How much damage can 24 bunnies do?
Well, the people of Australia are finding out every year. In 1859, an Englishman brought 24 wild rabbits to Australia to hunt them. Don’t get me going about hunting cute, little bunny rabbits. But apparently the rabbits outsmarted the Englishman and have bred continuously since then. Today its estimated more than 200 million rabbits live across the Australian countryside costing the populace more than $500 million in damages annually. Perhaps it would have been better if that Englishman stuck to hunting rabbits back at home. Rabbits have become the most invasive non-native species to inhabit the United Kingdom. In 2010, estimated damages caused by these Easter icons was over £260 million per year! The United States isn’t free of it’s own invasive species. The kudzu plant is among the most well-known example, especially in the South. The object of many jokes, the plant itself is hardly a laughing matter. This fast-growing vine is virtually impervious to pesticides and herbicides, can grow up to a foot per day, and costs an estimated $500 million in lost crops and control costs annually. Native to Japan, the plant grew rapidly in the South where conditions were ideal for it, and without its natural predators, the plant thrived covering more than seven million acres. Richard Benyon, the minister for the natural environment in England, said, “It becomes increasingly difficult and costly to control invasive non-native species as they become more established. Taking early action may seem expensive, but this report shows that it is the most effective approach, saving money in the long run and helping our native wildlife to thrive.”
Invasive species are not restricted to the land.
In fact, we have invasive species inside of us, too. We call them bitterness, anger, hatred, and resentment. These emotions are the kudzu and bunny rabbits of the human soul. When left alone they take root, spread and steal the joy out life as easily as any known biological disease does to our bodies. In fact, studies have shown that bitter, angry people have higher blood pressure, suffer from depression more often, and are more likely to die of heart disease and other illnesses than people who are not. Being bitter and angry can literally kill you. And like Mr. Benyon said about other invasive species, early action is the most effective approach to rooting it out. Before it digs deep into your soul, before it has a chance to twist you like a pretzel, you have to get rid of it. Because if you let it fester too long, it becomes wrapped around your soul, eating away at all that connects you to God. It covers your heart in such a way that you’ll never be able to be the person God created you to be. You’ll never know the peace in your heart God wants for you.
So how do we root out that bitterness and anger before it becomes a problem?
Forgive. As if it were that simple, right? It’s not. But it is the one and only way to get rid of the bitterness, anger, hatred, and resentment that festers within us. We HAVE to learn to forgive. But before we figure that out, I think it’s useful to make clear what it means to forgive. It doesn’t mean to forget. It doesn’t mean you should instantly “get over it.” It means to let go. Allow yourself to move past the hurt. I like the way the Mayo Clinic defines forgiveness, “it involves a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge.” That last bit is what I like, “thoughts of revenge.” How many of you understand EXACTLY what they are talking about? Someone does wrong by you and you start dreaming of different ways to get back at them?
I have to be honest, I’ve done that.
Just the other day, I had a bout with Tony at the post office. I don’t know how you can be as rude as Tony was without losing your job, but he really got under my skin. I asked to speak to his supervisor and he said, “I AM the supervisor!” God help us. So I asked to talk to someone above him and he gave me a phone number to call. You can believe I called right after I left. No way was he going to get away with treating me like that! But when I called the line was busy. Maybe for the best. Because I know what Jesus would say. In fact, we’re going to read exactly what he did say this morning. If you would like to read along with us in your Bible or a Bible app, we’re going to read from Matthew 18:21-35. This is the passage where Jesus just got done telling the disciples about how to deal with someone who wrongs you. Jesus tells them to try to work it out and if that doesn’t work then bring someone with you and try again. And if that doesn’t work bring the matter to the whole church and see if they can help work it out before you give up on them. I guess Peter is listening to this and wondering exactly how many times is he supposed to try to make amends? Which is precisely what he asks Jesus. If you would please rise for the reading of the Gospel of Matthew, we’re going to hear this morning from Matthew 18:21-35. Hear now the Word of God.
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. 26 At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.32 Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” – Matthew 18:21-35
Some of you are wondering if you’ve met your forgiveness limit.
I can see you calculating in your head, “Seventy-six? No, I’m sure it’s seventy-seven.” But some translations of this passage say you should forgive not seventy-seven times but seventy TIMES seven! I’ll save you the trouble. That’s 490 times! But as in most parts of the Bible, Jesus uses this to illustrate a much more important point. He wasn’t trying to actually set boundaries on forgiveness. He wasn’t saying that at 491, all bets are off or that you can be as hateful as you want. Jesus is saying that our forgiveness needs to be boundless. Again, that doesn’t mean we need to forget or put ourselves in harm’s way, but we do need to find a way to let it go. One, because God’s forgiveness of our sins is boundless and two because it is better for us. As Jesus points out in his story about the unforgiving servant, the servant had just been forgiven an enormous debt he could never hope to repay – much like how much God forgives us for all the things we do wrong every day. And yet, when someone else asks the servant for forgiveness, he chooses to not show compassion or mercy but instead subject them to the law. How can we expect the forgiveness of Christ for ourselves and not show it to others?
The other reason is its better for us.
I have found that God has a built-in reward system for good behavior. The things he asks us to do, like forgiving those who hurt us, is not just because we create a better world by doing so. God is also looking out for you. Studies show that people who are more forgiving are happier about life, are in better health, feel a greater sense of self-worth, have less chronic pain, less stress, and more energy, and live longer lives. Who wouldn’t want that? But it makes sense, doesn’t it? If we’re able to let go of the pain, if we’re able to forgive those who have hurt us, all the stress and anxiety and anger that goes along with it is what we let go of also. It allows us to move on. It isn’t easy. And if you expect forgiveness to be a two-way street you might be sorely disappointed. The choice to forgive has nothing to do with the other person. It’s all about you. Only you can choose to forgive. If the other person reciprocates and apologizes or makes restitution, that’s wonderful. But if the only way we can forgive is contingent on what the other person does we may never be able to move on. Forgiveness is a choice only you can make.
When I got home that afternoon, I was tempted to call that number back.
Tony from the post office DESERVED it after all. But as I sat there holding that phone number in my hand, I wondered if it was really worth it. If he got in trouble, maybe that would prevent him from doing the same thing to someone else, but was that REALLY my motivation? Was I “doing it for the greater good?” Or did I just want to get back at him for hurting me? I thought about it for a while as I stared at that piece of paper, crumpled it up, and threw it away. And I felt good about it. Unexpectedly, I felt good about it. Maybe because I exerted some control over a bad situation. Maybe because I got to decide not to let that anger fester within me. Maybe I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. But as I was crumpling up the paper I felt a burden being lifted from my spirit. I wish every situation was as easy to let go of as that one. I’ve had things happen to me that were a lot harder to forgive. I’m sure you have, too. But it’s important for us to let go. Sometimes, that’s a journey we have to take with someone else. Sometimes the hurt is too deep for us to do it alone. In those situations, I want to encourage you to seek out help in your journey to forgiveness. But I hope you’ll choose to take that first step. Take time this week to think about the people in your life you might need to forgive. Pray about what your next steps should be. It might be talking to that person face-to-face. It might be coming to a slow acceptance not to let that person define your life. It might be writing a letter you never intend to send, but to simply write out your thoughts and feelings. Whatever it is, pray about it this week. Is there someone in your life you need to forgive? Is there a seed of bitterness or resentment or anger that’s keeping you from being the person God created you to be? Forgiveness isn’t forgetting and it isn’t putting yourself back in a dangerous situation. Forgiveness is a choice you make to let go of the pain. If you’re willing to make that choice, God will be right there with you. Don’t let this invasive species of the soul eat away at your heart one moment longer. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.