September 17, 2017
Matthew 18:21-35, Exodus 14:19-31
“Forgiveness Is Our Only Hope”
In a cartoon, Jesus is telling the disciples “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” One of the disciples puts his face in his hand and says, “Great! Not only do I have to forgive my brother, now I have to do math!” The caption says, “Forgive. Because it’s easier than math. Math is hard.”
Several years ago, I was hurt and betrayed by some people. There were other casualties, but the hurtful action was directed at me. In the middle of the worst of it, I talked with someone I trust. I told her about the experience and she agreed that I had been wronged. She was kind and sympathetic. She listened and then she offered to drop some books at my house that she thought might be helpful. Always one to turn to books for the answer, I agreed. I came home to find a stack of books on the topic of forgiveness. These were not the books I was anticipating. I did not find the idea of forgiveness the least bit enticing at that point. Yet even then, I knew that my own healing was completely dependent on my willingness to forgive those who had hurt me. I also knew I was not there yet. I really wanted to nurse my hurt and anger for awhile. There came a time when I knew that nursing my hurt and anger was only hurting me and I realized that I was ready to forgive. I needed to move on and not be stuck in the place of disappointment and betrayal.
Poet David Whyte says “forgiveness is a heartache and difficult to achieve because strangely, it not only refuses to eliminate the original wound, but actually draws us closer to its source. To approach forgiveness is to close in on the nature of the hurt itself, the only remedy being, as we approach its raw center, to imagine our relation to it.”
I think the reason I didn’t want to forgive the ones who hurt me is that I knew I would have to move toward the events that caused the pain. I knew that the ones who caused the hurt felt no responsibility, so my healing would not depend on any movement on their part. My healing was completely up to me. It isn’t fair, but it is true. I wanted to move as far away from the painful events as possible, but they seemed to follow me around asking me to show up and work through it.
I am not a huge fan of forgiveness. It is hard work. It requires that we connect with pain. Who wants to do that? And yet, I know that the cost of not forgiving is too great. Jesus isn’t interested in subjecting us to moral platitudes, but he understands that we are the ones who suffer when we cannot forgive.
Jewish tradition says that you should forgive three times. When the disciples suggest seven times, they are being more than generous. Seven is also a number that represents wholeness. But Jesus says we should forgive as many times as we are hurt. He then tells a story of a king who calls his slave to pay a debt which was something like a million dollars. The slave begs forgiveness and promises to pay every penny even though that would be impossible. The king has mercy and forgives the debt entirely. That is astonishing. Clearly there is some disconnect at that point. The slave goes out and sees another slave who owes him something like one hundred dollars and grabs him by the throat and responds to the plea for patience by throwing him in prison. What happened here? The one who has just received an extraordinary amount of mercy has responded with extraordinary cruelty to another.
The king is supposed to represent God who forgives us beyond measure and then asks us to do the same or assumes that we will do the same. How can we not? How is that we forget? The story gets even more difficult when fellow slaves tell the king about the slave who refused to forgive the debt. The king gets angry and turns him over to be tortured and assures that all who do not forgive from the heart will experience the same fate. Theologically, we are on shaky ground at this point. I honestly cannot imagine God inflicting torture on us for refusing to forgive. What I CAN see, is that refusing to forgive is a way we inflict torture on ourselves.
And so, the story leaves us with a profoundly simple and profoundly difficult message: you have received the forgiving grace of God; pass it on. I hear that and I think, “of course.” And then someone hurts me or wrongs me and I remember that it is not that easy. Forgiveness is not simple. It is hard work. It is not once and for all. It is a choice we make throughout our lives. We are given many opportunities to practice.
I keep hearing the words that we pray EVERY week in worship together “Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Today, when we say those words together, let’s stop and let them ring in our ears and in our hearts for a bit rather than just racing through without paying attention to what we are saying. Listen to the words “AS WE forgive” and notice that forgiveness is not one way. It is a circle that begins with God forgiving us and then we forgive one another and then God forgives us and then we forgive one another and so on. It sounds almost as if God’s forgiveness depends on ours.
John Shelby Spong says, “Matthew has Jesus see the kingdom of heaven as like unto the final accounting, in which forgiveness is our only hope. Forgiving another allows forgiveness to pass to the forgiving one. It is an ever-flowing stream. If one stops the flow of forgiveness, then one can no longer receive it.” (Biblical Literalism: A Gentle Heresy p. 275)
Lest you hear otherwise, I am going to repeat FORGIVENESS IS NOT EASY. I am not trying to suggest that we just pretend everything is ok. Instead, I am asking all of us to do the hard work David Whyte suggests. He says forgiveness means centering in on the hurt and imagining our relation to it. This isn’t just a simple mental exercise. It is difficult. It requires us to show up and open our hearts and allow another chapter in the story to be written. The next chapter is not just a rehashing of what has happened, but a rebuilding of relationship and reimagining ourselves in the story. We can do this hard thing.
“While all of the world’s major religions teach about the necessity of forgiveness, it has been only recently that the medical and scientific world has also begun to delve into the importance of forgiveness for health and well-being. It is now widely known that unforgiveness, or holding on to past hurts and resentments, deeply affects our emotional and physical health. Jesus speaks to the necessity of forgiveness because he knows the effects unforgiveness has on individuals and communities. (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 68)
Let’s be clear that forgiveness in no way means denying our hurt or minimizing what has happened. It is instead deciding that it will not have the last word. If you can’t get there spiritually, perhaps you can treat it more like spinach and launch down that path because it is good for you. You may just find that choosing to forgive for health reasons, may bring spiritual healing as well.
We have been through some hard things in the last few months. Some painful things have been said. Some people have felt judged. Some have felt diminished. Some have felt unsafe. It would be a relief to erase it all, but instead we are called to the hard work of forgiveness. We are living in a time in our country where people are writing one another off instead of seeking to honor our shared humanity. When we deny the humanity of others, we do great damage.
“After serving in World War II, Will Campbell served as Director of Religious life at Ole Miss but left after two years because his controversial views on race attracted death threats. In 1957, Campbell was one of four people who escorted the nine black students who integrated Little Rock's Central High School; and he was the only white person to attend the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The hate mail poured in.
As he matured, Campbell was self-aware enough to realize that he hated those bigots who hated him and who hated African-Americans. It occurred to him how much he enjoyed thinking that God hated all the same people that he hated. Anne Lamott would later offer a similar insight: “You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Campbell realized that he had created God in his own image, and after his own political likeness. Acting upon these convictions, he started developing relationships with the Ku Klux Klan. He did their funerals and weddings, visited them when they were sick, and even befriended the Grand Dragon of North Carolina, J.R. "Bob" Jones. Campbell said things like, “With the same love that it is commanded to shower upon the innocent victim of his frustration and hostility, the church must love the racist.” “You love one, you got to love ‘em all,” Will Campbell said. (*Thanks to Brent Beasley for these reflections on Will Campbell.)
We don’t forgive because it is easy. We forgive because we are created in God’s image and God has forgiven us. Forgiveness will set us free. But it doesn’t happen overnight. It requires that we do some hard work. I am committed to this. It is the path forward for our community. John Spong was right – “Forgiveness is our only hope.