It Takes Faith to Forgive
There is a phrase pastor’s throw around when we get to talking amongst ourselves. Whenever we hear a good joke or a particularly incisive comment - something illuminating, surprising, or undeniably true - we turn to each other and say: “That’ll preach!”
Am I right, pastors?
For example: Rev. Anna up the hill was feeling overwhelmed, so I forwarded this tweet to her: “It’s just one of those weeks,” I tell myself, having picked a career that doesn’t seem to have the other type of week.”
“That’ll preach,” she said.
David Entin sent me a meme of a guy holding a sign that reads: “If you don’t teach your child to believe in Jesus, the devil will teach them evolution, sexuality, psychology, & witchcraft!” Below the picture it says “That awkward moment when Satan is the only reasonable choice.”
“That’ll preach,” I said.
My colleague Christie, who is busy resettling Venezuelans on the Cape - you know, all those refugees who were flown from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard by the governor of Florida - she recently posted this quote: “Here’s a thought, maybe you wouldn’t have to mention you’re a Christian all the time if you acted like one most of the time.”
HooWEEE, that’ll preach.
As will the one that begins, “Listen carefully. The kind of people who will put people on a plane are the kind of people who will load people into boxcars.”
Yeah. Sorry to bring it down…but I’m afraid that’ll preach too.
So it’s very disconcerting when one opens one’s Bible, looks at the reading for Sunday and thinks immediately, “NOPE, NOPE, NOPETY, NOPE, NOPE, NO! I’m sorry Jesus, but this will not preach. This will not preach at all.” I mean come on:
If you have faith the size of a mustard seed you too can subvert the laws of nature!
Are you kidding me?!
Just do what you’re told …like a worthless slave!
Jesus, it’s 2022. We don’t talk like that anymore. I’m sorry buddy, but this won’t preach. This won’t preach at all.
I mean let’s talk about that seed for a moment.
Does anyone here have any idea how big a mustard seed is? This is not a trick question. They’re small, right? Really small; like even small for a seed small. So I want you to imagine that you’re holding a very small seed between your thumb and forefinger while you listen again to these words from Luke’s gospel.
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
Now, think about the size of your imaginary mustard seed, that tiny little seed you’re holding right here, and tell me: how does it feel to be told that if you had even this much faith - this tiny, minuscule amount of faith - that you could perform a miracle? A fairly useless miracle - let’s be honest - but a miracle nonetheless?
How does that make you feel? … Sad. Depressed. Angry. Scolded. Inadequate. Not good enough. Lacking. Faithless. Like a bad Christian?
Although, just for the record, by a show of hands, is there anyone here who does feel like you have enough faith to move trees with, like, your mind or something? Cause we’ll wait.
Anyone? No. Me either.
Which means one of two things. We’re either a pathetic bunch of faithless wannabes, or maybe the word Jesus uses for “faith” here, does not mean what we think it means. Shall we try door number 2 and see what we’ve won? Excellent!
Friends, the word for “faith” here in this passage, is actually “pistis” a Greek word that is better translated as loyalty. When the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith, they weren’t asking him to help them believe harder or doubt less. They were asking Jesus to increase their loyalty to him, their fidelity, their ability to follow his teachings.
And Jesus responds, essentially, by saying, come on you guys, when it comes to faithfulness, loyalty, fidelity… you can’t increase these things any more than you can measure them.
Faithfulness doesn’t come in sizes. If your sense of fidelity is the size of a mustard seed than you’re as faithful as you need to be because when it comes to being faithful, you either are, or you’re not.
I mean, think about this with me for a moment. Can you be just a little bit loyal? No, not really. You’re either loyal or you’re not. Can you be kind of trustworthy? I don’t think so.
Would you hire a babysitter if someone told you she was trustworthy most of the time? No.You’re either trustworthy or you’re not.
*This isn’t about working yourself up to a level of faith that’s even this big, because faith doesn’t come in sizes. You either have it * or you don’t.
Likewise and for the record, no one can make a mulberry tree jump into the sea and, not for nothing, but why would you want to?
No, this is all hyperbole. This is Jesus is being sarcastic. The whole mulberry tree thing was never meant to be taken literally any more than those verses about removing the plank from your own eye before you mess with the speck in your brothers.
Jesus is messing with his disciples here, telling them that this isn’t a matter of increasing their faith or their loyalty to him. This is simply a matter of doing what they’ve been told to do, which, if they are loyal to him, they will just go ahead and do.
Which is actually what the second half of Jesus’ remarks amount too; all that stuff about masters and slaves. Unfortunately there’s no door number 2 when it comes to this part.
I don’t like these words anymore than you do. And I don’t have any nifty etymologies I can pull out of my pocket to soften them.
These are harsh words. Ugly words. However, knowing Jesus the way I do, I have to trust that point here is not to reinforce the institution of slavery, but rather the dire need for obedience. Stay with me here.
“Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” asks Jesus. No. If you’re a slave, you do what you’re asked to do simply because you’ve been asked to do it. Right? You don’t quibble, you don’t question, and you certainly don’t ask your master to help increase your obedience.
One can only imagine where that would lead.
No, when it comes to being a slave, you’re either obedient or you’re not.
You’re either obedient or there will be trouble.
You do the work set before you because that is the work you are expected to do, and when you have done it you don’t say, “hey look what we did.” You say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
Again, it sounds horrible, but let’s not lose sight of what it is Jesus is actually commanding his disciples to do and remember how ready he was to always do the same thing himself.
If you go back to the beginning of this chapter and look at what Jesus commanded that caused the disciples to ask him to increase their faith in the first place, you realize this whole passage is not about having enough faith to believe the impossible but about having enough faith to do something that often feels impossible…which is what? Look back at verse 3… Forgive.
3Be on your guard! (says Jesus) If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.
(That’s already a big ask, but Jesus goes on.)
4And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times (in that same day) and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”
“O Lord, increase our faith!” said the apostles.
And can you blame them? “Help us do this,” they begged, because forgiving like that… forgiving over and over and over again….now that’s hard. Forget about uprooting trees, if there is any act in life that requires faith it is forgiveness.
I’m not talking about faith in some idea or doctrine about forgiveness.
I’m not talking about believing really, really hard that forgiveness is right or true.
I’m talking about having enough faith in God’s justice and trust in God’s mercy to let go of our anger and give it to God. I’m talking about placing our need for vindication, justice, satisfaction, and revenge in God’s hand.
I’m talking about having enough faith in Jesus to go ahead and do the last thing we want to do simply because he has asked us to do it, trusting that he wouldn’t have asked us to do it if it wasn’t of ultimate importance.
I mean let’s be honest, forgiveness, more often than not, feels … wrong. Why should you forgive someone who has hurt you? And why would you ever forgive someone who has hurt you over and over again.
It makes no earthly sense at all, and because of this sometimes you have to go ahead and put as much earthly distance between yourself and harmful people as you can. I’m not advocating that anyone stick around just to be abused.
And yet Jesus still asks us to go ahead and forgive people…
… even the ones who always seem to need forgiveness
… even the ones who after all this time still haven’t gotten their act together
….even the ones who will no doubt sin again in exactly the same way they did before, even though they said they were sorry again….
because at the end of the day…
…doesn’t that describe all of us?
Maybe not. Actually, just for the record, by a show of hands, is there anyone here who doesn’t continually find themselves in need of forgiveness, often for the same stupid thing? Anyone here who never messes up anymore? Cause we’ll wait.
Anyone? No. Me either.
I think that’s why Jesus is unequivocal about this? Friends, the truth is that we all need forgiveness all of the time. And we all need to be forgiving.
We can’t function as people, as partners, as friends or families and certainly not as a church without forgiveness. Indeed there would be no heaven without forgiveness, not for you or me or anyone else.
I know it’s really easy, whenever we talk about forgiveness, to distract ourselves with worst case scenarios and then wonder if we’d ever be able to forgive truly horrible things. But for most of us, it’s not the really big wounds that trip us up so much as the little indignities we face everyday. As Jesus said, “occasions for stumbling are bound to come.”
It’s the little things, the annoying things, the grind of living in community with imperfect people that requires the most grace. But grace is a non negotiable because grace is what it takes to hold a community together.
When people ask me why First Churches is doing so well, one of the things I tell them is that there is a lot of grace in the system. We try to go easy on each other around here. We assume the best. We give each other the benefit of the doubt. We make room for intent even as we acknowledge the impact.
And when all else fails, we forgive. We start over. We falter. We fail. We forgive again. But you know what? Every time we do, we bring a little more of heaven to earth. Because every time we forgive, God’s will is done here on earth as it is in heaven.
Friends, Jesus is unequivocal because in the end, up in heaven, you don’t get to love some people and not others. Up in heaven, you don’t get to forgive some of the people most of the time or most of the people some of the time.
You either forgive or you don’t.
You’re either faithful or you’re not.
“Eventually, I believe, we will all forgive one another because we have (all) been forgiven,” says Richard Rohr… “(So) let’s do it now,” he says, “and not wait until later.”
“Let’s do it now.”
Yeah. That’ll preach. Amen.