7/31/16: I Believe In Forgiveness, Matthew 18:21-22
I Believe in Forgiveness
First Lesson: Isaiah 1:18-20
Second Lesson: Matthew 18:21-22
Over these Sundays in July we’ve been taking a look at what we might call “the basics” of Christian faith, using the Apostles’ Creed as our guide, this ancient statement of faith affirmed by Christians the world over—which, by the way, we’ve printed on the back of the bulletin here as a reference. We probably should have been doing that all along, so I suppose you’ll just have to forgive me. (That joke will make more sense in just a moment.)
We started three weeks ago with the first statement of the creed: I believe in God, and then followed with the second statement: I believe in Jesus Christ. Last week we rounded out the Trinity and looked at the third major statement of the creed: I believe in the Holy Spirit, but we did so by putting it in conversation with the line that immediately follows: I believe in the church. And we did this, as I argued last week, because these are the part of the creed that involves us. They both have to do with how God is moving and active and even dancing in the world today. This is a story that’s still unfolding and in which we have a role to play.
And as you can see on that back page, there are several smaller statements that follow these two at the end of the creed. And they’re each worthy of fleshing out more: The communion of saints, the resurrection of the body, and the life ever lasting—all very important parts of the creed and of faith.
But the line that strikes me most in this last section of the creed names an element of faith that I fear we may not lift up often enough.
I believe in the forgiveness of sins.
What does it mean to say, I believe in forgiveness?
It may not sound like much of a statement at first, but it’s actually quite powerful. True forgiveness is one of the rarest, most precious, and most mysterious things in the world. It doesn’t happen often, and when it does we all but can’t believe it. Have you noticed this? How stories of true, hard, unbelievable forgiveness seem to get around? It’s like we want—we need—to remind ourselves that it’s possible. I remember some years ago when that gunman went into an amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania and held hostages then killed five little girls before turning the gun on himself. This was many mass shootings ago.
A terrible, unspeakable crime. But then came the reports of the Amish community’s response. They forgave the man—Charles Roberts was his name—and not just in word but in deed. They did it publicly—not in a showy way, but in their own simple but profound way. In the hours—hours!—following the shooting they reached out to his family and extended forgiveness. They went to his home and comforted his widow, his children and his parents. There were reports of one Amish man taking and holding Roberts’ devastated father in his arms, comforting him for almost an hour. They came en masse to attend his funeral, walking and riding in carriages.
And the nation was just gripped by this. Books were written, a TV movie—but more than anything, we all remember that, don’t we? We remember it vividly. How impossible it all seemed. How reckless, even—how unnecessary, even. Forgiveness of that caliber is mysterious. I seems miraculous—and I think that’s exactly what it is.
Forgiveness is also one of the most miraculous things in the world, in the sense that it completely violates all the laws of nature we believe govern life and the world and our relationships with others. When people talk about believing in miracles they often point to new life: the birth of a child, we’ll say, is a miracle—and I agree, birth is miraculous. But forgiveness, too, is a kind of new life, isn’t it? Maybe even as powerful as birth. It’s like resurrection. It brings people back to life. It brings relationships—even communities back to life.
Forgiveness is a form of rebirth, of new life—for both sides. Both the person in need of forgiveness and the person who could offer it. On the one hand, guilt is deadly. It’s poison, it will kill you from the inside out—like a cancer. We all know this and have felt it to one degree or another. Guilt is a kind of prison—we’re trapped by it and the only way we can be set free is through seeking forgiveness or reconciliation. Of course, humans have a remarkable capacity to deflect guilt, and we do this through a variety of emotional maneuvers and spiritual gymnastics. We move on, we deny, we point the finger, we shift the blame, we cast ourselves as the victim. We get self-righteous, we justify ourselves—we try to make ourselves big, but it’s all so small, so small.
Guilt is a poison, but so are all our cheap, snake-oil antidotes for it. They poison our soul just as much, I think.
But on the other side of things, unresolved pain for hurt can be just as destructive for the victim. We see this in victims of violence or abuse who for different reasons never come to terms with what they’ve suffered, or who are never given an opportunity for healing. And this is so hard because too often we put the onus of forgiveness or reconciliation on the victim. We almost rush them to “get over it,” to “move on,” or to “forgive and forget”—that nonsense phrase. And anything less and your weak and self-absorbed—it actually shifts the guilt and put it on the victim, for not being able to get over it. This is the definition of insult to injury.
The truth is, we want to rush along the forgiveness process because most of us are conflict avoidant. Our culture doesn’t like having to deal with hurt and pain—we don’t want to have to see it or acknowledge it—we just want to it go away, or be made better. This is a kind of magical thinking. That all of the sudden, poof! It can be gone and all will be well—the call to forgive and forget is the magical thinking of the guilty party, that their actions won’t have consequences. We may be especially guilty of this magical thinking in the church. We want things to be resolved so badly that we rush to the part where everyone is happy again, without doing the hard work of making it right. We start thinking that resurrection happens in a flash. We rush to the light of Easter morning, forgetting it wasn’t possible without the darkness Good Friday, or even the pain and sorrow of Maundy Thursday. Forgiveness takes time—but not just time. Despite what you’ve heard, time doesn’t heal all wounds—time plus truth does. We rely too much on time to make things right when what we really need is the truth.
Christians more than anyone should know this, that reconciliation takes more than just time; it takes the hard work of speaking the truth. In fact this is the danger of sharing stories of forgiveness like that of the Amish community: we’re led to believe that forgiveness happens quickly or easily—but that’s not how it works. It’s more the case that forgiveness or true reconciliation, the mending of broken things, takes time and people speaking the truth to each other, and even more, speaking the truth in love.
But there’s also the issue of forgiving ourselves. Sometimes this is the hardest kind of forgiveness there is.
We often don’t offer ourselves the same kind of grace we so gladly grant to others. It happens in the daily, habitual comparisons we make with others: We’re terrible parents, terrible students, terrible at our jobs. We work too much, we don’t work enough. Nothing seems to come easy. It’s the voice inside our head that always has our ear that tells us we’re not worthy of love or belonging, as Brené Brown puts it. It’s the voice of shame. Our inability to forgive ourselves is cruel in that it usually comes when we’re feeling especially vulnerable. Grief has a way of pulling us into the pit of unforgiveness.
We lose a love one and we wonder what we could have done? I should have been there, I could have done more. I could have said this or that—maybe things would have been differently—And hear me when I say that almost all the cases in which we fail to forgive ourselves are products of our own imaginations. Our crime is simply being who we are, or not being the person we think she ought to be. The reason is almost always irrational, but the pain it can cause is real.
I heard a story from Dr. Pauline Boss, a psychologist who’s an expert on what’s become known as ambiguous loss, a type of grief that happens in the wake of a loss in which there can be no “closure”: where a loved one is missing, a plane crash, a soldier killed in war, or even Alzheimer’s, where the person you love somehow disappears. (1) She was meeting with a woman who lost her husband in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. In the days and even months following the attack she blamed herself because she didn't wake her husband up early enough that morning. He had an alarm clock, and it didn't go off. He was in the Trade Tower usually by 8:00 and out by 9:00. And on this day, he was late, and so he was in the Trade Tower when it went down. In searching more meaning in this terrible, terrible loss she blamed herself, and it was killing her.
About a year later she met with this woman again, and her young son, and she was looking different, and better. The woman said to her, “Do you remember that story I told you about my husband oversleeping? And that it was my fault?”
“Yes, I remember,” she said.
She said, “Well, he was the one who always set the alarm clock. And I realized that, finally. And it wasn't my fault. He just wanted another hour to be with us.”
She had found a way to forgive herself. And really not even so much forgive, but accept the fact that it was not her fault to begin with. There was someone to blame for her loss, but it wasn’t her. Yes, of course there are times when we are at fault and must find the strength to forgive ourselves, but I’m convinced it’s more often the case that the guilt we let overwhelm us isn’t true guilt at all.
And this leads to another important kind of forgiveness. I heard it put recently that there are times when we just need to forgive life.
James Howell, a brilliant methodist pastor in Charlotte, points out that there are times when we simply need to forgive life. (2) And this is hard, he says, because without God, life is simply unforgivable. Without some sense of purpose or direction, without some hope of a grander vision, hope in a love and peace and joy in the end, then life with all its disappointments, failed expectations, broken promises, death, disease, accidents, the seemingly arbitrary distribution of hardships and pain and suffering can seem unforgivable.
The Christian story knows this. The view from the cross sees all these things and says, Even so, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. And so we can too. Perhaps not right away, but in time and with truth, we, too, can say I forgive you. I’m not sure we could find the strength or the will to do this otherwise, without this hope.
Without this hope, Jesus' command to forgive your neighbor without limit would be absurd and irresponsible. But with this greater hope, its foolishness is revealed as the wisdom of God. If you're counting, you're not really forgiving--you're just biding your time. (3) Jesus says, You can do this, because I've done it. You're heart is free. Without this hope, I'm not sure true forgiveness is possible.
The Christian story is a story of forgiveness that we’re invited to find ourselves in. It’s a story that allows us to offer forgiveness because it reminds us that we all receive it.
It’s a story of reconciliation between humanity and our God—the mending of what’s been torn, the healing of what’s been broken apart. This is at the heart of the word atonement. At-one-ment. It’s the bringing together what has been divided for so long, back into one. Against all odds, despite any number of good reasons. And this is the bitter pill of this story: that we are in need of forgiveness. This must be part of the story. But bitter is this is it’s not unexpected. I believe in our heart of hearts we know it’s true. We need to be forgiven—this is part of the story. But it’s not the end of it. As sure as the morning comes, with dew on the grass and birds in the trees, there is yet more to the story.
You are forgiven. This is how the story ends. And not just for some, but in my great hope, and I believe God’s too, for all. You are forgiven. I believe this. Do you believe this? You are forgiven. This is how the story ends. What good news. Amen.
(1)Pauline Boss, interviewed by Krista Tippett on On Being, http://www.onbeing.org/program/pauline-boss-the-myth-of-closure/transcript/8761#main_content
(2) James C. Howell, The Life We Claim: The Apostles/ Creed for Preaching, Teaching, and Worship, 148
(3) M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel According to Matthew, New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, 380