By The Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
Most of you are probably aware, as I am, that we are preparing for a transition. In fact, we’ve already begun it. Today and next week are my last Sundays as Associate Rector at Saints James and Andrew, after which I will join the good folks of St. Mary’s in the Mountains in Wilmington, Vermont, in figuring out how to best live into the Gospel in that context.
Change is hard. Whether an upcoming change is something we’ve chosen, or it’s something that was chosen by someone else, and even when there are elements of what is coming that we are excited about, it’s difficult. Change involves the loss of the familiar. It magnifies the uncertainty – which we’re always living with, but often manage not to think about – the uncertainty of not knowing what lies ahead, and what it will be like, and how we’ll manage it.
In these days of preparing for transition, of living with the challenges of change, it would have been lovely to hear a nice, uplifting set of readings. Well, as you may have noticed, we don’t always get what we’d like.
This morning’s readings are, in fact, rather off-putting. First we heard the familiar story of the crossing of the Red Sea, as the people of Israel fled from their enslavement in Egypt. It was a great day for the Israelites, but not so much for the Egyptians, who wound up, as the narrative tells us, “dead on the seashore”.
And then we heard Paul, in his letter to the Romans, lecturing about not showing judgement toward others.
And finally, one of Jesus’ hard parables speaking to the question of forgiveness, with a servant handed over to be tortured because he was unwilling to forgive a neighbor’s relatively minor debt. Not very uplifting.
But the scriptures always have something to say to us, so let’s dip in.
Both Paul’s letter and Jesus’ parable are follow-ups to the texts we heard last week and both remind us of some of the worst of our human inclinations when we live in relationship with other people. Given that times of transition, when we may be feeling somewhat frail in our uncertainties, may be times when we are particularly prone to responding out of our less-generous proclivities, perhaps it’s good to be advised as we are by this morning’s lessons.
As Heather helped us to understand last week, in his missive to the Church in Rome, Paul was addressing himself to Christ-believing Gentiles, those followers of Jesus who had come from traditions outside of Judaism but were practicing their new faith within the context of the Jewish synagogue in Rome. They did not feel as recognized or included as they would have wished, and Paul advised them of their responsibility to exercise patience and continually seek to love their neighbors, even as their neighbors were apparently not as hospitable as they could have been.
In today’s continuation of this exhortation, Paul turns his attention to the believers’ inclination to judge others. Some within their community were committed to and practicing elements of Jewish tradition that Paul had declared to be no-longer-required for gentile converts, and the latter group were apparently frustrated and impatient that everybody was not on board with the program.
Isn’t it just always the case that when we’re feeling vulnerable ourselves, the behavior of others can get on our nerves with particular intensity? So, as we live with the changes ahead, let’s take Paul’s advice to heart, and take deep breaths when we feel like passing judgement, and do our best to remember that judgement is God’s job, not ours.
In the gospel passage we heard last week, Jesus provided guidelines for, likewise, handling conflicts and wrongdoing within the community of believers. He urged that when one member of the community does wrong to another, it can’t be swept under the carpet; communication and reconciliation need to take place. He emphasized the importance of accountability, teaching that the offending member should be spoken with by as many as necessary, including holding public discussion of the wrongdoing if it becomes necessary, until such time as the offender can acknowledge and understand their fault.
In this morning’s gospel, Peter follows up on that teaching by asking about the obligation to forgive others’ wrongdoings. He must have felt magnanimous in suggesting that he should be willing to forgive seven times.
Jesus’ reply was, basically, that we need to forgive past the point at which we can count. In other words Peter (and we ourselves) ALWAYS have to forgive, and we will never have forgiven “enough”.
Jesus’ answer was followed with a distinctly disturbing parable.
It’s about a king who shows mercy to servant who has accumulated an absolutely massive debt. The debt was more than the fellow could EVER hope to repay. After his initial impulse to hold the servant accountable and have him sold, along with all of his possessions and his entire family, the king suddenly and without explanation reversed course and declared the entire debt forgiven.
The experience didn’t have the impact one would have expected on the person whose debt had been excused. Instead of paying forward the compassion he had been shown, the servant who had been forgiven, when he in turn ran across a fellow servant who owes HIM money, was adamant in demanding that he be repaid. The one who had been shown mercy, when his opportunity came, had no mercy at all, and arranged for his debtor to be thrown into prison.
When the king learned of the first slave’s hard-heartedness, having received reports from the first servant’s offended colleagues, the king turned him over to be tortured.
Jesus tells the story with a frequent and familiar introduction: “God’s Realm is like this”, and it’s not hard to understand the point. This parable-of-the-Kingdom reminds Peter – and us - how extraordinary it is that we, whose failings are numerous, are yet loved and accepted by God beyond our deserving or our comprehension.
The parable asks us - how, then, can we fail to extend compassion and generosity to one another?
It’s a beautiful principle, but we all know how hard forgiveness can be.
Now, some offenses are really not too hard to forgive, and letting them go doesn’t cost much and even allows us to feel good about ourselves.
Other wrongs can be so deeply disturbing and cause us so much pain that they feel utterly unforgiveable. Some of the wrongs we experience in life cause true, ongoing hurt every time we think about them and seem like they’ll never go away. Probably the place where forgiveness is hardest is where the other person won’t acknowledge or take responsibility for their wrongdoing, let alone apologize.
Here's the thing, though, and I’ll bet we all know it: holding on to unforgiven hurts ultimately does more damage to the one who cannot forgive than it does to the wrongdoer. Nurturing resentment, hurt, and anger can become its own prison, leading us into bitterness and self-pity that separate us from others. Forgiveness, when we can offer it, frees us.
Martin Luther King had it right: “Forgiveness is not an occasional act,” he said; “it is a constant attitude.”
Jesus calls on us to live out of a spirit of generosity, just as God shows immeasurable generosity to us – not keeping a record of wrongs done to us and a tally what we are owed in compensation - but a spirit of compassion for the many ways in which we all stumble and fail, a spirit of readiness to extend new chances to others, to let them try again get it right, even if they don’t see the need to do so.
Having said all of this, I also believe that accountability is critically important, and that “get out of jail free” cards are not always called for, and not always what is best for us.
As an example, we live in a time, in this nation, when we need and are trying to come to terms with the deep and persistent wrongs – those of the past and those that continue - done by white America to our neighbors of color. Because of this depth and persistence of this wrongdoing, I see it as dangerous to hold up limitless forgiveness as an ideal.
I don’t have easy answers, but I do feel that there are some principles that are consistent with the Gospel that we need to hold in tension with the mandate to forgive.
Again, I don’t claim easy answers, but I think there are some principles we might apply when looking at the question of forgiving wrongdoings:
The changes ahead are going to require generosity, as well as patience, as we all find our ways. So let’s head into the transitions that lie ahead of us striving to live into and extend to others the inexhaustible generosity that has been extended to us.
Let’s proceed with patience and thoughtfulness, recognizing that when things are messy and times are hard, it’s easy not to be our best selves.
Let’s be gentle with ourselves and extend compassion to one another in ways that help us all to take responsibility for our acts and to live, more and more, into God’s dream for us.
And let us do it with thanks for God’s grace.
* Readings: https://www.lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Pentecost/AProp19_RCL.html
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