A sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on September 17, 2017
Texts: Exodus 14:19-31; Matthew 18:21-35
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
September 17, 2017—Proper 19A
Exodus 14:19-31; Matthew 18:21-35
That sound you hear is Jesus’ accountant, peeling out and heading for the hills! I’m guessing The Son of Man had a hard time getting bookkeepers to stick around, because he was always coming up with crazy things like this: a story in which a king not only loans a servant the equivalent of 10,000 years of labor (uhh, what?) but then decides to cancel that debt. And what self-respecting accountant could tolerate such ridiculous nonsense?
I mean, I’m not even an accountant, and I have a hard time with it. Where’s the sense of balance and fairness? Where’s the accountability, for God’s sake? Where’s the redress? Where is any hint that this transaction makes any kind of sense whatsoever?
There is none, and that’s the point. Jesus makes this story so far over the top, with its seventy times seven, and then these gargantuan sums of money owed and forgiven, that it blows any ideas that the Kingdom is transactional out of the water. The Kingdom of God is not a transaction. It’s not: do this and this will happen; don’t do that and this will happen. It’s not even: if you do this, then what you’ll need to do is this.
Which is hard for us to wrap our heads around. We understand transactions. We like balanced equations. What makes sense to us, what feels right to us, is that when a wrong is committed, the wrongdoer needs to (1) admit what she has done (or failed to do), (2) express remorse, (3) make restitution or face punishment of some kind, and then (THEN) forgiveness can come. And it’s not that we’re wrong about the importance of admission, remorse and consequence. They are crucial elements in the mending of relationship and the maintenance of communal groups. That can’t be denied, no matter what this story seems to suggest. But what also can’t be denied is that admission plus remorse plus consequence does not always produce forgiveness. Does not always bring about that shift within the person who has been wronged that allows them to let go (that’s what the word “forgiveness” means, to release). To release the anger, release the resentment, release the regret, the desire to undo what has been done, the desire to lash out in perpetual revenge. That letting go, that healing does not just pop out of a vending machine into which enough remorse has been fed.
Which in some ways is good news, because the fact is, you don’t always get remorse. There isn’t always that apology or restitution or punishment that promises to magically heal the wound. And so the wound will still be there, the anger lingering and eating away at the wronged person’s psyche. Our only hope in those times is that forgiveness—that is to say, healing—does not actually depend on a transaction.
In this gospel story, Jesus invites us to imagine that forgiveness is something far more astonishing and overwhelming than that. Forgiveness is vast (no, seriously, unimaginably vast) and in God’s Kingdom, it is a given (it’s like the oxygen in the air). And when it comes, when it flows into your lungs, you will have absolutely no doubt that it is both gift and miracle.
Because you can’t do it all by yourself. And it doesn’t come automatically, no matter what kind of remorse and restitution occurs. It’s beyond us. Not because we can’t figure out how to be loving and generous enough, but because Jesus is right to use such crazy superlatives, and Brené Brown is right in her book Rising Strong, where she describes the journey to forgiveness as an out and out rumble.
It’s a rumble. Once you’ve faced the reckoning of what you have done or what has been done to you, once you’ve acknowledged the effects and the feelings that brings about, you’re still going to need to rumble with it all for a while. Maybe a long while. Maybe what feels like 10,000 years of labor’s worth of rumbling.
It’s big, is what Jesus is saying. What Brene Brown is saying. What I am saying. Because, when we walk onto the ground of forgiveness (or, rather, the ground which forgiveness might somehow reclaim), there’s so much damage, so much guilt, so much shame, so much broken, so much to be paid back, so much to be avoided in the future. We want to protect ourselves. We want to never hurt anyone or be hurt by anyone again. We want it to be made right. We want a world in which it can be made right. We are disillusioned and fearful when we have been hurt; we are defensive and in denial when we have done the hurting.
And so forgiveness is scary. It feels as though we are letting go of the right to fairness, to the need for consequences, to the hope of any kind of restitution. It feels as though we are leaving ourselves open to being hurt again, or to hurting someone again. Frankly, we fear that forgiveness is a get out of jail free card.
But that isn’t what forgiveness is actually about. The healing of relationship and community still requires all the remorse, the atonement, the restitution, and punishment you could desire. But forgiveness can actually stand alone. Needs to stand alone. Not as a commandment: that you must forgive (so try harder)! But as a promise that no matter what has happened to you, no matter what you have suffered and how terribly someone has wronged you, that you don’t need to be chained to that pain and anger forever. A promise that no matter what you have done, that you do not need to be chained to that guilt and self-doubt and regret forever. That you can somehow accept that humans make awful mistakes sometimes, and move forward. Painfully. In fits and starts perhaps. But forward.
Forgiveness is not a transaction, in which this plus this will produce this. It’s something we have to rumble with. It is a mystery. It is big scary grace that somehow we can only get to by walking into pain and loss and facing all our messy fears and desires. We have to examine our treasured illusions about ourselves and other people—who we are, what we’re capable of, how the world is supposed to work—and be willing to let them die.
We do not go easy into this. Like the servant in the gospel, who cannot take hold of it even after tasting its promise, we often kick and scream and cling to our old ways. To the things that make sense: “I am OWED this!” Letting that idea die feels (indeed) like a kind of death. But the promise is, the Good News of the Kingdom of God is, that it will instead be a release from torment, from the torture that would otherwise take hold of you forever.
Forgiveness is not a transaction. It’s a gift. It’s a mystery. It’s something you’ll have to rumble with and wrestle and face into. But someday, it will bring about the healing of your soul. May it be so. Amen.