Pentecost 13A, Proper 19
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It feels strange to be talking about forgiveness today - on this the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 2001.
But really, that’s one of the gifts in the lectionary cycle of readings for worship. Other churches or church leaders might sometimes be tempted to look past some of the more difficult readings, or the way certain readings interact with world events, but in our tradition that’s not possible. We read and reflect on the text appointed for the day.
And today we’ve been given this - forgiveness.
“How many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Seven times?”
“No. Seventy-seven times!” Or some sources say, “Seventy TIMES seven times.” (If you’re curious enough to think it through, that one comes out to 490 times for forgiveness.)
But the point isn’t the number of “times” we offer forgiveness. Even if you take the larger number, it’s not like saying to your neighbor, “Okay, that’s one. 489 more times and we’re done!”
That’s not the point.
The point is that forgiveness is an ongoing process. Forgiveness can’t end. A truly forgiving heart draws from a well of love and grace that never runs dry. When you can’t forgive anymore, that’s when it’s time to dig deeper and find a way.
Just as is so much of the Christian message, this, too, is a difficult message to hear.
In the church we know - at least intellectually - that we are charged to replicate the kind of forgiveness that has been extended to- and modeled for us. But the problem with that is, too often we try to rush forgiveness without doing the work that true forgiveness requires.
Because we think it’s what we ought to do, we often proclaim forgiveness before it’s real.
In his book Don’t Forgive Too Soon, Dennis Linn compares the process of forgiving with the process of overcoming grief. Just as recovery from grief can’t be rushed, we, also, can’t be rushed into forgiveness if it’s to actually mean anything.
You’ve all probably heard about the five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance - but Linn writes about those as five stages of forgiveness. Recognizing the close relationship between forgiveness and grief, he uses that same framework to examine how we can move beyond pro forma expressions of expected forgiveness, into genuine forgiveness that springs from a place of deeper truth.
And the truth is, if forgiveness does not come from a place of truth, it will breed resentment.
A common (though unattributed) quote in twelve-step, recovery groups says that resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Without forgiveness, we are destined to breed resentment in our hearts. And it will kill us spiritually.
Even if our brother or sister might only cause offense once - even then(!) we have to forgive “seventy times seven” times. Only then can it begin to come from a place of truth.
The fact is we do hurt one another. We do offend the heart of God. We exploit each other. We are unfaithful to each other. We fail to recognize the humanity in each other.
We are all victims, and we are all guilty.
But we must learn to forgive.
So on this, the tenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001, we hear a call to forgiveness.
It doesn’t make sense.
It can seem all but impossible.
But we have to do it. We have to find a way to forgive because it’s the call of Christ; and, because it’s necessary for our own spiritual health and wellness. We have to keep finding ways to forgive, even in the face of our deepest pain; because even these ten years later the work is not yet done.
In these past ten years there has been a lot of talk about justice. As a country, we’ve been seeking justice against the perpetrators and supporters of the horrors of that day. We’ve taken a lot of steps - for good and for ill - at doling out justice around the world. Too often we’ve mistaken revenge for justice. But in the end, I believe that true justice will only come through deep forgiveness. It’s only in a world where forgiveness is a way of life that we can ever hope to find that justice is a reality.
And forgiveness will only become a way of life when we keep practicing it. Seventy-seven times. Seventy times seven times. Whenever the hurt and the anger and the fear are renewed, try to forgive again. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because doing it will make things right.
How many times are we to forgive our brothers and sisters when they sin against us?
As many times as it takes.
This is part of the hard work of following Christ. May we all gain the strength to do this that we are called to do. Amen.
I think Jesus said "seventy times seven" because He knew how much work it is to do. It's a long, hard process and, somewhere in the middle of it all, we have to forgive ourselves.
That, I think, is the essence of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant.