TEXT OF SERMON
I am uncomfortable with this sermon.
It is not the kind of thing
that goes down smoothly
or refreshes pleasantly.
I just want you to know that
because we are all in a tough time right now
and maybe you don’t want to be challenged.
I don’t really want to be challenged
or be the one doing the challenging.
But the text is the engine on this train
and it is why we don’t pick our own readings
to be whatever we happen to like or feel like that day.
We follow a lectionary
and then let the cards fall
where they may.
Today they fall on the question of forgiveness
and its mirror image, what
we have to be forgiven for.
So there is my trigger warning and spoiler
and now the sermon.
Let’s think about that Gospel reading from Matthew (18:15-31).
The kingdom of God –
the one we pray to come on earth
as in heaven –
is like a loan shark
who ravages those who are in debt to him.
The king – who is God’s stand-in in this story –
allowed his servant
to fall so far into debt
that he was owed more than
all of the servant’s possessions
as well as the lives of his wife and children.
Allow me another, closer to home analogy here,
so that we can climb in
and personalize this story.
We all know the absolute evil
that has grown like toxic mold
inside the soul of America.
It was seeded when the country declared
at its inception
that all “men” were created equal
but only authorized equality for some men –
and for some men
but not for any women or children.
That evil has been compounded
with the violence and suffering
of each individual American
subjected to slavery and its racist echoes,
and by every act of genocide
against any and all Native Americans,
and by the violence and abuse exacted
upon every woman and child
left to suffer in silence.
The violence and suffering inflicted
and demanded by those with privilege,
and benefiting everyone with privilege
whether or not we asked for it,
is a sorrowful weight of sin
outweighing the sum total of glories
we teach, sing, and shout about as a nation.
There is no amount of apology,
no amount of reparation,
no amount of redemptive gestures
that can make up for
the weight of souls that suffered
and is hanging around the necks
of our ancestors,
and from them
That pretty much describes
debt without the possibility of parole,
which is at the heart of today’s parable.
If somehow you cannot relate to either side
of that story,
either in the forgiving
or need of forgiveness,
then here is another.
Envision, if we can, the rape of planet earth
and the human garbage we vomit
into the air,
the soil, and water.
The ocean of plastic
in our oceans,
the sea of chemicals
in our lakes and streams and rivers,
the lead and poisons in our oxygen
and the widespread massacre of trees
that make that oxygen.
Because of how we do things,
and the greed of our economic system,
every piece of clothing,
nearly every calorie that enters our mouths,
the plastic and alloyed roofs, walls, and floors
of our houses, and…
the heat and cooling
we demand to keep ourselves comfortable –
all of it
is an avalanche of human sin
woefully outweighing any small glory
achieved by the human spirit.
we are on the way
to creating Mars.
We haven’t a hope in hell
of making up for our sins.
Even so, we think we are pretty good people –
can’t even think of something terrible we have done
to deserve condemnation from God.
Oh, we have our little misdeeds here and there,
but most of us don’t consider ourselves
And yet, all of those dark and moldering sins,
those egregious crimes against others
and the earth – by our ancestors
and by us as inheritors of privilege
and gluttonous consumers of the planet –
all of it
hangs from our necks.
There is absolutely nothing we can do
that would measure up
for what we have done.
If we cannot see
or at least sense
the awful, horrendous, and unconscionable
between our small acts of good
and what we have done
and what we have left undone,
then woe to us.
That is the kind of debt imagined in this story,
and to which Jesus points
with this simple parable.
If we really and truly personalized –
by which I mean honestly acknowledge
and take ownership of –
the extravagant debt we owe for the past and present,
we would be overwhelmed and paralyzed.
Some Christians have created
an “ally ally in come free”
kind of theology
that says all we have to do
to be redeemed
is to say out loud
that Jesus is our personal savior.
I imagine Jesus would have a belly laugh at that
just before he became acutely outraged.
But this idea,
of Jesus tortured and executed for future sins
in times and places he could not have imagined,
stretches and breaks credibility.
No, we are lame
and about to be tackled deep in our own end zone.
That said, we have all kinds of intellectual and emotional tricks
to pretend otherwise.
But down below the surface of our lives,
in the bowels of our self-knowledge,
we know we’re toast.
no amount of money we give
and no amount of good deeds we do
and no amount of nice words we say
can make up for the accumulated acts of evil
we have benefited from
and participated in
or by proxy.
So let’s start there.
Let’s just start at the bottom of the well
where we are stuck.
I guess one thing we can do
is get educated.
We can read and hear about the connections
between the past and the present.
Whether around the issues of race,
climate change and the earth,
Colonialism and proxy wars of oppression,
there is plenty to learn about and to understand.
Hopefully, that would begin
to create behavior change.
Perhaps it would cause us to do and be different.
With little things and big things,
we can learn to be different
and make a difference.
But no matter how much we learn,
and no matter how much we do,
it won’t get us up out of the well dug by the past –
our ancestor’s past
and our past.
That is the nature of the debt we are in.
So down here in this dark, damp well,
what kind of forgiveness do we need –
what kind of forgiveness
do we want
and do we hope for?
If you can answer that question,
then you know the weight of forgiveness
being asked of you.
The dire forgiveness we require
is exactly the same
as the forgiveness
required of us.
That is the story we just heard in a nutshell.
Fortunately, for you and me,
that kind of forgiveness
doesn’t have to come all at once.
Forgiveness is a process,
a continuum even.
We do not,
and are not supposed to
forgive and forget.
Just the opposite:
we are supposed to remember,
and learn from remembering,
and get wise from remembering.
Remembering what was done to us,
or what we ourselves have done,
is what makes for change
It is remembering
and remembering well,
and remembering as honestly as possible,
that helps us begin to climb out of the well.
is not the act of forgetting.
Forgiving is the act of acknowledging –
hard, brutal honesty
about what was done
or left undone.
And forgiving does not mean
we must be nice and sweet to the perpetrator.
It means understanding and acknowledging
who and what the perpetrator is, even
when that perpetrator is us.
It means adjusting our expectations
and our behavior
when dealing with the perpetrator,
if indeed we must continue with them in our lives.
Forgiving is a process,
not a one-and-done.
It is the process of rigorous honesty
about what was done,
and how our behavior must change
in relationship to that person –
and of course, what we expect
that person to do
to redeem themselves.
In the end of the forgiveness process,
we will not have resentment or bitterness
toward that person
because those are self-wounding emotions
that cut and infect our own soul.
Instead, we will have sober honesty
about the limits or adjustments
of our relationship to them –
what we learned from the experience,
and what we expect from them,
and the world going forward.
Forgiveness is not something we should romanticize
It is hard, bruising work
that takes place inside of us.
Forgiveness is NOT something
we grant to someone else,
it is a process we give to ourselves
so that WE may be free.
When it comes to BEING forgiven,
we are required to have our nose rubbed in the thing.
Not as punishment
but to see and feel and hear and learn
what it is we did
or were somehow a part of –
so that we can and do change.
Being forgiven is not some kind of cheap grace
in which we say “sorry”
and then forget about what we participated in.
It is bruising work
so that we can see clearly,
be rigorously self-honest,
and learn to change in the process.
There is nothing sweet,
innocent, or fluffy about the subject of forgiveness.
This is a tough topic
that demands our best self
and a willingness to be uncomfortable.
The only thing that makes it tolerable
is that we are never alone.
We are all in the well together.