St. Paul’s – 15th Sunday after Pentecost – September 13
It was WH Auden, I think, who wrote that when grace enters a room everyone begins to dance.
Would this were so! More often the opposite happens, grace enters a room and instead of dancing we become discontent and our eyes grow bitter with envy. Why? Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek writer, tells a story of an elderly monk he once met on Mount Athos. Kazantzakis, still young and full of curiosity, was questioning this monk and asked him: Do you still wrestle with the devil? No, replied the old monk, I used to, when I was younger, but now I’ve grown old and tired and the devil has grown old and tired with me. So, Kazantzakis said, your life is easy then? No more big struggles. Oh, no! replied the old man, now it’s worse. Now I wrestle with God! You wrestle with God, replied Kazantzakis, rather surprised, and you hope to win? No, said the old monk, I wrestle with God and I hope to lose!
God’s blessings go out lavishly to those who don’t seem to deserve them.
There comes a point in life when our major spiritual struggle is no longer with the fact that we are weak and desperately in need of God’s forgiveness, but rather with the opposite, with the fact that God’s grace and forgiveness is overly-lavish, unmerited, and especially that it goes out so indiscriminately.
God loves us because God is love and God cannot fail to love and cannot be discriminating in love. God’s love, as scripture says, shines on the good and bad alike. That’s nice to know when we need forgiveness and unmerited love, but it’s hard to accept when that forgiveness and love are given to those whom we deem less worthy of it, to those who didn’t seem to do what they are supposed to do. It’s not easy to accept the fact that God’s love does not discriminate, especially when God’s blessings go out lavishly to those who don’t seem to deserve them.
In today’s Gospel lesson, when Peter says to Jesus that he thinks forgiving seven times is enough, Peter is feeling pretty good about himself. After all, the law only requires that we forgive an actual brother, a blood relative, three times for the same offense. Peter generously expands the notion of brother or sister by including members of the church. Then he more than doubles the amount of forgiveness required.
But Jesus stuns Peter by expanding it even more, to 77 times, or maybe to 70 times seven—the Greek text is unclear. Either way, that’s a lot of forgiving, isn’t it? Jesus is making an important point, one that he expands with the parable of the master and the unforgiving servant—our forgiveness of others is the only appropriate response to God’s limitless forgiveness of us.
The master calls in a slave who owes him 10,000 talents. This the slave cannot pay. He begs that the debt be forgiven. The master takes pity on the slave and forgives the debt. That very day, that very hour, this recently forgiven slave goes out and cruelly throws a fellow servant in jail over a debt of 100 denarii.
Let me see if I can make these numbers make sense: 1 talent = 6,000 denarii. So, doing the math, the first slave owed the master 60 million denarii while the second slave owed only a 100. Talents, denarii, dollars—it doesn’t matter; the point is obvious. The first slave owed the master an unpayable debt—and yet the master forgave it. The slave walked out of his master’s office a debt-free man. And then, unbelievably, he almost immediately refused to forgive someone else a debt that amounted to a little pocket money.
A few years ago, I heard about an article in the Oakland Tribune about a gun amnesty program in a California town. A woman brought in a loaded pistol she had bought 20 years before, planning to kill her husband with it. She never shot him, but think about it—she kept the gun loaded. All too often, our forgiveness is like the woman choosing not to kill her husband. Someone does us wrong and we do nothing—we neither make peace nor make war. We don’t shoot them, but we keep our emotional guns loaded, just in case. Forgiveness is easy to talk about and hard to do. And sometimes, in certain circumstances, it feels almost impossible.
Forgiveness is not only the cornerstone of the Christian faith, it is also the cornerstone of all human relationships.
The moment you step along the path of forgiveness, some difficult questions arise.
- Do repeat offenders deserve to be forgiven?
- Does forgiveness encourage further abuse?
- Does forgiveness mean that I must forget the offense?
- What if someone doesn’t ask to be forgiven?
- Doesn’t forgiving just let people off the hook?
- Are some offenses just unforgivable?
These are serious questions that require serious conversation. The more deeply you have been offended, the more difficult forgiveness is. Yet no matter the offense, being unable (or unwilling) to forgive leaves you tangled up in misery, chained to the offense, and paralyzed from moving on to a new future. Jesus is asserting a whole new way of life for his followers by the radical act of forgiveness. On the one hand, forgiveness seems impossible; on the other hand, Jesus says it is essential. That is the way it is. Every day we need to ask ourselves: What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of world do you want to inhabit? How free do you want to be?
I believe wholeheartedly that Jesus’s teaching in this Gospel passage is powerful and life-giving. I also believe that many people do not have a complete understanding about what forgiveness is and is not. Given the context we find ourselves and our world in right now, it feels essential to begin with what forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness is not denial. Forgiveness isn’t pretending that an offense doesn’t matter, or that a wound doesn’t hurt, or that Christianity requires us to forget past harms and let bygones be bygones.
On the contrary, the starting line of forgiveness is the acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Of harm. Of real and profound violation. Whenever we talk about the need for forgiveness, we must begin by recognizing and naming the extent of the brokenness. Why? Because we were created for good. We were created for love, equality, tenderness, and wholeness. As image-bearers of God, we were made for a just and nurturing world that honors our dignity. When we experience any deviation from that basic goodness, it is appropriate — it is human and healthy and Christian — to react with horror, hurt or anger.
Though we contemporary Christians squirm away from this truth, one of the great gifts of Christianity (at its best) is that it takes sin and sin’s consequences dead seriously. Sin wounds. Sin breaks. Sin lingers and echoes down the ages. Debbie Thomas says forgiveness isn’t an escalator; it’s a spiral staircase. We circle, circle, and circle again, trying to create distance between the pain we’ve suffered and the new life we seek. Sometimes we can’t tell if we’ve ascended at all; we keep seeing the same, broken landscape below us. But slowly, slowly, slowly, our perspective changes. Slowly, slowly, slowly, the ground of our pain falls away. Slowly, slowly, slowly, we rise.
Forgiveness is not a detour or a shortcut. The same Bible that calls us to forgive also calls us to mourn, to lament, to speak truth to power, and to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Forgiveness in the Christian tradition isn’t a palliative; it works hand-in-hand with the arduous work of repentance and transformation. In other words, there is nothing godly about responding to systemic evil with passive acceptance or unexamined complicity. As theologian and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns us, we must never allow forgiveness to degenerate into cheap grace. That is, the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession… grace without the Cross.
In other words, there is a time to get angry and stay angry. A time to insist on change. A time to say, Enough is enough. Yes, we are called to practice and preach forgiveness. But I believe it is also the task of the Church to take sin as seriously as Jesus did with righteous anger— with impassioned and sustained cries for justice.
Forgiveness is not synonymous with healing or reconciliation. Healing has its own timetable, and sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible. Sometimes our lives depend on us severing ties with our offenders, even after we’ve forgiven them. In this sense, forgiveness is not an end; it’s a beginning. An orientation. A leaning into the future. Where it will lead is not pre-ordained.
For this reason, I worry that romanticizing forgiveness obscures its communal, multi-layered power. This is always true, but it is especially true when we’re talking about marginalized communities. In (white) Christian America, it’s too easy to think of forgiveness as a culminating act, as a redemptive, happily ever after ending to the story of race-based violence.
But when, for example, victims of racial hatred forgive their racist oppressors, they’re not ending anything; they’re preparing their hearts to begin. To resist. To approach the battlefield one more wearisome time.
Forgiveness enables the oppressed not only to survive, but to lay down the cumbersome weight of hatred and bitterness, and gear up for the fight. Forgiveness is the beginning of the hard work of building God’s kingdom — not the end.
And finally, forgiveness is not quick and easy. Not for us humans. Not if we’re honest. Forgiveness is a process — a messy, non-linear, and often barbed process that can leave us feeling whole and liberated one minute, and bleeding out of every vein the next. In my experience, no one who glibly says the words I forgive you gets a pass from this messy process, and no one who struggles extra hard to forgive for reasons of temperament, circumstance, history, or trauma should feel that they’re less spiritual than those who don’t.
Okay. If forgiveness is not denial, or a shortcut, or a reconciliation, or an easy process, then what is it? What exactly is Jesus asking of us when he tells us to forgive each other again and again and again and again?
In her popular memoir, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes that withholding forgiveness is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die. Nora Gallagher writes, Forgiveness is a way to unburden oneself from the constant pressure of rewriting the past. Henri Nouwen writes, Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly, and so we need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly.
Forgiveness is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.If these writers are correct, then I think forgiveness is choosing to begin with love instead of resentment. If I’m consumed with my own pain, if I’ve made injury my identity, if I insist on weaponizing my well-deserved anger in every interaction I have with people who hurt me, then I’m drinking poison, and the poison will kill me long before it does anything to my abusers. To choose forgiveness is to release myself from the tyranny of my bitterness. To trust that my frenzied longing for vindication and justice is known to God. To cast my hunger for healing deep into Christ’s heart, because healing belongs to him, and he’s the only one powerful enough to secure it.
What we as a society seem to be calling for is revenge, retribution, and punishment — God holds out for restorative justice. A kind of justice we can barely imagine. A kind of justice that has the power to heal both the oppressed and the oppressor.
Secondly, I think forgiveness is a transformed way of seeing. A way of seeing that is forward-focused. Future-focused. Seeking the answer to the question…How do we go forward into the future Jesus intends for his followers?
I believe that God is always and everywhere in the business of taking the worst things that happen to us, and going to work on them for the purposes of multiplying wholeness and blessing. Because God is in the story, we can rest assured that our wounds will not end in loss, trauma, brokenness, and defeat. There will be another turn, another chapter, another path, another grace.
Because God loves us, we don’t have to forgive out of scarcity. We can forgive out of God’s abundance of love.
Let us take up the hard work of forgiveness for the sake of a broken and desperate world. I believe it is the most important work we can do as the children of a God who grieves and rages against oppression. May we loosen the chains that bind us. May we rise. And may we always pay forward the healing grace and forgiveness of God, until justice reigns.
I close with a story from the Sufi tradition…..
A Sufi saint, on pilgrimage to Mecca, having completed the prescribed religious practices, knelt down and touched his forehead to the ground and prayed: Allah! I have only one desire in life. Give me the grace of never offending you again.
When the All-Merciful heard this he laughed aloud and said, That’s what they all ask for. But if I granted everyone this grace, tell me, who would I forgive?
Today God has spoken clearly to us,
people for whom it is difficult
to overlook failures,
to give new chances,
to forgive from the heart.
The Scriptures said
“Become like me,
forget and forgive,
heal and care,
and you will be healed yourselves.”
May the blessing of God Almighty,:
the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit….
Our worship has ended and our service begins
Let us go forth
in the forgiving peace of the Lord. Alleluia, Alleluia
Prayer of Dedication/Offering
May our gifts become symbols of our intention
to minister with God to
satisfy the needs of those whom God loves.
Like Paul, who was showered with an abundance of mercy from God,
we too have been blessed.
Like Paul, we are called to go forth
and witness to the presence of Christ in our lives
in so many diverse ways.
One of the ways in which we tell the story
is through the giving of gifts to God.
In our gift-giving we participate with God
in providing for the needs of God’s people.