Last week’s Gospel, if you remember, focused on the question of what to do in a community when there is conflict between people. And just where that Gospel ended, we pick up today with a question from Peter. If someone else from the church does sin against me, he asks, how often should I forgive them? As many as seven times? And Jesus says no – seventy seven times, a lot of times. We should offer a lot of forgiveness.
I had a roommate years ago who told me once that his father and his father’s brother did not speak to each other for most of their lives. When they were both in their twenties, one day something happened, and from that day they never spoke again. They never called each other to say hi. They never exchanged Christmas Cards, or birthday greetings. They never went to their brother’s weddings or experienced their brother’s family, or got to be together as they grew old. I asked my roommate: What was the conflict about? He said: they don’t even remember.
Most of us, to one degree or another, have experienced something like this in our lives. Maybe not for as long as sixty years, but we have all had that experience of feeling bitterness or resentment or anger toward someone else. And it can just sit inside us. And eat away. And it’s often the case that the person about whom we have these feelings has no clue we feel this way, and they may not even think about us at all. But we sure think about them.
For a great reflection on forgiveness, I commend to you The Book of Forgiving, which was written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho. As many of you know, Bishop Tutu comes from South Africa, where he served as the Anglican Archbishop during the time of Apartheid. For years, members of Bishop Tutu’s flock were being tortured, beaten, imprisoned and killed by the white minority in their country, and Bishop Tutu was responsible for being their spiritual leader. And when Apartheid was coming to an end, they called upon him to help the country forgive and move on.
There are many profound parts of The Book of Forgiving, but I want to offer just one quote that I think is so powerful. It is this: “We choose to either walk the path of revenge and be bound to suffering, or take the path of forgiveness and be freed into healing.”
We make a choice when it comes to forgiving. We choose whether we are going to walk this path which binds us, as this quote says, to suffering, or this path, which leads us to peace. And when Jesus tells Peter today that when someone sins against you, you must forgive them again and again, it’s not because that person has kept sinning against you, but it’s because you have kept making the choice to not forgive. And that leads to suffering.
Part of our sinful nature as human beings wants to keep resentments alive, so they serve as a type of dark energy and fuel for spite. If you’ve watched the news at any point in the past ten years, you get the sense that there is a whole group of people who are defined not by their common goals or by their religion or by wanting to do good, but a whole group of people in our country who are defined by resentment. A whole group of people whose lives and politics are bound to being upset and bitter and looking for revenge for something, even if they don’t know what that is.
Human nature’s fearful desire holds on to things like this. And holding on to things traps us, like two brothers stuck in opposite corners of the room who cannot even take one step toward the other. And the sad truth is that today’s political climate has more people than ever in opposite corners of the room. And social media helps keep people there.
And so it’s a very real question that comes up for those who want to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ seriously – What path do I choose? Do I chose the path of Jesus and forgiveness, or is it just easier to hold onto what I have and stay in the corner. And how do we make that choice? Because it’s one thing to know what Jesus says, or what Archbishop Tutu says, or what psychologists say about the value and power of forgiving, but it’s a totally different thing to do it.
Well there are a couple things I want us to think about today. And the first is the question of what we are bound to? Among the many things that make up our lives, is there a part of us that is bound to resentment or anger or bitterness? Are these things part of what we carry as we venture forth in the world and work and move around out there.
Father Gregory Boyle is a Roman Catholic priest who has written several books about his ministry with gang members in Los Angeles, including the book Tattoos on the Heart. And in that book he tells the story of a young man who just got out of prison who he was helping to get back into the world. And as they worked together, the young man was able let go of many things from his past. But, like a lot of gang members, he had these tattoos he carried around with him. And they were part of his identity of resentment, anger and bitterness. And he was trying to let them go.
And there was one tattoo in particular which symbolized his past resentments which he carried everywhere he went. It was a huge tattoo across his forehead which said: [Blank] the world, but it didn’t say Blank it had a choice swear word spelled out right on his face in letters that were this high. One day the young man came and told the priest that he had been looking for work but that the job search was not going so well. And the priest was imagining him at McDonald’s: Do you want fries with that? And seeing mothers grab their kids and flee the store.
We may not have the visible a symbol of our bitterness, anger and resentment that we bring with us tattooed on our forehead. But it’s true that if we are bound to these things, we bring them with us for all the world to see.
So the question is: to what do we want to be bound? Because if we can be bound to suffering can’ we also be bound to hope, or bound to love. It might still be difficult to get a job, but if you had a big tattoo on your forehead that said: Love the world instead of [bleep] the world you would probably have totally different interactions with people, not that I’m suggesting that we do that. The lack of forgiveness in our lives marks us, and scars us even in small and subtle ways. And letting go frees us and gives us peace. That’s why a lot of Father Boyle’s work among gang members is removing tattoos because it helps them let go.
I wonder if we could also think about this: forgiveness is the business of the church. As members of the church community, we hear on a regular basis these words: Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness and by the power of the Holy Spirit, keep you in eternal life. We bring to God every single Sunday the parcel of sins we have committed and every single Sunday we confess those sins to God and every single Sunday they are pardoned. Except what really happens is they are forgiven. During the Lord’s prayer, every single Sunday we pray for God to forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
It is impossible to come to this service and not hear that you have been forgiven. It is impossible to come to this service and not know that the water of forgiveness has been splashed upon you. Even if you are sitting in the back pew. Even if you are half paying attention, you are forgiven. And you have the opportunity to be free. And yet if we want to, it’s so easy to go out after church and pick up those things up again.
I wonder if you have had this experience where you’re going to church and perhaps you and your loved one come to church with this thing between you, this cloud of tension and some forgiveness needs to happen. And you go to the service and settle in and all goes well and you’re feeling that peace of God which surpasses all understanding. And after you go out and you get back in the car. And I hate to admit it but I’ve had those times where I just want to pick up that thing again and talk about it because I haven’t forgiven. And my wife has said: really, we’re just getting out of church and you want to go back to that?
Part of being fed at church is not just the blessing of God or the gift of the Communion or the spirit of praise, but part of being fed at church is being forgiven of our sins. Here we can know without a doubt that Jesus forgives us, and his mercy washes our sins away and that through him we are free. If we take that to heart, it is much easier to forgive others.
I think that part of the reason we have a hard time forgiving people is because we cannot accept forgiveness ourselves. Sometimes I think it’s really hard to believe that God loves us no matter what and that whatever we’ve done in the past is done. And the debt that we owed, whatever it is, has been paid. There’s no reason to keep going back to that creditor trying to pay that debt, because it’s already been paid by Jesus. The king has paid our debt.
And when we extend the same forgiveness to others, we are not doing it for them, we are doing it for ourselves. Because we don’t want to suffer. Because we want to be free. Because we know that above all things and through all things that peace and love are better than bitterness and revenge.
And if you feel comfortable, right now, I invite you to call to your mind and to your heart one thing or person or situation, just one, where God is inviting you to forgive. One thing or person or situation from which you want to be free. And in a few minutes, we will confess it and hear the words of absolution which let us know in no uncertain terms that it’s done. We can walk out of here in peace.