Proper 19A 2005 Matthew 18:21-35
In his book, Lee: The Last Years, Charles Bracelen Flood reports a story about Robert E. Lee after the Civil War. Lee, no
longer the Commander of the armies of the Confederacy and now the President of struggling Washington College one day visited
a Lexington, Virginia, lady. She promptly took him to the remains of a large old tree in front of her house. All of its
limbs had been shot off by Federal artillery fire during one of the years of fighting in the Shenandoah Valley. She seemed
to expect that Lee would at least sympathize with her loss and what she had endured during the fighting, maybe even damn the
Yankees. Lee stood silently for a while gazing at the tree. Finally he spoke: "Cut it down, my dear Madam, and forget it.”
Lee spent the rest of his life – he died in 1872 – preaching and living out this sort of forgiveness, unlike Jubal
Early and the members of the Southern Historical Society, who fanned the flames of resentment across the South in the half
century after the Civil War. Early and those Southerners like him never forgot – and they never forgave. It isn’t
too far a stretch to suggest that long-term racial tensions in the South were birthed out of this bitterness. Lack of forgiveness
passes its burden down through the generations.
On this fourth anniversary of 911 it seems hard to talk about forgiveness. But we can talk and think about forgiveness until
the time comes when we can forgive whatever it is we need to forgive.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko is a Russian poet -- famous for his poem, "Babi Yar," in which he denounces Russian and Nazi anti-Semitism.
Born in 1933, Yevtushenko was still a boy during World War II. It is difficult for us to imagine the savagery of that war,
in which ten thousand soldiers could be swallowed up in a day.
Yevtushenko tells about going to Moscow in early World War II. His mother took him to see twenty thousand German prisoners
of war marched through the streets. Crowds lined both sides of the streets. Most had lost a husband or brother or father
to the war with Germany.
Finally they saw the Germans approaching from a distance. At the head of the column were the generals -- "chins stuck out,
lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanor meant to show superiority over their plebian victors." The moment was electric.
Hatred crackled in the crowd. Ugly shouts filled the air.
But then the common soldiers appeared -- thin -- unshaven -- bandaged with dirty, bloody rags -- hobbling on crutches. The
street became quiet. Yevtushenko tells what happened next:
"I saw an elderly woman in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman's shoulder, saying, "Let me through."
There must have been something about her that made him step aside.
She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a colored handkerchief and unfolded it. It was
a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet.
And now suddenly from every side women were running towards the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread -- whatever they
The soldiers were no longer enemies.
They were people." (2)
Just about a year ago, all of my Dillard cousins but one – who couldn’t leave his business – had a reunion
here in Wicomico Church. It was the first time in over half a century that my brother and I were able to gather those cousins
around us without out our parents exploding all over us. For reasons that none of us really understand, our parents were
alienated from their siblings – my aunts and uncles in both the Scott and Dillard families. Half a century in which
we were unable to share in the lives of some really wonderful people because of the tensions in the older generation.
Forgiveness and mercy are handmaidens of grace. Many of us probably remember some verses of Shakespeare that we memorized
or were required to memorize in our youth. It’s the most quoted passage from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of
The quality of mercy is not strain’d.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blessed;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown…
But mercy is above this sceptered sway…
It is an attribute of God himself…
And earthly power doth then sow like God’s
When mercy seasons justice….
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. (3)
There’s no more classic statement about the relationship between judgement, forgiveness, grace and mercy than that.
It is powerful theology, a sermon that stands alone in its own right. I suspect that, having had to memorize this passage
at an early age and keeping it in the cluttered attic of my mind along with perhaps too much Kipling and Walter Scott, that
passage has had, and continues to have a profound influence on my world view.
To be effective – that is to really mean forgiveness when we forgive, it must be unconditional. We cannot attach conditions
to it. And we cannot keep a continued attachment to what angered us in the first place. Some of us may have seen those tourist
souvenir ashtrays in the sixties in the south. On them was a cartoon of a wild eyed Confederate veteran in Rebel uniform
waving a rebel flag and snarling, “Forget, Hell!” Shades of Jubal Early.
There’s a story about conditional forgiveness: “Jim and Joe were two old curmudgeons both in their mid 70's.
They lived next door to each other as boys and grew up together. They became best friends. They went to Church together.
They played together on their High School baseball and football teams. They roomed together in college. They double dated
together. They were inseparable best friends. They even wound up working for the same company. At 25, they both finally
met the women of their dreams. And they got married on the same day, in the same Church because the girls of their dreams
“No one had ever seen two men or two families that were closer than these two. At age 30, a new housing development
opened in their community, and they built homes next to each other. They continued going to church together, working and
playing together. For 35 years, they remained absolutely inseparable.
“Then one Sunday, people in the church were startled. Jim came in with his family and sat in their usual place but
when Joe and his family came in, they sat on the opposite side of the church. Everybody knew instantly that something was
wrong but nobody knew what or why. From that time on, the relationship between these two was as cold as cold could be. They
were barely civil to each other. Jim built a six-foot privacy fence between his house and Joe's. Not to be out done, Joe
built one 8 feet tall.
The only time the sisters and their children could see each other was when the two men were at work. No more weekend family
outings. No laughter and joy. The friendship that had grown for sixty-five years had suddenly soured.
Then one day, ten years later, Joe had a heart attack. He wound up in the hospital and the doctors weren't too sure about
his recovery and told him and his family that he should get things in order. The pastor heard and called Jim. He knew of
their long time friendship and their falling out. Jim was reluctant but he went to the hospital. Joe Was surprised when
Jim walked into the room. But was even more surprised when Jim said: "Joe, I don't even remember why we got mad at each other.
But whatever it was, if it was my fault, I'm sorry. Please forgive me."
Joe sat there for a minute just staring at Jim. Then he said, "I don't reckon I remember what it was either. And since I'm
fixin' to die, I guess I ought to forgive you and ask your forgiveness also."
Jim beamed and stuck out his hand Joe took it and the two men shook hands. Everybody in the room sighed in relief. Then
Joe said, "Of course, you know that if I survive this thing all bets are off." (4)
Our Lord loves us without condition. There are no “ifs” in his love for us. He gave himself on the Cross so
that we would be forgiven. We are awash in divine forgiveness, mercy, and grace. It surrounds us all our days.
We need to forgive – and to be forgiven by each other. Henry Nouwen put it this way: “Forgiveness means that
I continually am willing to forgive the other person for not being God -- for not fulfilling all my needs.
I, too, must ask forgiveness for not being able to fulfill other people's needs....
The interesting thing is that when you can forgive people for not being God, then you can celebrate that they are a reflection
of God.” (5)
1. Flood, p 136.
2. As quoted in SermonWriter for Proper 19A 2005 (Gospel)
3. Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, IV, I, in Bartlett, 16th ed., p. 181.
4. From a Sermon by Rev. Billy D. Strayhorn, "Forgiven to Forgive," at http://www.epulpit.net/990912.htm
5. From Henri Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing, as quoted in SermonWriter for Proper 19A 2005 (Gospel).