Forgiveness

“Good luck, preacher friends, and know that your sermon can’t do everything tomorrow.” Wise words at any time.  Last night I found this comment on an American blog site, where a discussion of today’s gospel was, not unnaturally, full of deep personal feeling. The website is called “The Hardest Question”, and the discussion was generated by the reflections of Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber of Denver, who expressed what must be the feelings of many as they look back to the events of ten years ago. She wrote: “From where will we attain this forgiveness for those who have caused us harm? I’ll tell you one thing for sure. It ain’t in my heart. No sir. It’s kinda dark in there.” It is events such as what is now commonly referred to as “9/11”, that bring us slap bang up against just how difficult it is to follow Jesus’ example. It is at such times that we realise that forgiveness is not for wimps: as Gandhi said, it is “the attribute of the strong.” Such times and events can, however, mislead us into focusing only on the toweringly obvious and to ignore or brush aside the thousands of little moments that need the operation of forgiveness in our daily lives. Let us therefore consider this morning forgiveness both great and small.

God does huge forgiving. Jesus’ parables are full of the most outrageous examples – it has been estimated that the debt owed by the servant in today’s example would have taken 345 lifetimes to repay! God gave forgiveness freely and without demanding repentance – remember the Prodigal Son’s abject apology to his father? He does not need to utter it – his father is already running to meet him and bring him home before the boy has a chance to say anything. Jesus himself gave forgiveness to the most unlikely people, and forgiveness brought healing and new life to those who had long been crippled. His supreme example is, of course, his words from the cross, which should be a constant reminder to us that forgiveness is not the easy option.

As Christians we should, then, review how often and how truly we forgive. We may well find ourselves agreeing with Nadia Bolz-Weber that in our hearts it may be darker we thought.  It is often easier to gloss over, ignore and prevaricate about forgiving other people. We all know stories of the long-term feuds, we may even have them in our own family. Human beings are capable of the most extraordinary grudge- bearing. Jesus was born into a society and culture of ancient enmity and was aware of it, as we know from the way he responded to the Samaritans who came to him. It is natural to us to go on harbouring hurts and injuries – and beware! The small ones that accumulate that are just as damaging as the big obvious ones. Yet we seem so often to be incapable of moving on from events that have hurt us. We are unwilling to forget our pain and injuries. The saying “forgive and forget” is often criticised as implying disrespect to the injured and dead or complacency about the evil of which we are capable. It is worth taking a few moments, however, to consider the real effects of the wrong kind of remembrance. For remembrance has power – power to stunt growth of life or to encourage it into new and more healthy growth. We should take to heart the example of the Jewish memorial to the Holocaust – an event that surely needs supreme forgiveness. “Yad Vashem” means “a memorial and a name” – it is about remembering the people, not the event – the consequences, not the actions.  Yet we are also afraid of the consequences of forgiveness. We are afraid that our unconditional and repeated forgiveness may encourage evil people. It is the hardest thing on earth to follow that advice to keep on and on forgiving. Henry Ward Beecher wrote: “I can forgive, but I cannot forget, is only another way of saying, I will not forgive. Forgiveness ought to be like a cancelled note - torn in two, and burned up, so that it never can be shown against one.” Or if you prefer the Hollywood version: Marlene Dietrich advised: “Once a woman has forgiven her man, she must not reheat his sins for breakfast.” If the world learnt anything from remembering its wars, its outrages and its inhumanity, there wouldn’t be any! Much remembering happens, but how much forgiveness?

In our gospel, Jesus makes it quite clear that forgiveness starts with individuals and must grow from the very centre of their being: “forgive from your heart” (Matt. 18:35). It is hard, but if we don’t do it, we tie ourselves to the darkness we wish to escape. Another American writer, Caroline Myss (Mace), compares this with keeping those you cannot forgive in a prison inside you. Neither you nor they can be truly free until you are willing to let go of the hurt and forgive. She advises: “With your soul, dialogue with each prisoner, one at a time. Recall why and for how long you have been holding each person in your dungeon. You are seeking to discover your need for vengeance and personal justice and your obstacles to forgiveness. Do not disguise your vengeful motives in phrases such as, “I simply need to bring this matter to closure.” Closure is often just a soft word for “I simply need to fire the last bullet. I need to hurt that person—and that will close the book on this incident just fine.” Review the quality of energy, emotions, and thoughts that you have generated within your soul as a result of holding this person in your dungeon. What do you need from each one to allow you to release him?”

Release there must be, otherwise there can be no life, no growth, no peace and certainly no coming of God’s kingdom. Desmond Tutu, whose experience we all know and respect, says: “Without forgiveness, there's no future.” And if we are ever to succeed if building that one world of unity, love and peace that we all desire, perhaps we should also heed some more advice from the film industry! Lana Turner pointed out that “It's said in Hollywood that you should always forgive your enemies - because you never know when you'll have to work with them.” Hidden in this cynicism is actually the truth – we have to live and work with and love those who we also need to forgive – and we can’t do it without first forgiving them! Therefore we need to cultivate a holy forgetting – the ability to allow forgiveness so to absorb pain and injury that it can never again create evil. In this service we do what Jesus asked. He asked us to remember not the manner of his death, but his life, his body and blood and to share in it all our days. Therefore let us all take stock of our need to forgive.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Jews hold a service called “Gates of Forgiveness”. Each individual must first pass through the “gates of forgiveness” to enter into at-one-ment with God, as well as, with one’s neighbours. At this time they pray:

God before whom words must be true, we acknowledge our faults and failings. Help us now to strengthen the good impulse within us. Help us to care about wrongs from which we have been spared; to seek forgiveness for the wrongs we shall do; to forgive the wrongs that are done to us. Create in us a clean heart and place a willing spirit within us. Shed your light upon us, O God, that we may see the goodness in each of Your children. AMEN