September 17: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Rich Weyls is a supply priest for St. Hilda St. Patrick. He is the former rector for St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Seattle and is currently the Manager for Spiritual Health for the Providence/Swedish health care system. The sermon for September 17. 2023 was preached in response to Matthew 18:21-35 based on the manuscript below.

Jesus, you keep giving us these tough Gospels. Forgiveness, now that’s a tough one. Sure, it’s supposed to be part of our religious commitment and way of life, but within reason, right? I’m willing to forgive the people I like when they are contrite and ask for forgiveness, but, ooh, I think Jesus is asking for much more than that. Who else squirmed while hearing these words from Jesus today. I squirmed because I have been deeply hurt and holding on to my resentment is familiar and gives me a sense of power and control. But today, Jesus tells Peter that forgiveness in the kingdom of God must be generous beyond limits. We shouldn’t forgive our offenders a mere seven times, but rather, seventy-seven, or seventy times seven, 490 times. In other words, forgiveness should be our regular practice, our way of life, our default mode. Why? Because we are first and foremost a forgiven people — a people generously and lavishly forgiven by God. In light of the abundant grace in which we stand, what possible response can we have, but to pay the wealth of God’s forgiveness forward? Paying the wealth of God’s forgiveness forward. That’s what this sermon is about.
I am a recovering alcoholic. In the rooms of AA, I hear how my resentment fueled my addiction. I’m encouraged to work the steps to do a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of my life, to tell another person about it, make a list of all the people I have harmed, and to seek amends, directly from the people I have harmed. My recovery depends upon seeking forgiveness from others. It is part of my recovery to constantly take a personal inventory and, when I am wrong, promptly admit it. I do my best to let go of resentment, seek forgiveness, and forgive others to keep myself sober. I don’t always do it well, but I keep trying at it. I do it because I want to live and, if I drink, I will probably die, but I also do it because I’m a Christian. This is what Christ calls us to do. But honestly, it is really difficult. I’ve been at it for more than 20 years, but it’s a lot of work at it and I’m part of a community that supports me in it. I seek progress, not perfection in this chosen way of life.
In her popular memoir, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes that withholding forgiveness is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die. Nora Gallagher writes, “Forgiveness is a way to unburden oneself from the constant pressure of rewriting the past.” Henri Nouwen writes, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly, and so we need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. Forgiveness is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.”
If these writers are correct, then I think forgiveness is choosing to foreground love instead of resentment. To put love first. If I’m consumed with my own pain, if I’ve made injury my identity, if I insist on weaponizing my well-deserved anger in every interaction I have with people who hurt me, then I’m drinking poison, and the poison will kill me long before it does anything to my abusers. To choose forgiveness is to release myself from the tyranny of my bitterness. To trust that my frenzied longing for vindication and justice is known to God. To cast my hunger for healing deep into Christ’s heart, because healing belongs to him, and he’s the only one powerful enough to secure it.
I wonder if we’re often squeamish about forgiveness because we misunderstand the nature of unconditional love. Foregrounding God’s all-embracing love doesn’t for one second require us to relativize evil. If it did, God’s love would be cruel and weak, not compassionate, and strong. But where we humans make love and judgment mutually exclusive — where we cry out for revenge, retribution, and punishment — God holds out for restorative justice. A kind of justice we can barely imagine. It’s a justice steeped in love and reconciliation. A kind of justice that has the power to heal both the oppressed and the oppressor.
Secondly, I think forgiveness is a transformed way of seeing. A way of seeing that is forward-focused. Future-focused. Focused on a better world and restored relationships. I don’t believe that abuse and oppression are ever God’s will or plan for anyone. But I do believe that God is totally in the business of taking the worst things that happen to us and transforming them for the purposes of multiplying wholeness and blessing. Because God is in the story, we can rest assured that our wounds will not end in loss, trauma, brokenness, and defeat. There will be another turn, another chapter, another path, another grace. Because God loves us, we don’t have to forgive out of scarcity. We can forgive out of God’s abundance. Once again, this sermon is about paying the wealth of God’s forgiveness forward.
Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber, after describing mistreatment as a chain that binds us, writes stunningly about the power of forgiveness to free us for the work of justice and transformation. I want to share her words in conclusion because they speak so powerfully to me. Remember, the image of a chain that binds us:
“Maybe retaliation or holding onto anger about the harm done to me doesn’t actually combat evil. Maybe it feeds it. Because in the end, if we’re not careful, we can actually absorb the worst of our enemy, and at some level, start to become them. So, what if forgiveness, rather than being a pansy way to say, ‘It’s okay,’ is actually a way of wielding bolt-cutters, and snapping the chains that link us? What if it’s saying, ‘What you did to me was so not okay, I refuse to be connected to it anymore.’? Forgiveness is about being a freedom fighter. And free people are dangerous people. Free people aren’t controlled by the past. Free people laugh more than others. Free people see beauty where others do not. Free people are not easily offended. Free people are unafraid to speak truth to stupid. Free people are not chained to resentments. And that’s worth fighting for.”
As I let these words wash over me again and again, I pray — first for myself, and then for all of us — that we will take up the hard work of forgiveness for the sake of a broken, hurting, and desperate world. I believe it is the most important work we can do as the children of a God who grieves and rages against oppression. May we loosen the chains that bind us. May we rise. And may we always pay forward the healing grace and forgiveness of God, until justice reigns.

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