The Power/lessness of Forgiveness
At the end of August a pastor by the name of Andrew Lang resigned from the church he’d served for 10 years. He then went home and wrote a blog post about why he wasn’t just leaving First Presbyterian, but why he was leaving the ministry altogether.
To his great surprise, the post went viral - at least amongst ministers - and has provoked a great deal of conversation across all denominations about the challenges of ministry.
I want to reassure you that I’m not going anywhere, but as I read his piece I really resonated with the part where he talked about how hard it was to hold all of the concerns that weighed on the people of his congregation.
“Irrespective of how I learned their story,” he writes, “I carry (their) history wherever I go….What you don’t realize is that, over time, the accumulation of all that knowledge starts to weigh you down. … you feel sympathy and empathy for their suffering. …you’re aware of the deep hardships and challenges that your congregants cope with day-to-day. … It is a privilege to be given a window into these very private aspects of people’s lives, but the responsibility that comes with that privilege can often be overwhelming in ways that those on the outside of the pastorate cannot fully comprehend” (https://www.restorativefaith.org/post/departure-why-i-left-the-church).
I get that. I really do. I love being a pastor because we get to witness God working in and through our people for good in countless ways. But it’s not all sunshine and roses. It’s also really hard being a pastor, because we are the ones people turn to when they have no where else to go.
Pastors are the ones who show up when all is lost and there is nothing left to do but pray. We hold people’s secrets and their sorrows, their struggles and their pain. We are the ones who listen when no one else will, listen when people are angry or hurting, feeling helpless, feeling hopeless.
And the worst part is that nine times out of ten the anger and the hurt, the hopelessness and the helplessness can be traced back to something someone else did or failed to do.
It’s a lot and I’ll admit it gets heavy. I love people, especially all of you, so very much. And yet people, even sometimes people I love, can be absolutely horrible to each other. We can do so much damage to one another without even meaning to, to say nothing of the incalculable damage we are capable of when we really set out to do harm.
Such stories are heavy to hear about, heavy to hold, and even heavier to live with when you’re the one who has been hurt.
After 10 years of ministry, Andrew Lang could bear the weight no more. I can tell you that the only way I can bear it is by letting it all flow through me rather than trying to hold on to it. On the days when the pain is too much, I go home. I lie down. I pray. I ask God to draw near and I let the stories flow through me to God.
I give God the pain and the problems and then I pray for love and healing and grace to flow back through me into the broken places and people from which the stories have come.
It doesn’t mean I forget what happened. It just means that I give it all to God to hold and to heal. I have to lay the ultimate responsibility for it all at God’s feet; because if I didn’t, I would buckle under the weight of it all.
My hope is that by the end of this sermon, you’ll be willing to give some of your hurt and your pain over to God as well, especially if the hurt and pain you are holding was caused by someone else.
Letting go of that hurt….letting go of that pain…. that is one way to understand what it is to forgive.
I’ll admit, it’s not an easy word to define. I never do this, but just for kicks, I actually looked up forgiveness in the dictionary and realized immediately why I never do this:
Great. Thanks for nothing Oxford. But hey, I forgive them, because how do you define something that means different things to different people? How can you understand something that looks a little different every time it is offered or withheld?
Some harm is easy to forgive.
“It’s ok,” we say. “No harm. No foul.”
Some harm is all but impossible to forgive.
“Never forget,” we intone.
Forgiveness can be a process. Forgiveness can be a revelation.
It can take place in an instant. It can be the work of a lifetime.
Which is, once again, why Jesus taught us about such things using parables, because parables don’t give us easy answers. They invite us instead into the complexity of our deepest questions. And today’s reading is no exception.
We pick up today right where we left off last Sunday. Jesus has just told his disciples that if a person sins against them they are to go to that person and do everything in their power to work things out. And Peter basically says, ok Jesus, but what if we work it out and they do it again:
“If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (And) Jesus says to Peter, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Does this mean we can stop if someone offends us 78 times?
No. The implication is clear: our willingness to forgive should know no limit.
Our willingness to forgive should know no limit.
I would imagine Peter was shocked, because let’s be frank, that’s ridiculous. It’s completely unworkable. How could anyone live that way?
And then, as if that wasn’t difficult enough, Jesus follows his pronouncement up with a parable that starts out with a radical show of forgiveness before it dissolves into a story where ultimately no one forgives any one else at all.
Did anybody else notice that? He tells us to forgive up to 77 times and then he tells us a story where one person forgives, once…before the whole story ends in violence and torture.
And then he concludes with the most haunting words of all: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Jesus tells us to forgive… or else. Forgive or God won’t forgive you.
There’s a conundrum here…a contradiction between what Jesus is saying and what God is doing. At least it seems that way at first. But I noticed something as I was reading this parable over and over. Jesus says, “The kingdom of God may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.”
Compared. That’s new.
Usually Jesus says the kingdom of heaven “is like,” right? The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. So let’s be clear right off the bat. The kingdom of heaven is not like this king and his servants, but it can still be compared to what happens between this king and his servants.
Which, very briefly, is this: a king has a slave who owes him a ridiculous amount of money - 10,000 talents - which today would be worth around 150 million dollars. I don’t know how the slave lost that much money, but he did, and he can’t pay it back. So the King orders that the slave, his family, and all of his possessions be sold.
They are not going to fetch anywhere near what they owe the king, but at least the slave will be punished for what he’s done. And, to be fair, you should know that most kings would execute a man who mismanaged that much money. This is the least punishment he deserves.
But the slave begs for forgiveness, and, lo and behold, the king grants it. He forgives the debt and lets the guy go free and clear; which is absurd. But then what does our anti hero do? He goes out and nearly strangles another fellow to death who owes him a hundred denarii - about $5000 bucks - an amount that realistically could have been paid back if he’d allowed the other guy to make amends.
Of course the fellow slave falls down on his feet and begs for mercy in much the same way as the first servant did, but the first servant shows him none. He has him thrown in prison, which he is still well within his rights to do. He’s not being unfair. Such a response was perfectly legal.
But this upsets his fellow slaves who report back to the king. They let the king know that the slave who he showered with such extravagant mercy has refused to show even the slightest mercy to another.
The king summons the slave in. “You wicked slave!” he says. “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” And then he has him handed over to be tortured until his family can pay back the infinite sum, which they can never do, condemning the slave forever to a hell of his own making.
It’s a terrible story, so terrible I wanted the kids to leave before we read it. A terrible story told in big broad exaggerated strokes so you can’t help but miss the point. Jesus wants us to see what it looks like when we live in a world without mercy; a world where we keep score and people get what they deserve.
In the kingdom of God, in our world, and in the world of this parable there are and there will always be people who need to forgive and people who need to be forgiven.
In the kingdom of God, God forgives us all in the hope that we will forgive each other as we have been forgiven.
In the parable, the king tries out forgiveness, the slave eschews it, his fellows rat him out, and ultimately no one forgives anyone at all.
Jesus is showing us two completely different ways of being here. Do we want to live in a world of unlimited vengeance or a world of unlimited mercy? Do we want to live in a world where ultimately all is forgiven or a world where everyone eventually gets what they deserve?
Forgiving someone 7 times sounds like a lot. Forgiving someone 77 times sounds absurd. But ask yourself this: exactly how many times has God forgiven you?
At what point do you think God should stop (thanks to Eric Fistler from Pulpit Fiction for asking this question)?
“The hardest, best thing I’ve ever learned in my life,” says Glennon Doyle, “is this: There is no forgiveness for me unless there is forgiveness for all. Grace cannot be personal if it is not universal. You cannot receive grace without disclaimers if you do not offer grace without disclaimers.”
That’s what Jesus is saying too. If you want to live in a world where you are forgiven, you have to live in a world where you are willing to forgive. This isn’t a threat it’s simply a reality. It’s not a quid pro quo, it’s more an observation of the way things work.
Jesus isn’t telling us this because God is out to get us. He’s telling us this so we can see exactly what it is God is trying to save us from…. And it’s not God, it’s ourselves. Jesus is trying to save us from our own stubborn, wounded, vengeful, self-righteous hearts.
You see, my friends, the kingdom of God is a place of unconditional love, grace and mercy. It comes through us, into us, and takes root among us as we live it into being. It recedes from us when we shy away from its demands.
When you let love grace and mercy flow through you, you find there is always more love, grace and mercy at hand because you are tapping into the source - into God - in whom there is no end of love, grace, and mercy.
But when you refuse to forgive, when you refuse to share love, grace, and mercy with others, you cut yourself off from that flow. You cut yourself off from the source. You hold heaven at bay in order to damn ….yourself…. up…, and allow all of that hurt and anger, bitterness and pain, to build up inside of you instead.
And that is a heavy burden to bear my friends. That is a heavy weight to hold. One might even call it punishing. What Jesus is trying to show us is that we’re punishing ourselves as much as the person who has wronged us, punishing ourselves when we refuse to let go of the hurt and forgive.
And so I want to invite you into a time of meditation. As the choir sings, you will have some time to search your heart. Is there someone you need to forgive? Is there some hurt or offense you are carrying that you are ready to lay down?
When they are done, we’ll pray. We’ll invite God to draw near and you will have an opportunity to let your story flow out to God. You’ll have the opportunity to give God the pain and the problems you’re holding and then we’ll pray for love and healing and grace to flow back through us into the broken places and people from which our stories have come.
It doesn’t mean we need to forget. Forgiveness is a release, a releasing of the hurt, an invitation to allow God to hold and to heal it all so we can be free, so love can flow, so we can step into the sort of world Jesus wants for us all. Amen