After a deliciously restful night, I drifted down to St. Chrysostom’s to get ready for the big Homecoming service (the day after Rome observes the Feast of St. John Chrysostom). Fr. David Hefling had his deacon, his seminarian, the full choir (of about six souls, I think) and a crucifer and thurifer for us, so we made a majestic procession. I had realized yesterday that I haven’t preached at a regular Sunday service in ages — more than a year, I think. And there was no 8 o’clock service to warm up with.
No matter; everything worked out fine. (I’ll add the sermon itself in the extended portion of the post.) I felt my pacing was rusty, and the lip of the pulpit desk was slight enough that I had to catch slipping pages a couple of times, but I don’t recall losing my place at all. And after the service, as I stood in the narthex nodding and shaking hands, who greeted me but Dylan! I knew she might attend, but I didn’t recognize her because I was looking for the 2001 version, not the new and improved 2008 version. I’m actually relieved I didn’t know she was there, because I wasn’t focusing on her (the one known attender in the midst of an unknown congregation). The windows at St. Chrysostom’s are lovely depictions, devoting special attention to early theologians. I’ll Flickr-post some of the pictures I took as soon as I get home and upload them; unfortunately, Chrysostom himself suffered from lens shake that I couldn’t overcome. All in all, though, the service was lovely and the opportunity to visit with David and Michael, and to meet Dylan, all made for a fine trip.
Rom 14:1-12/Matt 18:21-35
Homecoming Sunday, September 14, 2008
Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? Seven times?”
In the name of God Almighty, the Holy Trinity on high — Amen.
Some of you may have noticed what appears to be an act of theological deflation in today’s gospel lesson. Some of you — not even necessarily churchy kinds of people, but plain folks who happen to have an ear for snappy phrases — you may remember that in Jesus’ answer to St Peter, he used to say, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.” That’s the way we learned it back when I was in seminary: forgive 490 times per offender. Nowadays, through a complicated process that involves puzzling out an ungrammatical phrase in the Greek, our translators believe the best translation would be “seventy-seven times.” For those of you who didn’t bring a calculator, that means 413 fewer occasions for forgiving those annoying people who keep doing you wrong. If you can just hold out long enough, you might be able to wait till that 78th time, and then — Blammo!
That’s the sort of forgiveness that many people, even many church people, could support — in the language of the presidential campaign, maybe that’s forgiveness we can believe in. After all, people frequently insist to me that some sins are unforgivable, or that the demands of justice require us to hold oppressors accountable for their abuse of power. Alice asks me, “How brutal does a sin have to be before I may withhold forgiveness?” and Roberto asks me, “How long do I have to endure injustice before I may strike back?” And to both Alice and Roberto, and to you and to me, Jesus speaks the uncomfortable words, “If you’re counting down to the 78th offense, if you’re calculating how bad the situation has to get before you can stop forgiving, then you aren’t exactly forgiving in the first place. You’re back to zero.”
Limitations and account-keeping contradict the very nature of forgiveness; forgiveness, God’s holy gift of release from bondage to sin, involves letting go of evil’s power to hold us captive. When we keep a ledger of who has wronged us, or how badly we’ve been injured, or how many times we have forgiven, we imprison ourselves in the rows and columns of our judicial accounting. It doesn’t matter whether we translate Jesus’ words as “seventy-seven” or “seventy times seven”: if we’re tallying up injuries, we haven’t begun to forgive.
Forgiveness busts through the paper of our ledger book and pumps up the volume of love’s melody in our lives. Forgiveness smears a honeyed hand across the carefully-inked columns of tally-marks, and distracts our reckoning with sweetness and laughter. Forgiveness raises us up out of the narrow confines in which self-righteousness and sanctimony enfold us, and forgiveness stitches us into a marvelous, patchwork quilt of divine grace. Jesus told Peter “seventy-seven times, ” but he could just as aptly have said “once” — because if we forgive our sister once, truly and honestly forgive her, we have let go of the three-four-five-six-seven of keeping track. Any next injury will occur to us as something different, something new.
The prospect of limitless forgiveness scares some people; perhaps it scares you, or even offends you. For that I am sorry, not just because as a dutiful guest, I hate giving offense, but all the more because the love with which God loves each of us will have its gracious way whether or not any of us takes offense. As Paul says, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” And this is good news, sisters and brothers, great good news, for God brings us into judgment not because God is itching to tear us a new one, not to roast us slowly over a reeking pit of blazing brimstone, but God brings us into judgment to bring the truth to light. And that’s good, that ought to be good, for all of us — even if it’s a little scary, even somebody takes offense.
God’s judgment brings truth to light, and then as Jesus constantly reminds us, judgment issues in forgiveness. The truth of judgment, the truth about ourselves, and the disquieting truth about our enemies, is that God always offers to forgive. God forgives us much more radically, much more thoroughly, than our mortal spirit is willing to forgive anybody; the weakness of mortal flesh kicks in, and we yearn to make sure that those who have done us wrong get their just deserts. No matter how many times Paul reminds us that the Lord says, “Vengeance is mine, I shall repay,” no matter how many times Paul suggests that it’s better for us to suffer wrong than for us to strike back at them, no matter how many times Paul preaches to us that the way of the cross is a way of weakness and foolishness, and not the Hollywood way where the bad guys are wiped out, where the plucky good guys pull through by grit and ingenuity, and where hundreds of neutral extras die as collateral damage — we hesitate when consider that this may at last be the 78th offense, and we can finally kick someone’s posterior, but hard.
But the prospect of being judged, and the impulse to punish, ought to remind us even more to forgive; for we can hardly receive forgiveness if we resolutely hang on to other people’s trespasses. If we badger God to smite our annoying neighbor, if we invoke God to win a fight with the wrong kinds of Episcopalians, if we tow God around like a gangster’s protection thug, we refuse God’s offer to do even greater things for us and through us; we refuse the gift that God offers us, the gift of learning to let go of sins. But that letting-go is exactly what forgiveness requires of us: that we relinquish our determination to visit our own distinctive flavor of vengeance on our enemies, and that instead we offer our enemies the grace for which we ourselves aspire. Or as Jesus might say, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
I can’t speak for you, but I tend to worry that if I practice forgiveness, somehow the malefactors of the world will triumph, and it’ll be my fault. That worry drowns out the voices of Jesus and Paul, and of the psalmist who writes, “Fret not thyself because of evildoers.” The psalm doesn’t promise us that God will empower us to beat down the workers of iniquity — instead it assures us that they’re in God’s hands, and if we trust God, if we honestly believe God to be righteous and true, then we don’t need to worry. We can let go of feeling as though we need to do God’s work of judgment and punishment for God — and we can begin to exercise the Spirit’s power for forgiving.
Forgiving is a funny thing; you’d think it might be easy to forgive at least the small things, to shake off the little annoyances that pop up every day no matter what, that we know in advance will happen and we know in advance that we can’t control and that we know in advance are going to bother us. But even those minuscule irritations stick to us like Saran Wrap. It takes deep peace in your soul to develop a heart for forgiving, and peace like that doesn’t come easy.
But sisters and brothers, let me promise you that — clumsy and imperfect as our first efforts might be, they are beautiful in God’s sight. Not just in God’s sight, either; the beauty of forgiveness shines out to the people around you. Forgiveness opens your soul, and people around you will notice. Our own St John Chrysostom teaches, “Nothing makes us so like God, as being ready to forgive the wicked and wrong-doers.” As radiant forgiveness speaks in our words, smiles in your lips, rejoices in your delight, the people you see around you grow more beautiful themselves. Our practice of forgiveness lends beauty to the world. Our honesty about our own need of forgiveness, our recognition that our allies and our opponents and strangers and lovers all need forgiveness, all heighten our appreciation for one another. Forgiveness teaches us love, and forgiving love — true love, true forgiveness — true, forgiving love makes the irreplaceable first step toward both justice and purity. You can tell, sisters and brothers, because anyone can hear the tinny shrill note of self-righteousness in the zeal of the unforgiving reformer. Anyone can hear the unsympathetic sneer in the condemnations of the sanctimonious crusader. But if we will take that first forgiving step — let go of our need to justify ourselves and punish our enemy — then we catch a glimmer of how God sees us: as different cells in the massively complex, variegated, differentiated glorious Body of Christ.
Now, here’s the good part, the best part, about forgiveness.
As we learn bit by bit to stop tallying up offenses — seventy-five, seventy-six, seventy-seven — and instead to forgive others, we let down barriers that keep the Spirit at arm’s length from us. As we welcome the Spirit of forgiveness into our lives, we make room for the Spirit to do even greater things among us. And if that’s true in one brother’s soul, in a single sister’s heart, how much more marvelously will the Spirit work if as a congregation St Chrysostom’s puts ourselves in the pathway of the Spirit and invites the Holy Spirit do some work on us. With a spirit of forgiveness in our deliberations, we work together more patiently and constructively; with a spirit of forgiveness in our outreach, we serve people where they need us most, not where we have decided they ought to be; with a spirit of forgiveness among us, among all of us, in each of us, something deep and wondrous will happen on this corner, these streets, in these neighborhoods. Where forgiving love takes root, the lights shine brighter, the chords shimmer with richer harmonies, the grace of God fills your hearts, fills this holy house, the glory of God will blossom and flourish and bear great fruit, so that from Marblehead to Dorchester to Scituate, neighbor will turn to neighbor and praise God, saying, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”