Forgive – Again?
Our annual clergy retreat is one of the ways in which our diocesan community ensures that clergy remain faithful and fresh on our Christian journeys, so that we can be good companions to you on yours. This past week, almost 130 priests and deacons from the Diocese of California gathered at the Bishop’s Ranch to listen to, learn from and pray with our central sacred texts—the four canonical gospels—in ancient and fresh ways. Alexander John Shaia, a psychologist and scripture scholar who led this year’s clergy retreat, offered us a way of experiencing the gospels not as conflicted historical records, but as a continuous and sequential path for spiritual transformation.
What if we imagined the Gospel of Matthew as the journey’s beginning; as an invitation to wake up and face the inevitability of change? What if we heard Mark as a trustworthy companion in times of trial and suffering? What if John became our invitation to receive joy, and Luke our pattern for growth in love and service? These were some of the questions that our retreat leader offered to us.
Approaching the gospels as a fourfold spiritual path would, among other things, change the way we hear our Sunday lessons. In a year when most of our liturgical readings come from the Gospel of Matthew, we might ask ourselves how the good news first preached to a messianic Jewish community birthed in the midst of a crisis—that is, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem—invites and illuminates our present-day experience of crisis.
In a global and historical sense, we are a people of privilege. But we are nevertheless a people who live in proximity to crises: an unstable tectonic terrain, a dry and thirsty land, memories of danger and loss precipitated by the attack of September 11, 2001, and for some of us, memories of loss and mass incarceration. Can we look upon the crises we have faced and will yet face—the personal as well as the communal and environmental—as a wake up call and an invitation to a deeper journey with Jesus Christ? I wonder what would happen if we approached all crisis that way, as an invitation to journey with the Christ?
When we look at the readings for this morning, we see several themes at work. In the Exodus account of the Israelites at the Red Sea, there is great triumph, celebration at how powerfully God saved the people. It is important to remember that the victors are the ones who write the history. On the one hand, it is good to feel the saving act of God, that the underdog slaves were the ones that were saved, while the Egyptians with all of their terrible army were found dead on the shore. On the other hand, we claim that our God is the God of the Egyptians too, and their families were left grieving. It is never black and white, never all good and all evil in this world. And we have to remember that Jesus is the one that taught us to pray for our enemies.
Our second reading takes a bit of explanation. What is all this about eating vegetables? The problem is that meat that was found in the market had been offered as a sacrifice in the temple – not the Jewish temple, and certainly not the Christian house of worship. No, the meat had been offered as a sacrifice to some other god, and after that, it was sold to make money for the running of the temple. So the question was, is it OK to eat meat that had been offered as sacrifice in the temple to a god that we don’t believe exists? It’s a fair question! Paul does a great job of saying, if it bothers you, then you should not eat it. If it does not mean anything to you, then it’s OK. What is not OK is to tell someone else what they must believe about this! Paul sounds like a good Episcopalian, don’t you think? This is how we generally do ethics in our church. With some exceptions, we want you to think about things for yourself, and to make decisions about whether it is OK or not – after talking them through with others. So we want you to be in community, to talk with each other about whether doing this or that is OK, to get information from experts, and so on. However, at the end of the day, we generally want you to make your own informed decision, and then – this is the other critical piece – we want you to not tell someone else how they must decide. You make your decision for yourself, not for someone else. This is what Paul is saying here, about food, and about which day of the week one should gather for worship, that’s in there too – which means that Sunday was not necessarily the day they thought one should gather for worship!
Then we get to the Gospel reading. I must forgive. You must forgive. We all must forgive far more, and far more often than we ever wanted to, and—frankly—ever could do, under our own steam. The gospel text we just heard ought to provoke a crisis of conscience for all of us who have ever failed to forgive… which is of course all of us. Who have you failed to forgive? It may not be time to forgive yet, that is another issue. But if forgiveness is the releasing of anger, nothing more, and nothing less, then it is critical that we examine what we get by holding on to that anger. Holding our anger at them does nothing to them, but it does hurt us.
Jesus teaches that we must forgive seventy times seven sins, which in the Hebrew numerological system is like saying that we must forgive every hurt we have knowingly suffered multiplied by every hurt we can ever imagine suffering. When Peter asked if he should forgive as many as seven times, he was already stretching the limits. Jesus’ response was that there is no limit at all. All is forgiven, all should be forgiven. “Forgive us our sins, because we have forgiven those who have sinned against us.” This is a terrifying thing that we say, this thing that he taught us.
That’s the costly good news of this Sunday’s gospel. But perhaps even costlier is the news is that forgiveness is not the same as denial. That statement may seem self-evident, but let me unpack it a little bit. In order to really forgive, I need to own up to the fact that I have really been hurt. Which necessarily requires that I own up to the fact that I have really hurt others. This is truth of our human condition: we wound each other and God’s creation. If not by what we have done, then by what we have left undone.
Real forgiveness doesn’t allow us to sugarcoat the tragedy of relationships broken by failure, disappointment or betrayal. We might say that forgiveness itself is always predicated on acknowledged crisis. Which makes it hard work, regardless of whether we are the one who sins or the one who is sinned against. Asking for forgiveness requires radical self examination and humility, but so does the granting of forgiveness. To forgive means that that we forego the privilege of bitterness and hanging onto the judgment that belongs to God alone.
Being willing to forgive, or to honestly ask forgiveness, is a discipline of courage. Its costly enough to acknowledge the crisis that demands our forgiveness, and costlier still to give and receive this grace, and yet the journey of faith really only begins there. Because the fruit of forgiveness is not so much the resolution of a problem as it is a participation in the unlimited forgiveness of God, as taught and modeled by Jesus. Which, whenever and however we encounter it, makes a claim on or hearts and invites us to go deeper with him.
Fortunately, we do not have to make this journey alone or under our own strength. God has given us a community of people like ourselves who make baptismal vows to repent and return to our Lord when—not if—we fall into sin. Our sacred texts, which we share with each other and a whole communion of saints, map a trustworthy journey from crisis and loss to joy and communion.
We who gather this Sunday in Episcopal churches renew our commitment to this journey every time we step forward to receive the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. When you take that step today, I invite you to encounter anew that one who has mercy upon you, who forgives you all your sins—even seventy-fold seven times—and who strengthens you in all goodness.
(used by permission, by the Rev. Julie Wakelee-Lynch with the Rev. Stina Pope’s revisions)