September 17th, 2017
St. John the Evangelist
Pentecost 15 (Proper 19): Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:8-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Now don’t take this the wrong way, but do you ever feel like the most annoying thing about life is other people? I think it was Jean Paul Sartre who wrote, “Hell is other people!” Sometimes don’t you just feel like if everyone wasn’t such an idiot things would go a lot better? If you didn’t have to deal with other people things would get done quicker and right? Of course I never feel like that anymore since coming to St. John’s. But I used to feel like this.
Dealing with other people is not easy, that’s true. And we have entered into a part of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is trying to help his disciples learn how to deal with other people in a faithful way (and for that matter, that’s what Paul is going on about in his letter to the Romans these past few weeks). For, like it or not, human beings are not solitary creatures, and the life of faith is not a solitary journey. The formation and nurture of community is essential not just to the Church, but to all of human society. So having some ground rules for ordering of our common life is essential if we are going to be able to stand living with each other, let alone become the beloved community God longs for us to be.
Last week we got one bit of advice. As Fr. Tim highlighted for us: being faithful with one another does not mean being conflict avoidant. Jesus offered some sound, practical advice for how to address a conflict you have with another person in a loving manner (or how they should address it with you!). You can think of this sermon as part two of that conversation because this week, Jesus is all about forgiveness. If you’re going to muster up the courage to confront someone for a wrong they have done (or be confronted about it yourself) you better be ready to forgive or ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness is the grease that allows the gears of community to turn smoothly and without it, our life together would grind to a halt.
“Jesus,” Peter asks “how often should I be prepared to forgive another member of our community? Seven times? Is that enough?” Now Peter thought he was being pretty generous here. Seven is a lot of times, and in the Old Testament that number itself is symbolic of completeness—think of seven days of creation. But Jesus counters by saying, “No, you should be prepared to forgive ‘seventy-seven times.’ 70 times more than the amount you think you should forgive.” Jesus knows that without ample forgiveness, the Church doesn’t stand a chance.
Forgiveness is a multifaceted, mysterious thing. First of all, it comes in differing degrees. There’s the daily forgiveness we require of our closest relations. This may be where we get the most practice. For the fabric of any family depends on forgiveness. Then there’s another level of forgiveness that we offer and receive from our neighbors, those in our community. When I was about eight, I smacked a baseball through the window of my elderly neighbor’s house. After immediately fleeing the scene of the crime, my parents forced me to go over and fess up and apologize and Rhoda, to her credit, offered me complete absolution for my sins. And not only that, but she did the same thing two weeks later when I smashed the window again. Rhoda, may she rest in peace, may have been furious with me, but she was willing to overlook the broken glass and need for a new windowpane, which I’m sure was a major pain, because she knew the fabric of our neighborhood depended on it.
Then there is forgiveness of an even grander scale. Forgiveness that needs to take place between nations or peoples. Occasionally, we are very good at this (think of South Africa and the Truth and Reconciliation commissions) but more often we choose not to engage with conflict in a deep enough way to really heal (think of Native Americans and Slavery in the US). This prevents those conflicts from ever really being resolved. Forgiveness among nations and peoples is hard, but it is possible. We just have to realize that the fabric of the world depends on it.
Forgiveness functions in all these capacities. It comes in differing degrees.
Forgiveness is also multi-dimensional. There are two sides to it: asking for it and giving it. I don’t know about you, but I find giving forgiveness can be really difficult. Sometimes I just don’t feel like doing it. When I have been wronged its kind of a good, self-righteous feeling to hold on to that grievance and feel angry towards a person or people. Forgiveness would rob me of that feeling. But it also, I think it’s fair to say, is the only way that we can move forward. To withhold forgiveness is to become chained to the past—past slights, past conflicts, past injuries. Hold on to them and suddenly you are being pulled down by all the grievances you can’t let go of. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you forget how that person hurt you or that you don’t confront them about, it means you liberate yourself from the pain and sorrow that it causes you, so that you can move on. I’m sure we all know people, or perhaps are those people, who hold on to past conflicts. They always talk about them, get mad about them, relive them. And at a certain point they are consumed by them. It’s really tragic. Without forgiveness, the past can choke off your future.
If granting forgiveness is hard, I find asking for it even harder. Because to ask for forgiveness is to admit that I was wrong, that I make mistakes, that I have hurt you, that I can be selfish or mean or stupid. To ask for forgiveness we must be willing to put ourselves at the mercy of the one we have wronged and trust, hope, pray that they can find it in their hearts to release us from that guilt. Both these dimensions of forgiveness are pretty demanding of us. They require our better nature to be on display.
Forgiveness also moves in multiple directions: vertically (between you and God) and horizontally (between you and…other people). And one informs the other. I find it a lot easier to ask for forgiveness from God than to ask it of another person. He knows my shortcomings already, so it’s not news to him, plus he’s not going to tell. But the fact that I understand my need for forgiveness from God and am so willing to ask for it and yet am so hesitant to grant it or ask for it from other people is exactly the problem Jesus is pointing out in the parable from our Gospel passage. We are called to forgive because we have been forgiven. God has modeled the way we should be with one another. If we do not understand that we have been forgiven in some capacity, then it’s going to be a lot harder to come up with that forgiveness ourselves, when the time comes. In this parable, we are that unjust servant. Our debt to God is incalculable and yet he’s already released us from it in the person of Jesus Christ. If we don’t get that message and are stingy with giving out our forgiveness—like that servant whose debt is forgiven and then turns around and punishes the other servant for a debt he owes him—we’ve missed the entire point.
Forgiveness is one of the most powerful interactions you can have with another person. Just look at what happens to Joseph and his brothers when he assures them of his forgiveness towards them: everyone is in tears. Forgiveness is that powerful. But it’s also one of the most difficult interactions you can have with another person. And it is the difficulty on all sides of forgiveness that I think, makes it so divine when it actually happens. There is a grace on display, an upending of the tit for tat form of retribution that usually governs our common life together, that is, to me, evidence of the Holy Spirit at work. True forgiveness is a holy thing and requires the best of us. True forgiveness does not erase the past and yet it frees us from it. I actually think the phrase “forgive and forget” is wrong. In order to truly forgive you need to remember, and then move past. True forgiveness does not just mean letting anything go, it means doing the hard work to address a problem and at the same time doing the hard work to release yourself and that person from the pain such a problem has caused. There may be consequences to an action, but they are independent of whether or not forgiveness can and should be granted. If you steal something you should be punished, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be forgiven. Because the fact of the matter is, we all hurt each other and therefore we all need to forgive lest we hold on to those hurts and allow them to rip apart the ties that bind us all, one to another, as members of this beautiful, broken, bizarre human family.
Forgiveness is the only way we are going to survive other people, and the way they are going to survive us. It is God’s gift to us from the beginning for he has forgiven us countless times and will forgive us countless more. Such forgiveness is meant to be emulated. Our common life as families, neighbors, citizens, human beings depends on it. Without it, all this will break down. And when forgiveness happens, when we can find in our hearts the space to offer it or the courage to ask for it, it is a sparkling moment of graciousness and love between people. Such that we can see that, while Hell might be other people, heaven is too.