Sermon for March 13, 2011, Matthew 6:12-15 and 18:21-35
In the 2010 book Made For Goodness, long time human rights activist and retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu shares a confession from his daughter Mpho, an Episcopal priest, regarding her family’s evening prayer gatherings that begin with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Tutu says that Mpho once told him that on some nights…
“she just rattles her way through the (Lord’s) prayer—perhaps in a way, akin to people reciting the pledge of allegiance—but every so often, a word or a phrase or a portion of the prayer will ‘arrest’ her attention: ‘Forgive us…as we forgive.’ Do I really want to be the one who sets the standard for forgiveness?’ she muses. ‘And what will happen if I am forgiven only as far as my own forgiveness reaches? If that is true, then what about that incident with my spouse for which I have not yet forgiven him? What will become of me and the many thoughts, words, and deed for which I need forgiveness? Will I be forgiven for yelling at the kids? Will I be forgiven for thinking snide thoughts about the receptionist?”
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. It’s one of the most familiar phrases of the Lord’s Prayer and also one of the hardest to practice in our lives. Sure, it’s a wonderful sentiment to utter in church—this idea that God will forgive us for the hurts we’ve caused while we forgive those who have hurt us—but is it practical? Forgiveness doesn’t exactly grab our emotions like retribution.
Many of the most popular video games, TV shows, movies, books and news stories are all the rage because they are chock full of vengeance, of people getting just what they bloody well deserve. Charlie Sheen and a score of celebrity musicians, actors, athletes, media pundits and politicians don’t have millions of people paying attention to their every word because they are talking about love, peace and reconciliation. Rants and raves filled with hate, harm and harsh judgment is what grabs headlines, racks up Twitter followers and empties the magazine racks and book shelves. Making statements on forgiveness invite laughter, mockery, sarcasm and accusations that the one promoting reconciliation is extremely weak, cowardly, naïve and idealistic. Simply put, forgiveness (as it has been throughout history) is a big FAIL—not legit, uncool and lame.
Ironically, forgiveness’ un-cool factor is what makes the practice of mercy such a boldly courageous (and sometimes) dangerous endeavor…such a radical act of defiance toward the violent powers and systems that are hell-bent on running (or ruining) the world by greedily clinging to the age-old maxims of might is right and revenge is sweet.
For Christians, the radical act of forgiveness is fully embodied in Jesus Christ. Because of the unconditional mercy shown to others—the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, the lonely, the outcasts, and the outcasts—Jesus was betrayed, arrested, mocked, tortured and killed by the powers and systems who feared that his grace-filled actions would usurp their cruel control over the masses…. They were right. Even in death, the powers and systems couldn’t stop God’s grace from happening.
As he was dying on the cross, nails protruding from his hands and feet and a gaping cut in his side, Jesus looked up to the heavens and uttered the words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Three days later, appearing to the disciples who had abandoned him during his trials, a resurrected Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” And a short time afterward, while having breakfast on the beach with his friends, Jesus said to Simon-Peter, who had denied knowing his rabbi at the time of the arrest, “Feed my sheep… Follow me.”
Jesus shows us in his death and resurrection (as well as in his life) that God will not stop pursuing us with grace, with forgiveness. Similarly, we too are called to continually forgive those who wrong us. That is the point of the conversation that occurred between Jesus and Peter during Jesus’ ministry.
Peter might have just recited to himself the Lord’s Prayer (which Jesus taught them a few weeks earlier) when the words “forgive us…as we forgive” caught his attention, prompting the disciple to ask Jesus: ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus, without missing a beat, responds, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
The radical act of forgiveness is not a quick and easy one-time performance nor is it about literally saying “I forgive you” 77 times to make amends. It is an ongoing process that requires each of us to humbly look within ourselves and into the mind and heart of the person who has committed the wrong to understand that despite one’s faults, we are all children of God who are meant for goodness. It is a responsibility we have to God to participate fully in the grace bestowed upon us for eternity.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that we gloss over the wrongdoing or dish out grace as a casual slap-on-the-wrist or sentimentalize forgiveness to the point that we don’t hold anyone accountable for their actions. The New Testament scholar Douglas R. Hare points out that…
“Christians are often guilty of forgiving too much and too quickly. The misbehavior of alcoholics is not to be laughed off. Ministers who fail to control their sexual impulses are not to be lightly excused. Teenagers who betray their parents’ trust (or vice versa) are not simply to be forgiven; a much more loving course of action is to insist that people amend their behavior so that they can regain the trust. In these and other instances, premature forgiveness is an easy way out that does little to help the offender or to heal a damaged relationship.”
And it does little to help the offender or to heal a damaged relationship if we go to the other extreme by self-righteously holding onto our bitterness, grudges and judgments of another human being who has done wrong…which is in essence denying that the other is worthy of receiving God’s grace. Like the king’s personal aide from Jesus’ parable, we as human beings—after being given an infinite amount of love and mercy for mismanaging our lives and relationship with God—immediately refuse mercy to those who have done wrong against us and who plead for another chance. In doing so, we imprison ourselves in deep-seated hate. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu so eloquently writes in the 2004 book God Has A Dream…
“Forgiveness gives us the capacity to make a new start. That is the power, the rationale, of confession, and forgiveness. It is to say, ‘I have fallen but I am not going to remain there, Please forgive me.’ And forgiveness is the grace by which you enable the other person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew. Not to forgive leads to bitterness and hatred, which, just like self-hatred and self-contempt, gnaw away at the vitals of one’s being. Whether hatred is projected out or projected in, it is always corrosive of the human spirit.”
I’ve read that statement many times and I never ceased to be amazed and captivated by the phrases: “Forgiveness gives us the capacity to make a new start…. Forgiveness is the grace by which you enable the other person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew.” The fascination with this description of forgiveness takes on more profound meaning when I consider that both Tutu and Nelson Mandela, among others, stayed true to those words as they brought an end to the cruel rule of apartheid in South Africa and ushered in a period of reconciliation and healing.
Forgiveness, reconciliation and healing was not a simple task or an overnight fix in South Africa. It took many, many years and a lot of work during and after apartheid to bring about peace (through non-violent means) between the majority black populace of South Africa and the small affluent white ruling class. The incredible challenge of unification and restoration that lay square on Nelson Mandela’s shoulders as soon as he was elected president of South Africa in 1994 (after 27 years in jail for speaking out against the white ruling class) is poignantly depicted in Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film Invictus.
In the following scene, Jason Tshabalala, the head of Mandela’s small and over-worked security team, receives the shocking news that four white Special Branch officers (who previously worked under the former regime) have been assigned to his command. Infuriated by the presidential-approved decision, Jason barges into Mandela’s office looking for answers:
By the end of the film, which is lauded for its historical accuracy, Jason (as well as the black and white officers under him and the entire country) witnesses reconciliation first-hand in a place where it was never thought possible.
In addition to Mandela’s leadership and the courage of other prominent South African figures, both white and black, healing also became a reality through the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was chaired by Tutu, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a court-like restorative justice body where victims of gross human rights violations were invited to give statements about their experiences, and some were selected for public hearings. Perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. The mandate of the commission was to bear witness to, record and in some cases grant amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes relating to human rights violations, as well as reparation and rehabilitation. By listening with an open heart and mind and soul (and without interruption) of horrific and graphic experiences that occurred during apartheid, victims and perpetrators began to recognize the humanity in the other.
As Tutu says in Made for Goodness…
Forgiveness is a liberating action. When we forgive the people who have harmed us, we liberate ourselves from the chains that bind us to our offender. We don’t hold offenses against them. And they exert no control over our moods, our disposition, or us. They have no further part in writing the story that we must tell of ourselves. Forgiveness liberates us. We are free.
On November 13, 2007, Elizabeth and I had the privilege to visit the Washington Cathedral to hear a lecture by Desmond Tutu, entitled “The Spirituality of Reconciliation.” Tutu shared stories about the struggles of fighting apartheid and the hard work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We were inspired by the words of this holy man of God who knows intimately of what he speaks about the radical act of forgiveness:
“Forgiveness is not for sissies”, says Tutu…it stares the beast in the eye. Forgiveness is confrontational. It is restorative. It seeks to heal.
The Christian faith couldn’t be summed up more clearly and succinctly. Forgiveness (mercy, compassion, reconciliation) is the way of discipleship…
a radical act that enable us to forge ahead in the midst of human pain and suffering
a radical act that move us to walk humbly with Christ toward the cross in Jerusalem during this season of Lent and beyond
a radical act that reminds us to never give up our hope in God’s plan to restore and heal all of creation
a radical act that begins with us and God, now and forever…
 Made For Goodness…and why this makes all the difference by Desmond and Mpho Tutu, 2010
 Douglas R. Hare, Interpretation Commentary on The Gospel of Matthew, 1993. The phrase “(or vice versa)” was added by the preacher of the sermon, the Rev. Andy Acton.
 God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time by Desmond Tutu, 2004.
 Invictus directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman (Mandela) and Matt Damon, 2009.
 Made For Goodness…and why this makes all the difference by Desmond and Mpho Tutu, 2010