Forgiveness and Mercy: A Sermon for Proper 19A, September 13, 2020

Proper19A

September 13, 2020

The familiar words come easily, unthinkingly off our tongues and lips. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive the trespasses of others.” In the contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer, it’s “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive the sins of others.” In another widely-known version, it’s “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” 

Earlier in the liturgy, we ask God’s forgiveness more directly, though in most instances, no more consciously, “For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us…”

Forgiveness is one of those concepts that is central to our experience of the Christian faith, and central to our lives as human beings bound up in relationships with other people. It’s also something we may struggle with in our personal lives, as we may struggle with forgiving ourselves for not living up to our ideals or expectations. If we can’t forgive ourselves, or others, we can’t move on; we can’t open ourselves to hope, or to change. 

Forgiveness is hard. We know that. Like Peter, we are prone to wonder whether there are limits beyond which we need not forgive, and whether there are things that can’t be forgiven. There’s the spectacle, or demand, for forgiveness. We see that when grieving family members forgive a murderer. And in prominent, public cases, those rituals of forgiveness often help us avoid or forget the absolute horror of the crime, and the hatred or evil that led to it, as in the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

Forgiveness is hard—but there’s a sense that we may expect others, God, public victims, to forgive quickly and easily, to bring closure, as is said, to move on.

There’s something of an irony that today’s gospel reading comes so close to 9/11, when we remember the events of September 11, 2001. My social media feeds were full of memes and images with the motto “Never Forget.” But we do forget, or want to, what the events of that day unleashed; nineteen years of war now, countless lives lost or irreparably harmed; our nation changed forever by the fear and anger; by militarization, torture and a breakdown of our judicial system.

 In today’s gospel, Peter asks a question that we might understand to be a follow-up to last week’s reading about how to resolve conflict in Christian community. Peter wonders how far the need to forgive goes—do we have to forgive a fellow believer seven times? Seven is a good number with lots of biblical resonances—seven days in the week, for example and we could imagine ourselves asking that question. After all, how often does someone get a second or third or fourth chance in life? Seven times seems quite magnanimous.

Peter is thinking in terms of a calculus of forgiveness, something we often do. Jesus’ response may seem to be in keeping with that calculus, but of course 70 times is on a completely different magnitude.

Continuing, Jesus tells the parable of an indebted slave. And here the calculus breaks down completely. It may be that he has become enslaved because of his debt. His master, the king, demands payment. It’s a stupendously large debt—10000 talents; a talent is roughly 6000 denarii, a denarius, the daily wages of a laborer. So one talent is upwards of 20 years of work. That’s an inconceivable amount, a debt that couldn’t be repaid, but 6000 talents? 

The story continues. The slave pleads with his master. In doing so, he exhibits what we now call magical thinking: “Have patience with me, and I will repay everything.” A debt so large that we can’t imagine how big it is or how it was incurred, and a slave saying, “be patient, I’ll repay it.” But the master relents, having pity for him, and forgave his debt. 

But then the slave, who had been the recipient of such great mercy and forgiveness, sees a slave who owes him 100 denarii, no small sum of course for either of them, and when he can’t repay, throws him in prison. When the first

slave’s master hears what happens, he becomes as angry as he had been merciful, handing the slave over to be tortured until he could repay—which of course means that he would be tortured for the rest of his life. Jesus, or Matthew, concludes, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

It’s so easy to draw a line back from the reference to “my heavenly Father” to the king in the parable to conclude that if we don’t forgive from our hearts, we will burn in hell for eternity. But I’m not sure that interpretation is particularly helpful for us. Let’s pause for a minute and reflect on the first slave’s experience. He begged forgiveness for an unimaginably large debt and received forgiveness and mercy equal to that debt. What might that feel like? In the realm of economics, when we hear about the 100000s of thousands of dollars in debt that students rack up in pursuit of college or professional degrees, and the likelihood that much of that debt can never be repaid, what might it be like to suddenly have that debt forgiven?

Or medical debt… Have you heard about the churches that are buying medical debt for pennies on the dollar and freeing people from the money they owe hospitals? Debt incurred through no fault of your own

To be free of that debt, after having lived under its burden for years or decades, what might that feel like? 

Wouldn’t you want simply to enjoy the freedom of forgiveness? And perhaps be able to share that feeling of freedom with others, at no or little cost to yourself? 

We are forgiven. God’s grace and mercy extend beyond our capacity to imagine or calculate. Many of us have experienced that forgiveness; many of us have had our lives transformed by that forgiveness. To extend that to others, to offer that freedom and joy to people weighed down with the burdens of sin and debt, and like God, to ask nothing in return.

In a few minutes, when I say the words of institution over the elements, as I raise the cup, I will say, “This is my blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Jesus said those words to his disciples on the night that he would be betrayed, abandoned, and denied by them. He said those words, knowing what would happen, what they would do. He says them to us, knowing that we will fall short, that we will sin, that we will fail to love God and our neighbor adequately, when we don’t forgive our neighbor, our loved one, or our friend. But those words remind us that God never fails, that God is present, loving, forgiving, inviting us to receive mercy, and to extend mercy to others.

A Community of Forgiveness: A Sermon for Proper 19, Year A 2017

Yesterday afternoon, as I was struggling to write this sermon, I accidently opened my ipad and facebook came up. In big, bold letters, dominating the screen, was a quotation from Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “No one is incapable of forgiving and no one is unforgiveable.” Tutu was Archbishop of the Anglican Church of South Africa during the height of apartheid, and after it ended, he chaired the nation’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” that attempted to deal with the violence, injustice, and oppression of that nation’s past. Like a bolt from the blue, well actually, the quotation’s background was violet, that little phrase gets to both the power and the difficulty of forgiveness. Continue reading

The Parable of the Manipulative Son: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 2016

 

The so-called parable of the Prodigal Son, which we heard this morning in the proclamation of the gospel, is one of Jesus’ most familiar and most-beloved parables. It is full of drama and emotion and I suspect for those of us who know it well, it has helped to shape our experience and understanding of God. To confront the depths of one’s sinfulness, to repent and seek God’s forgiveness, to be embraced by God’s love and grace, that not only describes the experiences, indeed the very Christian life, that many us have lived, it is also played out dramatically in this little story. Continue reading

Do we see this woman? A homily for Proper 6, Year C, 2013

It’s a familiar story; versions of it in the other gospels. Full of drama, more than a little eroticism. Listening to it, we become spectators to a drama that is playing out. We are almost voyeurs, but also perhaps a little embarrassed by the woman’s actions which seem inappropriate and out of place at a dinner in the home of a respectable leader in the town and probably the synagogue. But its drama and intimacy pull us in as it has enticed Christians for nearly two thousand years. We want to know who this woman was, what sin she committed. We also want to know what happens next. And so in the history of interpretation and the history of Christianity, she becomes Mary Magdalene, the prostitute turned penitent, with the long flowing hair. Over the centuries, this wasn’t invented by Dan Brown, we speculate that there was some sort of special relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Continue reading

Jesus, Remember me: Lectionary Reflections for Palm Sunday, Year C

This week’s readings are here.

We have slowly been gaining insight into Luke’s understanding of Jesus these past few months–slowly because our gospel readings have jumped around in Luke and have also included readings from the Gospel of John. Among the most important texts for Luke’s understanding of Jesus is his teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth (Lk 4:17:21, read on the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany). There Jesus announces the fulfillment of the prophecy of the recovery of sight for the blind, that prisoners will be set free, and the poor will have the good news preached to them. Over the following weeks, we saw some of that activity. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we also saw the promise of forgiveness from a loving God.

It may be that it is only now, in the crucifixion scene, that many churchgoers will encounter central aspects of Luke’s image of Jesus. His prayer for forgiveness as he is crucified is a prayer that God will forgive his executioners whether or not they repent of their actions. In fact, Jesus says that “they know not what they do.” Jesus responds similarly to the plea of the second criminal, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Here, the criminal doesn’t ask for forgiveness but Jesus extends his forgiveness nonetheless: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

In Luke Jesus is crucified not to pay for the sins of humanity. He is crucified because the Roman Empire and its Jewish collaborators have chosen to execute him. The charges brought against him are political: perverting our nation,telling people no to pay taxes, and calling himself Messiah, a king (Lk 23:2). Pilate finds him innocent of the charges; Herod’s interrogation is inconclusive because Jesus doesn’t answer his questions. The second criminal also pronounces him condemned unjustly and the centurion says as Jesus dies, “Certainly this man was innocent.”

Jesus’ innocence and his forgiveness of those who crucified him in spite of that innocence is central to the story. Luke will draw on that same theme in Acts when the first martyr, Stephen, asks God to forgive those who stone him.

Many contemporary Christians and those who struggle with Christianity wrestle with the meaning of the cross, with the doctrine of atonement, and especially with the notion that Jesus had to die for our sins. As hard as it is for us to get our heads around this notion, it may be that Luke’s understanding of the cross is still more puzzling–an innocent victim who prays for forgiveness: that’s an image of a God of great compassion, and of a Christ who is difficult to imitate. But forgiveness of others is at the heart of our faith (Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us) and should also be at the heart of our ethics

Forgiveness: A Sermon for Proper 6, Year C, June 13, 2010

Our lessons today bring us up squarely against one of those ways in which the language and world of the Bible confronts our world most profoundly. The Biblical world uses the term “sin” to express the chasm that separates human beings from their creator, and in our texts today, we see “sin” in all of its complexity and all of the suffering it causes. From the Hebrew Bible, there’s the story of King Ahab coveting and seizing a commoner’s vineyard. From Paul’s letter to the Galatians, our reading begins with words that shock us: “we ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” And the gospel presents the story of a sinful woman who receives forgiveness from Jesus.

Continue reading