Beth A. Faeth, September 17, 2017
Scripture Matthew 18:21–35
It was not one of my best moments. In fact, it definitely makes my list of potential life do-overs. And it’s all because of a church softball game. . . .
My family tells me I am too competitive. I really don’t see it. I just like to win. The irony, of course, is that I don’t have any skill that warrants my competitive nature . . . except for charades—I am a fierce competitor in charades. And while softball is something I have played since I was a little girl, I have never been exceptional. Mediocre at best. But I still like to win. Years ago, I organized a church softball team to play on the city’s newly formed church softball league. I thought it would be a great way to bond with the older youth and young adults I recruited to play. And it was! We certainly weren’t a championship team, but we could hold our own. I played the role of coach, third baseman and, at times, umpire. Not really a great combination. I had a young man on the team, part of a family with whom I had done a lot of pastoral work. The children in this family were special to me and the circumstances of their family dynamic fashioned a feeling of protectiveness . . . which, in the heat of a particularly close softball game, I obviously forgot. This young man was a good ball player, but he was not a fast runner. He kind of leisurely strolled to the base after hitting the ball, which caused him to be tagged out more often than not. There were probably some good reasons why he wasn’t terribly fast, but it also could appear as though he wasn’t trying very hard. (I now know that he was trying.) So, it is late in this particular game, and, while we are down by a couple of runs, I believed we still had a chance to win. The bases were loaded. There were two outs. And my dear young man was up to bat. I was standing in the dugout, hands gripping the fence in anxious anticipation, shouting encouraging words to my batter and silently praying that some magnum force would possess him and he would actually run to first base once he hits the ball, which from experience I am certain he will do. And he does. He makes great contact and it’s a ground ball between first and second that escapes both base players. I am excitedly shouting to him to run, run, run . . . but instead he strolls, strolls, strolls. And I have my hands on my head, and it’s like a bad slow-motion scene from a movie because I am sure my mouth is wide open and my feet are off the ground as the right fielder scoops up the ball and throws it to first base long before my precious batter gets there. Because he is also moving in slow motion. And in the moment of realized defeat—before I could pause even a second to think—I shouted in despair: “Why, oh why couldn’t you have, for once in your life, picked up your feet and run!?”
What followed is the most painful memory. He turned to look at his beloved pastor, someone he trusted and even adored, and she had just magnified his self-conscious embarrassment by a million. Epic fail on my part. He, filled with all kinds of hurt, and I, feeling horrible in just about every way, we hurriedly picked up our gear and left, heads hanging—his in humiliation, mine in shame.
The next day I went to his home, knocked on his door and asked him to come outside on the porch. I looked him in the eyes, and I think it may have been the first time in my life I ever said, “I am asking for your forgiveness.” I had said “I am sorry” a million times in my life. But this time was different. This was a humble but plaintive plea to be forgiven, to say the words, to acknowledge my faults and flaws. After my speech, he looked at me for a long time. He blinked. And then he shrugged and said, “Okay.” Grace offered through the subtle motion of the shoulders. And for the first time in 24 hours, I let out my breath. And we chatted, laughed and moved on into continued relationship.
I have never understood the adage “forgive and forget.” I don’t want to forget that infamous night on the ballfield when my desire to win overtook my compassion and love. I don’t want to forget the fallen look on that young man’s face when I spewed uncensored words of frustration and disappointment. I don’t want to forget the way I prayed over what to do and how to make amends. I don’t want to forget the way my stomach was in knots and my brow was furrowed when I walked up his front steps and tentatively knocked on his door. I don’t want to forget the look of surprise on his face when I said what I needed to say, authentically asked for his forgiveness and then was blessed by his simple response. I have recalled that experience again and again as I have pondered the need for forgiveness offered and accepted in my own life. It has shaped many a subsequent action and reaction. I don’t want to forget. I don’t what him to forget either. Forget what?
Jesus commands in our Gospel lesson this morning that we are to forgive an offender not just once or twice but seventy-seven times. In some scriptural versions the number is seventy times seven. Regardless of translation, Jesus’ command is clear. Forgive. A lot. But as is often the case, Jesus does not give us a how-to guide on forgiveness. Instead he tells a perplexing story about a man who had a debt so large he couldn’t pay it off in his lifetime. The ruler forgave his debt and sent him away—an unimaginable gift. One would think that, out of gratitude, the man would practice forgiveness in his own life. But, no. He encounters another man who owes him a sum of money. A significantly smaller sum than the first man owed the ruler. And the man who was forgiven insists that the second man pay him his debt and has him thrown into jail until he can do so. The story concludes with the ruler throwing the first man into jail, torturing him for not doing unto others what has been done unto him. Jesus then proclaims that God will do the same to us if we do not forgive others from our hearts. Ouch. Harsh. It seems that the only thing truly unforgivable is the inability to forgive.
The message implied in this scripture is that if we have wrongs against us and have not reconciled them, we will spend all of our days imprisoned and tortured. And there is the truth. Anger, bitterness and resentment from unforgiven hurts have power to hang on to us like chains, keeping us from experiencing the freedom that brings joy, light, life. Ultimately, achieved forgiveness is a letting go, a release from our own bondage and pain. But perhaps we don’t often see it that way. Maybe we believe that if we forgive, then we are giving something of ourselves away—our integrity, our righteousness, our control. Or maybe, our inability to forgive is really the ultimate power play. We put the offender behind emotional bars, keeping them locked away. But instead, the refusal to forgive only deepens our own torture, keeping us imprisoned just like in today’s parable. And that doesn’t only impact the one relationship, but the pain we hold onto permeates every facet and every relationship in our life. Anne Lamott, one of my favorite contemporary theologians, writes: “Not forgiving makes you toxic. And then you really have very little to offer your family or the world or your audience, because you’re faking it.”
Perhaps we decide not to practice forgiveness because we do buy into that old maxim that to forgive we must forget. Forget what? The incident? The pain caused? The rawness and vulnerability and hurt that ensued? “Forgive and forget” is not a biblical command. Research reveals that the phrase was common among 16th-century writers, especially William Shakespeare, who used a variation of the line in several of his plays: King Lear, King Richard II, The Winter’s Tale. Some scholars suggest it was a common saying during that era, but the original source is unknown. While I believe that forgiveness gives us the tools to get past the hurt and pain, I do not know how feasible it is to forget—or what that would even accomplish. Jan Richardson, who wrote the blessing Katherine Ferrand read so eloquently earlier in the service, writes a theological blog. In the reflection included with today’s gospel lesson, she writes:
The heart of forgiveness is not to be found in excusing harm or allowing it to go unchecked. It is to be found, rather, in choosing to say that although our wounds will change us, we will not allow them to forever define us. Forgiveness does not ask us to forget the wrong done to us but instead to resist the ways it seeks to get its poisonous hooks in us. Forgiveness asks us to acknowledge and reckon with the damage so that we will not live forever in its grip.
We are changed by the encounter that necessitates forgiveness. We are also changed by the ability to let go of the pain inflicted. We are changed when we are the one who has wronged another and received grace. Why would we want to forget that?
Last week Jeff introduced us to a theme that emerged from a time of thoughtful processing among clergy and staff. We were wondering out loud about who and what Plymouth Church is, where we have been together and what our vision is for the months and years to come. It is printed on the front cover of your bulletin: “160 years of daring spiritual community, transforming the world with love . . . now more than ever.” From the reaction to Jeff’s sermon last week, that theme seemed to resonate with many of you. What does daring spiritual community look like? Well, look around. It looks like us. It looks like all the milestones and hidden moments of this church’s past. It is the mountaintop of societal change and the valley of financial hardship. It’s the broken places and the times we felt deeply fractured. It’s every Sunday morning and each moment in between. It is every time a hand is grasped, a stomach is filled, a tear is wiped away, a melody is sung with exuberance. Daring spiritual community is taking bold risks to live the gospel out in the hurting world, and it’s huddling together to soothe the pain of broken hearts and bruised spirits. When staff gathered this week to continue the conversation, and I said I was preaching forgiveness, my esteemed colleague Paula said, “There is nothing more daring than forgiveness.” Of course. Nothing more daring than forgiveness. Forgiveness is deciding that the wound of the offender is no longer going to hold us back, keep us hostage. It is choosing to look forward with hope rather to remain stuck in the misery of the present. Forgiveness is central to daring spiritual community because we are passionate people with strong feelings. And sometimes we are like that young pastor on the sideline of the softball field who didn’t think before she spoke, who let the need to be right exceed the call to love, who was in for the win rather than the camaraderie of the game.
Forgiveness is on my mind a lot these days. Some years ago I was deeply wounded by a community of people I loved and trusted. The journey towards forgiveness has not come easily and is still in progress. I understand Jesus’ instruction about forgiveness as something that I must remember—and practice—every day. And some days I feel as though I have taken a step back. Some days my spirit seems to not have moved from its place of deep anger and profound sadness. The scar opens, the pain is fresh. But I also know that the only way I could ever move forward into new community, into new possibility, into owning and sharing my gifts, was to be very thoughtful about placing aside my pain and my sorrow. And still, some days it feels too close, the aching is too much. So I remember, I do not forget, and then the next day I work even harder to unclench my heart into something softer, something gentler and open. Something even more vulnerable. And in those moments of forgiveness, when I am the forgiver, I feel much like I did as I received grace on my ballplayer’s front steps. I can breathe without it getting stuck in my throat. My stomach doesn’t churn. My laughter comes authentically. I know peace. Currently I am hard at work striving to forgive someone with whom I once had a significant relationship. I imagine many of you might be in a similar situation. It is hard to recover from a breach of trust, from a fractured understanding of love. Yet I also know that which the gospel reminds us—there is sweet freedom in forgiveness. And ultimately, forgiveness is an everyday process, not a one-time occurrence. Seventy-seven times, 490 times, 6040 times . . . over and over and over again, we must make a commitment to forgive. My recent history has also guided me towards this particular understanding: that ultimately forgiveness is letting go of the need for answers, the search for truth, even of the accountability of another for which we so desperately seek. The practice of forgiveness replaces “the need to know,” because the search for answers never discovered only leads us further on a path of hardness and tight, hot rage. The choice to forgive gifts us instead with new understandings—about God, ourselves and the other, as well as realizing love in original and profound ways.
Jan Richardson writes as an accompaniment to the reading this morning:
Forgiveness might well be the hardest blessing we will ever offer—or receive. As with any difficult practice, it’s important to ask not only for the strength we will need for it, but also the grace: the grace that will, as we practice again and again, begin to shimmer through our wounds, drawing us toward the healing and freedom we could hardly have imagined at the outset.
It is this extension of ourselves that can erase the pain and ease the fury and allow grace to be the balm for the hurt that rubbed us raw. Forgetting isn’t the issue. Forgiveness is enough.