Sermon for Sunday, September 11, 2011 || Proper 19A || Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18: 21-35
The Rev. Margot D Critchfield
Today’s readings are exceedingly hard ones for anyone who has ever been abused…or betrayed…or treated unfairly…or just plain hurt by another.
They’re right up there with the commandments to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek. And they’re especially hard readings to hear on this, the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Because surely, as the slogan goes, “We will never forget.” But should we ever forgive the terrorists whose hatred and violence changed all of our lives so dramatically ten years ago?
In response to Peter’s question about the limits of forgiveness, Jesus gives an intentionally outrageous answer—an answer far beyond the cultural and religious norms of the day—a seemingly impossible answer: We must forgive others as God forgives us: beyond measure, without keeping score, and even—if not especially—when they don’t deserve it. After all, Christ didn’t die for us because we deserved forgiveness.
Instinctively, we protest: Yes, but our offenses can’t be compared to those of a terrorist…or an abuser…or a murderer…or a fill-in-the-blank.
“Forgive, and you will be forgiven,” Jesus says.
“It is in forgiving that we are forgiven,” echoes St. Francis.
Can anyone help but wince at this teaching? Nothing could be more counter-intuitive to human nature and our eye-for-an-eye sense of justice than to forgive the unforgivable! Yet this is exactly what God did for us in Christ—and exactly what Christ did for us from the cross! “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do…”
In her statement on this occasion of national remembrance, Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori writes that, “The greatest memorial to those who died ten years ago will be a world more inclined toward peace.” Then she asks each of us, “What are you doing to build a living memorial like that?”
What are you doing to build a living memorial like a world more inclined toward peace? I’ve thought about that question a lot this past week. And the more I’ve thought it in light of this morning’s readings, the more I’ve wondered: Might the living memorial I’m called to build be hearts more inclined toward peace? After all, if we want to build a world more inclined toward peace, wouldn’t our hearts be a good place to start? Wouldn’t my heart be a good place to start?
Susan Retik had two children and was pregnant with her third when her husband David was killed on September 11th—a passenger on the first plane to hit the towers. Says Susan with remarkable conviction, “The terrorists who wreaked havoc on us here on September 11th clearly had a mission of spreading hate, and I just didn’t want to be a part of that.” So Susan chose another way. She created an organization to help widows in Afghanistan affected by war, terrorism, and oppression. Instead of letting her heart be hardened by non-forgiveness, Susan chose to incline it toward peace.
Andrea LeBlanc, whose husband Bob was killed on the second plane to hit the towers, told the Boston Globe last week that she wants her grandchildren to know that, “It’s a false choice to think you can only respond to violence with violence or by doing nothing…” So after 9/11 Andrea gave up her practice as a veterinarian and became an international peace activist.
“We’re as capable of empathy as retaliation,” Andrea says, “it’s just what you decide to nurture.” It’s just what you choose to nurture. Susan ended up testifiying for the defense at Zacarias Moussaoui’s sentencing—and he was one of the terrorists responsible for her husband’s death. Can you imagine? Instead of letting her heart be hardened by non-forgiveness, Andrea chose to incline it toward peace.
Probably no one in our lifetime wrote more books or did more teaching about forgiveness than the late Lewes Smedes, professor of theology and ethics for more than 25 years at Fuller Seminary. “Ghandi was right,” wrote Smedes, “if we all live by an eye for an eye, the whole world will be blind. The only way out is forgiveness.”
Smedes articulated five important principles about forgiveness that he said everyone should know, “just to clear up some mistaken notions about God’s way of healing unfair pain.”
Smedes’ first principle is that “forgiving is the only way to be fair to yourself.” By this Smedes means that when we choose to forgive, we’re choosing to heal ourselves. “Do you want to spend the rest of your life with a pain that you didn’t deserve in the first place?” he asks, or do you want to be rid of it?” Because, “the first person who gets the benefit of forgiving is always the person who does the forgiving…When you forgive a person who wronged you, you set a prisoner free, and then you discover that the prisoner you set free is you.”
The second principle of forgiveness is that we “don’t have to be doormats to forgive.” Jesus tells us we must forgive the people who do bad things to us, but no where does he tell us we should tolerate the bad things they do. Forgiving the wrongdoer in no way absolves them from responsibility for their wrong-doing. They can and should still be held accountable.
The third principle of forgiveness is that we “don’t have to be fools to forgive.” In other words, we can forgive someone’s behavior and choose not to subject ourselves to more of it. This is especially important in abusive relationships. If someone has demonstrated a repeated pattern of treating us badly or hurting us, we don’t need to stay in relationship with them. We so have to forgive them, for our own healing, but we don’t have to stay in relationship with them.
The fourth principle is that we don’t have to wait until the other person repents before we forgive them. As Smedes puts it, “Why put your happiness in the hands of the person who made you unhappy in the first place?” If we refuse to forgive until the other person asks for forgiveness, we’re giving them all the power and letting them decide if and when we get to be healed. Instead of letting our hearts be hardened by non-forgiveness, we can chose to incline them toward peace.
Finally, the fifth principle Smedes mentions is that forgiving “is a journey.” It takes time to forgive, it takes a lot of prayer, and it is rarely a one time thing. Frequently we’ll catch glimpses of forgiveness, then feel our heart slam shut and harden, and have to start all over again. That’s okay. It’s worth it.
It’s worth it to be free of the anger, resentment, and bitterness that can eat away at us. It’s worth it to be free from the risk of becoming the very thing we hate. It’s worth it not to let our hearts be hardened by the kind of non-forgiveness that can build walls between us and our God.
“The greatest memorial to those who died ten years ago will be a world more inclined toward peace,” says our Presiding Bishop. “What are you doing to build a living memorial like that?”
The appointed scripture readings for this morning offer a suggestion or two:
Have mercy on others, simply because God has mercy on you.
Forgive others, simply because God forgives you.
Choose the way of healing, and make your heart a living memorial to peace. Amen.