Sunday’s Sermon, September 17, 2023: The Power of Forgiveness

Dean penny bridges preaching at pulpit

The Very Rev. Penny Bridges

Today’s Scripture readings seem to come full circle, from the violent, vengeful God who drowns the Egyptian army, to Paul’s exhortation to refrain from judging others on their preferences, to a call for unconditional forgiveness, and finally back to the God who threatens the unrepentant sinner with eternal torture. There’s a lot here, raising questions of justice, forgiveness, conflict resolution, and community standards. We may not get to all of those questions in the next few minutes, but we can ponder a couple of them.

If you’ve studied St. Paul’s epistles at all, you’ll know that in most of them Paul is responding to a particular situation in a particular congregation. In this part of the letter to the Romans, Paul is addressing specific practices of his time, things that were controversial in that context. Eating meat was spiritually risky for Christians, because most meat was slaughtered as part of a pagan ritual. Controversy raged in the church over whether it was OK to eat this meat. Today, meat-eating is not generally a controversial topic, although we might see parallels in the protests of animal rights campaigners over meat that has been raised and slaughtered inhumanely; and we could argue that eating beef, in particular, is becoming a moral issue, for both health and environmental reasons. Paul’s point is that when it comes to practices like diet or honoring saints’ days, we need to be able to disagree without demonizing the other side, and especially within the community of faith.

In the Episcopal Church we have lots of choices in how to practice our faith: Whether to genuflect, whether to cross ourselves, whether to observe holy days. Each parish has its own culture, and a practice that is widespread in one parish may be unusual in another. What do we call the priest? Do we abstain from meat on Fridays and fast on Ash Wednesday? What pronouns do we use for the Holy Spirit? None of these choices are governed by church law, and that is how it should be.

I just read a novel set in England in the 1530’s [1], when it was a matter of life or death to be known as either a Protestant or a Catholic, depending on who was in power from one moment to another. What a terrible world to live in, where the way you pray could mean death at the stake or on the block. Reading the news lately, I worry that we might be heading back towards that kind of world, as we hear of laws being passed to restrict individual rights and choices, of people being attacked or even killed for what they wear or how they identify. Surely there is something wrong when societal leaders focus more on regulating individual choices than on correcting structural inequalities.

Let’s turn now to the Gospel. The verses immediately preceding make clear that Matthew sets this passage in the context of the church. So this isn’t just about conflict between individuals; like the Romans reading, it’s about maintaining the health of a Christian community. When members of the church treat each other badly, it injures the whole body of Christ. In some traditions this interpretation is misused to the extent of public shaming and shunning: that is not our way. But neither can we simply ignore broken relationships within the church, because they will fester and infect the rest of us. A church where there is ongoing conflict is a sick church, just as a church with leaders who abuse their authority is a sick church. It can take years for a congregation to recover from such a sickness, and the recovery period can be very painful, so painful that some people will leave rather than endure it. That’s just one of the reasons that clergy misconduct is so egregious.

The parable of the unforgiving servant uses the rhetorical device of hyperbole to make its point. We are not intended to take the hyperbole literally; it is there to shock, to make an impression. Peter thinks he is exaggerating by offering to forgive seven times, but Jesus counters with a number that might be seventy seven or seventy times seven – the Greek is not clear. Whatever that number is, it corresponds to our casual use of “a million” to indicate a gigantic number. The debt owed by the servant in the parable is enormous, more than a lifetime of earnings. The initial punishment of selling the whole family into slavery is way over the top; and the Lord’s instant forgiveness in response to the slave’s repentance is startlingly unconditional. And, when the forgiven servant denies forgiveness of the trivial debt of a few coins, the consequences are beyond terrible. The point is made: God forgives us readily and far more than we deserve; but that forgiveness extends only as far as our own efforts to forgive others.

The forgiven servant has his fellow servant thrown into prison until he can pay the debt. Debtor’s prison is still a reality in our own time, as in a number of states accused people are held in jail until they pay fees and fines that continue to mount up while they are incarcerated. And debt isn’t just an individual issue. Over 40 countries are considered to be heavily indebted by the IMF and WB: these countries have to pay out so much in debt repayments that their infrastructure, education, and life expectancy all suffer. Poverty is a driver of environmentally destructive practices such as deforestation, overfishing, and strip mining. One of the ways wealthy countries could contribute to the healing of our earth would be to forgive much of that debt, which has already been deeply discounted. The Episcopal Church supports Jubilee International, an organization which seeks to reduce or eliminate this structural debt that oppresses millions of people.

In the Gospel of John we read, “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves”.  One of the most persistent messages in the church’s history has been the refrain that we are miserable sinners who deserve to be punished. There was a time when we always said the prayer of humble access before Communion, as a reminder of our unworthiness (look it up on p.337 of the BCP). The theology of our 1979 prayer book reflects a wider cultural shift towards boosting self-esteem. On the whole this is a good thing, but it can go too far, as when we convince ourselves that our own comfort and happiness is what matters most, rather than living in a way that contributes to the comfort and happiness of others as well as ourselves. Where is the happy medium? We need to recognize that we get things wrong – a lot – AND that we are loved unconditionally, regardless of our actions. And that puts a responsibility on us: to pay it forward. To make every attempt to love others as God loves us. This is where the servant in the story really goes wrong: after being forgiven himself, he refuses to forgive his fellow servant as he has been forgiven. This act of ingratitude is what really dooms him, not the original debt.

As followers of Jesus we are not to place ourselves above anyone else. Too often the person with less power in a relationship is the one expected to forgive and forget. This lets the more powerful one off the hook with few consequences. For centuries women were expected to put up with abuse from their spouses. Parishioners were urged to forgive the clergy who had abused them. People of color are encouraged to forgive their historic oppressors. We can strive to forgive unilaterally, but it’s much harder to heal from the offence if the perpetrator of the wrong has not been called proportionately to account.

The remarkable thing about embracing forgiveness is that, as wonderful as it is to acknowledge God’s forgiveness of us, it is equally wonderful to experience the liberation of offering forgiveness to those who have wronged us. We may resist offering it, as it feels like offering a precious gift to someone who doesn’t deserve it; but in fact this gift benefits the giver as much as the recipient. To forgive does not mean that the perpetrator is released from accountability: it means that the person who has been wronged lets go of their personal desire for revenge or punishment. In the case of a criminal injury, the victim allows the justice system to deal out the consequences, rather than looking for personal vengeance. Within the church, we have procedures that similarly move the responsibility for consequences away from the victim and into the church’s disciplinary structure. Those procedures have limitations however: they are mostly applied to ordained persons who have been accused of misconduct, while the only formal sanction for lay people is to bar them from receiving Communion. Yes, we do have excommunication in the Episcopal Church, but there are strict limitations on its use and it is very rarely invoked. You can look it up on p. 409 of the Book of Common Prayer.

When it’s a matter that doesn’t involve the courts or the canons, but a personal betrayal or an emotionally abusive relationship, we are called to leave the consequences to God and to forgive, thus freeing ourselves from the responsibility and burden of seeking punishment. The parable makes this point in a crude way: the forgiven man who fails to forgive loses his own forgiven status and is condemned. In relationships it doesn’t usually happen that way: we can only hope that God will bring the perpetrator to a realization of their wrongdoing. And forgiving someone does not have to mean that you continue in relationship with them. The injury was real, the scars are still there; you don’t have to pretend that the wrong was never done. Forgiveness shouldn’t mean putting yourself back in harm’s way.

In a few minutes we will pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If we offer these words in good faith, we will rest secure in the compassion and mercy of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God. Amen.

[1] CJ Sansom Dark Fire

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