Scripture: Matthew 18:21-35
If there was one word to describe 2020 so far what would you choose? Perhaps most of us would choose pandemic, or crisis, or isolation or some other word related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the large scale changes that have rocked our world over the past 6 months. Perhaps some would choose negative emotions or descriptors like terrible, challenging, topsy-turvy. While all those words would be appropriate and true, I think that the word which resonates with me over the course of 2020 is: Forgiveness.
You see 2020 has not only been about the pandemic, but it has also dredged up the long-ignored realities of social inequality in communities of colour; it has brought to greater focus the horrors of poverty and oppression at home and across the globe; it has exposed the hatred, anger and prejudice which often simmers underneath the veneer of niceness and politeness in everyday society.
I have spoken before of the protests that have rocked the world, and particularly the United States in the wake of a series of unarmed black people – Armaud Arbury, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Jacob Blake and many, many more, sadly too many to count – and Canada is certainly not immune to all of the issues which have led us here. But amidst all of the protests, the police brutality and the pandemic which have rocked the news this summer it was the death of John Lewis which especially grasped my attention this summer.
I must admit that I did not know much about John Lewis before he died. As a child born in the 1980s in Canada, his legacy as a leader in the American Civil Rights movement eluded my studies of history. He worked alongside Rev. Martin Luther King in the forefront of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and suffered at the hands of the authorities and racist mobs, highlighted having his skull cracked as he walked over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama, by Alabama State Troopers. John Lewis literally bled for his belief in justice and equality for all.
At the core of the civil rights movement, and at the core of the career and character of John Lewis was the notion of non-violence and even more so love and forgiveness, even for those who injured and oppressed him.
John Lewis’ life and career seemed to epitomize the idea of forgiveness: from his earliest days preaching to chickens to the way he forgave and befriended the former Klu Klux Klansmen, Elwin Wilson, who attacked him. John Lewis knew something of the forgiveness Jesus spoke about in our reading from Matthew this morning.
Unfortunately, forgiveness isn’t as easy for most of us as John Lewis perhaps made it seem
We talk about forgiveness every week at church but I imagine for many of us forgiveness is difficult – both to receive and to give.
Forgiveness is hard work: when we are the offended or the hurt party it requires us to move beyond the hurt or offence and a desire to be restored or reconciled with the person who hurt or offended us.
If we are the one who has hurt or offended someone it might seem like forgiveness is easy, after all, we receive forgiveness, but I would argue that receiving forgiveness is also difficult because we have to recognize the need to be forgiven, we have to recognize we are wrong, we have to realize that we need the relationship to be reconciled and sometimes we have to come around to forgiving ourselves.
Perhaps that is part of the reason Jesus invites us to pray about forgiveness every time we use the Lord’s prayer, both for ourselves and that we might forgive others. Prayer is powerful, it can change us and those around us particularly when it comes to forgiveness.
Our Gospel passage today highlights both the simplicity and the difficulty of forgiveness. Our passage from Matthew today, comes in the midst of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God, receiving it like children and his teachings about community. Our passage follows immediately from Jesus’ teaching about the lost sheep and how the church should deal with persistent sinners. In response to these teachings, Peter asks Jesus what is the appropriate number of times to forgive another member of the church that sins against him. Peter offers up a number, 7, which, to many of us would seem rather generous.
And yet Jesus’ response to Peter is “not seven times, but I tell you seventy-seven times.” The magnitude of this number is only grasped when we realize that in Jewish tradition this sort of multiplying of numbers was not meant to be taken literally, but rather as a sign of infinity.
Jesus is therefore telling Peter that there should be no limit to the number of times he should forgive his brother or sister in Christ, in fact, he must always be prepared to extend forgiveness and seek reconciliation.
This is difficult to hear; it is difficult to hear Jesus teach us that forgiveness should be offered infinitely and that we should always be ready for reconciliation. After all, this passage and passages like it have been used to convince many people of colour to forgive those that beat and oppress them, even as the oppression and beatings continue, so I want to examine more deeply the complex meaning of reconciliation and forgiveness in Jesus’ teaching.
In the continuation of our Gospel story today we heard the parable of the King and the slave who was indebted to him. The king forgives him a large debt, and then he in turn fails to forgive a fellow slave a much smaller debt. In response, the slave is punished and forced to pay the debt he originally owed to the King.
The actions of the king at the end of the story might seem harsh, but the first slave has not lived into the forgiveness the King has offered. The forgiveness that the King offered should have changed the man’s entire life, the grace he experienced at the hands of the king should have been extended to his own debtor.
When we have hurt or offended someone, forgiveness can only truly happen if we are changed by that forgiveness, if our lives are transformed by the grace that someone offers to us. Forgiveness is like a partnered dance: it only works when both partners are working together. For forgiveness to lead to restoration and reconciliation there must be change, there must be a willingness to receive and be transformed by the forgiveness, otherwise, it is as if we have not received that forgiveness at all.
For communities of colour to forgive their oppressors, the systems which continually beat them down, something has to change, something in the relationship has to change, and sometimes that means no longer remaining quiet about historic injustices but protesting on the streets and calling for massive systemic change until somebody listens.
Forgiveness does not mean subjecting ourselves over and over again to the hurts of another, but rather forgiveness means the willingness to be truly reconciled when the other is ready to embrace the grace of forgiveness.
In the Lord’s Prayer when we pray forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us, we are reminded that we need to be constantly reconciled to God and that we need to bear the fruit of that forgiveness in our lives towards others.
What does it profit us to claim the forgiveness of God, if we are unable to live out the forgiveness we receive? In that event, we are like the wicked slave, and find ourselves functionally rejecting the grace and mercy of God, we find ourselves unchanged by the power of God’s forgiveness.
And this is why at the heart of God’s family prayer, Jesus gives us these words to pray day-in and day-out. At the heart of this prayer is the reminder that we are all reliant on God’s grace and forgiveness, at the heart of this prayer is the reminder that while we all fall short of the glory of God, through the power of Christ we are able to achieve reconciliation, we are able to return again and again to well of forgiveness.
Like Jesus before him, John Lewis bore the scars of this forgiveness on his body but those scars did not deter him, the beatings and humiliation did not stop him from allowing the love and forgiveness of God to shape his life and the society he hoped to build in America. In his 2012 memoir Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change, John Lewis wrote:
“Our actions entrench the power of the light on this planet. Every positive thought we pass between us makes room for more light. And if we do more than think, then our actions clear the path for even more light. That is why forgiveness and compassion must become more important principles in public life.”
Forgiveness and Compassion.
As we seek the Kingdom of God here on earth, here in Canada, here in our corner of South Scarborough, and here in our lives, may those lives be marked by forgiveness and compassion. May we be willing to ask forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed or participated in; may we offer forgiveness to those who have aggrieved us. May compassion reign in our hearts for the poor and the oppressed.
In Jesus, forgiveness and compassion water the seeds of change in our world, John Lewis knew this in his life, may we truly know this as we enter into an uncertain time. While 2020 and beyond remains unknown, we can be certain that God’s ultimate vision of the Kingdom is one where justice flows down like water, where mercy and love abound and where forgiveness and compassion are the cruciform centrepieces of “the beloved community” that Dr. King and John Lewis preached so passionately about.
We are all loved. We are all forgiven.
For that I say: Thanks be to God.
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