St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church


St. Bart's Blog

Forgiving as Freely as we Have Been

Posted by The Rev. Chris Harris on with 1 Comments

Matthew 18:21-35

So in last week’s Gospel, we learned that if you someone has said or done something to upset you, that you are NOT to talk about it in the parking lot, you are NOT talk to others about it behind their back. Right? That’s called TRIANGULATION – that’s what the rest of the world does but not us – that never happens in the church, I know!

Last week Jesus reminds us we are to have the trust and the faith to talk to people who are upset with directly because where two or three are gathered, the Spirit of God would be with you.

Well Peter has obviously been paying attention, and he sees where this is headed: We are going to need to start forgiving one another aren’t we? And so his first question is, “well just how many times are we doing to need to forgive each other?”

Well, I’m with Peter, forgiveness IS a challenging topic. It’s challenging to ME because it invariably triggers some personal reflection on the people in my life that I need to forgive – and it always seems like there is someone. And I wonder why that is – and for me, I think its because I would prefer to avoid conflict whenever possible and so when someone has hurt me, I am happy to avoid dealing with it if at all possible – I’ll tuck it away on the back burner somewhere and let the BUSYNESS of my day to day help to keep it there – and then along comes this gospel...

Do you have someone in your life you need to forgive…take a moment and see if you can think of someone…maybe a co-worker, maybe a longtime friend, maybe a spouse – or an ex-spouse? maybe your mother or father? Or your children? Maybe, yourself?

OK, does everyone have someone in mind? Maybe several?

The one that comes to my mind is a very close family member who’s known me just about my entire life. When Joe and I got married a few years ago, the Supreme Court had just overturned proposition 8 – and it was a time of celebration. Joe and I were on the news as the first couple to get a license and when the big day came, the Cathedral was packed to standing room only.

And by the way, if you have NOT yet been to a gay wedding you really need to – they are sight to behold! We had venetian stilt walkers, Italian folk dancers, we had Angelique the living music box who’s like this all white dancing Marie Antoinette – we had a red carpet walk decked out with sets from the Old Globe theatre, there was a Thriller Flash Mob from Comic Con – oh and of course, a horse drawn carriage capped it all off!

Well amidst all of this joy and crazy, over the top revelry – I had a bit of a cloud over my head. A few days before the wedding I had gotten the news that a very close family member, someone who was there every step my life growing up, would NOT be coming due to her pretty fundamentalist religion and all the moral judgement that goes with it. And our relationship was such that this really stung and hurt me in a deep way. I had known this about her, of course, but I just thought that in THIS moment in my life, our relationship would somehow win out, that certainly she wouldn’t let her religion couldn’t stand in the way of all this love. I was wrong.

OK, so I just went first!

So here’s what I want you to do: I want you to turn to a fellow brother or sister in Christ who is sitting next you…preferably NOT the person you came to church with…and I want you to introduce yourself and then take turns completing THIS question, “the person that I need to forgive, made me feel __________” OK? Not the details, certainly not the name of the person (again, that was last week’s gospel!) Just the feeling. In my case, I felt judged and betrayed that a life time of family history and our relationship, would be tossed aside so easily.

After they have shared, tell them thank you and promise to pray for them this week, to find it in their heart to forgive.

OK – GO!

Was that awkward? I want to really congratulate you all for that. It’s a challenging and a vulnerable thing to do…its basically a form of a mini-confession … and that’s what’s at the heart of forgiveness. It brings what we’ve avoided and put on the back burner to fester and gnaw at our soul – and brings it into the light.

Nelson Mandela, Imprisoned for 27 years for his objection to Apartheid in south Africa, tortured many of those years, said it best: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd forever be in that prison.”

When we fail to forgive, we stay imprisoned to the past, and bound to the feelings of hurt and pain and betrayal that we just shared with one another …By truly and unilaterally forgiving those who have hurt us, we free ourselves to live more freely and to love more fully - in the present.

And so Forgiveness is not a passive path, it’s not weakness, it’s not about being a pushover. Forgiveness is the peace-making path, the kingdom building path. Retribution and resentment, tit for tat and quid pro quo are easy – that’s what the world expects. Forgiveness breaks that cycle and opens us up to a life lived in the flow of grace because it’s no longer about punishing one side, but liberating both sides.

So what if its still just too raw, too hard?

A good technique is to try putting yourself in their shoes… see if you can imagine their point of view, empathy can help depersonalize the hurt and make it easier to forgive. In my case, I had to remind myself that her strict adherence to her religion had as much to do with honoring her father’s legacy as anything else.

But that’s technique. The best answer is really prayer: If you cant bring yourself to forgive someone, pray for God to help you forgive…it will come I promise you. Because God is a God of forgiveness… it’s the other side of the coin of Love, they go hand in hand. the unconditional, undeserved love Jesus calls us to offer the world, doesn’t work if also can’t forgive. And to forgive unconditionally, without regard to who deserves it and without need to reciprocate – like love we can forgive wastefully and loose nothing… while possibly gaining everything.

And when Jesus says forgive, he doesn’t mean to tuck that away so that it might be brought out in some later argument – this isn’t about scorekeeping. The Greek word for ‘forgiveness’ in this gospel is to ‘wipe’ something out as if with an eraser. It has to be a clean slate – or its not forgiveness. It’s just resentment by another name.

So yes, its totally counter cultural – after all, we like so say, “fool me once shame on you, but fool me twice, shame on me” – i.e. forgiveness has its limits. That’s why Peter thinks he’s being over the top by suggesting 7 times rather than just once, to which Jesus says ‘seven? try seventy seven!” – in other words forgiveness for Christians is unlimited because the forgiveness we have received is unlimited. That’s why Jesus uses such an extreme example here: The slave’s debt of 10,000 talents is a sum beyond imagination, something that would take someone 150,000 years to earn’ But Jesus trying to impress on us, just how much we are forgiven by God – it too is beyond imagination.

So can we not forgive the measly denaris of our past?

And if we don’t, as with the slave in the parable, who despite the forgiveness he was shown, binds himself to the old system of tit for tat, quid pro quo, sin and retribution - and in so doing, like Nelson Mandel figured out, he forever binds himself within the prison of that system.

You see, the failure of the first servant isn’t simply that he won’t forgive - lets not make an idol out of a word. The problem is that he has not been transformed in ANY way. He just experienced an utterly unexpected, beyond-his-wildest-dreams moment of grace - and is absolutely untouched by it.

In fact, it’s as if it hadn’t happened at all. And that’s the point.

So I don’t read this parable about a capricious God withdrawing forgiveness in retaliation, but rather, Jesus is telling us that we can only EXPERIENCE the forgiveness that we offers others. In other words, being forgiven means nothing if there has been no transformation. It might as well not have happened.

So that’s the question for us today. Stacked up against an eternity of forgiveness for all that I have done and will ever do, and all that will be done on our behalf, can we not forgive the grievances of this short life? Can I not forgive someone who loves me, but was merely, in her own imperfect way, trying to be true to the cherished faith of her father? And, would I not be more healthy, more happy and more whole by rejoicing in the 6 or 700 hundred who did come to our wedding, rather than the 1 who did not?

In a few moments when we say the general confession together, I pray that we would be so reminded of God’s unconditional, unending forgiveness for us, that we would be truly transformed by it, and that we would leave here this morning different than when we arrived, as agents of God’s forgiveness, joyfully offering it to all, as freely as it was given to us.





Eric Linder July 12, 2018 8:08pm

I am one of your future parishioners. And this is a painfully wonderful and wonderfully painful exposition of the Heart of the Matter. If I do not understand how radically I need forgiveness, I am forever imprisoned in the hell (sorry for that SO un-PC word) of my unforgivingness.
Also loved your sermon about animals' spiritual gifts, complete with choruses of barks from the choir loft.