmates.
Through the quick-acting courage of a school security guard, Alex was tackled and restrained after making it down only one of the school’s many crowded hallways. A large ambulance station just two miles down the road meant the first paramedics were there in minutes, and 911 dispatchers directed dozens of ambulances and four medical helicopters from across two counties to the school. It took less than 15 minutes from the start of the incident for the suspect to be in custody, and the most severe patients to begin arriving at local hospitals.
By the time I was seeing this all on TV, the ambulances had been sent back to their respective stations, but things were far from over. I knew that at that point, the best thing I could do was pray, and as I got into the fire truck to head toward the funeral, I was thankful for something to distract me, even just for a little bit. Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we are reminded about the importance of forgiveness. Peter asks, “…how often should I forgive, as many as seven times?” Now, as some of you may know, there are certain parts of the bible that can be a bit ambiguous when it comes to translation, and numbers can be one of the trickiest. The translation that we read from today tells us that Jesus says “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times” but there’s some discussion of whether it might be seventy-seven or seventy times seven. That’s a whopping 490 times that Peter is expected to forgive the members of the church who sin against him.
What would happen if Peter had an iPhone, or one of the new Apple Watches announced yesterday? He might have responded “there’s an app for that!” and started looking for an app to help him count down, making sure that he did not forgive one more person than he had to.
But, as is often the case in the Bible, numbers aren’t quite as literal as we expect them to be in today’s culture. It’s unlikely that Jesus was encouraging us to count down our forgiveness, but instead encouraging us to be constantly forgiving. But sensing Peter wasn’t making that connection, or maybe just valuing the gift of teaching through story, Jesus launches into the parable of the unforgiving servant.
A slave owed his King 10,000 talents. With a single talent being worth as much as 15 years of a laborer’s wages, we can be pretty certain that he didn’t have a chance of repaying his debt. The king was prepared to sell this man, his entire family, and all of his earthly possessions in order to recoup some of his losses, but at the last minute decided to have pity, forgiving him all his debts.
But in a manner that only our broken humanity can manage, the same slave turns around and confronts a fellow slave who owes him 100 denarii, the equivalent of 100 days’ wages. This same slave who had just been forgiven a debt so great that it would taken him a thousand lifetimes to repay was unable to show mercy on someone who by comparison owed him a pittance.
And this, Jesus tells us, is what the Kingdom of Heaven really looks like… Not a hypocritical lender who holds us accountable for even the smallest of debts and has no concept of paying it forward, but a magnanimous ruler, who can forgive the largest of debts. One hundred and fifty thousand years of labor would not have been enough to repay what the slave owed, and yet it was forgiven.
Just out of curiosity, I decided to translate 150,000 years of debt into what we might connect a bit more with in modern-day America… Dollars and cents. For a person earning a salary of twenty-five thousand dollars a year, 150,000 years would work out to 3.75 BILLION dollars. I don’t know of anyone that can afford to write that sort of debt off. But God is so much bigger than a bank, or any earthly business. And a part of the Kingdom of Heaven is about the forgiveness of our sins. Our sins are forgiven, large and small, through God’s unending love for us.
We are called to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth. All too often, WE slip into the role of the hypocritical slave, refusing to forgive the debts and sins of our brothers and sisters. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…”
It was late afternoon before I got back from the funeral. Although I was thankful for the respite from news of what was going on back at home, I got back to my apartment and was suddenly ravenous for information. Information about what had happened, and what WAS happening. Above all, I needed to find some light in the darkness.
I remembered the words of Mr. Rogers, to look for the helpers, that there are ALWAYS people helping in times like this, people who are caring for others. And I saw those people, many of whom were students themselves, some of whom were EMTs and firefighters that I knew personally, but it wasn’t enough, not when this was a tragedy that was quite literally striking so close to home.
But then I started to see a glimmer of that light.
The school district had issued an official early dismissal, sending kids home just as soon as a parent or guardian could pick them up. Meanwhile, several of the local churches had opened their doors, inviting the community to join in prayer, and they did. Students, faculty, staff, and people who had no connection to the school whatsoever were there, praying together, being community to each other.
But what intrigued me most was the seemingly controversial thing that at least one of the churches did. In prayer, they lifted up the victims and the terrorized student body, but also among those they prayed for, was 16 year-old Alex Hribal, the very boy who had unleashed this terror. Light was overcoming darkness in more ways than one as they raised their prayers to God.
But what really struck me as I continued in my search for information was a snippet from an interview with one of the students who was hospitalized…
From his hospital room, less than a day after having been stabbed and rushed to the hospital, 16-year-old Brett Hurt was telling his story, but the thing that was so remarkable was not about him, or even his best friend who he says saved his life, but his attacker, Alex Hribal…
He told reporters, “I feel that he has some issues that he needs to work out. He made a really bad decision which took him down a path that I don’t think he should have went down. I think he could have chosen a different path to take, because everyone has more than one road to take in life. You choose which path you want to take, and that path will lead you on to your consequences later in the future. Everyone has those roads, everyone has a choice, everyone can make the right or wrong decision.”
“I just hope that one day I can forgive him, and everyone else who got hurt can forgive him. Most of all, he needs to forgive himself.”
To hear that definitely puts the entire concept of forgiveness in perspective. I am absolutely certain that I could not be that profound or articulate a day after I had been stabbed. And I’m pretty sure that forgiving my attacker would be the last thing on my mind. But here’s a community lifting up the attacker in prayer. Here’s a victim recognizing that everyone has the potential to make bad choices, recognizing a need for forgiveness, admitting that he’s not there yet, but hoping that he can be someday.
It reminds us that maybe some of the grudges we are holding are petty. And if that young man can forgive someone who tried to kill him, there is no doubt in my mind that God can forgive us. Even though we have the potential to follow the wrong path at times, God forgives us. Not just seven times, not even seventy times seven times, but unendingly and unconditionally. Thanks Be to God. Amen.
Posted on September 11, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged Christ Lutheran, ELCA, exegesis, fire department, forgive, forgiveness, Franklin Regional, Franklin Regional stabbing, gettysburg, Lavale, Lutheran, Matthew 18, Matthew 18:21-35, MD, parable, school violence, sermon. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.