Forgiveness Beyond Measure – September 17, 2017

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian, Priest Associate
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 17th, 2017

Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

In the name of our all-loving God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

The Gospel today makes me think I should look for another line of work. My first response to it is, “Jesus, you’ve got to be kidding about this forgiveness stuff! You want me to preach this? This is way over the top!”

The Gospel begins with arithmetic. Peter wants to know how often he should forgive a sister or brother who mistreats or takes advantage of him. Magnanimously he asks, “Seven times?” Doesn’t that sound pretty reasonable? Apparently, not to Jesus. He gives Peter a different mathematical formula: seventy times seven. Translation: Stop counting! You can never forgive enough.

The issue is not how much or how often we are asked to forgive or should forgive. The act of forgiveness is already a limitless, measureless act. Forgiveness is never not present in our lives and in our relationships. That’s the issue. Forgiveness is part and parcel of the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s a constant. It’s not optional. It’s not a choice. We want it to be — and that’s at the heart of Peter’s question.

Jesus then tells a parable – remember there’s often a lot of exaggeration in his parables – about a king who does some checking on his accounts receivable and discovers that a certain laborer owes him about a gazillion dollars, more than the combined national economies of all the G8 nations. The laborer is summoned. He falls to his knees and begs for mercy, for time to do the impossible, for time to repay what is owed. Inexplicably and without so much as a word, the king relents. The king as much as shrugs and says, “Okay. I forgive the debt.”

And just like that, the laborer is free. His totally unpayable debt is vaporized, whoosh, like the sound of thousands of e-mails being deleted from the trash, one minute clogging the operating system, gone forever the next.

Picture the laborer, walking away from the castle, standing a little taller, shoulders back, whistling a merry tune. If this were a musical we might see him do a little jig. But this is a life-like story and the laborer sees a fellow worker, one who owes him a piddling sum, so the laborer stops in his tracks. He lapses back into bondage, back into bondage to spreadsheets and accounts receivable and to a blind allegiance to what he sees as fair.

“Yo. You. You owe me five bucks. Pay up now. Right now.” The co-worker falls to his knees. “Patience, man, patience! Friday’s coming. I will get right with you.” But no. That is not good enough. The man whose debt has been forgiven is hard. Immediately, he throws the man in prison. Really? Set free from an impossible debt, this man cannot look past the cost of a cup of coffee and a doughnut? [1]

I confess that talking about forgiveness makes me a bit uncomfortable. Or maybe even dishonest. I don’t always do forgiveness well. In fact, I have been known to hold grudges. To hold on to resentments and hurts. To practice unforgiveness. And at the same time, I really want to be better at it. I have at least a dozen books in my library on learning to forgive. One of the better ones is The Forgiveness Book, by a priest named Bob Libby, written at least 25 years ago.

Perhaps the most important learning for me from that book is that forgiveness is for me, not for the person who has offended me. Forgiveness is about letting go of my hurt and resentment, whether or not the offending person has asked for it. I liken it to making a tight fist and holding it for a few minutes. When I’m unforgiving of another person, that’s what my life is like, tight, taut, constricted. When I am able to forgive, to let go of the hurt, it’s like opening my fist, and relaxing. It feels so much better.

And forgiveness of another cannot happen unless we forgive ourselves first. The first step is forgiving reality for what it is, in the words of Richard Rohr. Then acknowledging my own imperfection, and recognizing that God forgives me. That God loves me, just as I am. Just as we cannot truly love someone without first loving ourselves, we cannot forgive someone without forgiving ourselves.

Forgiveness means to release, to let go of the other. Forgiveness is not denying our hurt. Nor is it contingent on the offending person’s request for it. Forgiveness is a possibility only when we acknowledge the impact of another person’s actions in our lives. And then move toward letting it go.

To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment may seem….[2]

Our Amish brothers and sisters have learned this well. Eleven years ago the community of Nickel Mines, PA was rocked by the murder of five school girls. And within a day or so after the murder the families of the five girls, and the whole Amish community, forgave the murderer and embraced his widow and family. While much of the world stood by in disbelief at their actions, forgiveness was a normal response for this community that takes seriously the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and believes that they will not be forgiven their own sins if they do not forgive others. They practice forgiveness in the “small stuff” of the day to day, and when confronted by such a horrific thing as murder, while it’s not easy, they’ve had a lot of practice.

They embrace as their model the suffering Jesus who carried his cross without complaint. They try to exemplify Jesus who hung on the cross, extending forgiveness to his tormentors, and saying: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” They also take seriously the words we heard just heard in today’s parable when Jesus answers Peter’s question about the work of forgiveness. We have much to learn from them.

The Gospel has a collective dimension as well as the personal one. And sometimes it’s easier to focus on our individual personal sins than look at where we need forgiveness in wider culture. I am speaking of our national sin of racism.

Last month we were mostly outraged by the confrontation in Charlottesville, by how Nazi symbols and confederate flags were paraded out in the open. We were reviled by the hostility and hatred that we saw. A month later it hasn’t gone away. We’ve allowed it to be relegated to the back page again. The problem is that racial hatred, hatred of LGBT persons, hatred of immigrants is still alive and well in our country and in our community. And we need to acknowledge and repent of it. Richard Rohr reminds us “Human consciousness does not emerge at any depth except through struggling with our shadow. It is in facing our conflicts, criticisms, and contradictions that we grow. It is in the struggle with our shadow self, with failure, or with wounding that we break into higher levels of consciousness.”[3]

We need to struggle with our national shadow self. We need to seek forgiveness for the racism in our country. We need to accept our complicity and our privilege and seek forgiveness of each other. In the words last month of the Bishop of NY, Andrew Dietsche, “If there is a lesson… it is not that evil is simply out there in the world — we knew that — but that the battle is longer than we thought it would be, it is harder than we imagined, and it begins in the human heart.”[4] And we’re called to look into our own hearts.

Racism can be healed and overcome; it will take many years and concerted efforts. Racism, like all our other sins will be forgiven by our all loving God. Jesus’ makes clear throughout the Gospels that forgiveness is not measured by human standards. It is pure grace, and is without limit.

God’s gift is for us. It is the gift of new life. God’s forgiveness is not fair; it is grace. God’s forgiveness is not tit-for-tat. God’s grace is freedom to live large, not to be hung up on one another’s shortcomings but to rejoice in God’s extravagant acceptance and share that extravagance with others.

Thank God, God does not weigh what is fair and what is not. Thank God, God forgives beyond measure. And thank God, we have the freedom to do likewise.

[1] The Rev. Fairfax Fair,, September 17, 2017.
[2] David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4: Season after Pentecost. Kindle edition, (Kindle Locations 2632-2634).
[3] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, September 11, 2017.

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