Sermon for Sunday, September 14th, 2014 || Proper 19, Year A || Genesis 50: 15-21; Psalm 103; Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18: 21-35 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Wow—last week the gospel appointed for the day was all about conflict in Christian community and now, as if that wasn’t challenging enough, this week it’s about Jesus’ unconditional imperative for church members to forgive each other. First dealing with conflict in community and now forgiving; just throw in loving our enemies and picking up our crosses, and it’s enough to make anyone who thinks Christianity is an opiate for the masses to think again!
Forgiving has got to be one of the hardest things there is for human beings to do. Mostly, I think, because if we’re honest about it, we don’t want to. We don’t want to forgive. What we want is justice, and we’ll hold on to everything from petty hurts to big-time grudges to make sure we get it. And we’ll feel pretty darned righteous about it, too. Because we operate under the misguided assumption that if we forgive someone, we’re letting them get away with it– whatever “it” is. That if we forgive someone, we’re somehow condoning their hurtful behavior. That if we forgive someone, we’ll be perceived as weak and they’ll “win.” That if we forgive someone, it’s not fair–justice isn’t done. And yet…
And yet, in our Old Testament reading this morning, Joseph chooses to forgive his brothers. These guys plotted to kill Joseph when he was a boy just to get rid of him, then they sold him into slavery in a foreign land instead. Joseph had every reason in the world to be angry and bitter, and to use his power to punish his brothers mercilessly. Instead, he asks them in all earnestness, “Am I in the place of God?” See, Joseph totally gets that his job is to forgive, not to judge.
In today’s Epistle, Paul asks the good folks of the church in Rome, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? For… each of us will be accountable to God.” Your job is to forgive, Paul tell the Roman Christians, not to judge.
Then there’s the gospel appointed for today, where Peter asks Jesus how many times he has to forgive another member of the church who sins against him. “As many as seven times?” Peter is guessing on the high side–anticipating that Jesus will up the ante from what was then the traditional three times.
But Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times!” (Or seventy seven times, depending on which translation you use). Well, Jesus might just as well have said, “A gazillion times, Peter—you must forgive over and over and over again.”
Now, who can help but wince at this teaching? Nothing could be more counter-intuitive to human nature and to our overly righteous sense of justice than to forgive the unforgivable. Who wants to forgive someone who has hurt them? Or harder still, who wants to forgive someone who has hurt someone they love?
Yet this is exactly what God did in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus—and it’s exactly what Jesus did from the cross when he prayed, “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do…”
So now Jesus has the audacity to call us to be as forgiving as he is—extravagantly, beyond measure, without keeping score, and even when the offender—in our not so humble opinion— doesn’t deserve it. C.S. Lewis nailed it when he said: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” Ouch!
Ouch, but yes: To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in us.
“Forgive, and you will be forgiven,” Jesus says. “It is in forgiving that we are forgiven,” echoes St. Francis. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we pray together each week.
No, Christianity is no opiate for the masses. Christianity is a way of life founded on extravagant forgiveness– and it demands extravagant forgiveness in return. This is tough stuff, about as tough as it gets. But like I said last week, there’s tremendous relief in remembering that God asks nothing of us that’s not made possible through His grace.
Forgiveness is both an act of the will and a God-given grace. It takes both. First, we have to admit that we haven’t forgiven someone and be honest about not wanting to. Then, instead of listening to all the inner brain chatter about why we shouldn’t forgive the person, and instead of replaying whatever perceived wrong the person’s done on an endless loop, we pray for the grace to become willing. We remind ourselves of God’s imperative to forgive, and we say: Lord, I know I’m supposed to forgive this person but I just can’t. Truth is, I don’t even want to. Please help me become willing. Help me let go of this!”
I can assure you that is a prayer that gets answered. It takes an act of the will to pray the prayer, but only God’s grace can answer it. Sometimes it comes quite easily, more often it takes repeated prayer before we’re able to let go of a good grudge or a righteous resentment. Sometimes we even have to pray for the willingness to become willing. Forgiveness just does not come naturally. Forgiveness takes practice before it can become a practice. It takes discipline before it can become a discipline. But it does become a practice and a discipline, because there’s probably not another prayer in the world that God likes to answer more than the one we pray for the willingness to forgive.
And what freedom in forgiving! What freedom in choosing to let go of the bitterness that binds us to our offenders, handing them over to God and creating space in our hearts for healing instead. I can tell you from my own experience that with the grace of a heart that’s been transformed into forgiving comes a feeling of profound relief and lightness of being. You don’t realize what a burden it is carrying around all that un-forgiveness until you’re free of it. And God wants us to be free of it. “The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.” Should we not have mercy then, as God has had mercy on us?
After all, as C.S. Lewis so aptly said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you. ” Amen.