Sept. 14, 2014
A School of Love and Forgiveness
The Rev. Brad Mullis
Lewis Smedes describes the process of forgiveness in a little book called Forgive and Forget. This is how human beings forgive, Smedes says: “We hurt, we hate, we heal. We hurt; that is, we allow ourselves to feel the depth of an injury that has been dealt to us ~ we don’t minimize it, or try to sweep it under the rug. We hate; that is, we blame the one who has hurt us ~we don’t condone or excuse the offense. Finally, when we are ready, we heal; we let go of the pain that is binding us to the past, and move on. That is how we human beings forgive.”
Forgiveness may be the hardest work that you and I will ever do. We let go of the pain that is binding us to the past, and move on.
In forgiveness we are called to look forward, to see and lean into a future that is not defined by any wrongs done to us but instead is shaped by hope, possibility, and the grace of God.
That is the essence of forgiveness: the lifting of a burden, the releasing of a debt, the refusal to allow past actions and failures to define the future. Today’s epistle and gospel lessons help us recognize two things critical to living into the open future God desires for all of us. First, it is God’s place to judge. In the reading from Romans, Paul says, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”
That is not to say that our actions are uninformed by the behaviors and character of others, and this passage is not a call to remain in abusive relationships or suffer injustice in the name of piety. Nor, it must be said, especially this week, is Paul advising how a nation should react when attacked by another nation or by terrorists. It is the recognition that final judgment is God’s. In the meantime, we are called to remain open to the possibility of redemption, both in others and ourselves.
Second, we are to forgive as we have been forgiven. In the gospel reading, when Jesus teaches his disciples about how to deal with those who offend you, Peter asks how many times he should forgive an offender before, presumably, initiating this kind of process and then suggests the biblically prescribed answer: seven. Jesus, however, stretches the legal requirement to the breaking point: not seven but seventy-seven. Many translations say seventy times seven. Or, in common parlance, always. He then goes on to tell a story, a parable, about one who has just been forgiven an unimaginable amount yet cannot forgive another what is a trifling sum by comparison.
Again, take care: our attention – shaped by a popular religious culture more interested in hell than healing – is likely to focus on the end, where God’s response to the unforgiving heart is compared to the unrelenting punishment of an angry master. This is the kind of hyperbole or exaggeration we see in many parables – as absolutely no one lives up the moral demanded – meant to underscore the importance of forgiveness. The parable makes clear that those who are unable to extend to others the mercy they have received from God are already ensnared, trapped, and doomed to a life of relentless calculations and emotional scarcity. This is where we already live when we do not forgive.
Forgiveness does not have to mean forgetting, and reconciliation is not always possible. Forgiveness means trusting judgment to God, and this is only possible by the grace that comes from God alone. Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, “Forgiving means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but it is a loss that liberates the victim.”
The parable also implies, I think, that while forgiveness can be called for, it can’t be forced. I know that I – and I suspect that each of us – have at one time or another gotten “stuck” by some offense or personal slight and overlooked the manifold grace extended to me by countless others. Perhaps Jesus commands such extravagant forgiveness because he knows it may take some of us that long for it to really sink home. For this reason, this is a parable that speaks most powerfully when we address it first to ourselves rather than using it as a standard by which to judge others.
This week many of us took time to remember the events of September 11 thirteen years ago when four hijacked airplanes wreaked such destruction. But we will also remember the events of 2000 years ago when God’s own Son, surveying a field of broken lives and desolate hearts, chose to call down from heaven forgiveness, not vengeance, and in this way opened a future marked not by judgment but by mercy, not by calculations but trust, not by despair but hope, not by fear but courage, not by violence but healing, not by scarcity but abundance, not by hate but love, and not by death but by new life. That’s what forgiveness can do.
You know, somebody taught those 9/11 hijackers to hate. Somebody taught them to name others as the enemy, to demonize or scapegoat others. Jesus came to show us something different. By his life, death and resurrection, he offered us forgiveness and new life, and we, as the community of the baptized, are commanded to share that forgiveness and new life with all the world. In a minute we will commission some folks who have promised to share these gifts in a formal way, as Sunday School teachers and Journey to Adulthood leaders. But let’s all teach one another and the world. Let this body be a school of love and forgiveness. Let the world say of us not that we were taught to hate, but that we were taught to love.
Forgiveness, you see, is ultimately a decision about the past – the decision to accept both that you cannot change the past and also that the past does not have to hold you captive. Forgiveness is a decision about the past that ultimately determines the future. When you forgive, you release the past and enter into an open future. When you cannot forgive, you remain captive to that past until the end of time. Forgiveness, in this sense, is freedom, freedom from the past, freedom for the future, the kind of freedom God wants for each of us. May God give to all of us a palpable sense of the forgiveness in which – and by which – we live and grant us the faith and courage to walk into the future such forgiveness creates.
Information & Scripture
Exodus 13 Romans 14: Psalm 114