Sermon for St Mark’s, Pentecost 15
Show us the road to freedom begins in forgiveness, that we may pray for those who trouble us, bear less and less malice until we are truly clean, and not become bitter when others do not meet us in reconciliation. Prayer of Brother Roger of Taizé
There is an old Vermont farmer proverb: A couple was moving to a small town in Vermont, and on the day they arrived, on the outskirts of town they passed a classic Vermont farm. It was a lovely, peaceful Norman Rockwell scene. As they passed the front gate, there was the farmer standing by the entrance, just standing. The driver pulled over to the side, and said to the farmer, “Hey old man, is this a friendly town to live in?” The farmer noticed the couple for the first time, and said, “The town you came from, was that a friendly town?” The driver considered, and said, “Yeah, I think so.” Said the farmer, “Then you’ll find this town friendly enough.” Moral of the story? Be sensible of the baggage you carry as you move through life.
It works with friendly towns. Makes sense. If you bring friendliness you probably will find friendliness. It works with forgiveness, too. If you bring forgiveness you will probably find forgiveness. The converse is more obvious – if you are unforgiving, forgiveness will elude you.
So, for your consideration, who do you need to forgive? From whom do you need forgiveness? And what about self-forgiveness? Isn’t that the hardest? In light of Jesus’ dramatic parable this morning, I offer a few observations on forgiveness, aspects to encourage your thinking, and practice your transfiguration.
First, forgiveness is not a distinctly Christian virtue. Religious people and non-religious alike request and grant forgiveness almost every day. Many of the incidents are small, often unintentional, but when they are serious, or intentional, or repeated, they need care and attention. Everyone knows forgiveness, and has experience.
Second, to Peter’s question whether seven times forgiving a repeated offense is enough, you need to know Jesus’ seventy-seven prescription was not pulled out of the air. There was a certain man, named Lamech, familiar to Jesus and his disciples from the early Hebrew history (Gen 4.24). Lamech once boasted to his wives about his capacity for retribution. If attacked, he would exact vengeance seventy-seven-fold. That memorable number applied to forgiveness would have been stark to Jesus’ hearers. Jesus’ way is to practice forgiveness early, instead of retribution. Life is not saved by getting even. Because you never get even: the offended party gets even, and then the other gets even more “even”. Then comes the grudge, then a feud, and vengeance becomes excused as “justice”, violence runs rampant, and eventually the whole world burns. A far cry from a friendly Vermont town, but just as predictable.
Third, while we are enjoined to practice unconditional love, we are also expected to practice conditional forgiveness. Jesus’ formula last week about going privately to one who has offended you, and if unsuccessful take a couple of church members with you on a second visit, and if that doesn’t work tell the whole congregation (the congregation probably knows all about it by then) underscores that offenses must be addressed before they can be forgiven. Trivia can be overlooked or explained away, but the serious offenses can be forgiven only on condition they are addressed.
Remember this is a kingdom parable, not social advice. This is about the heart of God, which always works for reconciliation, healing of memories and relationships, and the wonder of life. Even when reconciliation is not possible, it is about the offended party releasing as much of the sting as possible, so that one is not further crippled by holding grudges. Another maxim is this: holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick.
Remember as well, we pray “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” That does not mean we forgive just enough to by, just enough to get our own sin erased from God’s notice. It is not bargaining, or earning God’s forgiveness. It is remembering where we came from. We have been generously forgiven, so it is a kingdom expectation that we will be generous with our forgiveness. Once there was a brother in a monastery who was caught stealing. A trial was held, and the Abbot was expected to conduct the trial and make final determination. Abbot Makarios refused, saying he had been forgiven so much, how could he sit in judgment. It is compassion which drives the will to forgive, and compassion unpracticed dries up.
It is interesting that this Gospel story is paired with the Exodus story of the Hebrews crossing the Red Sea, but more sensational is the destruction of the pursuing Egyptians. We are taught to see it as God liberating his people. The Egyptians saw it differently. These slaves were owned by the Egyptians. They were property under the law. And in their rebellion, these slaves running away was damaging to the whole country’s economy and to the dignity of Pharaoh and the self-respect of every Egyptian. They were just in their pursuit. Ah, but the story is told from the perspective of the escapees, who saw destruction of the Egyptian military as God’s vengeance. However, compassion moves across religious lines, sometimes upturning religious certainty. I remember a Rabbinic commentary that there was no rejoicing in heaven when the sea closed in on the Egyptians. The Rabbi taught that unlike the Hebrews when the sea closed in, in heaven YHWH was silent. When one of the angels asked about this unexpected reaction, YHWH explained the sadness. “The Egyptians are my children, too!” I wonder if Jesus knew that story, or if the Rabbi lived later than Jesus, if he knew what Jesus was teaching.
All that said, the rest of the story is that forgiveness is hard work. If I didn’t tell that side too, then the Church is really out of touch with real life. Forgiveness is hard work. It has been said that the most natural human emotion is revenge. You don’t have to think. There is no discipline required to hit back. The most unnatural human emotion is to forgive. That is God’s business, and it is why we work for transfiguration of our spirits into God’s Spirit, our hearts into God’s heart. We must master pride, resist blaming, heal our own wounds and remember that we have been forgiven. Forgiveness is hard work, but pulling one self out of quicksand is also hard work.
This is a “For What It’s Worth” sermon. You know about forgiveness. You have practiced it all your life. Perhaps there is some new insight here, but you know best your own history of forgiving. For the rest of that history, though, I leave you with Brother Roger’s prayer:
Show us the road to freedom begins in forgiveness, that we may pray for those who trouble us, bear less and less malice until we are truly clean, and not become bitter when others do not meet us in reconciliation.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.