Year A, Proper 19
September 14, 2014
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’”
This is the Parable of the Unmerciful or Unforgiving Servant. Forgiveness. Forgive me please, for though I am here at this pulpit, I am no authority on forgiveness. I am not very good at forgiving. Forgiving actual wrongs, perceived wrongs, what-might-have-potentially-been wrongs… I even descend into the world of seeking wrongs done to me, wanting to have been wronged so that my anger finds a more justifiable home. (Anger is of course the first cousin of unforgiveness). I almost like the resentment and anger I carry around with me from my past. Maybe not like, but I appreciate it. It justifies my brooding, my ill-will, my holding onto hurts long past because of what, pride, I don’t want to seem like I backed down? It is they that need to mend this hurt, it is their responsibility, not mine, and I will wait here, as unmoved as a North-going Zax for them to reach out to me. Withholding my forgiveness lets m hold onto my anger and is quite a convenient way for me to avoid thinking about my part in things, my culpability in conflict, in my hoeing my own road to failure and disappointment and not measuring up to someone’s standards, or even worse, my own. I treasure my resentments, so, too often I withhold my forgiveness. So as I said, I am no authority on forgiveness. I know that I am alone in all of that, right? No one else ever feels like they withhold their forgiveness, do they? I know that we as a nation, we aren’t authorities on forgiveness. Collectively we struggle with forgiveness, a condition displayed far to blatantly this week as we marked the 13th anniversary of the horrific attacks on September 11thwith a declaration of war against a group for whom we bear primary responsibility for making possible with our hubris displayed our other unresolved wars in the region (he says rather unforgivingly). There are grave consequences for being unforgiving. Consequences to ourselves, to our communities, and to our world. Forgiveness.
I struggled with this sermon. It is hard to preach on open questions in your own life. So saying how to forgive or even what forgiveness truly is… I’m not there. So let’s take a different approach to the concept of forgiveness. Let’s take the via negativa, the negative way or way of denial. (Many of us are plenty good at the denial angle, but this is something different). The via negativa is a way to approach things that are illusive, or indescribable. There is a long history of approaching God with the via negativa. John Scotus Eriugena, a 9th century Irish theologian provides a good example of the via negativa, writing, “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.” With the via negativa we learn about something by describing what it is not. So, what is forgiveness not?
To forgive does not mean to forget. We must never forget the Holocoust. We must never forget the genocide of the first nations of this continent. We most never forget the horror of slavery. And on a different order of magnitude, you must not forget that abuse, that betrayal, that infidelity, that lack of honesty, that terrible moment of weakness. In forgetting, the wrong does not go away, it just gets hidden away, ignored, unresolved. Forgetting is not resolution, it is avoidance and avoidance is anathema to forgiveness.
The best example of this is the concept of Truth and Reconciliation pioneered in South Africa by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Where other post-colonial nations descended into retributive bloodshed resulting from centuries of injustice, South Africa tried something different. The key was truth, for only when the complete truth was remembered and spoken for all to hear could reconciliation, true forgiveness and repair of relationships begin. In the Truth and Reconciliation, those who had done wrong were called to tell the complete truth about their actions, and in vetting the truth, retribution was avoided. Reconciliation is a long process and forgiveness is just one step, but the key for our purposes is the clearing, the truth telling, the systematic process of not forgetting.
All right relationships are founded in honesty, in truth. Forgiveness is a step towards reforming right relationships, mutual relationships, so having the full accounting on the table is a prerequisite for forgiveness, for otherwise it is too easy to ignore, avoid or gloss over the harder parts of what ever requires forgiveness. To forgive does not mean to forget.
To forgive does not mean putting up with bad behavior. Down at First Christian Church there are signs in their parking lot that say, “We forgive your trespass, but we will tow.” That’s it in a nutshell. We forgive you, we are not holding a grudge, or harboring resentment, but cars can’t be parked here for a reason and we are going to uphold that standard. It is good theology.
But there are much graver implications of this. One of the tragic misreads of forgiveness is the example of a long suffering Christ. Far too many put up with terrible, dangerous behavior for too long. Stories abound of pastors telling women to forgive their abusive husbands not seven times, but seventy-seven. Go back to him, forgive as you are forgiven, this is your cross to bear. Yes, you are called to forgive him as hard, as unimaginable as that might seem, and absolutely he cannot hit you, cannot hurt you or belittle you, or scream at you, or your children, ever again. Ever. Forgiveness does not mean putting up with violence, with insults, with being afraid when you are in your home. Forgiveness has everything to do with a change in your own heart, it has very little to do with them, with what they do. You can forgive as you call a neighbor or the police or walk out of the door really forever this time. Forgiveness does not mean putting up with bad behavior.
Forgiveness does not have much to do with the one needing forgiving. One writer puts is thus, “To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, no matter how justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment may seem…” That’s dreadfully important, forgiveness is about us, leaving behind our suffering, our judgments, and does not have much to do with anyone else. We have no power to change anyone but ourselves. Forgiveness is a movement within your own heart.
There is a very old story about two monks walking through town one day. A rich woman’ way was blocked by a huge puddle, and the old monk helped her, picking her up and carrying her across the puddle. As soon as he put her down, she rudely turned and walked away without so much as a thanks. The monks walked on. The young monk, though, kept churning over and over again how lousy that woman acted. A couple of hours later, beside himself, the young monk exclaimed, “I can’t believe how rude that woman was!” The old monk turned and said, “Why are you still carrying her, I put her down hours ago.” Forgiveness is more about us than them.
In our Rite of Reconcilliation, the formal name for Confession, absolution, the sacramental forgiveness of sins by God is offered to the repentant. If you are not repentant, if you do not take stock of your sins, your failures, your brokenness, if you do not agree to do what is needed to not do it again, to repair relationships that have been torn asunder, then absolution is not offered. Work needs to be done to reconcile the sins. Just because you confess doesn’t mean that God accepts it. That is because the conversation is between the sinner and God. Our bar for forgiveness, our individual relationships are not quiet as mutual as our relationship with God. Our ability, our requirement to forgive has a lot less to do with what is in the other’s heart than what is in our own. We forgive on our terms, not on the terms of they that have wronged you. In forgiving, we free ourselves from bondage to another, bound as we can be by our ill will, resentment, or bitterness. Forgiveness is not about them, it is about us, it is about you and your heart, and your well being.
Forgiveness. It is not forgetting. It is not putting up with bad behavior. It is not about them. What is it? How does it lay on your heart? How does it operate in your life? In a few moments we will ask for God’s forgiveness in our corporate confession. We’ll take a little longer in the silence there, a little longer to contemplate the forgiveness that we ask God for. May the silence be instructive. AMEN