This is my sermon from July 9, 2023, the Sixth Sunday after the Pentecost in Year A. We are using Wilda Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church. The readings were 1 Samuel 2:18-21, 26; Psalm 111; 1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8; and Matthew 18:23-35
Last week, when the Gospel reading was Matthew’s feeding of the four thousand (15:29-39), Rev. Jane talked about Jesus feeding the peoples’ physical hunger, need to know God, and their need for each other, for community – a need they may or may not have known they had. She also said that Jesus listened to the people. And she went on to say it is a story about hospitality. I would go so far as to call it an act of radical hospitality. Rev. Jane also mentioned that she had read about existence as being the need for conversation with each other and as a response to God.
So…between that story about the feeding of the four thousand and today’s story, a lot has happened in Matthew’s Gospel. There’s been the Transfiguration, a healing, a few parables, and Jesus’ foretelling of his death and resurrection. Jesus has talked about how to avoid the temptation of sin and how to deal with conflict in the community. To say the least, Jesus and the disciples have been very busy.
And now, three chapters later, we have today’s Gospel, in which Jesus talks about forgiveness, which seems something of an organic part of the arc of the narrative about our need to know God and be a part of a community. Jesus talks about what I would think could be called, “radical forgiveness.”
I think we probably already know that forgiveness is not easy. Whether we’re the one in need of forgiveness or the one being asked to forgive, it can be a real challenge. There’s so much of who we are – or think we are – and how we see the world and our place in it that comes into play when we need to ask for or extend forgiveness. And, for some reason, we tend to think it’s a one-and-done kind of thing, perhaps especially when where the ones being asked to extend forgiveness to another.
It’s reasonable, isn’t it, to step up onto that high road once, but more than that?… Come on! And yet, to hear Jesus talk about it, we should just move on to that high road and take up residence there. Why bother to move from it at all if we’re going to have to extend forgiveness over and over again? It makes me want to say, “Really, Jesus? Not just seven times seven, but seventy times seven times? Who do you think we are?”
And I can imagine Jesus saying, “I know exactly who you are. More than that, I know who you were created to be and how you can live into the promise of becoming your best self. Pay attention to what I have to say. Listen. Listen deeply with your whole self. Listen as I have listened to you. And remember, forgiving more than seventy times seven is what God has done, does, and will always do for you.”
The late – and dare I say, great – Archbishop Desmond Tutu talked a lot about forgiveness. His understanding of forgiveness was shaped in part by growing up with a violently abusive alcoholic father and his work in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. He defined forgiveness as “the capacity to make a new start.” He said, “Forgiveness is the grace by which we enable the other person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew. In the act of forgiveness we are declaring our faith in the future of a relationship and in the capacity of the wrong doer to change.”
Archbishop Tutu was clear that forgiveness is not the same as forgetting. “Forgiveness does not relieve someone of responsibility for what they have done. Forgiveness does not erase accountability. It is not about turning a blind eye or even turning the other cheek. It is not about letting someone off the hook or saying it is okay to do something monstrous. Forgiveness is simply about understanding that every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed. Within every hopeless situation and every seemingly hopeless person lies the possibility of transformation.”
When we hold onto our anger and resentment, we make life, including forgiveness, harder than it needs to be. Our relationships with each other suffer above and beyond whatever offense has been experienced. Our relationships with God suffer because we fail to truly know what it means to love as we have been loved, so we can’t truly know what it means to be loved unconditionally. Another consequence of carrying our anger is that we fail to open space for healing, for ourselves and for others. Our hopes and dreams for a better world are dashed.
There is a saying rooted in Jewish theology, “may you be blessed to be a blessing” that summarizes this idea and the teaching about forgiveness in today’s Gospel. What God gives us we are asked to share with others. This is part of how our needs to know God and to have a life-giving community are met. God knows we are not perfect, nor will we ever be. And I believe that’s okay with God, even as I believe with my whole being that embodying our faith means that we do our best to do better each and every day. And that means recognizing the blessing God’s love for us and living it forward every day.