Practicing Forgiveness: Matthew 18.15–35

forgive in chainsDelivered at Claremont UCC on February 22, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie


Most merciful God, we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. For the sake of Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and follow in your ways, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

We may begin our worship with welcome and song but we quickly move to a prayer of confession. The one I just read is very old, appearing in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in the mid-1500s. Those we pray each week are similar: Here is how we are broken, here is how we have fallen short. We yearn to do better so please do not abandon us.

We then spend a minute in silence. That quiet gap is an evocation of the distance we may feel from grace or our experience of what it is like to sit in honesty. And finally the assurance of pardon: God remains. God loves.

Our faith asks many things of us. In the weeks between Christmas and today, the first Sunday in Lent, Jesus invited us to wade into the waters that God would, inevitably, trouble. We must resist the temptations that would satisfy our desires but betray our witness. Go feed everyone, regardless of the impediments of man. Take up your cross—find out what it means to risk an instrument of torture and oppression.

Fulfilling just one of those, living just one to its limit, would take the strength of a lifetime. But it feels to me that living the level of forgiveness asked of us in today’s scripture would take ten lifetimes, maybe a hundred.

While in seminary, one of my professors, Dow Edgerton, asked me if I would be taking his course on forgiveness. He said, “Mittens, I sense that you would have a lot to teach us about forgiveness.” (Mittens is my nickname.)

Instantly, my head swelled. Such praise from Dow was beyond flattering. It was like having Yoda, who Dow is often compared to, saying I had mastered The Force. Dow must have seen something in me that I did not, I thought.

But then my cranial balloon popped. It wasn’t true. I had nothing to teach about forgiveness and was, in fact, avoiding his course. I was afraid of what I might have to learn about myself, what I might have to give up.

You see, I am a world-class grudge holder. Don’t get me started on the 1990 College Sweatshirt Incident with my sister. And that is just the tip of a bitterly cold iceberg that continues to float around in the part of my heart reserved for my family of origin.

Forgiveness of slights and wounds from friends, colleagues, strangers? Sure. I can let those go, and genuinely. But for other Gebbies, whom I love deeply and well, forgiveness comes begrudgingly. Forgiveness of family is hard for me.

For many of us, church is a family place. It is a place where we both bring our families and make family. We come to name each other sister and brother, relating to some fellow seekers as we would parents, and loving the little ones as fiercely as we would our own offspring.

Very often this is a redeeming and rejoicing experience. But it can also be wounding.

When I look around our congregation, one so richly blessed with pastors and missionaries and academics, I am aware of how many of the women among them, women here today, faced discrimination in those very fields.

Hard roads to ordination, placements secondary to those of men. Never a settled sole pastor, let alone the senior. Stuck in associate professorships, tenure a fantasy. The United Church of Christ, itself, which has been so progressive in so many ways—I mean, look at all of us gays!—has yet to elect a woman as General Minister and President. And this church knows there has been no absence of qualified candidates.

That hurts. It hurts to join a family that proclaims God is still speaking only to have your own voice silenced.

Church families form in the name of the one who defended women. The one whose bitter death and dawning mystery were first witnessed and proclaimed by women. Of all the places in the world, Christian church family is supposed to be safe, full of affirmation and grace unmeasurable for women.

Instead, church is just like a regular family: susceptible to injury, disappointment, personality conflicts, disparate goals, and bigotry.

And yet we women, and please know that I include transwomen in all of this, and yet we women remain in this family. Because as the slave and abolitionist Sojourner Truth so accurately put the relationship between women and the divine:

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

Christian faith is born of God and woman, so nothing can separate women from God, not even the church. It is a testament to the power of God that women have remained in church families.

Tonight the women of our church family will gather for a meal and a quilt show. At first glance such an event might seem to be only about simple fellowship. Which it is.

But I think that such a gathering in the name of Christian faith is also a significant act of forgiveness. A statement of forgiveness of the church.

In today’s parable, the servant begs for and receives forgiveness. He then, greedily, fails to pass that forgiveness on. That failure is such a serious matter of faith, that Jesus describes it as a crime worthy of jail time.

The forgiveness that matters in our faith tradition is not so much that which we receive. No, the servant’s ultimate freedom in faith is contingent on the forgiveness HE practices.

Which is what the Spirit of Women dinner does. Despite the historical abuses and ongoing marginalization of women by the church universal, the women of Claremont UCC insist on holding themselves to the gospel standard. Not walking away but creating a generously open space of welcome for all.

In doing so, they demonstrate for us what it looks like to lay down the wounds and grudges of Christian family and enter into the love that is the heart of Christian forgiveness.

Each week in worship we practice making a confession to God, but we are left on our own to practice hearing a confession and absolving another of all blame or worry.

Today I would like for us to have the opportunity to do both. In a moment Prs. Aram and Ryan and I will line up, as well as Amy Duncan, one of our Stephen Ministers. As a Stephen Minister, Amy has had over 50 hours of care and prayer training, as well as continuing education.

There are some injuries so deep that forgiveness may be impossible and Jesus’ requirement of 7 times 70 may be a cruelty. But there are many, like mine and the Sweatshirt Incident, that only cause greater hurt by holding onto them. So if you are moved, come forward to any one of us.

No need to make a confession or name the debt you cannot release. Just take a moment as pairs of servants along the Way of Jesus to pray. To pray together for forgiveness and for the ability to forgive. To recognize that what is true for the women of the church—that we are bound to God in a way that can never be broken—is true for ALL of us here.

And then draw strength from that bond to pass on to those institutions, those family members, and the forgiveness we must offer to be free.

Come, let us pray.

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