Forgiveness and Freedom

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Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 18:21-35
Deacon Alex Benson

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from our God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. Amen.

Matthew and I have been playing a lot of board games since this pandemic started. I’m sure our relationship dynamics while playing these games could be an interesting case study for a number of reasons (we’re both a little too competitive for our own good), but it’s especially intense when we are first learning a new one. One could say I’m a little obsessed with the rules and playing the game correctly. I am quick to consult the rule book in any moment of uncertainty or ambiguity or suspicion of wrongful play. Cheating is not tolerated, nor is interpreting the rules loosely. If we’re going to play a board game, we will be playing it as the game creators intended. I’m clearly a lot of fun.

My longing for clear rules, boundaries, and guidelines translates into my general attitude for life – at least some of the time. I like to know the rules, so that I know how to behave, how to succeed – partially because I like order, partially at least so that I can think of myself as a good person. Knowing what is expected of me helps me know how to live within the guidelines, how to plan, how to make sure all the boxes are checked. This way of being has it’s advantages…but it also can make me unnecessarily anxious and overly critical of myself and others.

I’ve found that in this time of Covid-19, I get especially frustrated with people who aren’t living within the rules I think we need to be following. I get grumpy when people don’t wear masks in stores. I get really judgy when I see people post pictures of themselves attending large gatherings on Facebook. I find these days that I am angrier than I normally am. And, to be clear, anger in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. Anger is an emotion that can point us toward justice, it can alert us that something is wrong, it can ignite a fiery passion for advocating for ourselves or our neighbors. Anger can serve as it’s own moral compass. But, I find, that sometimes I can get trapped in my anger. I stay there too long, and instead of using my anger as motivation to make the world better, I get stuck, I get paralyzed by it, I become stubborn, unable and unwilling to move forward.

So, while reading our Gospel text for this morning, I find myself asking with Peter, “How many times do I need to forgive? Seven times?” Thinking, that has to be more than enough, right? These people are making me crazy. Seven times is generous.

But, Jesus doesn’t always care about the same rules that I do. In fact, Jesus seems to be continually throwing out the rule book.

Jesus responds to Peter’s question with something that I find to be a little outrageous. “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” The number seven in the bible symbolizes wholeness or completeness. So essentially Jesus is telling Peter not to just forgive someone a lot but like an infinity number of times. There is no final number. Jesus tells him to forgive and then forgive some more. However much is necessary and then some.

Because it turns out forgiveness simply cannot be quantified. It cannot be made to fit neatly in a rule book. It does not come with one-size-fits-all parameters. It’s messy, it’s ongoing, it defies all logic of this world and any limits we attempt to put on it.

I also want to make clear that conversations about forgiveness are complicated, and the last thing I want to do is oversimplify what it means to forgive. Even though the forgiveness of sins is foundational to Christianity, the church has not always done a very good job of talking about forgiveness and what it actually entails. Unfortunately, Christians have sometimes tried to force people to forgive in order to silence them, to encourage complacency in systems that have been harmful to so many people… For example, women have been encouraged to forgive abusive partners, so that they can stay in an unhealthy relationship and not cause a fuss. White Christians have too often tried to use forgiveness as a weapon against Black and Indigenous communities – insisting that they should just forgive and forget the atrocities that have been committed against them. When we are uncomfortable with the things we have done to others, we might insist that they forgive us so that we can feel better about ourselves, so that we can pretend it never happened and just not deal with the harm that has been done. But that’s not what forgiveness is really about. That’s not what Jesus is really about.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and listening around the topic of forgiveness this week. Everyone’s story of forgiveness is a little different, but here are some of the most common themes that emerged:

Forgiveness does not erase the wrong that has been done. Forgiveness does not take away the pain or the consequences of an action. Forgiveness in and of itself does not automatically repair a broken relationship.

Forgiveness is more than the phrase “I forgive you.” Forgiveness is more than a single act, or a single decision, or a single conversation.

At the risk of sounding cliché, forgiveness is a journey, always unfolding, probably never complete. It’s a journey that reorients us, and redefines our future – our future with ourselves and our future with those who have wronged us.

In his book The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path to Healing Ourselves and Our World, Desmond Tutu puts it this way:

“…the invitation to forgive is not an invitation to forget. Nor is it an invitation to claim that an injury is less harmful than it really is. Nor is it a request to paper over the fissure in a relationship, to say it’s okay when it’s not. It’s not okay to be injured. It’s not okay to be abused. It’s not okay to be violated. It’s not okay to be betrayed.
The invitation to forgive is an invitation to find healing and peace.”

And this invitation to healing and peace is what makes all the difference. Forgiveness is actually less about the other person, and more about ourselves. When we forgive, we are the ones set free. We are the ones changed. I love the way Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber talks about forgiveness as freedom. She writes,

“Maybe retaliation or holding onto anger about the harm done to me doesn’t actually combat evil.  Maybe it feeds it.  Because in the end, if we’re not careful, we can actually absorb the worst of our enemy, and at some level, start to become them.  So what if forgiveness, rather than being a pansy way to say, ‘It’s okay,’ is actually a way of wielding bolt-cutters, and snapping the chains that link us?  What if it’s saying, ‘What you did was so not okay, I refuse to be connected to it anymore.’?  Forgiveness is about being a freedom fighter.  And free people are dangerous people.  Free people aren’t controlled by the past. Free people laugh more than others. Free people see beauty where others do not.  Free people are not easily offended.  Free people are unafraid to speak truth to stupid.  Free people are not chained to resentments.  And that’s worth fighting for.”

The practice of forgiveness is a commitment to our own freedom. It’s a commitment to opening ourselves up to truth of God’s expansive and spacious love, and allowing ourselves to live from a place of belovedness. It’s a refusal to let the bitterness and pain and injustices of this world have the last word. It is tossing out the rulebook to the game of judgment and bitterness and death, and instead joining the community of hope, freedom, and life.

The final words of our Gospel text this morning are a little harsh. The parable offers a stark warning about the consequences of not forgiving. I struggle with these words of Jesus, because it seems so inconsistent with the God who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love — a refrain we hear throughout Scripture. But I wonder if this is simply because Jesus knows how much we need to practice forgiveness for our own sake. God has already forgiven us, and that forgiveness is unconditional. Through Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, we have been made right with God for eternity. But, without the practice of forgiveness in Christian community, we create our own prisons of bitterness, fear, and hatred. Wet get trapped in a game of accounting – we become consumed with tallying the rights and wrongs of ourselves and our neighbors. We become desperate to see ourselves as better than those who have wronged us. When we are stuck in this place, it is hard to open ourselves up to the possibility of creating something new or of building a better future – for ourselves, for our communities, for the world.

So, Jesus instructs us to forgive. And Jesus reminds us that we have already been forgiven. God is not tallying our sins, judging our every action. One commentary I read this week compared God to an accountant who spilled coffee all over her ledger, so she decided to just throw it out. God has already proclaimed that we are beloved, we are free, we are forgiven. We don’t have to try to earn it or prove ourselves worthy.

Today’s Gospel reminds us that forgiven people forgive people. Loved people love other people. People who know they have received grace extend grace to others in return.

Forgiveness has the power to become our very way of being. It’s not pretending things are okay when they’re not. It’s not turning a blind eye toward injustice. It’s not minimizing our pain or the pain of our neighbors. It is instead trusting in God’s mercy and forgiveness so that we can be freed to break the chains of bitterness and scorekeeping in order to dedicate ourselves to a new future – a future with hope and freedom for all of God’s people.

Thanks be to God.