Sermon: Spiritual Practices: Forgiveness

“Spiritual Practices: Forgiveness”

Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Cong. Church, UCC
October 22, 2017

Psalm 32 – adapted from the The Message

How happy you must be – you get a fresh start, your slate’s wiped clean.
How happy you must be – God holds nothing against you and you’re holding nothing back from God.
When I kept it all inside, my bones turned to powder; my words became daylong groans.
The pressure never let up; all the juices of my life dried up.
Then I let it all out; I said, “I’ll make a clean breast of my failures to God.” Suddenly the pressure was gone – my guilt dissolved, my sin disappeared.
These things add up. Every one of us needs to pray; when all hell breaks loose and the dam bursts we’ll be on high ground, untouched.
God’s my island hideaway, keeps danger far from the shore, throws garlands of hosannas around my neck.
Let me give you some good advice; I’m looking you in the eye and giving it to you straight:
“Don’t be ornery like a horse or mule that needs bit and bridle to stay on track.”
God-defiers are always in trouble; God-affirmers find themselves loved every time they turn around.
Celebrate God. Sing together – everyone! All you honest hearts, raise the roof!

Matthew 18: 21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

I’d like to start with a disclaimer. This sermon looked a lot different before the news broke about Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual assault and harassment. My heart has broken as I’ve watched family, friends, and parishioners post “me too” on their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, meaning “me, too – I’ve been assaulted, harassed, raped, objectified.” In a culture that excuses sexual violence the way ours does, forgiveness is a double-edged sword. It has helped many survivors claw their way out from under their suffering and ultimately heal from it, but it has also been used to shame victims into letting perpetrators off the hook. I want to say loudly and clearly that there is no one right way to be a survivor – if forgiveness leads to your healing, then I hope it is part of your journey, but if you can’t go there, I firmly believe that God will be with you and help you to heal in whatever way is best for you.

Whether we embrace it or not, we’re likely to think of forgiveness as something that we bestow on others for their benefit. But like so many of the spiritual practices we’ve been talking about during this sermon series, forgiveness actually most benefits us. It can free us from the power the wrongdoer holds over us in our woundedness and resentment, it can release us from the toxic energy of holding a grudge towards or hating someone, and it can allow us to access our own forgiven-ness – which we’ll get to in a minute.

First, though, let’s unpack the parable of the unforgiving servant. Parables, as we’ve talked about, come with a twist, and the twist in this one revolves around the amounts of money owed as debt. Words like “talents” and “denarii” don’t mean much to us in the modern world, so we may miss the scale of the numbers here – but Jesus’ listeners would have known exactly the terms he was using and how much value they had, which, it turns out, is the key to the story.

The first servant in the story owes the king 10,000 talents. A talent was a weight of gold, somewhere between 75 and 100 pounds. If we approximate the value of gold today, 1 talent would be worth, at the very least, $1.25 million. So 10,000 talents, the debt owed by the first servant, would be worth about $12.5 billion.

That’s a serious sum, yet these terms aren’t even supposed to represent a specific amount – they are placeholders meant to make us think big. 10,000, also known as a “myriad,” was the highest Greek numeral, and the talent was the largest unit of currency.  So 10,000 talents, the amount the first servant owed, was the largest amount of money that Jesus’ audience could have possibly imagined.  It’s intentionally hyperbolic – more money than three Roman provinces owed in annual taxes, more money than was even in circulation at the time.

So the first servant owes what we might refer to in technical terms as “a bajillion dollars.” (You may wonder how in the world this servant could have run up such a debt, but we’re not meant to take the plot factually – parables often use extremes to make a point.)

The second servant? He owes 100 denarii to the first servant, which equates to approximately $8,000 in today’s money. This is still nothing to sneeze at, but it’s only 1/600,000 the amount of the debt the first servant owed to the king. That first servant owed 600,000 times more than the loan he’d given his fellow servant, yet he strangles the second servant in an attempt to get him to pay, almost as if he could squeeze the money out of him.

I hope you are laughing by now, because the contrast here is meant to be ridiculous. Given the ratio of the two debts, the first servant seems hopelessly greedy, insincere, and lacking in perspective that it’s hard to take him seriously.

I want to put in a word for the first servant here, though. His debt was so unimaginably, preposterously huge, so completely impossible to pay, that it must not have seemed very real to him.  Have you been there before? You rack up so much debt through mortgages or student loans that the numbers on your statement start to seem unreal – when you think about it it just makes you sick to your stomach. You can’t imagine ever paying it off, so you go along with the monthly payment, hoping that in some distant future it will all magically disappear.  Or for a non-financial example, maybe you really ought to clean out the attic or your basement packed with stuff…but you feel overwhelmed at how much physical and emotional work it will take. Maybe you feel guilt and even a little shame about accumulating so much stuff in the first place, and so it’s just easier to ignore it.

If the bank were to suddenly forgive your debt, or one of those anti-hoarding TV shows came and cleaned out your stuff all in one day… you would feel a sense of relief, definitely! But you might not fully appreciate the magnitude of what has just been lifted off your shoulders because you had never really wrapped your mind around just how heavy the burden was. It stayed in the abstract, something you could never actually imagine taking care of, and so your feeling of obligation toward it stayed abstracted, too.  “Maybe when I’m dead…” “Maybe when we move…”

But then the day after this wonderful event, you remember that your cousin owes you a few thousand bucks, or that your kid promised to clean her pigsty of a room last week, and it seems like the most urgent thing in the world to collect on that obligation because it is concrete.

The hundreds of thousands you owed the bank always seemed like an unreal amount – almost like monopoly money – but that $2,000 your cousin owes you would replace the transmission on your car or buy you a top of the line 4K flatscreen TV.  Your kid’s failure to clean out her room seems like plain old stubbornness (although it might seem just as overwhelming to your child as the attic does to you).

Forgiveness works the same way. When we have done something that feels so irredeemably awful there’s no way we can ever make it right, it tends to get buried somewhere in our inner psychological landscape – it’s not even fixable, so why bother?  But then when our spouse or our sibling or our child or coworker makes a cutting remark or betrays our trust in some small, easily remedied way, we hold it against them and demand they make it up to us. We don’t even see the irony because we’re not thinking about this scalable trespass in relation to our own impossibly large mistake.

The king in this parable represents – you guessed it – God. In the religious imagination of Jesus’ audience, God was the all-seeing, all-knowing judge who tallied up your wrongdoings throughout the year and then called you to account on the Day of Atonement, when you were required to present a sacrifice in order to make up for your sins.  And as humans, Jesus’ contemporaries – like us – were screwing up all over the place. They – like we – told white lies, and spoke harshly to their kids, and broke promises, and had affairs, and used the first-century equivalent of plastic bags, and caused harm that unintentionally ruined someone else’s life.

If we tallied up all the times we’ve hurt others, betrayed our highest selves, ignored what God was calling us to do, abused creation, or participated in systems that oppress others, the list would be long. Unimaginably, incalculably, long. 10,000 talents long. As the first servant knew, it is much, much easier to pay lip service to our sins than it is to acknowledge how far off the mark we’ve gone.

Because “sin” is such a religiously tainted word, heavy with negative associations, let’s do a quick Greek lesson – “sin” in Greek is hamartia, a term borrowed from archery that literally means “to miss the mark.” I love using the literal translation of this word because instead of conjuring images of hellfire, it sounds simply – human.

“To miss the mark” is much less intimidating than “sin” – but no matter how much more comfortable that translation is, when we look with eyes wide open at the places where we’ve missed the mark by the widest margin, or when we make a list of how fast the small mistakes add up, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, guilty, ashamed, worthless.  No wonder the first servant would rather not grapple with the real worth of the king’s debt forgiveness – it would mean he’d have to face the damage cause by a bajillion dollars’ worth of mark-missing.

Cheryl Strayed, author of the book-turned-Reese Witherspoon movie “Wild,” tells the story of a yard sale she held years ago, where a neighborhood teenager stole a camera case that would have sold for $5, if that. When Cheryl asked the boy whether he’d taken it, he angrily denied it and stormed off. The next day, she writes, “he lurked near the table where I’d set my things to sell and, when he believed I wasn’t looking, he pulled the camera case from beneath his jacket and placed it where it had been sitting the day before.

‘Your thing is back,’ he said to me nonchalantly a while later, pointing to the camera case as if he’d played no part in its reappearance.

‘Good,’ I said. ‘Why did you steal it?’ I asked, but again he denied that he had.

It was a sunny fall day. A few of the [neighborhood] boys sat with me on the porch steps, telling me bits about their lives,” flexing biceps and showing off fake gold chains. The boy who’d stolen my camera case pulled up his sleeve and flexed his arm so he could show me his bicep. He insisted in a tone more belligerent than any of the others that the cluster of fake gold chains he wore around his neck were real.

‘Why’d you steal my camera case?’ I asked again after a while, but he again denied that he had, though he altered his story this time to explain that he’d only taken it temporarily because he was going to his house to get his money and then he’d opted not to purchase it after all.”

The thought of facing up to his wrongdoing is so overwhelming for Cheryl’s neighbor that he can’t even admit to it, regardless of the fact that Cheryl clearly isn’t going to call the cops on him. Like the first servant, he’d rather pretend it never happened.

What “missings of the mark,” what mistakes, are buried somewhere so deep inside that you won’t let yourself even acknowledge them, lest they become your undoing?  Or perhaps you are able to acknowledge them, but they have taken over your life, the sense of guilt and shame looming so large that it feels hard to breathe.

Cheryl Strayed formerly authored the Dear Sugar advice column, and now co-hosts the Dear Sugar podcast featuring “radically empathetic advice.” (I would highly recommend it if you are in the market for a new podcast, by the way. Or maybe not, because then you’ll hear all my sermon illustrations before I preach them!) She told the story of the camera case theft back when she was still writing the column, in response to a woman who wrote in about how she used to steal and lie compulsively and can’t find a way to forgive herself. She hasn’t crossed the line in years, but confesses that “I loathe myself for these acts. I don’t know how to wipe the slate clean.”

You may have noticed that at the end of the parable, the king hands over the unforgiving servant to be tortured, which was standard punishment for those who couldn’t pay their debts. If the king in this parable is meant to represent God, and we take this literally, it’s pretty horrifying. But that would be taking a figurative moment out of a parable and applying it literally to real life, and luckily for us, that’s not how parables are meant to be used.

It’s not that we’ll be handed over to be tortured; it’s that instead of being liberated through our own forgiven-ness by a God who is doing a new, unexpectedly gracious thing, we’ll be returned right back to a mercy-less system and the very real torture of living unforgiven, unforgiving lives. The woman who wrote in to Cheryl’s column ends her letter, “I am so sorry for what I’ve done and would give anything not to have done what I have. Please help, Sugar. I’m tortured.”

God’s extravagant forgiveness is the lever that lifts us up out of this morass of shame, guilt, and self-recrimination.  And it’s rooted in God’s compassion for us. The king, hearing the first servant beg for forgiveness, is “moved by compassion.” He embodies our definition from last week: connecting with another person’s suffering, letting your heart be touched by it, and responding in love.

I’ve been marinating on this for a while, and it seems to me that instead of God paying attention to our sins – looking at a ledger sheet, tallying those pluses and minuses in the way that Jesus’ contemporaries imagined and meting out judgment based on whether we come out ahead or behind – it seems to me that God is paying attention to our pain, not only to the pain we feel when we can’t escape our own sense of guilt, but to the wounds that caused us to miss the mark in the first place.

The woman who wrote in to Cheryl at Dear Sugar about her compulsive stealing and lying knows she is responsible for her actions, yet she also paints a fuller picture of the context in which they happened: as a child, her abusive mother constantly berated her and called her a liar and a thief, distorting her self-image so drastically that she engaged in dishonest behavior meant to provoke attention in the only way she knew how to receive it.

Cheryl offers this woman her compassion – because for similarly dysfunctional reasons, Cheryl stole as a teenager. And it is Cheryl’s understanding of the pain that caused she herself to steal that motivates her to extend that same compassion to the neighbor boy who stole her camera case.

“We talked some more about other things,” she writes, “and soon it was just the two of us. He told me about the father he rarely saw and his much older siblings; about what kind of hot car he was going to buy the instant he turned 16.

‘Why’d you steal my camera case?’ I asked once more, and this time he didn’t deny it.

Instead, he looked down at the ground and said very quietly but very clearly, ‘Because I was lonely.’”

That teenager’s honesty and vulnerability was such an “aha” moment for Cheryl that it nearly knocked her off her porch, and I hope it knocks you off your porch, too. We hurt, we neglect, we cut down, we take what’s not ours because we ourselves are in pain. Sometimes it’s raw, wounded, angry pain that lashes out. Sometimes the pain has been paved over in an attempt to protect ourselves, and so we hurt others from a place of callousness; our inability to connect to our own pain makes it harder for us to care about the pain we cause others. Either way, embracing God’s forgiveness helps us end that cycle, and helps us forgive others who have wronged us.

God knows all of our shortcomings and our mark-missing, sees all of it – sees even the far-reaching implications we’re not aware of, sees just how much damage has been done – but instead of demanding we pay off the bajillion dollar debt, God forgives us and sets us free from the shame and guilt that threaten to drown us. Like the king in the parable, God is “moved by compassion” – God connects to the pain that behind our actions and the suffering we feel afterwards, and removes our burden.

Friends, let me state it plainly: God forgives the smallest slights and the very worst thing you have ever said, done, or thought. God forgives those nasty, relationship-ending words I said to a friend who had hurt me. God forgives the too-high expectations you had on your child that bruised his sense of self worth.  God forgives when you didn’t know what to say to your friend whose mother died, so you just stopped talking to her. God forgives that time you betrayed your spouse and never told them about it. As uncomfortable as it is to acknowledge, God forgives even the kinds of things we don’t talk about in church, the kinds of things that feel beyond the pale and make headlines and that would put you away for a long, long time.

Not because God doesn’t care about the very real pain or even trauma we may have caused others, but because God knows there is no other way for us to begin to make restitution, to step out of that cycle of being hurt and hurting, to heal and share that healing with others.

You – we – are forgiven.  And when we are able to truly conceptualize that forgiven-ness, forgiveness in relation to others becomes not something we have to struggle with, but something that naturally follows out of our own liberation.

You know, we usually pronounce it “forgiveness,” but etymologically that’s not quite right. Think of other words that end in –ness, like “kindness” and “righteousness.”  They are nouns that name the quality someone has when they can be described as kind, or righteous – they have their roots in the adjective form of the word.

If you take the –ness off of forgiveness, though, you end up with forgive – a verb instead of an adjective. If we were to follow the rule of making an adjective into a noun using –ness, we’d have to start with forgiven. Which means it’s not forgiveness, the quality you possess when you forgive, but forgiven-ness – the quality you possess when you are forgiven.

That might seem backwards, but it’s exactly in line with the parable of the unforgiving servant. The point of this parable is that we can’t be merciful to others unless we can truly embrace the mercy shown to us. Put another way, being able to forgive others is directly tied to embracing the magnitude of our own forgiven-ness, embracing the One who, out of gobsmacking love for us, acknowledges our brokenness and forgives even our worst.

I believe that if we cannot embrace our own forgiven-ness, although we may be able to forgive wrongs against us on a case-by-case basis, we will forever be stuck seeing the world through a distorted perspective where the shackles we use to hold others hostage are the same shackles that chain us to our own wrongdoings.

At the beginning of our Gospel passage, Peter asks Jesus how often the disciples should forgive someone. The ancient rabbis counseled that three times was enough, because that was how often God had forgiven Israel’s enemies in the book of Amos before punishing them. So Peter thinks he is being quite magnanimous when he ventures that perhaps they should forgive seven times, more than twice the recommended amount. (Ah, Peter – so eager to be above average and get the teacher’s approval!)

Jesus answered Peter by saying, “Not seven times should you forgive, but seventy times seven,” that is, 490 times.  Similarly to the 10,000 talents in the parable, this number isn’t meant to be taken numerically, but rather as a placeholder for a really big number. Essentially, Jesus’ response is “You should forgive infinity times.”

I imagine that the disproportion of this response would have short-circuited the disciples’ fuses. Jesus essentially blows the top off the tit-for-tat worldview the disciples live in – one we live in, too – by insisting that God’s grace and forgiveness are far beyond the most generous we are willing to be.  That’s a paradigm shift we should practice wrapping our minds around, because in the words of theologian N. T. Wright, “If you lock up the piano because you don’t want to play to somebody else, how can God play to you?”

Experiencing the liberation of God’s forgiveness in our own lives – even when the person we’ve wronged hasn’t yet forgiven us – opens us to lives of graciousness, goodwill, and freedom towards others. There’s a reason why the subtitle of this morning’s Psalm is “The Joy of Forgiveness.”  It’s a joy I sincerely hope you claim for your own and then share with others, because not only does embracing forgiveness make our lives infinitely more free and whole, it allows us to participate in the healing of others.

“I don’t know what ever came of that lonely boy at my yard sale,” writes Cheryl Strayed. “I hope…whatever was wrong inside of him [has been made right]. That camera case he stole from me was still sitting on the table when I closed down my sale. ‘You want this?’ I asked, holding it out to him.

He took it from me and smiled.”