A sermon preached [remotely] by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
on 13 September 2020 [Proper 19]; Exodus  14:19-31; Matthew 18:21-35The Work of Forgiveness
I have a strong belief that at the heart of all reality, relationship is the essential, unavoidable element that fosters life.  This is the scientific story.  It is also the biblical and theological story.  If relationship is the basic “stuff” of what is real (from the sub-atomic to the cosmic to the Divine), then what is required as a response to relationship is commitment.  All else is detail (albeit, some important detail).  So, from this point of view the telling question is this: How are we doing with our promises, our commitments?  In other words, what is the state of our relationship?

The answer we provide not only gets to the heart of who and what we are; our answer also transcends everything that our culture and society focuses on and divides over.  For instance, there is a good deal of rumbling among us about marriage, about sexuality, about gender, about racial justice — all of which is as dizzying as it is contentious.  Yet, if we measure ourselves by our commitments to our relationships, categories such as sexuality, gender, marriage, and race pale in comparison; and from an evaluation of our commitments, we can hold one another accountable as human beings, not to mention as Children of God.  Accounting for our commitments, evaluating how we fair in terms of our promises, provides a “no-frills” measurement of who we are and where we stand.

In these past two Sundays, our gospel reading has come from the eighteenth chapter of Matthew.  Matthew 18 conveys Jesus’ teaching about how his followers need to treat our relationships, especially with one another.  Specifically, Jesus reminds us in so many words that our relationships need to be surrounded by a commitment that reflects the fidelity that God-in-Christ gives us.  (“God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten son, to the end that all that believe in him might not perish, but have everlasting life.”) [1]

So it was in last week’s sermon, I spoke about the necessity of keeping God between us in our connections and how in the first part of Matthew 18 Jesus provides the very concrete steps by which this Godly connection can be maintained in the most trying of situations.  In today’s lesson from the rest of Chapter 18, we are given more exposure to what it takes to keep the God that is between us.  The issue at hand today is forgiveness; and when Peter asks the Lord about the possible limits of forgiveness with his famous question: “Lord, how often should I forgive?” [2], Jesus’ answer sets us off at a gallop.

Clearly, Peter has heard Jesus’ teachings about relationship, the commitment relationship requires, and what the Lord’s faithful followers must do, when our commitments waver and our relationships faulter.  Jesus’ answer is to forgive because our relationships not only bring us one another; they also bring us the God who desires to be between us.  In his world-weary way, Peter then asks a logical question: “How many times must I forgive someone before the reality of limits comes into play?  As many as seven times?  After all, the world’s wisdom says, ‘Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me!”’

From this standpoint, Peter is being quite generous (or would a law and order fan claim him foolish?).  In the face of a repeat offender, is forgiving seven times good enough?  But you already know how Jesus responds to Peter.

Whether your gospel translation of today’s gospel expresses Jesus’ answer as “seventy-seven  times” (as ours did) or “seventy times seven”, if we fix our gaze on the arithmetic, we’ve missed Jesus’ challenging point all together.  Implicitly, Jesus is advising not to count but simply to forgive.  Yet, for the sake of argument, don’t you think that by the time one forgave seventy times that some inner bell might go off  to call our attention to having missed something?  This is the reason that I take Peter’s situation seriously.  So often in the gospel story, Peter embodies all of us, as we try to understand and honor following Jesus.

So, in the rest of this sermon I want to offer two things.  One is a working definition of forgiveness; the other is to get at a hard-headed but soft-hearted expression of forgiveness’s workings so that we modern disciples might receive the forgiveness we all need and also offer to others that same gift.

The most helpful definition of forgiveness I have come across is this: Forgiveness is remembering without resentment.  Among other things, forgiveness is not about forgetting!  (Why would we forget what requires forgiveness?  Why would we make ourselves so unnecessarily vulnerable?)  No, we need to remember.  How else will we learn and grow?  But our remembering needs to contain no resentment, which is to say that in relinquishing resentment, we have refused to be imprisoned by the hurt we have experienced, no matter what.  Ultimately, not forgiving places us in the prison of bitterness, the deep tragedy being that we are the ones who hold the key to our confinement.

My own personal experience of “remembering without resentment” is that mostly I have needed time to heal, to release myself from the demands of “fairness”.  You see, there are occasions in which we have a right to demand our day in court, to plead our case, and to receive “justice”; but in other occasions the hard truth is that there is no day in court for us.  It just doesn’t happen.  In the face of this blatant unfairness, we have a choice.  We can spend the rest of our lives, resentfully awaiting and demanding that court date; or we can let that futile demand go and move above that battle and get on with a stronger and more resilient life.  Forgiveness is freedom, at the very least for ourselves.

It is from this experience that I have a huge amount of sympathy for Peter and his question.  OK: everyone makes mistakes and deserves a second chance; or so we say.  But if you repeat the offense and that offense causes injury to the other, what then?  Again, the worlds’ wisdom is, “Fool me once, shame on me.  Fool me twice, shame on you.”  Or is it a matter of “three strikes you’re out”?  Or is it more enlightened and faithful to forgive seven times, or – you do the math?

As I said, I want to offer a hard-headed yet soft-hearted response to this issue of forgiveness.  We are held responsible for our actions; and to the extent that we refuse to recognize our own need of forgiveness (“for things done and left undone”), we will remain separated and outside the relationship.  The words we recite in the Lord’s Prayer make this same point: “Forgive us our sins (that is, what we have done to separate ourselves) as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Awareness is key to forgiveness.  So is compassion.  For we can’t give away what we do not have.  So it is that Jesus responds to Peter and to you and me with his purposeful exaggeration of forgiving another scores and scores of times.  This is the soft-hearted side of the forgiveness issue; but there is also another aspect to the reality of forgiveness, the hard-headed aspect of our being aware and not forgetting.  When we break relationship’s commitment, when we “sin”, trust is fractured; and broken trust is not something that is easily overlooked or facilely restored.

It is not a dynamic part of our Anglican spiritual heritage, but facing the need to forgive and also to rebuild trust is what I think the old-fashioned notion of “penance” is about.  The process of forgiveness entails the recognition of the injury that has been caused; and because of our commitment to that relationship, we have an obligation to make amends, to make some movement toward repairing the dashed trust.  The most common form of making amends is to say, “I’m sorry”, but what makes these words meaningful and salutary are actions that concretely and practically demonstrate the confession.  It seems to me that in its cleanest form, penance is a matter of demonstrating one’s intention to foster the newness of our lives and to re-establish a viable trust that allows for relationship and commitment to continue.

Of course, “penance” can become a cartoon of itself, especially when it entails the rote saying a few special prayers and off we go.  Yet, what I am suggesting is that penance is meant to be the ongoing demonstration that I, the offender, truly intend new life between us and that I will seek to earn your renewed trust by demonstrating the fruits of forgiveness within me.  This is the point where compassion meets repairing action.

One of my mentors once addressed the issue of forgiveness and what it takes concretely to live in its promise, when he recounted counseling a couple whose marriage was disintegrating over the adulty of one of the partners.  The seriousness of this breach of trust and commitment was self-evident, and nothing he seemed to do or offer reduced the acrimony that existed between the husband and wife.  Finally, he put it to the couple this way: .  “What would you rather have; adultery or cancer?”

No answer was needed.  They chose to begin to do the hard, painful work of rebuilding a trust between the two of them.  Penance, that is, concrete and heartfelt actions, were required to demonstrate this prospect of trust.  Such demonstrations, as most of us know, usually take time to take healing root and blossom.

So, my point is that as members of Christ’s Body we are always to seek forgiveness – for ourselves and for others, to “remember without resentment”.  Yet, to receive forgiveness and to offer forgiveness require more than words.  To use the powerful phrase from the Prayer of General Thanksgiving, forgiveness needs to be a matter of “not only with our lips but in our lives…”.

If forgiveness were as easy as it is needed, we’d all being doing it.  Perhaps this is the reason that forgiveness is a constant matter of practice, practice, practice.  In this vein, maybe Jesus’ arithmetic about forgiving seventy-seven times (not to mention 490 times) does, in the end, come into helpful play.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] John 3:16, as expressed in the “Comfortable Words”, Book of Common Prayer, Rite 1 Eucharist, page 332.

[2] Matthew 18:21.