Forgiveness: A Work in Progress

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on September 17, 2017.

Matthew 18:21-35

Those of you who get our mid-week email know that I have had a difficult time finding my way into this sermon on forgiveness. My placeholder for a sermon title is “A Work in Progress,” which meant that when it was time to send out the email and print the bulletin this sermon was only a work in progress; it still is. But it also means that I am a work in progress when it comes to forgiveness, as are each of you.

There are three contexts in which we desire forgiveness.

Some struggle mightily to forgive someone who has hurt or betrayed them.

Others acknowledge the hurt they have caused another, and seek forgiveness from that person.

And still others work to forgive themselves for a wrong they have perpetrated.

Like many, I have experienced all three of these scenarios at one time or another.

Reflecting upon forgiveness in each of these contexts can be extraordinarily painful. I know a number of your struggles to forgive or be forgiven, and I don’t doubt that we could each share painful stories of forgiveness denied. Biblical scholar Karoline Lewis acknowledges that the topic of forgiveness “sets in motion — deeply, tragically, painfully — memories of those people I was reluctant to forgive. It sets in motion thoughts of those waiting for my forgiveness. It sets in motion reminders of those whom I don’t think I can ever forgive.”

I think the pain we experience around forgiveness leads to a common understanding that forgiveness promises relief of our pain. In this sense forgiveness is transactional. In return for forgiveness, I will feel better. Good feelings between myself and another will be restored.

And, in addition to being painful, according to theologian David Lose, forgiveness is just plain difficult.

“I don’t mean,” he writes, “the occasional moment of warm-hearted forgiveness, overlooking someone’s minor slight when you feel magnanimous; nor do I mean the spontaneous forgiveness you feel when someone is genuinely contrite over some accidental – and again preferably minor – fault. What I mean are those things that are really hurtful; those times when the person seems disinclined to take responsibility, let alone apologize; those episodes that continue to wound each time you remember them; those words or deeds that have marked you deeply and painfully and feel like they’ll never go away. Those are things that are so incredibly hard to forgive.”

At a loss as to where to begin, I googled things like “Top 10 Ways to Forgive.” But after pouring over various self-help lists, I had still not found anything especially helpful. Desperate, I turned to the Bible.

Let’s begin by looking at the Greek word aphiemi in the Matthew passage, translated here as forgiveness. Its primary meanings are to send away, release, leave behind, and let go. Matthew uses this same word quite literally when he writes that Peter and Andrew aphiemi, or left their nets to follow Jesus.

Isn’t that interesting, this suggests that forgiveness isn’t about the restoration of good feelings toward someone, but has more to do with releasing and letting go. This might mean releasing attachment to a wrong committed by or against us, and could even require letting go of and leaving behind a person.

Forgiveness is more than a feeling.

The Matthew passage begins with this short exchange between Peter and Jesus. Peter asks Jesus if it is enough to forgive someone who sins against him seven times, and Jesus responds not seven but seventy-seven times. To the casual reader, this might sound like Jesus is setting an impossibly high standard for forgiveness; “OMG Jesus, it’s hard enough to forgive once, and you are asking us to forgive how many times?” But this exchange actually references a passage in Genesis. God promises a “sevenfold vengeance” against anyone who kills Cain; remember Adam and Eve’s son? Sometime later, Cain’s descendent Lamech promises mortal vengeance against a young man who injured him, not sevenfold as God promised, but seventy-seven fold.

Isn’t that interesting? This suggests that anger and hatred multiply over generations.

So, rather than setting an impossibly high bar for forgiveness, Jesus is using a reference from the Torah to demonstrate the power of forgiveness to restore cosmic balance. He is demonstrating a correction to thousands of years of self-centered retribution in order to break the cycle of violence that grips humanity. Jesus is inviting Peter (and us) “to undo the curse of Cain and Lamech that has kept their offspring trapped in cycles of envy, hatred, and retribution across the generations to this day.”

Again, the goal of forgiveness is not to hurt less. There is not a quid pro quo, do this and feel better.

Then Jesus tells a parable about a king who wants to settle accounts with his servants. The king’s servants would travel the kingdom collecting taxes. They were permitted to squeeze some extra money from the peasants for themselves as long as the king gets his cut. It appears that the tax collector in this story had failed to pass along the required percentage he collected, and now owes the kind the enormous sum of 10,000 talents. It would take a laborer about 15 years to earn one talent, so 10,000 talents would take 150,000 years to pay back, obviously impossible.

The servant throws himself upon the king’s mercy, and the king forgives all of this impossibly large debt.

Having just been the recipient of this extraordinary act of forgiveness, the servant is approached by another servant who owes the first servant 100 denarii. Now a denarii is a day’s wage, so this servant owed the other the equivalent of 100 days of labor, a lot, but attainable. But the servant who had just been forgiven by the king refuses to forgive the other’s debt and throws this one into prison.

In this story we might look to the king as our model, that like the king we should seek to be infinitely forgiving.

But the king in the parable represents God. Thankfully, we are not expected to fill the role of God in any of the parables that Jesus tells. God is God so we don’t have to be. And God has already forgiven us everything. That is the message of this parable. Forgiveness isn’t something we need to do, not once, not seven times, not seventy-seven times, because God has already forgiven everything, once and for all.

God’s act of forgiveness is already a limitless, measureless act. Forgiveness is never not present in our lives and in our relationships. Forgiveness is s a constant. It’s not optional. It’s not a choice. We act like it is — and that’s at the heart of Peter’s question. What do I have to do?

Our goal instead is to not be the unforgiving servant.

We cannot expect to be an infinitely forgiving God, but we can strive not to be like the servant who doesn’t acknowledge the king’s forgiveness and, when asked to himself forgive a reasonable debt, instead seeks vengeance.

By recognizing that the heavy lifting of forgiveness has already been accomplished by God, releasing our hold on some wrong perpetrated by or against us might just be attainable, not easy, but attainable.

This might mean taking responsibility for our own pain rather than affixing responsibility for our feelings upon another’s forgiveness. And when we do this we might find we are able to empathize with the pain of those who continue to judge us. Both these, responsibility and empathy, can help us remove ourselves from the unhelpful, outcome-driven forgiveness equation.

As is true for so much of life in the realm of God, there is a certain paradox in this approach to forgiveness. By not making the restoration of our own happiness the goal of forgiveness, but instead working to let go of our desire for others to feel or act in a certain way toward us, we will likely feel better.

Rather than urging you to just forgive, or forgive more, I think I will follow David Lose’ invitation to simply announce the king’s forgiveness, the unbelievable, nearly inconceivable, amazing and unpredictable and possibility-creating forgiveness of God which each of us has been granted, and invite you to recognize, acknowledge and let go into that gift, remembering that we are all a work in progress.

 

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Faith Enough to Let Go

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on June 18, 2017.

Romans 5:1-5

There is an old story of a man who fell off a cliff, but before falling to his certain death, he was able to grab hold of a limb protruding from the side of the cliff. As he grips the limb with all his might, he cries out, “Help! Is anyone up there?” He is heartened when a voice responds, “Yes, I am here. I can help you.” Frantic, the man screams, “Please help me. I am loosing my grip. Please help me now!” A calm voice comes from the top of the cliff, “Do not worry my child. It is God. All you have to do is let go.” There is a long pause. The man looks down at the 200 feet drop and the raging river below…takes a deep breath…and yells back, “Is there anyone else up there?”

I begin with this old joke, first, because much of the rest of this sermon is unapologetically theological so I thought you could use a good laugh, and second, because I am inviting you to think about faith as an act of letting go.

The word theology comes from two Greek words – theos, meaning God, and logos, meaning word, discourse, or reasoning. Theology, then is thinking about God, or making sense of God. I hope to craft a theological framework to help us think about faith, and God’s invitation to let go.

These verses from Romans, in fact, the first five chapters of Paul’s letter, figured prominently in the theology of Martin Luther, the Father of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

The Catholic Church at the time was promoting a belief that the faithful needed to earn their way into heaven by freeing themselves from sin and doing good. This theology had been corrupted to include practices like selling indulgences, paying the church money for the forgiveness of sins

In 1517 Luther, a monk, famously nailed 95 theses, questions and propositions for debate, to the church door in Wittenberg Germany. He didn’t intend to leave the Catholic Church, but wanted to reform it. But the Catholic Church excommunicated him, and so, Protestantism was born.

Luther took his faith and his salvation very seriously, he tried and tried and tried to perfect himself, filled volumes of journals documenting the minutest of sins in the hopes of ridding himself of them. He came to recognize that if human salvation depended on perfection, no one would ever meet this standard. This is when he turned to Romans to articulate what would become the foundation for Protestantism, that we are justified by grace through faith.

I expect that many have heard this, but although this theology is central to our Protestant faith, I also expect that some would find it difficult to explain.

Let’s look at some of these words: justified, sin, grace, and faith.

Justified means to be made righteous, to be seen by God as righteous, to be accepted by God, to be in right relationship with God, or to be reconciled with God. So, a contemporary paraphrase of Luther’s theology could be that we are reconciled with God by grace through faith.

Now, let’s turn to sin and grace. The great 20th century theologian Paul Tillich talks about the relationship between sin and grace.

For Tillich the core human predicament is the problem of separation, or of estrangement. We are separated from each other, we are separated from God (who Tillich calls the “Ground of Being”), and we are separated from ourselves. This separation, Tillich says, is what Paul calls sin.

Tillich does not speak of sin as particular acts of moral failing about which we should feel guilty. Tillich argues, instead, that sin is a state of being; a state of separation or estrangement – of alienation.

The only thing that can really overcome this state of sin, of estrangement, is grace. Grace is the work of God, the divine gift which unifies that which has been split apart, alienated, separated. This unification is not something we can achieve or even work toward. That’s what makes it grace.

As Tillich puts it, in a sermon,

“In grace something is overcome; grace occurs in spite of something; grace occurs in spite of separation and estrangement. Grace is the reunion of life with life, the reconciliation of the self with itself. There is something triumphant in the word grace: in spite of the abounding of sin, grace abounds more.”

Writing in the 50’s, Tillich notes that the divisions between nations, peoples, competing interests, and the tragic suffering of so many across the world, call for the divine grace of forgiveness to heal the estrangement and alienation. And that healing begins with an acceptance of ourselves.

There are those moments, says Tillich, when grace comes over us and creates in us the capacity to accept ourselves, to truly love ourselves, to accept God’s acceptance of us.

 

So, bringing Paul and Tillich together, we are justified, accepted and reconciled with God and each other, by grace… through faith.

Christians sometimes assume that faith is primarily a matter of believing things on the basis of little or no evidence. But faith does not need to be understood as believing a particular something – for example, virgin birth, bodily resurrection, or even that Jesus died for our sins – rather faith can be understood as the act of letting go, letting go of our own way, letting go of our belief that we are right or in control.

Theologian Garrett Green writes, “The person insistent on achieving righteousness through his or her own efforts is in effect refusing God’s grace, like an obstreperous toddler, the self-righteous moralist is saying, “I can do it myself.””

Faith is something more than and quite different from mere belief.

The Twelve Steps of recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous articulate the need to let go beautifully. Step 1 acknowledges that we are ultimately powerless; Step 2, recognizes that our lives are unmanageable on our own; and Step 3, turns our lives over to a higher power, let’s go into the reconciling grace of something greater than ourselves, our Ground of Being.

Like the man hanging off the cliff, do we have faith enough to let go?

By its nature, theology is pretty abstract. Thinking about God is a step removed from practicing our faith or experiencing grace.

So here’s a story, one that on its surface has nothing to do with God or grace or faith, but demonstrates what happens when we let go of our own way.

In her book, Waking Up White, Debby Irving writes of her experience as a second grade teacher with a Haitian student, Rosie, who would repeatedly jump up during math class to talk to a classmate across the room. Like many of us, Irving had been raised in a culture that taught the value of thinking and working independently, of being self-sufficient. This cultural norm of self-control had been made explicit in Irving’s education as a teacher, and she in turn communicated this expectation to her class. But despite Irving’s constant intervention, Rosie continued to get up and interact with other students.

One day, in a workshop that she attended on multi-culturalism, Irving learned that both Hispanic and African-America cultures revolve around a collective orientation rather than an individual one. The idea of working independently goes against everything that many Hispanic and black children are taught at home.

The next day, with this understanding fresh in her mind, Irving resisted her inclination to chase Rosie down, and instead watched as she again made her way across the room to a classmate’s desk. Arriving at her destination, Rosie put her hand on her classmate’s back and leaned in to help her with a math problem.

At lunch that day Irving approached Rosie and asked her about the morning’s exchange with her classmate. Assuming she was again in trouble, Rosie shot Irving an, “I know, I’m sorry” look. But Irving continued, and asked, “Do you think some of those times that you get up it’s because you wanted to help a classmate.” Irving writes, “Rosie beamed at me, put down her fork, and hugged me.” Irving and Rosie were then able to negotiate a compromise that identified work-alone times and work-with-friend times.

Like most of us, Irving had assumed that her interpretation of a situation was correct and judged others by how they conformed or didn’t conform to her understanding. She saw Rosie’s “inability” to work independently as a flaw, a deficit, not her exquisite ability to tune into the needs of others as a strength and an asset.

Tillich writes:

“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is great then you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.”

It was only when Irving was able to let go, that she and Rosie were able to overcome their separation and alienation and experience reconciliation and acceptance.

God accepts us. Will you accept that God accepts you? Do you have faith enough to let go?

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