I Don’t Know What Forgiveness Is: Matthew 18.15–22

Delivered at Ames UCC on March 10, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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2019.3.10 metanoiaFORGIVENESS
As many of you know, I’m enrolled in a two-year program of spiritual formation called Prairie Fire. When it is over I will do a third year to become a certified spiritual director. In my small group a couple of months ago, our leader read a piece about forgiveness. My response was something like, “I don’t buy this. I don’t know what forgiveness is, but I don’t buy it.”

I don’t know what forgiveness is, but I don’t buy it. A contradiction, of course, because how can I refuse to buy something if I say I don’t know what it is. What I think I meant is that I do not know what forgiveness is but I do not buy what the church universal tends to sell as forgiveness: the justification for Jesus’s death on a cross.

What to do with Jesus’s death on the cross has been a problem since that death. How could someone infused with, or someone of divinity be killed? Why would God “allow” that? And what if God not only allowed it, but wanted it? What do our answers say about God and what do they say God thinks of us?

There have been many answers, and still are. The orthodox position, orthodox meaning “right belief,” has been that humanity is so horrid that God needed a blood sacrifice to atone for our horridness. God needed the death of one who was welcoming, loving, and gracious in order to forgive us for our failure to be all of those things.

Such theology makes humanity inherently deficient and God universally bloodthirsty. I reject both.

I know that we can be rotten, but not thoroughly depraved. And, as we read in Psalm 51 at both Ash Wednesday services last week, God has “no delight in sacrifice” (verse 16). God’s intervention at Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac affirms the Psalmist: God is over sacrificial atonement, if God even was into it in the first place. So the forgiveness that I do not buy is the one that most Christian churches claim to have exclusive control of through their interpretation of these old stories.

But speaking of old stories, in today’s passage it isn’t divine forgiveness of human deficiency through capital punishment that Jesus teaches.

As with so many in Matthew, this is a private teaching just for the disciples. After many parables and the work needed to glimpse their many potential meanings, Jesus offers this straightforward lesson in community life:

If someone in your community harms you, go talk to them in private. If they apologize, you are all good. If not, go back to them with a witness or two. If that does not work, if you are still not heard, then tell the whole community. If still there is no admittance of injury and effort at reparation, your work is done.

But this recipe for returning to right relationship is not enough for Simon Peter. He asks Jesus, “If I am hurt, how often should I forgive? Seven times?” Nope, Jesus replies, “77 times.” Much has been made of these particular numbers, but let’s today simply hear it as an intensification. There is no limit to the number of times we are to forgive one who harms us.

Now, let me pause for a moment to speak to those of you in the room who have suffered abuse and injury, be it sexual, emotional, physical, moral or all of the above. If that includes you, please do not hear this passage, or me, as saying that you have fallen short if you have not forgiven your abuser. I do not believe that Jesus is speaking to that kind of injury, that kind of sin. The work of healing from trauma is far more complicated, and long term, than what is offered here.

For one thing, Jesus does not speak of the need for abusers, or any of us who hurt another, to ask for forgiveness. In fact, the entire perspective of the lesson and the dialogue is from the point of view of the injured party, not the injurer. So does that mean we are off the hook, we don’t have to worry about how we might have done wrong by others, until they muster up the nerve to approach us?

Well, no. In fact, this entire season we have just begun, Lent, is about being people who approach rather than those who wait.

In some branches of the Christian family tree, the focus of Lent is human original sin and the need to repent of it to God. But as you saw in last week’s special Lenten e-news since we do not here profess original sin, but original blessing, I find the focus on metanoia more meaningful. Broken down, “meta noia” means “changing mind.”

This is a season, as we near the most disquieting of our stories, to consider how we might need to change our minds, and subsequently our hearts, about our relationship with the Creator, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. What will allow us to live into the power of a love that transcends death, and what is holding us back from doing so?

This includes attending to our personal relationships. God may always be with us, but the human experience dominates our awareness and distracts us from our God. So as we look to be changed in our posture toward God, we also attend to our posture toward each other.

Is there anyone against whom we have held a grudge or some anger that we need to speak with?

Is there anyone, though we may have so many defenses up we can barely admit it, we have slighted or mistreated, that we should go to ourselves?

Neither sounds pleasant or easy to me. But no one said discipleship would be either. Never, in his private teachings or public parables, did Jesus sell faithfulness to living in covenant with each other as an easy Way. And he always made it clear that in our discipling ourselves to him, we would be doing so not alone, but with each other.

I think another reason I so reject divine agency in erecting that Good Friday cross is because no one needed God to do it—we raise them up all the time ourselves, small and large. How can we tear down the big crosses of systemic racism and environmental collapse if we do not work to eliminate the smaller ones of interpersonal slights and wounds?

This Lenten season, let us practice metanoia, a change of self, by changing how we approach the divine in ourselves and the divine in each other.

I am still unsure what forgiveness is, but between you and me, I know I have some to give, and more importantly, some to ask for.




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