Forgiveness: A sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

You’ve probably been a witness to or part of a familiar drama. A child does something hurtful to another child and we tell him, “say you are sorry” then hear the somewhat grudging, muffled words that sound pushed out through gritted teeth and pouty lips, and is little more than a response to threat and obligation, “I sorry”.

In a bit, together we will say the confession and I will stand before you to say your sins are forgiven. I have said the words of absolution so often that most of the time, they slip through and out of me like they’re the most obvious thing in the world, and quite honestly I don’t stop to question or consider this responsibility, simply taking for granted that this is one of the things I do on a Sunday morning like today.

Elie Wiesel who died a little over a year ago, confronts that ever so easy version of one of the central acts and fruit of faith.   In one of her podcasts, Krista Tippet reminded me of one of the most harrowing parts of Weisel’s memoir, his description of watching a young child slowly die of hanging, in Auschwitz. Wiesel not only sees God’s very self hanging from those gallows but recognizes how absolutely that moment confronts any easy and cheap version of forgiveness. Talking about the Yom Kippur that was approaching when he did that interview for On Being—just as it is at the end of this month, Wiesel said, “we plead with God for forgiveness, and God forgives, I hope. But one thing He does not forgive: the evil I have done to other fellow human beings. Only they can forgive. If I do something bad to you, I cannot ask God to forgive me. You must forgive me”.

Just like that, we are reminded that the business of forgiveness is about our agency and our intentions, not the magic of a sappy version of God. It is about our willingness to directly, humbly, honestly, engage each other without guile, or pretense or protection. We stand, face to face, the one who has hurt and the one who has been hurt, to be as real and true to what has been as we can possibly bear to be.

If I am the one has caused the hurt, I have to understand that we go into that kind of moment with no guarantee that the forgiveness will be offered. In fact, one of the things Wiesel said was all his life was that he simply could not forgive what had happened in the Holocaust, but what he could do instead was to tell the truth, and to sensitize other people not to repeat history. He did not accept the notion of corporate guilt and spent a lot of time developing relationships with the children, and the children’s children of the generation of Germans that participated in the mass extermination of Jews.

Then there is the experience of being asked for forgiveness. Another very wise woman, Sharon Salzberg, describes how forgiveness can be bittersweet: It carries with it the sweetness of the release, the freedom from, of a memory that has caused so much suffering, but it may also be a poignant recognition that relationships can shift so much in the course of our lives that we will not be able to reclaim the way we were to each other in the past. Ecen if we accept the apology, even if we wish the person only well, even if we can be grateful for the time during which the relationship existed as strong, and warm, a vessel for giving and receiving of love, often, the new freedom carries with it loss as well. There will be no going back to an easy intimacy that once existed. There will only be the freedom for both parties to get on with their lives.

I am convinced that it is against this kind of clarity and honesty that we must listen to the words from today’s Gospel. The work is not easy. I suspect each of us could pause for 2-3 minutes and find places in our lives where the absence of forgiveness is like a leak, perhaps small, perhaps a large, a hole in our existence, through which joy and hope constantly escape, robbing our lives of the abundance the one who Created, Redeemed and Sustains us, would wish to give us. And we allow ourselves to get used to those never-ending losses because they feel more comfortable, more manageable than the alternative, the act of asking for, or giving forgiveness.

It isn’t just individuals who struggle with all that forgiveness requires. Communities, especially communities of faith, do too. How do we, this church, this place and people we call Church of the Ascension, become a people of forgiveness in the complexity, confusion, and brokenness of the world we live in?

First, we need to understand how and why we avoid the practice of forgiveness.

I think faith communities are an odd combination of strength and fragility. Ascension knows this only too well; when a congregation has faced into a time when it fractured under the weight of differences, that very fracture creates a space where fear can take hold, and it is a very specific fear that says, “we can’t let another fracture like this break open because this time we might not survive”. And in the face of such fear, we seek anesthesia to dull the anxiety. It’s an anesthesia with several elements.

The anesthesia for this fear has several elements. We tell ourselves “we can’t change too much”. After a time of tremendous uncertainty and distrust, we have learned to navigate in a space that at least feels safe and because we know it so well, allows us to sidestep land mines. If we avoid the land mines, we will limit our capacity to be hurt or hurt each other.

Another element says this: “let’s not talk about the differences already present, here in our own midst. Let’s not talk about those things because they will open all kinds of new cans of worms and we will never close those cans again.” Talking on a more superficial level, telling reassuring stories about ourselves and how we all love and get along with each other, will also keep harm at bay we keep telling ourselves.

And last but not least, let’s hope and pray we attract people who, for the most part, are like us. It isn’t that Ascension is not hospitable, generous or kind. Look at me. I am a woman priest from Latin America who not only got called to serve here but has been welcomed with extraordinary warmth. This isn’t about bad people, but when that fear of what might hurt, what might fracture, has taken hold, we want to think we can add to our safety by welcoming people people who share our values, our way of seeing things, our way of being the church because they will know what it takes not to cause hurt.

The awful paradox is that avoiding the danger of being hurt will more often than not mean the death of a congregation. I’ve become convinced that fear becomes the proverbial elephant that grows and grows in the middle of our shared life, an elephant that sucks the very life and oxygen out of a community. And perhaps ironically, it is the practice of forgiveness, it is the willingness to allow this place to become a laboratory for the practice of forgiveness, that helps us break out of that trap.

If we choose life, if we are convinced that ours is a future full of hope and promise, we can start moving forward by becoming less risk aversive and more comfortable as people of forgiveness.

We gather on Sundays because we give each other strength and courage, but we also gather to hear the stories that can lead us out of dead ends. Today’s readings can help guide us to a place where our differences are not our weakness, but rather, our strength. Right off the bat, the passage from the book of Exodus reminds us that it is not we, but God, who will have the last word. This scene where a bunch of brothers who’ve really wronged Joseph, feel themselves backed into a corner realizing their very survival depends on the largesse of the one they’ve wronged, tells us something of great importance. It isn’t that Joseph says, “ah, it’s water under the bridge, my life turned out so much better that so all is forgiven.” Instead, he recognizes what you and I so easily forget, that even what we as humans have intended (and sometimes not intended) for harm, God can use for good. That’s grace!

And the grace that God promises, that grace is the only real antidote to fear. In today’s reading from the letter of Paul to the Romans, we hear the promise of God’s love like this: We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. Along with, and despite, all the differences that might split us not just in two but in a million small pieces, each and every one of us are God’s, we are God’s children. We are God’s beloved. Whether we are monolithic, speak in one voice, represent single perspective, one single set of values and beliefs, or are complicated and confusing, sometimes annoying and uncomfortable community that hopes to be faithful rather than thinks we’re already the best there ever was, we are claimed by God’s love, all of us are. We belong to the Lord! Think about the astounding grace of this statement. That is what grounds our work of forgiveness.

Against that backdrop, we hear Peter ask how often must he forgive and Jesus answers, seventy-seven—an even bigger infinity than the infinity in seven. All the time. All the time. Full stop.

If we were asked to forgive seventy seven times in order to earn God’s love, that would not just be impossible, it would show God to be unspeakably cruel. But we have been reassured over and over again, you are loved, you are loved so much that you will be given the strength and grace to forgive those seventyseven times seven. Said another way, we get seventyseven times to practice forgiveness. We may not get it right the first time, we may not even get it all the way right ever, but we will get to try again, and again, we will get to keep practicing and it is with practice that we develop the muscle we need. Along the way, we will discover a kind of freedom from the burdens of fear, anger and guilt we didn’t know was even possible. It is slow work. It is hard work. But it is work we can do together, a little bit at a time.

The work of forgiveness is the work of building up a community humble enough, resilient enough, capable enough of learning from its mistakes, that it can move mountains rather than huddle in fear in a bunker. The work of forgiveness is the work of giving ourselves to one another and to God in ways that free us up to be instruments of God’s peace and love in a world that knows next to nothing about forgiveness.

The message for us today, is this: “Do not give in to fear. Do the work of forgiveness, be a people of forgiveness, for, as today’s Psalm reminds us, we belong to a God “full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness…” That God not only will teach and guides in the ways of forgiveness, that God will be by our side each and every time we try again, so that together we will be able offer peace. We will be able to offer love in a world that so desperately needs both.

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