More on forgiveness… even from the Cross

Detail from the San Damiano Cross of St. Francis of Assisi

Detail from the San Damiano Cross of St. Francis of Assisi

A sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, which fell on the day normally  observed as Holy Cross Day, September 14, 2014.  The lectionary readings are Genesis 50:15-21, Psalm 103:1-13, Romans 14:1-12, and Matthew 18:21-35.

For some years I’ve kept a sermon blog. Unless I forget, I take whatever I’ve written for Sunday morning and then I edit it. I clean up things. I add things. I sometimes take things out. On good weeks, the sermon that appears is readable and gives people who can’t be with us in person a way to get into the conversation of what we’ve been talking about on Sunday. Though the blog allows for comments to be left by people who might read the blog, I have the “comments feature” turned off the general public. It’s something I don’t particularly want to manage, and the comments usually are pretty personal (having to do with a problem or struggle in someone’s life.) The person commenting would not mean for the comment necessarily to be public for all to see. But comments may be left, and the comment comes to me as an email, and I read them. Last week’s sermon had to do with forgiveness and one person’s comment said something to the effect, “What do you do when forgiveness is thrown back in your face?”

I think I know what the comment means. I think the writer wonders what about the times when one forgives another, but the person forgiven goes on to act like nothing wrong ever happened, or to in some way ignore the cost of forgiveness, to cheapen the whole act of what is basically (to use church language) “contrition and absolution.”  Today’s Gospel does not word the work of forgiveness in exactly the same way as the comment-writer on my blog, but it comes close.

Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” And then, as if to look for some kind of approval, some recognition for his efforts at forgiving, Peter adds, [Should I forgive them] “as many as seven times?” Jesus answers and doesn’t answer by saying, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” And then, as if to explain that this forgiveness business has much more to do with quality than with quantity, Jesus adds, “You must forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

The middle part of today’s Gospel is a story that Jesus tells to Peter to try to convey what he means. It’s a story that has a number of hurdles for most of us—it has to do with slaves and a master, and debts of money owed, claimed, and sometimes (but not always) forgiven.

But even though we live in a culture very different from the First Century Roman Empire, I think we still can learn from Jesus’ telling the story. We can learn something about forgiveness and mercy.

One slave owes an amount of money and can’t pay it. He’s asks for pity from the owner of the place. He asks for time and patience. And the owner grants it. But no sooner is this slave’s debt forgiven, that he comes across another slave who owes HIM money. He demands to have his due. This second slave begs with him and asks patience, but instead, he has him thrown into prison. The other slaves hear about this and tell the owner. The owner is furious at the forgiven but unforgiving slave, and deals with him in harsh terms.

And so we’re back to that question I raised about everyday traffic-mercies. What happened to the slave who was forgiven, that he seemed to completely forget his experience and then refuse to forgive the other slave? What keeps us from extending mercies, from passing on forgiveness, from giving others a break like maybe we’ve been given?

It’s easy to forget that we’ve been forgiven.

The first slave in the story was forgiven. The owner showed him mercy, forgave the debt and sent him on his way. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the slave began to rationalize his forgiveness. Being shown forgiveness means admitting a certain vulnerability and neediness, and that’s not easy to do. I imagine the first slave saying to himself, “You know, I deserve forgiveness. That owner is rich. What is my debt to him? I had this coming to me. I am worthy of this forgiveness, since the owner is really just recognizing my worth and his mistake. And so, this slave does not really recognize that he has been show mercy—unearned, undeserved, un-explained mercy. Perhaps because he doesn’t understand what he’s been given, he is incapable of giving it to someone else.

It’s also easy to forget the source of forgiveness.

The first slave who was forgiven his debt may have been grateful to the owner, but really the owner was not the source of mercy. To stop with the owner is to short-circuit what might be called the mystery of mercy. Mercy comes not from one person to the next, but from a far deeper source. This is what Jesus alludes to when he says, “you must forgive from your heart.” This kind of forgiveness is not so much something we do, as it is something we allow to pass through us, to move through us, to use us in order to further God’s mercy.

One character from literature (and now, film and stage) who comes to understand this mystery of mercy is Jean Valjean, the character from Les Miserables. If you’re familiar with the story you know that Valjean serves time in prison for stealing bread to feed his family. Eventually, he is released. Turned away from places to stay the night, he sleeps in the street. until he is taken in by a local bishop. While he’s treated well by the bishop, Valjean hasn’t begun to forgive anyone—not his captives, not the world in which he lives, not God. He’s still angry about prison, resentful for the cards he has been dealt. And so, during the night, he’s had enough of the bishop’s kindness, and so he decides to steal some of the bishop’s silver and run away. But Valjean is caught. He’s brought back to the bishop and then something amazing happens. The bishop tells the police that there’s been an awful mistake. He gave Valjean the silver, and furthermore, Valjean forgot to take the other pieces. Then to Valjean, Bishop Myriel says

But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!

The bishop knows that the mercy he gives is not really his to give. It comes from God. And Valjean comes to understand this. He makes a decision to turn his life around, and he begins to live out this kind of mercy and forgiveness toward others. We forget sometimes that we’ve been forgiven and we forget that forgiveness comes from God. With Saint Peter, we might sometimes ask God, “How long will people continue to do wrong? How long will it be before a certain person apologizes? How long will it be that my anger subsides or my own resentment lessens?

What to do when forgiveness is thrown back in one’s face? The cross suggests an answer, though not an easy answer or a simple one. God answers with the love of the Holy Cross, from which Jesus forgave his persecutors, and absolved the criminals dying with him.

St. Francis often prayed before a cross saying,

Both here and in all your churches throughout the whole world,
we adore you O Christ, and we bless you,
because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.

Francis got angry at people just like us. He was hurt and ignored and made fun of, just like us. Francis would forgive, but have that forgiveness either forgotten or thrown back at him. But he kept on praying that he would be able to keep on forgiving, understanding the source of forgiveness to be deeper than anything he could ever imagine.

God answers with the love of Christ on the Cross, who says to each one of us, “You are forgiven.” “Keep trying. Keep praying. Keep moving toward forgiving others. Try to forgive a little bit every day. Let mercy work its way into your daily routine, because one day, you’ll wake up, and you’ll be free.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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