September 14, 2014 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19A
© 2014 Evan D. Garner
Listen to the audio of this sermon here.
Forgiveness is a spiritual exercise that may be harder than we think.
In last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus urged his disciples to look for opportunities to forgive those within the church who sinned against them. “Go when it is just the two of you and point out the fault while you are alone. If that doesn’t work, take one or two witnesses with you. If that doesn’t work, tell it to the whole church…” At each step, the hope is that reconciliation might be possible. But Peter—who often plays our part in the story—approached Jesus and asked, “Wait, how far does this forgiveness stuff go? How many times are we supposed to forgive—as many as seven times?” “No,” Jesus replied, “Seventy-seven times.”
What are the limits of forgiveness? How far should forgiveness go? Our youngest child is at the point where he likes to test the boundaries of what he can get away with. How many times will we forgive him playing with his milk or throwing a toy against the wall or turning the hose on outside? We might put him straight in timeout for doing the thing he knows very well not to do, but, ultimately, there is no limit to how many times we will forgive him. He’s two. How can you not forgive a two-year-old for being a little spunky?
What about the addict who tells you how sorry she is and begs for your forgiveness and support as she tries to turn her life around? After her tear-filled speech, which leaves you crying, too, she goes into your bathroom and steals another piece of your jewelry so that she can sell it to get high? Do you forgive her again? What about the next time? And the next? Seventy-seven times, Lord? Really?
Forgiveness doesn’t mean stupidity. Sometimes the best thing we can do for an addict is to treat her like an addict. And forgiveness doesn’t mean acting like nothing happened, either. That would be too easy. There’s no spiritual exercise there. Forgiveness means you looking at me and me looking at you and both of us acknowledging what happened but living together in that place of stasis—that place of shalom—that means neither one of us is holding on to the past. That’s hard work, but it’s gospel work.
Every once in a while we hear amazing stories of forgiveness—Pope John Paul II going into prison to forgive the man who tried to kill him, a father taking the stand at a serial killer’s sentencing to say that he has forgiven the one who killed his daughter, the Amish community forgiving the man who walked into a school and killed five girls before killing himself and embracing the shooter’s family at his funeral. In cases like these, no one would think less of the victim who was unable or unwilling to forgive. In our minds, those who have experienced unthinkable tragedy owe no one anything. If they want to hold onto their grief and anger, who could stand in their way?
Yet Jesus begs us to forgive—even those who have hurt us the most. He asks us not to pretend that the wrong has not occurred. He asks us to look our transgressor in the eye and, fully conscious of what transpired, to offer a hand of forgiveness anyway. Why? Because that is how God works. God knows all the wrongs we have ever committed and all the wrongs we will ever commit, and still he embraces us and forgives us. The real power of forgiveness is knowing the fullness of the hurt yet offering love in response. That’s hard to imagine. That’s hard to understand. And that’s the point. God is doing the unthinkable. God is reaching out to us in nearly unimaginable ways. And the only way we can ever know what it means to be forgiven like that is to offer forgiveness in the same way. Amen.