“A Sermon on the Subject of Forgiveness”

Matthew 18:21-35

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Then Peter came and said to Jesus, Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?  Jesus said to Peter, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, those words from today’s gospel lesson.  And, every time they roll back around, they remind us of the spirit of forgiveness which followers of Jesus are called to embody; the kind of forgiveness which never keeps score but always gives grace; the grace which has come down to us, from God, going out through us, to others, including those who have wronged us.

To embody that kind of forgiveness is easier for some than it is for others.  In my own experience, I have so rarely been wronged that forgiveness has almost always come easy to me, sort of like the man in the novel Gilead, who said, “If someone knocked me down the stairs, I would have worked out the theology for forgiving them before I hit the bottom.”  But, that may say more about the ease of my life than the depth of my faith.  Maybe my capacity for forgiveness has never really been tested, because I have so rarely been wronged.

Which, needless to say, is not the case for everyone, which is why the church must always take great care to speak as carefully and truthfully as we can concerning the complexity of forgiveness.

On the one hand, we are called to forgive others as fully and freely as God has forgiven us.  That is clearly the point of the parable in this morning’s gospel lesson.  On the other hand, for those who have been the victims of life-changing violence or injustice, there are clear judgments which must  be made before honest forgiveness can be given,  because, if clear judgment is never made about violence, injustice, oppression, deception, manipulation, discrimination and other such sin, then responsibility is never taken, amends are never made and grace becomes a license for those who do the worst to get away with the most.

It is that convergence of grace, on the one hand, and  judgment, on the other, which can sometimes make forgiveness one of the most complex of all the spiritual disciplines, especially for those who have the most to forgive.

Though I speak as one who, so far, has had very little to forgive, I have found, in my limited experience, that, when it comes to forgiveness,  one thing which helps, in addition to walking in the Spirit and living a life of daily prayer, is the passing of time.

Please do not hear me saying that time heals all wounds.  It does not.  However, sometimes, with the  passing of time, what once felt like a wound becomes something more like a sadness, and, once that happens, in my experience, questions about forgiving or not forgiving cease to matter.  On those occasions when we think about whatever it was that happened that hurt us, it may make us feel sad, but questions about forgiveness, which were once so loud and large, have somehow disappeared into what I call “the gray layer of life”; that quiet, gray, grief layer of life where all of our sadnesses reside; whatever we once needed to forgive, but couldn’t, now somewhere down there in the gray layer; a kind of letting go that can bring healing to our spirit.

Of course, even to use the phrase “letting go” returns us to the complexity of forgiveness, because, for those who have been wronged, it can sometimes seem too soon for letting go.  (Not to mention the fact that not everyone wants to let go of their wound, because our wounds give us power over those who wounded us, and that kind of leverage can be hard to give up.)

And, as if all that complexity wasn’t complex enough, there is the inescapable fact that, over the course of a lifetime, we will all find ourselves on both sides of the forgiveness equation; sometimes needing to forgive and sometimes needing to be forgiven.

Or, as the king said to the servant, in this morning’s gospel lesson, “After all I forgave you, you could not forgive someone else?”, a gentle reminder, for us all, that, not only have we all been wronged somewhere along the way, but, somewhere along the way, we have all also done wrong; which means that we all need both to be forgiven and to forgive; to breathe in grace, and breathe out grace; to breathe in mercy and breathe out mercy.

Needless to say, it isn’t that simple.  The life of forgiveness to which we are called is infinitely more complex than a simple “breathing exercise.”  And yet, the truth is, breathing in and breathing out is how we live through life’s most painful moments and difficult  conflicts; breathing in healing love from God and breathing out healing love to others, breath by breath, and day by day, until that glad day comes when all the wrong which has been done to us, and all the wrong which has been done by us, will, at last, be lost in the bottomless well of the grace of God; before whom, as Paul said, in this morning’s epistle passage, we shall all someday stand to give an account for our own lives.