Choose The Sermon: On Forgiveness

September 26, 2021
Mark 2:1-12; Matthew 18:23-34

You all submitted some great ideas for sermons. The suggestion for today is forgiveness which feels all too appropriate these days because I feel like I am carrying a lot of anger – especially about the ways that immigration reform is oh so close and the politicians will not work together for the well-being of other people – and the country. Especially anger about the ways that patriarchy and white supremacy have such deep roots and yet are ignored as if this is just how life is and we can’t do anything about it. I feel angry that people will believe lies before they will believe science. Do I just need to forgive so I can live without all this anger?

Forgiveness is a word we use in church but it can still be hard to grasp. Who do we forgive? How do we forgive? Why should we forgive? What kinds of things are forgivable? Is anything unforgivable?

This story from the beginning of Mark’s gospel is usually told as a healing story. The novelty of the hole in the roof, not to mention the miraculous healing, distracts from the forgiveness that is part of the story.

Jesus came back to Capernaum after several days and word spread that he was home. I have always imagined Jesus as not having a home, other than his mother’s place. But maybe he actually did have a house that he gave up when he started his preaching and healing work on the road.

It gets really crowded at Jesus’ house as he preaches – because even though this is near the beginning of his ministry, Jesus is already well known for healing, and casting out spirits. His notoriety has grown so quickly that he has to go to “lonely places” to get some peace. He returns home from his spiritual retreat at a lonely place and the news that he is back travels as fast as he does. The people come to catch a glimpse, to hear a word, to receive The Word.

It is so crowded around the house that it seems like we need to watch from above. Imagine the view from a drone. The crowd is all around the front of the house. We can’t see Jesus but we can just hear his voice, coming from inside. Around the corner come four friends, carrying someone on a woven mat. Each one carries a corner to hold the person up off the ground. As the drone zooms in we see that the person is paralyzed, isn’t moving at all except when they sort of roll from one side to the other as the group gets jostled by the crowd. There are so many people there is no way to get their friend close enough to the door. They can’t even get a glimpse of Jesus though they know he must be in there. We see the friends talking together, making a plan. They haven’t come this far to give up now.

From our drone view we can see that the house is built into a low hillside. The friends slowly climb the hill, carrying their friend, careful not to let the friend slide off the mat. They make it to roof level. They put their friend down on the ground and begin to dismantle the palm branch roof. When they get a hole big enough, they begin to lower the person down into the middle of the gathering. Shifting our drone right above the house, we can see that inside the house it is sort of like a moshpit. The paralyzed person is passed around overhead until the crowd can set the person down on the ground, right in front of Jesus. The friends stay up on the hill, near the hole in the roof, and try to hear what’s going on.

Jesus looks up through the hole in his roof and sees the faithful friends. Jesus looks down at the person on the mat and says, “My child, your sins are forgiven.”

What? What sins? The sin of messing up his roof? The sin of interrupting Jesus’ teaching? The sin of being sick? The sin that caused the sickness? What sins are forgiven?

Let’s pull the drone up a bit and just hover above Jesus’ house while we think about forgiveness.

I wonder how Jesus knows that the person needs to be forgiven. Maybe forgiveness is just the automatic starting place for Jesus. Jesus knows that we all carry things that weigh us down, that make it hard for us to walk or travel gracefully through life. Forgiveness lightens the load.

What are the things we carry that need to be laid down?
What injustices or slights against us do we hold onto?
Do we carry things against others, or even on behalf of others?
Maybe we think we are doing someone else a favor by holding their anger for them or with them.
Is it helpful to shoulder anger with someone else? for someone else?
Does sharing the anger multiply it?
or does sharing anger reduce the burden?

It is one thing to forgive other people but we also need to forgive ourselves. We know well the law from Leviticus that Jesus quotes, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” I wonder if a corollary to that law might be “forgive your neighbor as you forgive yourself.” If we don’t love ourselves, if we don’t forgive ourselves, it is very hard to love – or forgive – others. Perhaps forgiveness starts with ourselves, recognizing our own humanness, our own capacity to mess up and hurt others, our own proclivity to say the wrong thing, to respond too quickly in a way that is wounding. When we recognize and forgive ourselves for all that makes us human, we can more easily forgive others for being human as well.

OK, let’s use our drone to go back to Jesus and the crowded house. Through the hole in the roof we can hear the religious leaders who are gathered in a corner consulting amongst themselves: “Why does Jesus talk in that way? He commits blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus steps on toes here, offering forgiveness outside the context of the Temple. The religious leaders are committed to the proper procedures for giving God’s forgiveness and grace, and Jesus is not doing it the right way nor does he have the proper credentials.

Jesus is not easily intimidated by the religious authorities and their institutions. He knows that he is crossing lines – and he knows that forgiveness can lead to healing. So he just goes all the way. He invites the person to stand up and demonstrate that what was keeping them paralyzed is no longer of consequence. The person stands up and walks right out through the crowd to the astonishment and joy of all those gathered. I wonder if the religious leaders are included in the “all” that praise God in amazement? Maybe this time, early in his ministry they are?

We might be able to imagine how carrying the burdens that need to be forgiven can paralyze a person – though we probably shouldn’t get too literal. We know though, how heavy it can be to hold onto anger and resentment, how we can get stuck because we don’t know how to let go. It is scary to let go of trauma, it may feel impossible to set it down. Holding onto what we know sometimes seems easier than letting go and standing empty handed. The fear of revisiting a painful wound can keep us dragging around the weight of that memory.  It might be something we did or said years ago, it might be something someone else did or said years ago. Yes, it hurt at the time but over the years it grows bigger, and is almost like an infection that can poison our whole outlook on life. How do we ever let it go? How do we ever get clean of it? How do we ever forgive ourselves? How do we ever forgive the other person?

Maybe it takes someone like Jesus, someone outside the system, that invites us, even gives us permission, to let go or crawl out from under the weight. Perhaps it takes a Jesus-figure to help us see the wisdom of forgiving or receiving forgiveness. It is not magic or instant like the biblical story but it might be the start or a beginning step toward forgiveness.

I want to believe forgiveness and letting go can work like this when the things we carry are smallish. But what about grievous harm or even systems of injustice. I am not sure I am ready to forgive a person who wounds others over and over and over again. I don’t know how to forgive the criminal legal system that has different levels of “accountability” depending on the color of someone’s skin or the curl of their hair. Should we forgive a system that shows no forgiveness to others?

I started reading Melissa Florer-Bixler’s new book, How to have an  Enemy. Chapter 4 is entitled “Shared anger and forgiveness.” She reflects on the parable that Jesus tells in Matthew 18. “Therefore the reign of God may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.” The first servant owes so much it can never be repaid. The servant begs for grace, promising to repay it all though the debt is so large it would be totally impossible in a lifetime. Remarkably, the king forgives the debt, forgives the whole huge debt. It is not long before the forgiven servant goes to another servant and does as the king and asks to be repaid a debt that is owed. It is a very small amount in comparison to what the first one owed. The second servant also begs for time to pay off the debt but the first servant does not act as the king, does not give mercy. The forgiven servant has no patience whatsoever and has the person thrown in jail. The other servants hear about this and there is an outcry at the injustice of the first servant. They report to the king how his kindness and grace were not paid forward, at all. Now the king gets angry – ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger the king hands the servant over to be tortured until the entire debt can be paid.

It is a terrifying parable. The ending is probably one of the places from which we have invented hell. Melissa writes “This parable is often a burden for those who hear in it that they must forgive their abusers and oppressors. Stories of required forgiveness are painful for people who are not ready to forgive those who have assaulted or harmed them.” (p.73) Yes, absolutely, requiring forgiveness in a certain time frame for ongoing or intense harm, only piles on the pain. Forgiveness may be freeing but it also takes time. It may take friends to help carry us toward it.

What remains for me is the question of whether we must, or if we can, forgive systems of injustice. Here I think Melissa’s comments about the end of this disturbing parable are helpful. “…the ending, despite its discomfort, releases us from a contractual form of forgiveness that only serves to recapitulate systems of destruction for those who have been harmed.” (p.73) In other words, the first servant, in demanding payment from the second servant, chooses to live by strict and unbending rules. So the king lets the first servant live by those rules, in prison and torture. Melissa writes, “From this parable we learn the considerable harm that occurs when we continue corporately or individually to expect forgiveness without extending it, (forgiveness doesn’t work) without mutuality and reciprocity among a people who are entrenched in forgiveness.” (p. 74)

It is so much easier to speak these big words about forgiveness – mutuality, reciprocity – than to live into it. I wish that forgiveness was as quick as Jesus makes it out to be with the  person coming through the roof. Instead, it is a choice we make to live in a community of forgiveness. It doesn’t mean that we don’t get angry but there is something about sharing our anger in community, in not trying to shoulder it alone – especially anger at systems that continue to oppress.

Living into this kind of forgiveness community takes time and patience, give and take, trust and truth. Melissa puts it this way – “Forgiveness is the form that life takes for people who are united to Christ.” In the language we often use here we might say, Forgiveness is part of life for those who are following in the Jesus way. “Forgiveness does not protect us from conflict or division, neither does it stop us from giving or receiving harm.” (p 71) Instead, when we choose to live into forgiveness, we are continually formed by it and become part of God’s forgiveness. (breath)

So many words. So much head space and complications. One of the most basic things that helps me with forgiveness these days is the recognition that creation itself offers forgiveness in its own way. Receive this prayer from John Philip Newell (Praying with the Earth, p 34)

We wake to the forgiveness of a new day.
We wake to the freedom to begin again.
We wake to the mercy of the sun’s redeeming light.
Always new
always gift
always blessing.
We wake to the forgiveness of this new day.