Meditations / Sermons

August 6, 2006
The Gift Of Forgiveness

Matt. 18:21-35

Can you remember where you were when you heard about the first plane crash into the world trade center? And then when the second plane had done the same thing, and then a third slamming into the Pentagon and another taken down in Pennsylvania by its passengers before it got to D.C. to make another hit? We were hurt, angry, bewildered, and full of resentment and calling for vengeance. Four years later to the day, I'm struggling with the lectionary passage on forgiveness. ... I believe we are all called to forgiveness, that it is central to Jesus’ message. I also believe that forgiveness is a spiritual gift.

So what is the spiritual gift of forgiveness? We each have a strong sense of justice. So when we pray for forgiveness or pray to be able to forgive, is not an easy grace for which we pray-especially when it seems that the price of forgiveness is that justice be denied for the sake of forgiveness. And today of all days we are reminded that when we desire the gift of forgiveness it will be an endless, bottomless task. Jesus tells us that we must forgive not seven times, but seven times seventy. There are a couple of ways of looking at that- one is that we can forgive little by little as we are able- and then forgiveness may not seem out of our reach.

Another way of looking at Jesus’ directive of seven times seventy is that forgiveness is a process that is ongoing.

If forgiveness is a spiritual gift, it is a process, a way of being in the world, the way of acting co-redemptively with Godde.

How do you see forgiveness? For some of us forgiveness is a patronizing act by one who has power over another: like a governor or president who deigns to pardon a prisoner.

Some of us can only see forgiveness as “I forgive the one or ones who hurt me but I will never forget. I can't let go of my anger but I will never act on it.” Or “I will choke back my hurt and anger by a sheer act of will. I may have been deeply hurt or abused by another, but I will smother my negative feelings and reactions."

Both of these ways may begin us down the road to forgiveness, but I believe there is more. Dag Hammarskold once wrote:

Forgiveness breaks the chains of causality because (the one) who ‘forgives’ you – out of love- takes upon (themselves) the consequences (emphasis mine) of what you have done. Forgiveness, therefore, always entails a sacrifice.

The price you pay for your own liberation through another’s sacrifice is that you in turn must be willing to liberate in the same way, irrespective of the consequences to yourself.

In the gospel lesson Jesus asks “when you have been shown compassion is it not incumbent on you to show compassion to others?”

Perhaps behind this question is an answer: the real motivation for forgiveness is gratitude. If someone has compassion for me then my authentic reaction will be a deep appreciation. I will want to pass the gift on. I will want to give another the liberation I have received, even to the one(s) that hurt me.

As we remember and mourn for the loss to our nation of those thousands of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, partners and friends, our faith also urges us to find a place of compassion for those who hurt us. We must respond with our lives to the compassion and forgiveness we have experienced from the Divine. That response is a gift of the spirit.

The spiritual gift of forgiveness is the powerful gift of the spirit that can break the chain of hurt and hate, of anger and revenge. We see throughout the world evidence of centuries of hurt, anger, hate and revenge: in Ireland, Israel, Palestine, Iraq. In all the places around the globe where the anguish, hurt, and hatred are real and even deserved- only the gift of forgiveness will break the chain of causal bondage.

We come this week, four years later, with another grief. For the hundreds of thousands displaced by hurricane Katrina and for the hundreds and possibly thousands of dead. We have watched with rage and anxiety as poor people and black people have been treated as second-class citizens. What of forgiveness here? Can we forgive ourselves? We must. We must forgive ourselves for the times we have not spoken out, for the power we have not exercised on behalf of others, for the times we allow racism to go unchecked. For the times we tolerate poverty in the midst of our excessive wealth as a nation.

To forgive means we take on the consequences of those actions and today that means we must share what we have, open our doors and hearts, break down the walls that divide us and begin rebuilding our nation with stronger bricks and mortar: the bricks of love and the mortar of forgiveness. The bricks of compassionate progressive politics and the mortar of hope rather than the euphemistic travesty called compassionate conservatism.

Today that means we must forgive the terrorists whose hatred and rage propel them to despicable acts and we must bear the consequences of that forgiveness so that the cycle of hatred and revenge stops with us. Our sacrifice of not taking revenge and not flexing our collective muscle around the world helps begin the graceful, redemptive work of Godde.

The spiritual gift of forgiveness involves, as Dag Hammerskold said, sacrifice of self for others. It is the greatest gift that Christ taught and the most difficult to embrace. But today, four years later, today, two weeks later, we are challenged to hold this spiritual gift as a beacon of hope and a way to begin again, a way to mourn, a way to participate in Godde’s redemptive and healing work in the world. Amen.