In the Cottage meetings we’ve been holding for the past few months, there comes a time when I ask people to share a low moment in their life as a part of this church. We follow it with a high point, but it’s important to acknowledge the low points, too. And of course it makes me think about my own church experiences, the good and the bad. Recently I shared the following story, something that made me SO angry that telling the story over the years has often led to a surge of adrenaline!
You see, I once had a moment of righteous anger.
My second child was a baby, and I had responsibilities on Sunday morning in the Church School, and so I left him in the Crib Room. It was a big enough church to have three nurseries, and the Crib Room had two sections, one visible from the hallway where babies played while awake, the other tucked away for sleeping babies. Because the Crib Room was near the church entrance, and far from the other nurseries, and because there were people attending church who had expressed a rather obsessive interest in the babies, we had very strict procedures for signing babies in and out again. I helped develop the policies, and I felt confident in them.
On a late spring morning, I went to pick my baby up after church and had a shock when I found the Crib Room empty.
The “awake baby” room stood empty of both babies and babysitters. This could not be right! I knew the mothers, two of them, who had been on duty that morning. Where could they be? And where was my baby?!?!!
I entered the Crib Room and went to the “sleeping baby” room. Thank God, I found him there, peacefully napping.
We took the children home, but there was nothing peaceful in how I felt. Someone needed to explain to me what had happened. I left the children with my husband and drove to the home of the woman who had been in charge that morning. She expressed dismay when she heard my story. She left to take her own little son home when the other mother said she would stay until all the parents arrived.
I must admit that I arrived at the other mother’s back door in a fury. Perhaps at another point in my life I might have handled things differently, but I did not that day. I did not. I let her have it. How could you leave my baby alone there?!? How could you forget him?!?!!
Shocked, she stood saying little. I left unsatisfied, feeling she took no responsibility for her actions.
Later in the afternoon she appeared at my kitchen door, crying, apologizing. We had been friends, our little ones had played together, we had been to each other’s homes, but there was no coming back from this. I didn’t see her in the summer, and in the fall I must admit I felt a little guilty when her family did not return to church, but not badly enough to reach out to her and mend things.
I believed my anger was righteous. After all, this was my baby, my precious child, and anyone could have taken him away, including the mentally ill woman who frequently stopped at the Crib Room door to ask to take the babies for a walk to hear the organ. I believed my anger was righteous, and I could not get over it. I could only see things one way: mine.
The parable we heard today tells us that righteous anger is appropriate where there is a terrible wrong, but that if we expect forgiveness, we need to be prepared to give it, too.
The servant in the parable had a hard time seeing his own story in the story of his friend. It’s strange because his own debt was beyond belief. Jesus told the story in terms that people of his time could understand, so let me put it in our terms. The story might go something like this:
A young man went to the head of his family to talk about his debt. He knew he was in trouble, having collected too many credit cards and used them all to the maximum. But even he was shocked at the reckoning, shocked to learn he owed a million dollars.
That’s the kind of debt no average person can take lightly. He wept and asked for forgiveness and aid. The head of his family expressed anger at his bad judgment and selfish carelessness. But in a spirit of love, the head of the family agreed to make good the debt. Relieved, the young man went away to tell his wife the good news.
You would think a person relieved from a debt so large I cannot imagine it, really, would be ready to share his good fortune with others, but soon he saw a friend who owed him a few thousand dollars. He pushed his friend against the wall and said, “I want my money!! If you don’t give it to me, I will call the police and have you arrested!!” Of course his friend begged for mercy, and you would think the young man would have been in such a mood of joy and relief that he would have naturally extended kindness to his friend, too, just as the head of his family had done for him.
But he did not. He did not. And the head of his family, hearing this, took back his offer and let him suffer for the debt he owed.
Jesus ends on a note of warning, doesn’t he? It’s a scary little conclusion. It says, “Straighten up! God extends grace to you all the time, when you don’t deserve it at all, but you hold a grudge for much smaller things. Get over it!”
We need to forgive and get over it.
Joseph’s brothers came to him terrified. Many years before, jealous that their father, Jacob, loved him most, they sold him to slavers and told their father an animal had killed him. They did not know what had happened to him, and when they came to Egypt seeking help during a famine, they did not recognize him at first. When all the connections were made, they feared he would want revenge against them.
But Joseph took the long view. He knew how God had used him in Egypt to save many lives through his wise counsel to Pharaoh. Do you remember the story of Pharaoh’s dreams? He dreamt of seven fat cows swallowed by seven lean cows, and the dream troubled him. Joseph, who had been trying to make his way and getting into all sorts of minor trouble, got the chance to interpret the dreams, and he advised Pharaoh to take advantage of seven years of good crops to lay by what would be needed in seven years of famine. Many who might have died were saved by his inspiration. And so he said to his brothers, “You meant to harm me, but in the end God used me to do more good than you could have imagined. It’s not up to me to condemn you. I am not God.”
“In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” Such a happy ending to the long tale of Joseph, the favored son with the coat of many colors: it makes me breathe more easily.
Not too long ago I saw the woman who left my son in the crib room. He is 17, almost 18, and I don’t think I have seen her since that day, so seventeen years have gone by. I knew there was a chance we would run into each other, and I wondered what she would think of seeing me again. When the moment drew near, I felt that upset of the stomach that I imagine both Joseph and his brothers felt when the truth came out about their history.
Well, the joke was on me. She didn’t even recognize me, looked completely baffled when I said hello and spoke to her by name.
I like to look at this parable and this ancient tale of our faith, these stories that say so much about human nature, and try to relate them to my own life. I want to apply the template of the parable, or of Joseph’s story, to my interactions with my former friend. But I can’t sort out who I am in that story when I think about it now. I was wronged, but I think perhaps I wronged her, too. Did I always behave perfectly with other people’s children? Did I never make a mistake myself? It was long past time to forgive her, long past time to get over it.
For you see, we
do lots of things wrong, lots of them, and God forgives us. We hurt people we love, in our own families and in our church family, and God forgives us.
We can make a lot of mistakes, but God’s grace covers our sins, God’s grace is big enough to hold all our faults and our errors and our bad decisions, our debts and our trespasses and our out-and-out sins.
Do you need to forgive someone?
To do so, you may need to let go of resentment, of anger, of righteous indignation. You may need to be prepared to lose something you feel you are owed. You may even need to lose something you *are* owed. But are you, are we, in the place of God? We are not. We are not.
And so I challenge you to look into your hearts, as I have been looking into mine this week. Look into your hearts and find the place where you keep those dark, hard feelings that prevent forgiveness. Find them and take them out, whether they feel like rocks or bricks or shards of glass or weapons of mass destruction. Take them out and look at them from a distance. Take the first step toward getting over it. Amen.