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When Forgiveness is Complicated

A sermon on Matthew 18:21-35

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash.]

I don’t know about most of you, but for me it’s not the really “tough” scriptures that are actually the most difficult to engage and learn from.

When a given passage of scripture calls me to account for ways that I have failed to love God or my neighbor, or when it sets an expectation that feels like it’s a bit beyond my reach… that’s when I feel like my faith is actually WORKING.

Because, while I want my faith to comfort and encourage me, I also want it to change me, and to push me to live more fully into my created purpose?

I WANT the transformation that I cannot achieve on my own.

And even when that transformation is not as perfect as I could wish, that doesn’t have to be scary, because I have the reassurance that God’s love and grace is not conditional on my perfection.

And that paradox gives me the freedom from shame to keep leaning into the invitation to love better.

So, it’s not the “challenging” scriptures that I struggle with the most… it’s the ones that make me feel self-satisfied.

Now, before I go any farther, I want to make it super clear that what I am going to say next is NOT a humble brag.

I don’t feel like a can take any credit for finding forgiveness relatively easy, because it’s not something I have put any particular effort into. I think it’s mostly a matter of inborn temperament, and to the extent that my forgiving instincts have been nurtured I think that’s mostly about being conditioned to be a people pleaser who avoids conflict, so - if anything - the place I have put in effort is on setting better boundaries rather than just tolerating bad behavior (which is a work still in progress).

But with that self-awareness, I recognize that Jesus’s demand to forgive over and over doesn’t really throw me for a loop.

I fully buy into the research that shows the most resilient people are the ones who believe that others are always trying their best,[1] which translates into seeking to understand and work with someone who keeps failing in the same way, rather than holding a grudge.

It’s not that I NEVER struggle to forgive in any circumstance, but it’s not a big stumbling block for me. And when it comes to Jesus’s parable about the unforgiving servant… I just have a hard time even imagining the person who is going to feel convicted by this because the servant is so OBVIOUSLY in the wrong.

Which is a problem for preaching on this text because I don’t know how to really dig into this gospel and call us all into its power to transform us.

When my response is -“Well, OK. Sure. We need to forgive each other” (shrug) - it’s hard to engage you all in the challenge and good news of this text.

But that’s when God’s wise and mischievous Spirit decided to intervene by giving me a week that actually DID challenge me to think in new and transformative ways about forgiveness.

So, in the time I have left I want to talk to you NOT about forgiveness “in general,” but rather about what it might look like to apply Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness in a few very specific circumstances.

The first circumstance came on Monday, in the form of a social media interaction (a context in which it is always - by the way - a little bit more challenging to believe that “people are doing the best that they can.”)

As it was the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, there were, of course, a LOT of different posts in my feed about the anniversary.

I would say that probably the majority of them used the language of “never forget,” which is language that I find ambiguous.

It can mean never forgetting the lives lost and those willing to sacrifice for others; never just moving on and forgetting the families torn apart, or ignoring the impact of the deep divisions rent in the fabric of our society that day.

In that sense, I agree that we must never become forgetful or unaffected.

On the other hand, “never forget” can also mean to never let go of the anger or the fear from that day; to hold onto self-righteous fury. And when it means that, it means we never make space for healing or learning; never put effort into moving forward as one reunited society.

That sentiment chills me to the bone and worries me for the future of my nation.

So, when I made my own 9/11 post, I shared the words of a dear friend and fellow minister who issued a call for not letting “never forget” become “never heal,” “never grow,” or “never move forward.”

In response to my post, one beloved member of our community offered a further challenge, wishing that the post would have also called us to remember how to get along.

This comment, I believe, was reflecting the way in which EVERY public exhortation (particularly on charged topics like 9/11) now feels like taking a position over and against someone else’s, and how frustrating it can be to feel like everything is a fight.

And that very valid point got me to wondering about what Jesus’s teaching about endless forgiveness looks like in the context of a society divided along partisan and ideological lines… where everything feels like a pointed dig, whether or not it is intended.

How do we forgive the pundit, or the political candidate, or the facebook friend whose posts sometimes set our teeth on edge, seventy-time-seven times? How do we consistently forgive offenses that are not personal, but rather ideological?

Does Jesus still expect us to? And if he does, how does the work of forgiveness intersect with the work of justice, which he also clearly requires?

My second challenge came on Tuesday in the form of an e-mail invitation from the Back to Church campaign.

According to the invitation, this is a collaborative effort to encourage people back to church after the disruption that has followed the COVID pandemic.

This outreach effort is providing information about churches in their area to people who search their map/database. No hard sell or fear tactics to push people back into the pews, just outreach and information.

Plus… it is completely free for churches to participate!

Given that our church Council has been exploring options to be more intentional about our outreach, this seemed like a no-brainer… Until I got to the sign-up form, and the tiny little check-box at the bottom to agree to the statement of faith.

The first part of the statement was essentially a breakdown of the Nicene Creed that we recite in worship every Sunday, so that wasn’t an issue.

But then we got to the promise to uphold what the site called “biblical teachings” under which they included unequivocally rejecting homosexuality and gender diversity.

Obviously, given our congregation’s status as a Reconciling in Christ congregation, I did not sign that statement of faith or add our church’s information to their database, but the experience left me feeling bruised.

I spent my whole youth and childhood in Evangelical circles that taught me the same things about what the Bible is “clear” about, so I know that most of their people who agree with that statement of faith are not being intentionally hateful.

It’s what they have been taught, and they have not had the privilege of access to the kind of biblical training I have been able to pursue to understand how much injustice is done to the Bible through their interpretive lens.

But it still feels like a slap in the face… to be approached by siblings in Christ with an invitation to join together in the work of sharing God’s good news with a world in need… but then to get the caveat:

I can only join if I deny the beloved intention with which God made the queer members of our community;

only if I reject the validity of my trans son’s identity;

only if I throw out all my years of education in biblical studies to accept their claim that they have the ONLY right way to read scripture.

And I’m left wondering how to forgive this condescending and hurtful offer of “partnership” from those who are supposed to be part of the same body?

If their condition for working together is that we reject our congregation’s prayerfully-formed decisions about how to witness to God’s love in the world… what does forgiveness look like in that context?

My final reminder about how tricky this forgiveness question really is came on Wednesday (after that the Spirit figured I had enough to work with and I didn’t need a 20 minute sermon).

I was at the monthly meeting for pastors in this area of the Synod and we were talking through the different approaches our communities are planning to take around Stewardship this year.

This is NOT a favorite task for most pastors - if we had liked talking about money, we would have become accountants, or financial advisors, or fundraisers… not religious professionals whose sacred text claims that the love of money is the root of all evil.

Nevertheless, churches need money, and pastor’s DO have a role in leading reflection on the spiritual themes of generosity and thoughtful stewardship of resources. Most pastor’s I know understand this, even if we don’t get excited about it.

But that doesn’t mean we always have the patience for negotiating between the wonderful accountant and financial-planner types who want comprehensive spreadsheets; versus the person in the pew who would rather hear a nice impact story… and this makes the task of leading congregational conversations about money really difficult! (Not here, you all are wonderful, I’m talking about my colleagues’ churches.)

The result of this dynamic was a bit of a vent-fest Wednesday morning.

And while this challenge is much more mundane that political divisiveness in our society or theological fractures in the larger church, it still nudged me with more questions about forgiveness.

Because often it’s the minor irritations and frustrations that come from just seeing the world differently that erode our love for each other, and that feel like offenses that occur seventy-times-seven times.

So how do we practice the kind of community Jesus is calling us to amidst the kind of friction that is not about specific harmful actions that need to be forgiven, but is just about the frustration that comes from having contrasting patterns of thought and behavior.

You have probably noticed by now that I have not offered any brilliant, perspective-altering answers to any of these questions about forgiveness that I have been posing.

And while that might be a bit frustrating for you… it’s actually reassuring to me.

Because it means, for all that I’m not the type to hold grudges, I still have work to do on understanding what it means to practice the kind of forgiveness Jesus calls us to, and that means the hope for life-changing transformation… for me and for you. As - together - we work out this complicated question of how to be a community of faithful forgiveness.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Researcher Story-teller Dr. Brene Brown presents this research finding in the book Rising Strong.


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