This is my first sermon given at Church of the Holy Comforter, in Vienna, VA, where I’m now serving as the interim Assistant Rector. The text is Matthew 18:21-35. You can listen to the audio here. In many ways, I feel like I’ve been preparing to write this sermon for a while. And I’m glad I finally did. Read, consider, and let me know what you think!
Preaching in a new place is always pretty exciting to me. It’s difficult, because I don’t know you all well yet. But, you also don’t know me very well! And while you can probably tell that I’m incredibly funny and charismatic, you might not know much about me beyond that. I like first sermons because they present me with the opportunity to give you a glimpse of what you can expect from me, at least as a preacher.
I am, just so you know, the self-appointed chief mischief maker. So keep that in mind.
In my approach to studying Scripture, which deeply influences how I preach, I try to really see what the Scripture is saying to me. I try to be open in my study of Scripture to what jumps out at me, and what that is can greatly vary each time I open my Bible.
However, there are times when the same thing jumps out at me, over, and over, and over. The result is that I go very, very deep with a text. Or in some instances a word. I don’t think there is any word in the Bible that I have spent more time with than forgiveness.
The Greek word used here for forgive, af-ee’-ay-mi is one of those words and concepts that has truly been lost in translation over the centuries.
Before we dive into this word, I’d like all of you to take a moment, and think about what you associate with the word forgive.
Is it forget? If it is, that is absolutely reasonable. To forgive and forget has been drilled into our minds as what you are just supposed to do. But now I’d like you to take another moment, and look again at the Gospel. Where does it say anything about forgetting?
The King doesn’t forget! Quite the opposite, the King offers and incredible opportunity, and the enslaved man forgets the kindness and grace he received. The slave didn’t change his behavior in anyway. He forgot, or at least dismissed the forgiveness he was offered, and went forward as though nothing were different. The King didn’t forget. When the slave didn’t change, that the King remembered is the point of this story.
I don’t know who first associated forgive and forget, but they were, absolutely and without question, wrong. The idea of forgiving and forgetting even seems to be vaguely Biblical, but it is not. There is no link between forgiving and forgetting, the concepts are remarkably different. I think they were just put together because someone liked alliteration and rhyming.
To forgive is totally and completely different from forgetting something happened. Forgiveness, or the word translated here as forgive, actually means to let go. But this word indicates a physical action; a physical putting distance between. It’s not a passive action. It’s not accepting an apology and then moving ahead like nothing has changed or never happened.
The person wronged let go and sent away. The person who is wrong, then went away. The relationship was now different. Forgiveness is hard, it takes effort on all sides. And sometimes to forgive means to completely end something. It’s a letting go of what happened, but doing so under an expectation that things will be different.
Don’t believe me? Re-read this Gospel. It’s clear. There was an expectation that the servant would be different after he was forgiven a debt that is more than he could earn in multiple lifetimes. He received an incredible gift, a true act of grace. And then nothing about him changed. The servant didn’t live up to his end of the bargain. And so the act of forgiveness was rescinded.
This concept of forgiveness has gotten absolutely distorted in modern society. This week I asked my Facebook friends to share with me, and then us, the different ways in which they’ve been told to forgive and forget. Here is what they said, in the order they were said:
Just let it go.
Get over it already.
Let bygones be bygones.
Let go and let God.
I already apologized, why can’t you move on?
They didn’t mean anything by it.
You’re way too sensitive.
They didn’t do anything worse than anyone else.
Why are you mad? You’re not perfect?
People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
Everything happens for a reason.
There are dozens of sermons wrapped up in these few lines. But what jumps out at me today is the trend. Because there is one. Actually, there are two.
The first trend is what I would translate into modern words as victim blaming. Phrases like just let it go; get over it; I apologized, move on; they didn’t mean anything; you’re too sensitive; you’re not perfect. Phrases like these place the responsibility on the person who was wronged. It is victim blaming 101. These words come from the same mindset as “well, she shouldn’t have worn that dress, or drank so much.” Or, “we wouldn’t want this one mistake to derail his entire future.”
And y’all, that’s wrong. And it goes against the essence of forgiveness as Christ teaches us to forgive. Forgiving limitlessly does not mean constantly allowing yourself to be victimized. It doesn’t mean allowing the same person to do the same thing over, and over and over. What Peter and Jesus are discussing is how to move forward in relationship while in community.
If a person wrongs you, and makes genuine efforts to change, to fix the problem, you are to allow that relationship to move forward. But the relationship will be and look different.
What this Scripture does not speak directly to is abusive relationships. This Scripture has been used to explain why someone who is abused should forgive their abuser. But that is a misunderstanding and misinterpretation of this Scripture.
You are not to take back a partner or spouse who abuses you. If the abuser makes genuine efforts at being different then you can consider how that relationship can go forward, but it does not, and should not be the same relationship as before.
If someone abuses you, you don’t have to just forget about the past. The past informs our decisions and our future.
Forgiveness can mean a total restructuring of a relationship. It is an absolute end of a relationship as it exists, and a creation of something new. In personal relationships, that something new, which allows people to move forward in their lives, can, an often should be, an end of the abusive relationship.
Church, a community, is different. Church was designed in part to hold people accountable. Church, much like God, shouldn’t give up on people who are making genuine changes in their lives, and are still not perfect. Because the reality is that none of us are perfect. We are all going to make mistakes. This Scripture is saying that God, and the representatives of God on earth, in their official capacity, should support people to do and be different. And, should support the restructuring of relationships, and people, as they figure out how to do and be different.
It is the doing and being different that truly marks someone as a Christian.
Supporting, holding accountable, letting go, and moving forward; those are remarkably different and completely separate from forgetting. Attaching forget to the concept of forgiveness is wrong, and leaves out that forgiveness takes effort on both sides. Effort that goes beyond a mere apology. And that forgiveness can be taken back if the other side doesn’t live up to their end of the bargain.
This Scripture and the idea of forgiving 77 times makes it seem like you’re supposed to constantly put yourself in a vicious cycle. But the act of forgiveness is a two-way street. If a person is truly and genuinely trying, keep helping them try. But that does NOT mean keep doing the same things. Be accountable for your actions, hold others accountable for theirs. Don’t forget. Do different things; accept that we are human.
If you remember, way back in the beginning, I mentioned one other phrase my facebook friends used “everything happens for a reason.” This phrase was actually said, in a few forms, multiple times. This phrase is actually the second trend I noticed.
Everything happens for a reason seems like a Biblical phrase, but it’s not. God knows us, and has plans for us, sure. But there’s always free will. And those plans most certainly do not include the tragedies that this congregation has endured in just the few short weeks that I have been here.
Tragedy. Evil. Disasters. Those things happen. Good is possible out of those events, but just because good can come, does not mean God caused. God is with us, willing and able to work through those tragedies. But God doesn’t cause them.
Saying everything happens for a reason is expecting a person who has endured and survived something horrible, to just accept and go forward like nothing happened. But that is not how forgiveness works nor is it how God wants our relationship with God to work. Life and relationships have to be restructured. Even your relationship with God.
God doesn’t promise life will be easy, God actually promises the opposite. But God also promises to be with us, always. Offering a way forward, staying with us as we make mistakes, consoling us in our grief and lament.
To forgive in the Biblical sense, is to claim your own worth and power. It’s not accepting and going forward like nothing happened. Something happened. We must go forward, but things must also change.
As you come to know me, please know that I will not always preach for this long. But as a priest, my goal is for us to be challenged to look at things differently. And then, to do and be different. To find a way, together, to move forward in relationship with God within the realities of the world we live in.
It’s not easy. And we must hold each other accountable, forgive when mistakes happen, and then make the changes necessary to go forward in relationship with ourselves, one another, and God.
Our relationship with God is what it’s all about. It’s what all this is about. Don’t forget that.