There is no debt ceiling on forgiveness. A sermon for 9/11/11, Proper 19a.
SJF • Proper 19a 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God. So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
It is timely that the Scripture readings appointed for this day should deal with judgment and forgiveness. As you are no doubt keenly aware, this Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America, the day that will for ever live in infamy by its numeric nickname Nine-Eleven.
It is abundantly clear that much was done on that terrible day that cries out for forgiveness. America was viciously attacked; thousands of innocent people met death in its most terrifying and capricious form, doomed to die by horrible means, suddenly and unprepared. Many were vaporized in an instant, unaware what was happening to them. Others were forced to make that agonized and desperate choice between being burned alive or hurtling to their deaths on the street below. Many more were crushed under the weight of those buildings, suffocated and snuffed out in darkness. None of us who witnessed that horrible day will ever forget it, and the TV news shows will not let us forget even if we wanted to, as they run those video clips again and again, and endlessly analyze.
What makes forgiveness all the harder in this case is that those who carried out these crimes knew what they were doing. They wanted their acts to be as terrorizing as indeed they were — that’s why they are called terrorists: they did not mean only to bring destruction, but to instill fear, horror, and anguish; and this not only in those they directly harmed, but in our society and nation as a whole.
How can we forgive such wrong? How can we forgive such terrible crimes? We know how hard it is to forgive someone even when they say they are sorry — how much harder to forgive those who do not ask for forgiveness, who think that what they did was right and justified, and even think they were doing a religious duty!
If somebody steps on my foot in the subway, and then apologizes, it’s fairly easy for me to forgive, although I may still feel the pain in my foot. If someone steps on my foot by accident and then looks at me like it was my fault, I will not be in such a forgiving mood. But if someone looks me in the eye, and then deliberately stomps on my foot, with a “so there” thrown in — well, what am I to do?
My natural impulse is to feel that only the repentant deserve forgiveness; that forgiveness is something that must be earned and asked for. It is only logical, this calculus of tit-for-tat: only those who acknowledge their faults deserve to be forgiven. This seems fair and square.
Unfortunately, God does not make things so easy for me. God does not say to me, Forgive those who say they are sorry. God does not say to me, Forgive others in proportion to their repentance for the harm they have done to you. God does not give me the option of measuring how much I forgive against how much someone else repents — or doesn’t. I am not told to balance my forgiveness against another’s apology; instead I am told to balance how much I forgive against how much I have been and expect to be forgiven. The wicked slave in Jesus’ parable is punished in the end not for his failure to pay his master what he owed, but for not forgiving the debt that was owed to him.
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This is a hard teaching, no doubt about it. How much easier to keep it to myself; to treat forgiveness as if it were simply earthly coin of the realm: to balance the books of grace as if grace were a commodity that I could control, so much forgiveness doled out for so much apology; no forgiveness given unless asked for, and certainly not given to those who do not ask for it or to my mind deserve it.
What does God think? That forgiveness should be free? Do I want grace to abound when I am the wounded party and no one says they’re sorry? Does that make sense to you? Don’t we want forgiveness to be costly, to be won from us, purchased from us, earned from us by those who have done us wrong? Like the worst of the medieval bishops who sold indulgences and offered the church’s absolution in exchange for gold, dare we fall into the corrupted tit-for-tat that puts a price on grace?
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And of course, there was a price for grace — it’s just that we did not pay it. For all the while we quibble and bargain, bartering forgiveness as if it were ours to dole out, a quiet figure hangs before us on a cross. He is the one who committed no wrong, earned no just punishment. He is the one who suffered so much at the hands of those who meant to do him ill, and even thought it was a religious duty to do so, who they were right and weren’t in the least bit sorry for what they did. As that innocent man was dying, after having been unjustly tried and tortured, as he hung up there to die, they did not look with sorrow or pity upon the one whom they hated. They cursed and mocked him as he died, spitting in his direction, putting out their tongues and treating him as the greatest fool who had ever born. All the weight of the world’s wrong gathered there and pressed down upon the crucified Christ: all of the hatred, all of the sin and ignorance and pride that had been stored up or would yet come to be. The sin of the whole world pressed down upon that dying man as he hung upon the hard wood of the cross.
And what did he do? He begged God to forgive them. He stretched out his arms of love. He did not cry out to his Father, “See what they do, O Lord my God. Punish them as they deserve!” No, he cried out, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.”
Christ is our example and our Lord. He to whom the greatest wrong was ever done, forgave in full, forgave it all. No wrong, however bad, however painful, done to us can match what was done to Christ, yet he called out to God to forgive in full, without being asked by those who most needed the forgiveness, without the repentance of those who sinned against him.
And he challenges us to do the same: to find the strength to forgive those who sin against us, recalling how, in him, our debts have been forgiven. In order to do so, we will need to fight against our natural human impulse for revenge. We will need to quell our anger and our wrath, to recall that God has said, “Vengeance is mine,” and to echo the words of Joseph in the Old Testament passage this morning, and say, “Are we in the place of God?”
After we have quieted our anger, we will also need to go further, to quiet our need to hear the apologies of those who have done us wrong, and what is worse, who continue to wish to do us wrong. This will not be easy. It is not easy to forgive when you have been badly wronged, seriously injured, terribly assaulted. Do you think Jesus found it easy — dying there on the cross? It won’t be any easier for us to forgive. It is not easy to forgive when you know that the hand stretched out to forgive may receive another bite worse than the first. It is not easy to forgive — but it is the only way to be forgiven. The wise man spoke truly, “We will all stand before the judgment seat of God.”
God challenges us to stretch our little fabric of forgiveness until it covers a multitude of sins. Not seven times, but seventy-seven — which is to say, there is no debt ceiling on forgiveness. God reminds us that he is judge, he is the one before whom every knee will bow, every tongue confess, the one to whom we will all be required to render our account: the account of how much forgiveness we have freely given away.
Let us pray. Eternal Father, help us to find the strength to forgive those who have injured us, to pardon those who have assaulted and wounded us, that when we come to the last day to stand as we must before your judgment seat, we may find the wells of your compassion and forgiveness overflowing for us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.