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Matthew 18:21-35
Cracked Wide Open

In October 2006, Charles Roberts marched into a one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. After telling the adults and boys to leave, he opened fire, killing ten young girls who were in school that day. He turned the gun on himself and died. 

As you might remember, the shooting attracted media attention from all over the world, press invading the region to tell the story of yet another school shooting in the United States of America. The arc of this news cycle has played out so many times that here, on September 17, 2023 we can pretty much know how it will go each and every time. 

  • There is a shooting. 
  • It will be named as a tragedy. 
  • The politicians will performatively offer thoughts and prayers. 
  • Some group or another will call for policy change, a ban on assault weapons.
  • The NRA and its apologists will tell us it’s not the guns, and something about freedom.
  • Canadians will scoff, because, really... 
  • No policies will be changed because the politicians value their funding more than kids’ lives.
  • After a few days our attention wanes until the usual cycle of outrage repeats once again. 

But back in Lancaster County, in 2006, in addition to the usual, an unexpected story emerged. 

On the afternoon of the shooting, the grandfather of one of the murdered girls spoke of his forgiveness for the killer. Another reached out with grace to the killer’s wife, going over to her home, offering comfort in their sorrow and pain. The family was invited to the funeral for one of the children. When it came time for the Roberts’ funeral, the community gathered together and went to accompany the family in its grief, even as they were burdened with their own. 

In the aftermath, shocked reporters asked, the world over “How could they forgive such a terrible, unprovoked act of violence against innocent lives?”

In the aftermath, Peter came and said to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Peter scratches his head, runs the numbers. Seventy-seven times. Peter thought he was being generous. Seven times is a lot! Yet Jesus takes his seven and multiplies it to an unfathomable degree. Not one seven, but two. Side by side.

God created the earth in seven days. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is a life’s work. 

On the news, we watch celebrities skirting responsibility for the latest trouble they’ve gotten into. We watch religious leaders make non-apologies and excuses rather than owning their own actions and complicity in systems that have caused harm. I don’t know how it is for you, but I find it especially hard to forgive when people have forgotten how to apologize, much less acknowledge wrongdoing. Seventy-seven times.

When we confess, we own what we’ve done. We seek to repair the relationship. Through the vulnerability of finding out how we’ve hurt another person, we have the opportunity to learn, helping us to move forward in a good way together. 

Of course that’s not always the way. It’s one thing to say “saaaawry.” It’s another to admit that you wronged your brother by punching him in the nose over a bowl of popcorn, and to seek repair to the relationship. Lest you think I made that up, you can ask my little brother about that one. He still remembers. 

Forgiveness is tricky, and it doesn’t mean we forget. It doesn’t mean we don’t seek justice or reparations. It doesn’t mean laying down like a doormat, and it doesn’t mean we avoid pain.

[Break Glass Jar Into Pieces + Hold Up Shards]

Sometimes we endure such hurt that our lives shatter. It’s messy. It’s painful. Shards everywhere. We wonder if we’ll ever put the pieces back together. On our own, of course, it’s impossible. At times we cling tightly to those shards, waving them around like weapons. It’s not always intentional, but often true: Hurt people hurt people. When we can’t let go, when we cling so tightly to the broken pieces, not only do we hurt others, but ourselves too. 

Which isn’t to say that forgiveness is easy. It hurts. It’s hard. It takes time and practice. It takes confronting reality. Confronting our emotions. Sometimes on this journey of forgiveness we come face to face with our own shortcomings, the reality that we hurt others too. Sometimes it takes years of work, years of counselling. Seventy-Seven Times.

Charles Roberts was a milk truck driver in the community where he murdered those kids. He knew a bunch of the families of those he killed at the West Nickel Mines Amish school. He was a man who bore great and seemingly unprocessed pain. Nine years before the incident, his wife gave birth to their first child. Their daughter lived for only twenty minutes. His heart shattered. He pushed the pain down. He blamed God. He held tightly onto the shards. He plotted revenge. Holding it in for so long, refusing to share his pain, it got so twisted that his revenge for that loss turned into the need to—in his own words—punish Christian girls to get even.

A few chapters after Jesus tells this parable, his life takes a turn for the worst. Betrayed and tried, scourged, naked, nailed to a wooden cross, Jesus prays “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” 

The world demanded to know how the people of Lancaster County could forgive such a terrible, unprovoked act of violence against innocent lives. The answer is simple. Not easy, of course, but simple. 

They followed in the way of Jesus.

Members of a tight-knit Amish community, they had spent their lives, generations even, patterning their way of living after the one who prayed “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do...” They had practiced forgiveness in ways big and small. In their community, with their surrounding neighbours. With themselves. Seventy-seven times. 

And so, when this act of extreme violence, when this utter horror came their way, they instinctively knew what to do. It had become second nature. It was not easy. They grieved. I am sure this act of forgiveness, this act of seeking reconciliation carried a deep and profound cost, just as Jesus’ sacrifice cost him everything. That’s discipleship in the way of Jesus. Following Jesus is not a guarantee of peace and comfort, for Jesus is always leading us into the breach. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Forgive us our sins...Seventy-seven times. 

What this Amish community understood, and what this story offers us this morning, is the good news that God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness we offer in return is ultimately about liberation. Yours. Mine. Ours. It frees the one who has done harm. And when we can do it, it frees those of us who have been harmed too. It frees us from the cycle of violence that would otherwise continue again and again and again. 

Forgiveness frees the prisoner. The school shooter. The bereaved grandfather. Forgiveness frees you. It frees me. Forgiveness breaks the darkness with a liberating light.

When we aren’t practiced at these things, we sound like Peter, trying to calculate the maximum number of times we need to forgive all the while trying to sound generous. Jesus calls our bluff, inviting us into is a much better way. Jesus recognizes, and wants us to see, that we don’t have to pass the hurt along. 


When I first arrived in this parish three years ago, some of the first stories I heard were about the hurt that people had experienced in this place. Hurt they still carried. Hurt that would not let go. Hurt I don’t want to downplay, hurt that is real. Sometimes the hurts we absorb from one another take on a life of their own. We absorb them and pass them along. That one hurt passed along is passed along. And we continue to wound. Such hurt continues to impact us and our community life too. We tell these stories time and again. Sometimes to heal. Other times to wound. It leaves us to wonder: what will it take to move forward?

What will it take to embrace the way of Jesus—if not for the sake of the one who did the harm—then for our own freedom?

[Bring Watermelon Out of Bag]

One of the things I’m learning these days is this:

The heart that forgives breaks the cycle of violence. This heart, the forgiving heart, is the beating heart of the Amish Community in Lancaster County. It is the beating heart of our faith. And it is the beating heart of Jesus. 

Dwelling in these stories this week, I was reassured that hurt isn’t the only thing we can do when we are cracked wide open. 

[Crack Open the Watermelon]

Sometimes, sometimes when we’re cracked open, as we practice the way of Jesus—the way of forgiveness—we discover that we have within us the very food that will feed the world. 


: Background on the West Nickel Mines Amish School shooting were sourced here