Practicing Forgiveness (Bloomsbury Lent Series 2018 #4)
This week's sermon in our Lent Series on the Lord's Prayer is by Prof. Curtis Freeman.
Listen to the sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/bloomsbury-1/2018-03-11-curtis-freeman
Mt 6:12 and 18:21-35
It is unusual to be in a Baptist church where Lent is actually observed. But then again Bloomsbury Central is no ordinary Baptist church, or so I am told. As we might say where I come from, you are Othern, not Southern. In the broad ecclesial scheme of things, you may not hike as high up on the liturgical candlestick as some Christian churches, but the fact that you observe Lent is important. For millennia, during the Lenten season Christians have turned their attention to the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and they have challenged one another to take serious inventory of their lives. In particular, Lent forces us as Christians to ask what it means to be forgiven.
I don’t know about you, but too often I think I have presumed that forgiveness is way too easy. I have tipped my toes into the toxic ocean of cheap grace that says “I like to sin, and God likes to forgive.” It may sound like a good deal, but it is really quite dangerous in the ways it shapes our lives. That kind of thinking is exactly what observing Lent seeks to break down. It confronts us with the reality that grace and forgiveness are costly. And our recognition of costly grace is stated in the petition of the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” or as we might put it more pointedly: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” This petition forces us to ask ourselves what might it mean to be the kind of people that forgive like God forgives. Or to put it even more pointedly: What does it mean to practice forgiveness?
Practicing forgiveness means we recognize that forgiveness is God’s work. The Gospel reading begins with a brief exchange between Peter and Jesus about the extent of forgiveness: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” In other words, where do we draw the line and say, “No more!”? Jesus’ answer is jarring: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” The ‘literalists’ may hear this the wrong way. “Jesus said seventy-seven times, and he meant seventy-seven, not seventy-eight.” But, of course, this grossly misses the point. Seventy-seven times can’t quantify forgiveness. Forgiveness is limitless. It is infinite. The language of numbers and mathematics is inadequate and inappropriate to express forgiveness. The Gospel does not narrate Peter’s reply, but it evokes a puzzling response from us. If forgiveness is unlimited, then only God can forgive. To such an answer Jesus would have surely replied, “Now you’re beginning to get the point.” Indeed, only God can limitlessly forgive, because forgiveness is the work of God. We miss the point when we begin to think about forgiveness as a duty, or worse yet a privilege, which is ours alone to do. When we conceive of forgiveness as a commodity to be given or withheld, we do not understand forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a right that belongs to the offended party to give or refuse. Forgiveness is not a human activity. Forgiveness is the work of God.
Eugene O’Neill tells the story of a man that killed his wife on the grounds of excessive forgiveness. Every night he would come home drunk, and every night she would tell him that he was the scurviest, most good-for-nothing creature ever to crawl out of the cracks of life. Then, she would say, “But I forgive you.” He heard her words, but he also got the message. If the truth were known, there would be lots of folks for whom the absolving utterance “You are forgiven” is given lie by the word of self-righteous judgment. The Gospel, however, confronts us with the unwelcome fact that we cannot forgive. It is humanly impossible. The call to forgive our sisters and brothers an unlimited number of times is something we cannot do, yet it is precisely what we must do. When we grasp both our duty and our inability to forgive we are in a position to give God the glory. Only then are we capable of understanding that forgiveness is God’s work not ours, and only when we recognize that forgiveness is the work of God will we be ready to ask what it might mean to practice forgiveness. Until we recognize forgiveness as the work of God we cannot practice forgiveness.
Practicing forgiveness means we must seek to understand more deeply what it means to be forgiven. The Gospel of Matthew provides us with this parable about a king who wanted to clear his accounts payable, but a particular servant owed him an unpayable debt. Ten thousand talents represents more than the earnings that a working class person could expect for 150,000 years. It was so vast a sum as to be almost unimaginable (like those examples that present day economists give to explain the national debt in our countries by comparing it to a stack of hundred pound notes or hundred dollar bills stretching to the moon and back). Once you get to a certain point, ordinary minds fail to grasp what it means. We cannot begin to conceive how much he owed, let alone how he might repay it.
The king called in the debt. At first the servant stalled. When that didn’t work he begged and pleaded. Then the unimaginable happened. The king forgave the debt. No sooner had he left the king, than the forgiven servant met a man who owed him mere pocket change by comparison. The second servant begged and pleaded, but the first servant demanded immediate payment. When the debtor could not pay what he owed, the forgiven man had the second man thrown into debtors prison. In the meantime, when the king found out what had taken place he revoked his forgiveness and threw the first man into prison forever.
Jesus ends the story with these troubling words, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your hearts.” Being forgiven is bound together with practicing forgiveness. It echoes Jesus’ words: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Why are divine and human forgiveness linked together? Surely we believe, as Alexander Pope observed: “To err is human; to forgive, divine” (An Essay on Criticism). But I think that William Blake may be closer to what Jesus was calling for, when he wrote that “friendship cannot exist without Forgiveness of sins continually” (Jerusalem, 52). I tell my students that the only way I can really teach them anything is if they are continually forgiving me because I realize that I am one blundering glob of macroaggressions. Truth be told you are even now graciously forgiving me for my poor diction, to which I can only say that being from Texas, English is a second language for me.
This one petition confronts us with gospel truth that Jesus came to show us: To forgive others as God forgives us. When we realize that we are much more like than unlike the people who have wronged or hurt us we can begin to imagine what it might mean to practice forgiveness. When we realize that we are in no position to forgive others we can begin to grasp how we might go about practicing forgiveness. My suspicion is that most of us who find it impossible to practice forgiveness at some point cannot accept God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ. We may even pray “forgive us our sins” (Mt 6:12), and we may claim the promise that “if we confess our sins, [God] who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins” (1 Jn 1:9). Yet to be forgiven, really forgiven, is too much. So we try to convince ourselves we are good enough, and we judge others who are not good enough by our standards. The gospel helps us to see that we are on the way to practicing forgiveness when we discover that to be forgiven means to let it go and simply learn to trust that in Jesus Christ God has forgiven us.
Practicing forgiveness means embodying the pattern of God’s gracious forgiving love. Forgiveness takes practice, but more important forgiveness is a practice. Forgiveness is not so much a spoken word, or a performed act, or a felt feeling. Forgiveness is the embodiment of the pattern of God’s forgiveness revealed in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. To practice forgiveness requires learning the disciplines and habits that make us more like God. To practice forgiveness we must unlearn the sinful habits that cause us to be alienated from God, God’s creation, and God’s creatures. To practice forgiveness we must learn the disciplines that enable us to be reconciled to God, God’s creation, and God’s creatures. If to forgive our sister or brother “seventy-seven times” really means “one more time,” only the habits and skills of God’s kingdom can make that “one more time” possible.
In Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis observes, “Last week while at prayer, I suddenly discovered—or felt as if I did—that I had really forgiven someone I had been trying to forgive for over thirty years. Trying and praying that I might.” Lewis understood that without the hard work of prayer the words “I forgive you” are empty. Only through such disciplines as prayer can we hope to imagine what it might mean to practice forgiveness by embodying the pattern of God’s gracious and forgiving love in Jesus Christ.
Whose forgiveness is it anyway? It is God’s forgiveness, not ours. The act that the Gospel calls for is quite simply impossible to perform by human standards. Only God can forgive. But we can begin to imagine what it might mean to practice forgiveness when we contemplate the fact that “God proves God’s love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). That is forgiveness. God refused to allow sin to settle the relationship between the Creator and the creation, so God forgave us in Christ. Learning to practice forgiveness, then, is not a question of wondering if we could forgive but whether we can embody God’s forgiveness. The Gospel calls for a church that not only preaches forgiveness. It calls forth a church that practices forgiveness. May God make us into people who not only preach the forgiveness of sins, but by God’s grace let us seek to become people who practice forgiveness. Thanks be to God. Amen.