Matthew 18:21-35, from the Common English Bible
It is both a gift and a challenge that the teachings of Jesus and the basic principles of Judeo-Christian ethics can sometimes seem totally out of touch with the real world.
The real, down-to-earth teachings of Jesus are a gift because, among many other things, they provide a still point in a chaotic world; they invite us to ground ourselves in what is real and true, to commit ourselves to the transformative and healing power of relationship and community; they are vital to meaningful life.
And . . . so focused are we progressive Christians on the big-picture problems of society, our nation, and our world, that these same teachings may sometimes seem trivial and even irrelevant.
And so it was that by Thursday of last week, with so much of the western United States being consumed by fire, with people dying and entire towns burning to the ground, with dear friends in Southern California fleeing their home because the horrible air quality had given one of them a migraine and the other was struggling to breathe and their smoke alarms kept going off, I began to wonder if I shouldn’t scrap my plans for today’s worship.
Forgiveness, Jesus? Really? Climate change is on steroids, and it feels like half the country is on fire!
And then there’s 400 years of white supremacy playing out on our streets and in our politics and, despite all that, so little seems to change.
And there’s the pandemic, of course, and, almost 200,000 deaths in, new revelations that the president knowingly lied about the deadliness of the coronavirus.
But, really, Jesus: How many times should I forgive? How quaint is that? Do I really need to spend energy on something like forgiveness? Don’t you need me to be your hands and feet in the world?
The truth, of course, is that forgiveness is not trivial at all.
There can be no justice and peace without accountability, restitution and reparations, reconciliation and restoration. There can be no meaningful and lasting social and environmental change, no racial justice or beloved community, without the searching and fearless moral self-inventory that authentic relationship requires. Our personal growth will be stunted, our relationships will suffer, and old wounds will fester rather than heal if we are not able to both give and receive forgiveness. Our efforts to truly be the church, to model a different, more loving way of living in the world, will fall flat if we do not commit ourselves to treating one another with honesty, tenderness, and respect.
But relationships are hard, sometimes painful work, Jesus, and, meantime, there’s a great big world out there that needs our help! Who has time for difficult conversations, attentive listening, and making amends? Why should we bother with relationships that are uncomfortable, with speaking the truth in love, with seeking and giving forgiveness, and changing our behavior?
Come on, Jesus! It’s so much easier, so much more efficient, to just write people off and move on, to avoid them and not address the issues. It’s so much more satisfying to roll our eyes, hold onto our grudges, and close our hearts than to do the hard work needed to make things better.
But, as Jesus’ parable makes clear: That’s just wrong. We’ve done a million and one things we shouldn’t have; we’ve not done two million and two things we should have; and yet God forgives us. Not only does God forgive us, but God loves us all the more. This extravagant mercy, this amazing grace, should bring us to our knees and re-make us in that same love. Too, often, however, we are like the servant: Despite having been forgiven an unfathomable debt, we refuse to forgive someone else’s small offense against us.
Now, I realize that Jesus telling us to do or not do something doesn’t always motivate us to change our behavior. We can be stubborn that way.
So, consider this, if you will: Not only is an unwillingness to forgive others wrong; it also just doesn’t work.
As the writer Anne Lamott says: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”
Not forgiving others hurts us more than it hurts them. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu knew this. Grounded in the cultural African awareness that we are all connected, that what hurts one of us harms us all, that what frees one of us liberates us all, they led South Africa through a truth and reconciliation process that not only prevented a bloody civil war but also began to address the suffering, injustice, and death caused by some 50 years of brutal apartheid.
And yet when a group of American seminary students traveled to South Africa to see and learn about apartheid and post-apartheid and the re-making of that country, our own divisions were laid bare. The Black students in our group could not imagine forgiving the United States for 400 years of slavery and ongoing racial injustice, and we white students had a hard time understanding that. We whites wanted the Blacks to just forgive us, to get over it, and move on, while the Black students couldn’t believe that we expected to be forgiven for something that was still happening, a grave injustice that we and white supremacist laws, institutions, and systems were still imposing on them.
It was a painful but transformative moment, and something I will never forget.
Time prevents us from talking about the necessity of reparations, but I believe our country will not begin to know racial justice until reparations are made to our Black siblings. Immediately after our service today, the Anti-Racism Ministry Team will invite us to more directly face the discomfort of our feelings about ongoing racism in our country, and consider anew how we as a church can address it. I hope you will participate; that is one concrete step you can take, today, toward justice and reconciliation.
As uncomfortable as that process might be, I think we progressive Christians often prefer to think about forgiveness in societal, big picture terms than in interpersonal, churchy terms. Not only is it sometimes easier to focus on the needs “out there” than on the problems “in here,” but we’ve also bought into the post-Christian view that guilt is unhealthy and confession is depressing.
On top of that, we pastors often fail to focus on the importance of forgiveness—at least in part, because confidentiality prevents us from sharing clear, real-life examples from our own congregations. I can’t name names or share stories, but I can tell you that even here, in this wonderful church, I have seen ministry teams weakened, relationships soured, individuals alienated, and hearts embittered by the refusal to let go of grudges and an unwillingness to forgive.
Beloveds, how can we be God’s partners in healing and transforming the world if we will not let God’s Spirit heal and transform us, our wounds, and our relationships? This is the heart of the spiritual life: a humble and joyful relationship with God’s love and grace that, a deep connection with Spirit that, if we let it, will always be changing us, will forever be healing us.
These are big and complex questions that require much self-examination, prayer, vulnerability, shared commitment, grace, and time.
And so I want bring us back to where we started this morning, with a few simple questions for our own reflection and action. I’ll pause briefly after each one:
For what, and from whom, do you need forgiveness?
What, or whom, do you need to forgive?
How can you seek forgiveness and change your behavior?
How can you begin to forgive?
“Transformation is always possible,” Archbishop Tutu says, adding that, “We do not heal in isolation. When we reach out and connect with one another—when we tell the story, name the hurt, grant forgiveness, and renew or release the relationship—our suffering begins to transform.”
There is so much hurt to be healed, so much justice to be made, and freedom to experience, that forgiveness never ends.
How many times should we forgive, Jesus?
Seventy times seven times seven times seven.