Full service (which was outside in the park today, with an actual congregation!) is here.
Sept 13, 2020
All of today’s texts are about one of the most difficult, but also most central aspects of Christian faith: forgiveness. Both God’s forgiveness of us, and our forgiveness of others. The first reading is the tail end of the Joseph story. A little recap: Joseph is one of Jacob’s 12 sons, and his father’s favorite, so his disgruntled brothers played a trick on him. They sold him into slavery. He ended up in Egypt, and long story short, he became the chief advisor to the king, and thanks to his ability to interpret dreams, he helped the entire country and surrounding countries to get through a seven-year famine. His brothers came to Egypt, not knowing Joseph was there and not recognizing him when the see him. They ask for help, since they, too, had suffered in the devastating drought. Joseph helps them, and finally reveals himself to them, and in a marvelous moment of reconciliation, Joseph forgives his brothers for causing him harm, and invites them back into relationship.
Continuing the theme, in the Gospel, Jesus tells a challenging parable to answer Peter’s question about how many times we should forgive. The parable tells a story about a man who is forgiven a debt of millions of dollars, only to turn around and demand repayment of a debt owed to him of just a few thousand. Jesus warns that such an unwillingness to forgive, when we have been forgiven so much, leads to pain and death.
We all need forgiveness for something, from someone. We all have someone we need to forgive. As you listen, pick one of these things or people to hold in mind, and hear how scripture speaks to this challenging aspect of faith. Let’s listen.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This week, I attended one of the protests in response to Daniel Prude’s murder. I was told they were asking for more clergy, especially white clergy, to show up, so after a couple of nights of peaceful protests, I showed up, collar on, pectoral cross around my neck. It was incredibly moving to be there, to see people’s passion and their kindness, sharing pizza and bottled water, to see people dancing and smiling at each other, even as we all came together to ask for justice and change, not only for people of color, but also for people who struggle with mental illness.
On the other hand, I have also heard and read with dismay some of the commentary on what is happening in our streets and our nation. I have heard from many well-intentioned, mostly white people the sentiment that “slavery happened a long time ago, and it’s time for Black people to forgive and move on. As long as they are being framed as the victim, they will live into that perception of themselves. It’s time they empower themselves, by forgiving the past and moving on.” Now, I’m all about forgiveness, don’t get me wrong! I believe forgiveness brings life and freedom. But I also have several concerns about this perspective, not the least of which is what I see as a misunderstanding of what forgiveness is and what it means. So, let’s spend some time today, using our texts, to talk about what forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness is not a denial of what has happened. The old adage “forgive and forget” is not really very useful, for it closes the door to the possibility of the growth and change that happens when we make mistakes. At the point where the Genesis text drops us down in the Joseph story, Joseph has been sold into slavery, and managed to climb his way, with God’s help, into a position of power and influence. When his brothers first show up at his door, he takes some time to figure out what they are about, even to test them a little. He can’t risk being hurt by them again. In the climactic moment we just heard, the brothers confess their wrong-doing. In fact, they suggest Joseph do to them exactly what they had done to him! “Make us your slaves!” they say. Joseph’s response is to acknowledge, “Yes, you hurt me. You intended me harm. Still, God used your wrong-doing for something good. God was and is more powerful than your sin.”
You see, genuine forgiveness starts with acknowledgement of wrong-doing, of harm done – preferably by both parties, if that’s possible. But even if only from one side, to find forgiveness, we must recognize and name the extent of the brokenness, for only then does it lose its power over us. Not to face sin and its consequences head-on, even sins of the past and of our ancestors, is a guarantee that we will face that pain again. Acknowledging sin and brokenness is what allows new life to start to emerge.
Second, forgiveness cannot be coerced, nor demanded by the injuring party, but can only be offered by the one who has been injured on their own time. It took many years for Joseph, and even then, it required his brothers’ repentance. Though the brothers do try to trick Joseph again, telling him it was their father’s dying wish that he forgive them, Joseph still does this on his own timeline, not because of their tricks.
But sometimes we do try to demand apologies and forgiveness, don’t we? Even since we are children – say a child has done something wrong (biting, pushing, etc.), we force them to apologize. “Tell your sister you’re sorry,” we say, and the child shrugs and mumbles, “Sorry…” and the other says, “It’s okay…” and they both run off. This doesn’t mean anything; no one is invested in this exchange. The child has not even acknowledged that they know what they are apologizing for, and no one asked the one harmed if they were ready to accept an apology, if it really is okay. A true apology is not flippant or forced, but involves repentance and recognition of pain caused, as we see in the Joseph story, and an expressed hope to do better in the future.
Forgiveness is not a denial of anger. We don’t hear enough in the Church about righteous anger. Maybe we think good Christians don’t get angry. But that’s not the model Jesus offers – he got plenty angry! Think of him making a whip and turning over the tables in the temple, in his anger with the money changers. Think of his blasting the religious hypocrites who oppressed the poor, calling them snakes. Think of his denouncing the mistreatment of the most vulnerable in his society. Think of even a couple weeks ago, when Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” The landowner in today’s parable, who is pretty clearly meant to be God in this story, certainly gets angry, too. You see, righteous anger at injustice and sin is absolutely a part of faith, and it is not the purpose of forgiveness to subdue that. (I want to distinguish between vindictive anger and righteous anger – vindictive anger is the sort the eats away at you, but righteous anger has positive change as its goal.) There is a time to get angry and even to stay angry, to insist on change, and to say, “Enough is enough!” While it is the task of the Church to preach and practice forgiveness, it is also the task of the Church to take sin as seriously as Jesus did, and passionately call for justice until that justice is achieved. (And by justice I don’t mean retribution – I mean that everyone has gotten what they need.)
Finally, forgiveness is not the same as healing or reconciliation, though it may be a step toward it. Healing may take longer, and sometimes forgiveness may happen without reconciliation, for example in the case of abuse, when a continuing relationship is not healthy or possible. So sometimes, forgiveness is not the end point, but the beginning, the beginning of leaning into the future instead of being caught on the chains of the past.
This is especially important in the work of seeking racial justice. To forgive past evils like slavery and all the other discriminatory laws that have come since it ended (Jim Crow, redlining, mass incarceration) – forgiving all that is not this happily-ever-after moment where suddenly everyone is equal. Rather, forgiveness is an unburdening of the heart, and preparing then to begin the work ahead – even better, to maybe begin it together. As one preacher writes, “Forgiveness enables the oppressed not only to survive, but to lay down the cumbersome weight of hatred and bitterness, and gear up for the fight. Forgiveness is the beginning of the hard work of building God’s kingdom – not the end.”
Ultimately, I hope and pray that we do get to a place of mutual forgiveness around racial injustice, including all the steps that will help to bring us there: reckoning with the past rather than trying to deny, diminish, or erase it; taking the time to name and acknowledge the pain; understanding that a bit of righteous anger may still be present, if that is what is needed to move toward restorative justice; and continuing the process of healing for all involved, even after forgiveness is achieved.
When we can do that, then we can find the freedom that forgiveness offers. Ultimately, to forgive another is to let go of our chains – our bitterness and grudges – and, transformed, move forward in love. To be forgiven offers us the same – release from the burden of our sins and being able to live into a new and restored life. But even before we get to the point of this difficult work coming to fruition, we can trust in the relentless forgiveness of our God, who is gracious and merciful, and full of compassion, who forgives debts far larger than we can ever know, removing our sins from us and inviting us into eternal life. May we, unlike the slave in the story, be so transformed by this incredible gift that we are moved to offer grace to one another, living lives of forgiven and forgiving people.
Let us pray… Merciful God, you offer us more forgiveness than we can comprehend. Strengthen us to forgive others, even as we continue to work passionately toward a more just world for everyone. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.