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Pentecost 16A         September 17, 2023        Matthew 18:21-35


By the time you have done something seventy-seven times it has become a habit. As Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Excellence – or mediocrity, for that matter – then, is not an act but a habit. And we all have some of these habits, those ingrained things we do that are so deep they are way beyond making a conscious decision to do them. We do them automatically, and when we don’t we have a vague feeling that something isn’t right.


Take brushing your teeth, for example. On good days and bad, when ill or exhausted or eager and ready to go, I take the time everyday to brush my teeth. I can’t remember a time anymore when it wasn’t part of my daily routine – a time, perhaps, when my mom had to stand over my shoulder and make sure it got done and got done properly.


It should also be said that good habits are hard to acquire. I know, for example, that I should exercise more and make it a regular part of my daily routine. But I just think about it and put it off; I make excuses and procrastinate. It takes something more than knowing the good in good habits to make it a habit. And bad habits, likewise, are hard to undo. Ask any smoker, any drinker, any dieter, any worrier. These are not simply casual desires or fleeting fears. you can’t just say “no” and they go away.


The bottom line is that all habits have power. And we all come to be known by the habits we develop – those odd, particular, useful, and destructive patterns that control our lives.


Jesus advises Peter that forgiveness needs to be such an ingrained habit in the lives of those who are his disciples. And forgiving someone else or yourself seven times isn’t going to do that; not even seventeen times. As generous as that may seem, only seventy-seven times worth of forgiveness gets you passed counting and keeping score. Such a large amount gets you beyond thinking about the offense and takes you to a place where it is an automatic choice – it is no longer an activity but a reflex that manages your way of being in the world and it is freeing to no longer carry the weight of anger and resentment on your back or the burden of self-loathing on your shoulders.


As Steve Garnaas Holmes puts it in one of his poems: “Because the real work of forgiveness is not just forgiving once but staying forgiven. Because only after seventy-seven times do you begin to comprehend how infinitely you are forgiven.”


Ann was one of those kids in confirmation that every pastor would like to clone. Ann enjoyed confirmation. She enjoyed a lively discussion and was always prepared with thoughtful questions and insights. An obvious class leader, she served as a positive role model for her peers. Back in confirmation, Ann clearly showed all kinds of promise and possibility. There was no doubt in my mind that this young, beautiful, and talented teen would make a big impression on the world.


But all of that changed on September 11, 2001. Ann Nelson had just gone to work in one of the World Trade twin towers when terrorists flew airliners into the buildings, making it a day that changed our lives and our world forever. She was the only one from North Dakota to die in that catastrophe. Like so many who died in that tragedy, it is hard to understand the shameful waste of so much goodness and potential that was lost, let alone to forgive.


In time Ann’s mom, Jennette, would speak to groups about her family’s loss. And what was amazing to me when I listened to her is that there was no hostility or anger or bitterness in her voice. To be sure, sadness was there, but conviction was there as well – the conviction that peace needs to rise up from all the fear and hatred and violence that terrorism creates and spreads.


In essence, Jennette has made it a habit to forgive. That doesn't mean that she forgot what happened. And it doesn’t mean that she no longer grieves and mourns. And it certainly doesn't mean that those responsible should be allowed to escape the consequences of their actions. What it does mean is that she has figured out that forgiveness is the only thing that can bring her comfort in the midst of all of the questions and suffering she and her family have had to face.


Forgiving others seventy-seven times, forgiving yourself seventy-seven times, make forgiveness a habit – a reflex – that gives God’s love a place to enter and embrace your life, bringing you peace and setting you free.

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