September 17, Forgive, forgive, forgive

Forgive, forgive, forgive

Matthew 18:21-35

I have to be honest. Most of the time I find the idea of forgiveness (as in “forgive, forgive, forgive”) kind of tiresome actually.

Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t because there have been plenty of times when you have found it kind of tiresome too.

It’s tiresome in the sense that most of the time we think of the instruction to forgive as another item on the list of moral “shoulds.” It’s formulaic – forgive in order to be forgiven; do it again and again. Mostly it’s not “amazing” (like in the song, “Amazing Grace,”) but rather being forgiving is just the good we are supposed to do in the face of bad. It can be hard, sure, but it’s also sometimes kind of wearying. Forgive? Again? And it’s usually not very fair. Someone does something offensive and then, because we’re supposed to be good and good hearted, we let the offender off scot free.

How is that tiresome? Well, it’s tiresome in the way that predictable things – whether they are somewhat difficult or not – are tiresome. It’s tiresome in the same way that church can be wearying if it comes to feel like it’s just about the same moralizing message delivered over and over. It’s tiresome like it’s tiresome to be the responsible child, the good kid. It’s tiresome because in truth, we can do the forgiving if we have to, but being on the receiving end of forgiveness – that’s even harder. That is, we’d rather get away with something, than be exposed and then expected to participate in the “I’m sorry” ritual. It’s more energizing, after all, to be sneaky or clever, and get away with it, than to be caught out.  

Forgive, forgive, forgive – just saying those words three times in a row is kind of tiring. And what about seventy-seven times? That’s just plain mind-numbing.

I know, I know – there are lots of stories about forgiveness that are moving, that are emotionally touching, that make us feel sympathetic, or proud of our own compassion and kindness, or guilty about the ways in which we’ve missed the mark. Forgiveness is a solid topic, a solid virtue, a thing we should definitely be doing if we are going to claim to be followers of Christ and children of God. But it just isn’t very invigorating. Rather, it mostly makes us weary.

And not only that: it might make us feel virtuous to be the forgivers, when it goes so much against the grain in this culture of an-eye-for-an-eye, but I wonder whether the kind of forgiveness we are actually willing to practice, is so often so small and so controlled and so careful, that it really isn’t all that remarkable at all (and therefore, is actually quite boring).

Most of the time forgiveness is either small – too small, or else it’s big – too big. I think of my own experiences with forgiveness, and most of those experiences have been small – too small. Most of those stories are not very interesting, because truthfully, I haven’t had that many experiences in life where I really had to dig deep to find the willingness, the fortitude, to forgive. Sure, some things seemed big at the time, but looking back, it wasn’t the nature of the offense that was so massive as it was the degree of my own offendedness – sometimes out of proportion; often self-absorbed.

And, I’ve been pretty careful to try to not to get myself in situations where I really needed to be forgiven on a grand scale. Oh, sure, I’ve offended people and I’ve been thoughtless plenty of times, but I have tried to avoid doing the really awful things that some people do. I won’t make a list, but you get the idea. I’ve had those situations where I needed to say (and I have said) “I’m sorry,” but no one has ever made me beg for a second chance.

So, I’ve been on both sides: People have hurt my feelings, have said and done things I found offensive, and I’ve done the same. But I’ve managed to slip through life without really being damaged by someone else’s brutality or betrayal. I know: I’m fortunate or maybe privileged in that sense. But forgiveness – the real heavy-weight kind, the kind that doesn’t seem like a mostly mundane moral duty – floats beyond my awareness and my experience.

The scripture story for this morning, I am afraid to say, doesn’t help me much in this regard. The parable part is on a grander scale than just “you hurt my feelings,” but at the same time it seems a bit of a cardboard cutout story of forgiveness, and it certainly has a moralizing quality, especially as it gets to the end where the person who was forgiven a very large debt and then didn’t forgive the much smaller debt, gets thrown into the torture chamber. The message seems uninspiringly clear: You better forgive or you won’t be forgiven! You better forgive, or else!

And yet, for all that, I think there is a kind of forgiveness that doesn’t need to be either routine and rote, or ridiculously impossible. There is a kind of forgiveness that exists past dutifulness. And every once in a while, there’s a forgiveness that is supremely compelling, invigorating even – not just because it plucks at our heart strings, but because it exposes more than just our errors or offenses; it exposes what we are and what we could be if only we’d stop keeping score and stand still and see ourselves and others with the kind of clarity and mercifulness with which God sees us; if we could see a connection between how we have acted and who we are; if we could be open to and aware of an epiphany or a revelation about the magnitude and the wonder of real grace: “Of course,” we would say then, “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see!”

In the parable for this morning, the unforgiving servant hasn’t a clue that there is a connection between being forgiven and being forgiving. For him, forgiveness is just a way to get off the hook, not a window to his own soul. But that’s just where it gets interesting, isn’t it? When forgiveness is a window to our own souls; not a moral duty, not a formula, not a responsibility, not a thing that wears us out because it is so tiresome, but a window...

In the most recent issue of The Christian Century, in the column “Faith Matters,” Samuel Wells, a vicar of a Church of the England congregation in London, tells the story of a boy he knew twenty-three years ago when he was serving in his first parish.

The boy came to Wells’ church as an 11-year-old, on the recommendation of a teacher who was aware of the child’s difficult home situation. No parent came to church with him, and the boy’s behavior was often inappropriate and aggravating to the those around him, but it came to a head when he came along on a church retreat. He was rude, grabbing food, bullying the younger children, and the adults were ready to send him home, until cooler heads prevailed.

Nine months later, he was baptized at a special evening service at the church. Wells tells the story this way: “(This boy’s) father was not there. His mother and brother, living across town, were not there either. But about 40 people were, and each member of the congregation was invited to describe what they valued most about being members of that church. One said friendship, another said acceptance, a third said trust. When the boy was asked the same question, his narrow, fixed frown broke, for once, into a smile, and he replied, “You didn’t throw me out after that weekend.”

Wells continues, “That moment was so precious to me that I wrote about it in a book I published ten years later. It said everything about baptism: new community, new story, new beginning, and abiding, patient, enduring, long-suffering love. Rather like a vacation photograph, my memory of that boy ossified around that moment, that night, that church.” (“Faith Matters”, p. 35, 9/13/17) 

Then, just recently, Wells reports that he got an email from the boy – now a man – saying “I’m the boy from that weekend.” The email led to a meeting, and at that meeting Wells encountered a man who had been through a hard, troubled young adult hood, but who had come out on the other side with perspective, grace and gratitude.

Once homeless, the young man now has a partner and is a father-figure to her two young boys. He plays in a band and has a day job working for a bank helping people who are in debt difficulty.

During the meeting, the young man pulled something out of an old backpack. It was his scrapbook, a relic of childhood, and in it, in the middle pages, was a letter from Samuel Wells’ wife. The letter said, “Sam and I are in Liverpool, and last night we saw half the Liverpool team in a restaurant, so we got their autographs for you because we know you support them.” – and then on the page opposite, six autographs from six players of the great Liverpool soccer team of the nineties.

Wells recognizes that it’s a testimony to how much a small gesture of kindness means. It’s this person’s way of saying thank you to Wells and his wife for being the opposite of neglectful in a period of time when this boy felt too often neglected. 

Wells writes, “Here was this gentleman, whose life had emerged from chaos, and who showed me it’s possible to live without bitterness, He didn’t have a bad word for anyone. “I guess life was too much for my dad. Yes, my mum can be difficult, but I try to call her every couple of days. My brother – I think they had to separate us as children, but we’re the best of mates now. I understood you had to move away and you live in another world now, but we had some good times back then, didn’t we?” says the young man.

Wells reports: “He’s coming to stay in a few months, with his girlfriend and the band. I’m excited. (But) I don’t know how to say to him, “I gave you some autographs. But you – you showed me forgiveness and resurrection; in short, the gospel. How can I ever thank you?”

I read to the end of the essay and I was caught short by the last two sentences: But you – you showed me forgiveness and resurrection; in short, the gospel. How can I ever thank you? “What?” I thought, “How does forgiveness figure in?” But after a few moments it occurred to me that maybe Samuel Wells was talking about how his young friend forgave his father, his mother, and even Wells who was there in his life for a while and then moved on. But before I got that clear in my mind, in the space between my “what?” and my “oh, yeah” thought, my first thought was this

That this young man taught Samuel Wells about forgiveness in this way: He forgave Wells for making him into a single, momentary story about how well the church works. He forgave him for not understanding that it wasn’t the baptism that made all the difference, but the letter with the autographs. He forgave Wells for seeing him only through his own narrative and then forgetting him when he dropped out of the story of Well’s own life. He forgave him for putting him on the convenient and often neglected shelf of memory and assumptions, for letting him become a cardboard cut-out, instead of a flesh and blood person, an on-going revelation of struggle and triumph, neglect and healing, patience and grace. The young man forgave Wells for all those things.

And what’s invigorating about all of that – invigorating instead of tiresome –  is that sometimes we don’t even know that we needed to be forgiven, until there it is – a gift of grace gently placed in our hands, with such kindness and tenderness that it brings tears to our eyes; a sudden moment of gracious explanation that it wasn’t the book about baptism but the letter with the autographs that counted as holy, and that we are now forgiven for missing that, for being unaware or closed off to that truth.

That moment is the revelation. And then we suddenly know that forgive, forgive, forgive, isn’t a chain of obligation that we drag behind us, but it’s a rhythm, it’s a mantra, it’s the breathing in and the breathing out that we do because it’s what makes us alive. It’s a surprise. It’s a blessing. It’s a humanizing moment that gently taps us on the shoulder and turns us in a new direction, away from our tendency to put others on a shelf or to make them into cardboard cut outs.

When Jesus says to Peter, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven,” he isn’t saying “Here’s your obligation; do your duty.” No, he’s saying, “It’s going to take a lot of grace before you become fully human. Grace upon grace upon grace.” And I don’t think he says it with the shake of a finger; I think he says it with a smile.

Why then the parable of the Unforgiving Servant, with its sharp black lines and hard-nosed outcome?  Because there’s that side of it too. Sometimes lessons about grace can be handed to us tenderly. But sometimes they come with two hands grabbing us by the shoulders: Wake up! Forgiveness won’t come to you if it won’t come from you!

Either way, that revelation of forgiveness isn’t tiresome after all. It may come in a way that wakes us up from a deep sleep. It may come as a tender surprise. But the thing about real grace, real forgiveness that makes us come alive with gratitude and relief, is that it always comes undeserved. And even when it shouldn’t be a surprise, it always is. Forgiveness is a gift, a real gift. And it makes us alive, really alive.

Amen.

Benediction:

Forgive, forgive, forgive, forgive, forgive, forgive, forgive…

until, in the spaces between the repetition, comes a surprise –

a grace bigger than you expected,

a revival of your spirit,

a relationship truly restored.

In such grace may your life be renewed through Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

September 17, 2017