Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21     Romans 14:1-12     Matthew 18:21-35
Whether you realize it or not, we have entered into a new season of ecumenical relationships in the church. Now, those of you who know about the Downtown Faith Alliance (DTFA) may be thinking about the “Sacred Space” that we provided during LCG’s recent “Park(ing) Day.” If you aren’t aware, that was an event where community members took over parking spaces downtown and made “miniature parks”.

Ours (the DTFA) was a space for sacred rest with church pews from the Salvation Army, a prayer rug from the Islamic Center, a prayer journal from First UMC, and candles from FPC. Members of Temple shalom and Trinity CME also contributed time and resources to the space, and a member of Christ Church provided music. It was a well-received space, and we were awarded “best on a budget.” (John Calvin would be so proud.)

While that was a very successful effort, there is yet a greater expression of religion and devotion that has begun – Fall sports. On the national level, there are claims of orthodoxy and conflict. Regionally we align our priorities with institutions of higher learning, but locally there is even greater variety. I say these are religious experiences because of the way that they become centers of value, and the way in which they give us the opportunity to choose between forgiveness and condemnation.

While I tend not to observe most of these religions, I will confess to coaching soccer. And I will confess to finding it hard not to stand in judgment and to be able to forgive the other coaches at times. If you saw my interchange on Facebook, you’ll know we had a tough game on Saturday.

I use these ideas – ecumenical relationships and sports – to illustrate the point that there is often a tension between the pockets of community (tribes) that we affiliate with that is just below the surface of even our best efforts. That’s not a bad thing – most of the time – but it is a part of being human.

When things go poorly for us and for those we love, especially when there is someone who is clearly at fault, it’s pretty natural to want that Exodus version of God that made Moses and DJ Miriam bust out some free verse about horse and rider being thrown into the sea. “Oh, mighty Smiter,” we say, “smite the bad guys!”

But the thing is, the God who destroyed horse and rider is the God who made horse and rider and, I believe, wept for them too. The Exodus event was not about a God that loves violence. It was about a God willing to disturb creation in order to set a people apart. It was about a God who has said throughout history that military might is always secondary to faith, and that God’s faithfulness is always greater than ours.

It is this God that Paul describes as the one who is both Judge and Redeemer. It is this God that is less concerned with the festivals we celebrate and the foods that we eat or refuse to eat than with our ability to love and forgive and live in God’s presence. Don’t get me wrong; this doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you want with whoever you want. It means that when you do what you do, it must be an act of faith. It must be a means to express devotion to God alone. It means that if you think that coming into church to top off your spiritual tank is all that you need to do to “live to the Lord” then you have it backwards.

What we do in here is just a check in to be reminded of, or to celebrate, what goes on out there in our lives of faith. So, if we spend our time together in judgment of one another, then we’re going to miss out on the amazing things God can do in and through us together.

The beautiful thing is that the key to the door to letting go and letting God is in each of our hands already, and that key is a word – forgiveness. It’s so easy to say and so hard to do sometimes. Even Peter asked for a limit on how often he had to do this. He actually sounded a little generous to begin with for those of us who live under the doctrine of three strikes and you’re out (I know, wrong season).

Still, at the core of his question is a deeper hesitation. It’s a hesitation based on what some of us consider the worst part of forgiveness – reconciliation. The heart of the matter is that Jesus wants us to always move toward reconciliation. I do realize that there are situations that it may not be healthy or possible for reconciliation to take hold, but I can’t help but think that Jesus wants us to hold out hope. Not hope that broken relationships can return to what they were, but hope that some kind of restoration can take place; some way that the victim can face the offender and be heard; some way that the offender can demonstrate remorse and move forward.

We’ve seen this on a national scale with Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa and Canada. In South Africa, the Apartheid government committed abductions and violently oppressed the native population. In Canada, the Indian residential school system separated children from families and cultures in an effort of forced acculturation that led to greater rates of PTSD, addiction, and social fracturing. In both of these cases, the societies that committed these crimes claimed to be Christian societies. In both cases the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have been intentional acts to be name the sins of the past and re frame their national identity with compassion – a value that truly reflects the Kingdom of God.

Speaking of that, let’s deal with the awkwardness of this parable about the Kingdom of God. So, Jesus essentially says you have to forgive so often you’re going to lose count. Then he says that it’s because the Kingdom of God is like this Kingdom where a slave can’t pay a debt, cries out for mercy and the King grants it. Then the same guy violently assaults someone that owes him money, and so the King has him tortured until he can pay his debt.

While there are a lot of obvious plot holes here, let’s look at the big picture. What I believe Jesus is saying is that if we are unwilling to forgive others, then we have cut ourselves off from receiving forgiveness. There is no limit to God’s willingness to forgive us, except for the limit that we place on others. Not only that, but the alternative to forgiveness is… torture.

Sounds odd, but I believe it is true. Anne LaMott, in her book Traveling Mercies, takes it a step further. She says, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then expecting the rat to die.” The danger of refusing forgiveness is that it does the opposite of what we expect. We expect that forgiving gives permission to the offender and that refusing to forgive keeps us safe, yet our anger and mistrust only grow and take hold in other places as well.

What I have found is that forgiveness is truly not something I do for the other person so much as it is something I do for myself. In forgiving I am released from the power of the offense. I am no longer defined by someone else’s action. I am defined by my own – and ultimately – by the way my choice reflects God’s choice to love and forgive me. The permission forgiveness gives me is the permission to move forward with a clean conscience.

But, like all things, I find that there are some people I have to forgive over and over and over. Sometimes that is because I just happen to interact with them more (which means they are having to forgive me a lot, too). Sometimes it’s because forgiving them helps me to step back and realize that God is the one who will judge him or her. Then other times it is because I know that the only thing keeping a lid on some of our basic tribal conflicts is the ability to look on one another with love, so that what shines forth is the love that I have received from God.

On that note, I’ll leave you with some wisdom that my son shared with me when he was three. He had done something wrong and after correcting him I said, “I forgive you.” He asked what that meant and I said, “It means I love you no matter what.” He thought about it, and then he corrected me (as three-year-old are wont to do) “No, Daddy. It means never giving up on someone.”

Well, amen to that. God never gives up on you, so you and I must not give up hope on anyone else. It may be all that we can do is to forgive someone and entrust their care to God, but (most likely) God is holding out for us to be loving, to be accepting, and to do the hard work of telling the truth, becoming reconciled to one another just as we have been to God through Jesus Christ.

In his name, and to God’s glory, amen!

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