Let It Be

Matthew 18:21-35

When I was turning eleven, the thing I wanted more than anything else in the world was a gas powered model plane, the kind with its own little engine and propeller and a control grip with strings that connected to the elevators so you could make it take off and land and climb and, if you were really good at it, make it do loop the loops.  So when, on my 11th birthday, I unwrapped a large box to discover a balsa wood scale model Piper Cub (some assembly required) with an 18 inch wingspan, I was over the moon!  

Over the course of the following weeks I stole time from my homework and from practicing my clarinet and piano to carefully put the plane together, paint it a deep cherry red, then meticulously place all the decals so it really did look exactly like a miniature version of the Piper Cubs I had seen at the Long Beach Airport.  This was hard work for me because at that time in my life meticulous was not my strong suit.  Finally, though, my beautiful little plane was ready to fly. 

To prepare for the big first flight, I read the accompanying instructions over and over again.  I practiced holding my hand firm and steady on the control grip, rocking my wrist in small, steady movements just like it said in the booklet.  I waxed the control lines with beeswax so they would move easily through the guides in the fuselage.  I checked and triple-checked that they were properly and tightly connected to the elevators.  And then I told my dad she was ready to go.

Here’s the thing.  It took two people to get one of those planes off the ground.  This was 1964.  Radio controlled planes existed but they were rare and expensive.  What I had was the kind where the “pilot” held a control grip 25 to 30 feet away from the plane.  Two strings went from the grip to the plane.  By rocking your wrist you could make the elevators on the tail of the plane go up or down, which made the plane go up or down.  All of that was a one-person operation.  But once you got the engine started, somebody had to hold onto the plane and keep it in one place while the pilot took control at the grip.  If you tried to start the engine then run back to the grip, the plane would be likely to zip off to its own destruction before you could get control.

Dad had already convinced me that it would be best for him to start the engine which was done by twirling the propeller.  His argument was simple: the blade of that propeller could do a lot more damage to my smaller, fingers than it could to his if said fingers didn’t get out of the way in time.  So fine.  Dad would start the engine on my plane’s maiden flight.  That seemed reasonable.  

What didn’t seem at all reasonable to me, though, was when he insisted that I hold the plane while he ran back to the control grip so he could take the plane up for its first flight.  He pointed out that he was an aerospace engineer who designed fighter jets and spacecraft for a living.  He reminded me that he had piloted a B-24 during the war.  Yeah, I said, but it’s my plane, my birthday present!  I’ve read all the instructions!  Didn’t matter.  I was overruled. 

Dad started the engine.  I held the plane in place.  Dad ran to take the control grip.  He gave me a nod, I released the plane, and it was airborne almost immediately, lunging upward at a steep angle.  Then, just as suddenly as it had leaped for the sky, it plunged straight back into the ground, burying its propeller in the dirt and breaking the wing.  Apparently the skills required to fly a B-24 didn’t translate well to flying a scale model of a Piper Cub. 

I was heartbroken.  And furious.  Dad mumbled that he would fix it then disappeared into the house without another word.  No apology.  

That plane sat on his workbench in the garage for a long time.  I started to fix it myself once but Dad stopped me saying angrily that he would fix it.  At some point it got moved to a shelf above the workbench.  It was still there when I went off to college.    

Forgiveness is hard.  It’s especially hard if the wound is deep or if the person who wronged you doesn’t acknowledge what they’ve done.

We have close friends whose daughter was murdered.  Her husband deliberately drove their car into a wall, killing them both.  The fact that he died, too, doesn’t lessen the pain for our friends.  The fact that their son-in-law was mentally ill doesn’t reduce their grief or make it any easier to forgive him.  And they know they need to forgive him.  They know that holding on to their anger and their desire for retribution only keeps them shackled to the pain and ugliness of what happened.  They know this in their heads.  But it is oh, so hard to let go of it in their hearts.

We should be careful when we talk about forgiveness.  When we quote Jesus telling Peter that he needs to forgive seventy times seven, we need to remember that behind the hyperbole, Jesus knows forgiveness is not easy.  It’s not our default mode.  We need to make sure we don’t wound people who are already hurting by making something so difficult sound trifling or easy.

Jesus tells Peter a story about two servants who are in debt.  It’s a good metaphor, because when we’re wronged or when we wrong someone else, it creates a kind of debt.  There is a new imbalance in the relationship.

Our natural desire is to balance the scales.   We want the wrong acknowledged.  At the minimum we want an apology.  Usually we want a price to be paid, and if that doesn’t happen, we dwell on it.  We hold on to the wrong done to us.  It gets magnified.  We pick at the wound inflicted on us.  It gets inflamed and festers.  Interest gets added to the debt. 

The problem with all this is that even if we get the vengeance or retribution we want, it doesn’t change what happened.  It doesn’t heal the wound.  It doesn’t repair the relationship.  What happened still happened.  The debt can’t really be repaid.  The scales can’t be balanced because they’re broken.  And you can very easily end up in an endless exchange of tit for tat and spend the rest of your days keeping score.

 “Not forgiving,” said Anne Lamott, “is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”[1]

Forgiving is hard.  But it’s the only way out.

Anne Lamott also wrote, “Forgiveness, means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You’re done. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person. If you keep hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare… forgiveness means you’re done.”[2] 

The Greek word that’s translated as forgive in the New Testament is aphiemi.  It means to release, to let go, to let it be.  Forgiveness is a decision to let the past be the past.  To quit dragging it into the present.  It is a decision to move forward, to release both yourself and the other party from whatever chains bind you to that episode of wrong.  

Lewis Smedes wrote, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

When Jesus tells the story of the two indebted slaves in Matthew 18, he uses outrageous hyperbole.  The first slave owes the king ten thousand talents.  That’s a staggering amount of money, equivalent to the national debt of a small country.  As Peter and the disciples listen to Jesus telling this story, the only thing more shocking than the size of that debt is that the king simply forgives it.  But even more shocking than that is that the forgiven slave refuses to grant the same kind of grace to his fellow slave who owes him only a hundred denarii.  

The traditional interpretation of this parable goes something like this: we should always be mindful of how much God has forgiven us, so we should forgive each other.

Okay.  Sure.  But let’s go back to that staggering number.  The ten thousand talents.  Sixty million denarii.  What if, instead of thinking in terms of all the ways known and unknown that we’ve offended God, that number represented all the ways known and unknown that we’ve offended each other.  Especially the unknowns.  The forgotten promises.  The stinging remarks.  The things left undone.  The unkind things said behind the back in the company of others.  The slow death of relationships by a thousand paper cuts. And then one day there’s a come to Jesus moment and we have a choice.  Do we forgive?  Do we let the past be the past?  

Forgiveness doesn’t mean you forget.  Forgive and forget is not a thing.  Human beings are not at all good at forgetting their injuries.

So forgive and remember, but don’t let that memory bind you to that injury.

Forgiving doesn’t mean you trust the person who wronged you.  But it may mean you give them an opportunity to earn your trust again.  Maybe.  Forgiveness means you release them from that old injury.  It doesn’t mean they automatically get a chance to injure you again.

Forgiving doesn’t mean you make yourself available for or vulnerable to more wounding or abuse.  

Forgiveness is hard.  It may take planning.  It may take time.

Forgiveness also takes understanding.

It took me a very long time to forgive my dad for wrecking my Piper Cub, especially since he never apologized for it.

It took me a long time to understand how he must have felt about crashing my plane.  Sure, it broke my heart and infuriated me all in about fifteen seconds.  But Dad was a pilot!  He was an aerospace engineer, a designer of supersonic aircraft and flight systems!  And here, in a moment of patriarchal arrogance he had destroyed his son’s toy plane!   And along with it more than a little of his own self-esteem.  

It took me a long time to appreciate that he had wounded himself at least as much as he had hurt me.  It took me decades to realize that the cloudy look I saw on his face as he stomped back to the house, the look I had thought was anger, was actually shame.  

My dad, was so capable of so many things, but putting his emotions into words, especially emotions that troubled him, was not one of them.  No wonder he never wanted to talk about that plane ever again.  No wonder it just sat there for years, untouched, on the workbench, a mute reminder of the day he failed to be both the father and the pilot he wanted to be.

The parable of the two indebted slaves ends this way:  the king is furious that the slave whose enormous debt he has forgiven has shown no such mercy to his fellow slave who owes him only a pittance, so he hands the greedy slave over to be tortured until he can pay his entire debt.  Jesus then says, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

So, forgive each other or off you go to eternal debtors prison?  Is that the message?

Well, maybe it is.  Because if you’re not forgiving, you’re shackling yourself to old wounds and grievances.  You’re locking yourself in a past where the script is engraved in stone and the players always move through the same blocking and say the same lines.  The same scenes repeat endlessly just on different stages. 

Better to let it go.  Let the past be the past.  Let it be.

Move on.

Forgiveness is a decision to love.

“You can’t forgive without loving,” said Maya Angelou. “And I don’t mean sentimentality. I don’t mean mush. I mean having enough courage to stand up and say, ‘I forgive. I’m finished with it.’

I eventually forgave my dad for crashing my plane.  I’m finished with it.

I wish I had told him while he was still alive.


[1] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

[2]Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

The Keys to Heaven

The body of the old man lay stretched out upon the table, prepared according to custom and covered with a shroud.  The priest, who had been gazing out the window, or perhaps deep into his own thoughts, broke from his reverie, stood up, and removed a papyrus scroll from the folds of his robe then moved to the body lying on the table and gently, reverently, lifted the edge of the shroud and took something from the right hand of the old man lying beneath it, and lifted it high in the lamplight for all to see.  Everyone reacted to the familiar object dangled before them.  Some smiled wistfully, a few nodded in recognition, one woman buried her face in her scarf and wept.  It was a plain thing, a simple leather thong suspending ten stones, seven smaller, three larger, each separated from the others by a knot in the leather.  They did not catch the light in any particular way.  They did not glow or sparkle.  There was no mystic aura about them.  But the faithful people in that gathering would not have traded those stones for rubies or diamonds or sapphires or pearls. “The Keys to Heaven,” said the priest.  With care bordering on ceremony he handed the odd artifact to the Deaconess who stood at the feet of the old man’s corpse.  She continued to cradle the leather strip and its stones in her hands so all could see it in the soft glow of the oil lamps.   The priest unrolled the scroll and began to read.

By vocation the priest was the chief reader at a busy scriptorium.  Six days of the week he would read aloud to a phalanx of copyists—reading slowly, distinctly, and loudly enough to be heard at the back of the room yet fast enough to keep up with the demands of the business, to meet its deadlines and keep it profitable.  The qualities that made him so very good at his job also made him an excellent public lector, a role which added to his income.  This talent also served him well, of course, in his role as priest in this small community of the faithful.  But now, as he began to read his dear friend’s last will and testament, he put aside his professional voice and tried to find in himself the deep wells of strength and gentleness that characterized his departed friend; he did his best to summon his friend’s voice for his friend’s words.  This is what he read:

My dear friends, my brothers and sisters, grace to you and peace in the name of the One we follow, who was, who is and who is to come.  Amen.  I pray you know how much you are loved.   I have so very little to leave to you in the way of earthly things.  My little house and my poor purse I entrust to this community.  Perhaps they may be used to benefit a widow or two.  Let the Deaconess administer these things as she is most capable.  Let the tools of my trade go Nathaniel, my apprentice.  I have no other possessions except the Keys to Heaven.  These I bequeath to you all for your common use and good, but I must tell you how I came to have them.

 I think that almost every one of you, most when you were children, but some when you were older, have asked me, “Andreas, what are those stones hanging from your belt?” and I would say, “They are the Keys to Heaven and I am giving them to you.”  Then you would say, “When can I have them?”  And I would say, “When you can tell me how they are made!”  So now, I will tell you their story.

For all the years I have lived among you, you have known me as Andreas the Leatherworker.  That was not always my name.  For that matter, working leather was not always my trade, but that is of no importance.  When I was much younger and full of anger at the world I did some dangerous and stupid things.  One thing in particular was even evil, though I did not think so at the time.  As a consequence, I found myself on the run, hiding from the patrols of soldiers that seemed to be everywhere on the road.  I cut my hair and shaved my beard.  I stole the tunic, mantle and belt of a tradesman while he was bathing in the river and left my very fine and costly clothes in their place.  Then I fastened a sword to my belt and kept on running.

 Three nights later, just at nightfall, I saw a man sitting by a campfire just to the side of the road.  Half mad with hunger and exhaustion, I moved toward him, drew my sword and said, “Give me your food and your money.”  I meant to growl it out in a menacing way but my throat was so parched I must have croaked like a raven.  “We will gladly share our food with you,” said the man, “but what money we have with us is not ours to give.”  I started to move toward him with my sword when his words pierced the fog of my hunger.  We.  He had said “we.”  I blinked, looked again, and could not believe I had not seen them the first time—four other men. Two of them were some small distance behind the man by the fire but were now walking briskly toward us.  Another man was emerging from the brush carrying an armload of wood for the fire, and another with a water skin was just coming up from the stream.  Five men altogether.  Even if I weren’t nearly dead from hunger and thirst I could never take on five men.  My head began to swim, my knees gave out and I fell, unconscious.

 I awakened to find one of the men bathing my forehead with a cool, wet cloth while another was bandaging my arm.  Apparently I had cut it with my own sword when I fell.  The man I had first seen, the one I had threatened and tried to rob, lifted a cup of cool water to my lips but urged me to drink it slowly.  As soon as I was able to sit up one of the men gave me a piece of bread and a piece of dried fish which I devoured immediately without a word.

I didn’t know what to expect next and I was too weak to try to run.  When the big man, the first man I had seen by the fire, picked up my sword I half expected him to kill me with it. Instead he laid it in front of me in the dirt.  “This is yours,” he said, “though I think you might be better off not to keep it.  That’s a Roman Gladius.  A soldier’s sword.  And you don’t strike me as a soldier. I think maybe that sword has already brought you trouble and if I were you I would just bury it here at the side of the road.” 

 I was dumbstruck.  That sword had been nothing but trouble.  That sword and my hot temper were the whole reason I had had to flee for my life. 

 I looked at the big man.  He was smiling at me, and I realized, looking at him, that there was no fear in him.  No anger.  “You must still be hungry,” he said.  “I tried to rob you!” I said, incredulous.  “I threatened you!”  “Yes.  You did,” he said.  “I forgive you.”  “But I…”  I started.  “Let it go,” he said, quietly.  “I have.  What you bind on earth is bound in heaven.  What you release on earth is released in heaven.  I release it.  I release you.  Let it go.”

 I sat staring at the ground for a long time, confused, not knowing what to think. 

I heard him chuckle, looked up and saw him smiling at me.  He leaned over and picked up a smooth agate pebble from the ground, walked over and placed it in my hand.  “Here,” he said. “Keep this.  This is the first Key to Heaven.  Forgiveness.”  “I don’t know if I can be forgiven.” I said. 

His expression became reflective and he gazed into the fire for a long moment. “I felt that way once,” he said at last. “I betrayed my best friend…my teacher…my master.  I betrayed him three times in one night to save my own skin.”  “What happened?” I asked.  “They crucified him,” he said simply.  “But I got away because I pretended that I didn’t know him. Three times in one night someone accused me of being one of his companions and three times I denied it.  And I didn’t think I would ever be forgiven for that.  But he forgave me.  And he helped me forgive myself.  He released me from my sin and he helped me let go of my sin—helped me to stop clinging to it..” 

“Wait a minute,” I said, “I though you said they crucified him.”  “They did,” he said.  “Well then how…when did he forgive you?”  The way he looked at me I could tell he was trying to decide something and it was another very long moment before he said, “That’s another story and if you would like to travel with us I will gladly tell it another day.  For now,” and here he smiled again, “hold on to that little piece of forgiveness and let that be enough for today.”

 And that, my beloved brothers and sisters is how I came to have the first of the Keys of Heaven, the Key of Forgiveness.  Having nowhere else to go and nothing to lose, I became a travelling companion of Petrus, the Fisherman, who taught me the ways of his Master and baptized me into a new life with a new name.  And along the way he gave me the Keys of Heaven and taught me how they are made, or where they can be discovered, so that each of us can have them and carry them with us and unlock Heaven around us wherever we are. 

 The first key is Forgiveness.  The Second is Gratitude.  The third is Generosity.  The fourth is Compassion. These four open your heart to the world God made, the world God loves.  The fifth key is Integrity.  The Sixth is Thoughtfulness.  These two open the soul and mind to look beyond yourself and deal fairly with all others.  The seventh is Be Not Afraid.  This key gives you the presence of mind to remember that you have all the others at your command and it helps you to use them wisely.

Then there are the three larger keys.  These give the first keys their power.  At the same time, the first keys can unlock the power of these three.  They are Faith, Hope and Love.

 So, my beloved friends, these are the Keys to Heaven.  I hope you can see that I spoke the truth all these years when I said, “I am giving them to you.”  I hope and pray that in my life you saw forgiveness, gratitude, generosity, compassion, integrity and thoughtfulness.  I hope you saw me live without fear.  I pray that you are gathering these keys for yourself by the example of our Master.  May you all continue to grow in Faith, Hope and Love until we are reunited in the Life to Come.

Peace be with you.  I am always your brother,

Andreas