October 6, 2019 – The 17th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 22C
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here.
On September 6, 2018, after a long shift, Amber Guyger came home to find her apartment door unexpectedly unlocked. Her training kicked in. She drew her sidearm and entered the apartment, prepared to encounter an intruder. Instead, she found Botham Jean, sitting and watching television. Without realizing it, Officer Guyger had gone up one too many floors and had mistakenly entered Mr. Jean’s home. She fired two shots, killing her unarmed 26-year-old neighbor.
Last Tuesday, a jury found Ms. Guyger guilty of murder. The conviction itself—a white police officer held accountable for killing an unarmed black man—is itself remarkable, but even more so was what followed. During the sentencing phase, the victim’s brother, Brandt Jean, testified that he loved Ms. Guyger and forgave her. Then, at the end of his remarks, he asked the judge if he could give his brother’s killer a hug. Images of that embrace filled the news coverage of the event. Later, after the sentence was pronounced, Judge Tammy Kemp, who had presided over the trial, hugged the victim’s family and then hugged the convicted murder, gifting the former police officer with her own personal Bible. And then everything broke loose.
Protests sprung up because the sentence of ten years in prison was deemed to be too lenient. Many people celebrated the image of the victim’s brother and the convicted officer’s embrace as a powerful sign of forgiveness. Others decried the gesture as a sign that Guyger, the Dallas Police Department, and more generally, a culture that propagates police shootings had been given a pass. Pastors, rabbis, and theologians chimed in from every side. One noted that forgiveness can only be granted by the one who was wronged and that the emphasis in this case should instead be placed on the need for repentance. Another criticized those within the church who would be critical of any offer of forgiveness, describing it as a sign of how far removed we are from acknowledging the mercy of God. Yesterday, on NPR’s All Things Considered, the Rev. Michael Waters of Dallas said that most of the backlash has been a misunderstanding of those who stood not in opposition to Brandt Jean’s act of forgiveness but to “how black forgiveness is often weaponized back against the community” by those who would rather celebrate signs of charity and healing that address the systemic racism that has led to so many black deaths.
It isn’t easy to know what to feel or how to react in situations like this. As the Christian community, as followers of Jesus, what is our response? What do we do? When it comes to the role of forgiveness in the community of the disciples, in Luke 17, a few verses before our gospel lesson begins, Jesus gives his followers some very difficult directions: “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come!...Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” So challenging were these instructions that the disciples replied, “[Lord,] increase our faith!” I can’t tell if that was a statement of their inadequacy or a wish for supernatural assistance, but, either way, it was a recognition that Jesus’ command to establish a community of radical repentance and forgiveness was inordinately demanding.
Even if someone sins against you seven times a day, to be a part of the fellowship of Jesus is to forgive the one who turns back—who repents—as many as seven times. The number seven represents completeness, so Jesus command isn’t limited to seven instances of forgiveness but is understood to be limitless. For the sake of the community, we must limitlessly forgive the one who turns back and repents. Why is that important? Why would Jesus test the limits of human kindness with such a difficult commandment? Not because to forgive is the right thing to do but because to forgive is who we are.
I don’t like the image Jesus uses to get his point across—the image of a slave serving at the dinner table. Even though it did not carry the racial connotations that slavery carries in our own historical context, the image of servant and master is hard to separate from the issues of race and class that divide us. Jesus uses the image, however, to stress how unexceptional the act of radical forgiveness is for one of his followers: “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” Not unlike when I expect Elizabeth to give me a congratulatory pat on the back when I change a diaper or sacrifice an hour of my time to watch our children, Jesus wants us to see that our call to forgive is not an invitation to exceptional behavior but a reminder of who we really are. In order to forgive like that, Jesus says, you don’t need any more faith. You just need to remember what it means to be my follower.
But, lest we think that those whose job it is to radically forgive are the only ones who have work to do in the Christian community, we cannot forget that forgiveness is not the only challenging command Jesus gives to his disciples in this passage. He also tells them of the need continually to repent: “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea!...If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender; [then,] if there is repentance, you must forgive.” We may delight in celebrating a black man’s radical act of forgiveness, but, in order to live out our identity as the Christian community, we must accept the rebuke that our racism has infected society, and we must embrace the call to repent. As the Rev. Cornell William Brooks said in the same NPR interview, we must “commend the hug but not ignore the slap in the face of African-Americans in America, and that means holding these police departments accountable.” If we are going to be followers of Jesus, if we are going to be the Body of Christ in the world, the call to repentance must be as much a part of our identity as the demand for radical forgiveness.
It isn’t easy. Admitting our participation in racist systems is very threatening, as is forgiving those who have hurt us over and over again. But both are necessary if unconditional love is the core of who we are. The hurt is real. The anger is real. And without radical love the end of that hurt and anger is vengeance. In words that should send chills through us, the poet in Lamentations surveys the complete destruction of Jerusalem, and the psalmist imagines with delight the murder of Babylonian children as retribution for how the people of Judah had been treated. Those feelings are real, but they cannot be the end to which we aspire. We cannot allow hatred and violence to define us. And so we must repent, and we must forgive—not because it is the noble thing to do, not because it is the right thing to do, but because it is who we are, because it is what it means to belong to the one who has embraced us with his radical forgiveness and lavished upon us God’s unconditional love.
 Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (@TheRaDR) on Twitter, October 3, 2019.
 Keith Voets on Facebook, October 4, 2019.