Monday, September 15, 2014

Forgiving and Forgetting

A sermon on Matthew 18:21-35

I can’t believe I’m about to start a sermon this way, but here we go…

The scripture reading for today reminded me of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a rather nerdy sci-fi show which I watched regularly throughout my childhood.

In the opening scene, the starship Enterprise is about to collide with another ship. The crew tries hurriedly to avert the collision, but there are numerous mechanical problems, the two massive ships graze each other starting a chain reaction, alarms sound, the vehicle shakes and shudders, and an explosion obliterates the ship, just as the show cuts to commercial. In the next scene, everything seems back to normal. Some characters play poker, including the doctor, who is called to the sick bay to alleviate Levar Burton’s character’s ear infection. She experiences déjà vu in her room that night, but thinks nothing of it. The next day, as she is telling another character about her eerie sense that this has all happened before, a ship appears on a collision course with the Enterprise. The crew tries to avert the collision, but there are mechanical problems, the two ships graze each other, a chain reaction begins, and the ship explodes. In the next scene, we are again at the poker table. All the characters have an odd sense of déjà vu this time. Again, the scene in the sick bay. Then the bedroom, and the déjà vu. Then the explosion. By the third time at the poker table, there is a definite sense that something is awry. But before the characters can solve the mystery and understand why they are so sure that this has all happened before, the ship explodes. The events keep repeating themselves, with the characters getting closer and closer to understanding what is happening. Eventually, they realize that there is some kind of anomaly in the time-space continuum (again, I can't believe I just said that from the pulpit) causing time to skip like an old record; they find a way to send a signal that helps them, the next time around, to avert the collision and break the time loop. At the end of the episode, it is revealed that they have been stuck in a time loop for seventeen days; the crew of the vehicle they have just avoided colliding with has been stuck in this loop for ninety years.

This episode came to mind as I thought about the implications of today’s Gospel lesson. Peter comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how many times should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Peter is suggesting that he offer an extravagant amount of forgiveness – in the Jewish tradition of which both Peter and Jesus were part, seven symbolizes completion, like the seven days of creation. And practically speaking, the wisdom of the time would probably say one or two times was plenty. (In fact, our own culture’s popular wisdom holds the same belief – perhaps you’ve heard the saying “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”) Peter isn’t asking, “should I be stingy with forgiveness?” he’s asking, “should I be extravagant with forgiveness?” Jesus’ answer – “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” – bids Peter to go beyond extravagance.

Jesus then tells a rather odd and disturbing parable. A slave owes a king ten thousand talents. He cannot pay, and so the king orders him to be sold along with his wife, children, and all their possessions. Distressed, the slave begs for more time to pay the debt. The king relents and forgives the debt. On his way out, the slave sees another slave who owes him a hundred denarii, and seizes him by the throat, demanding payment. The debtor is unable to pay, and so the pardoned slave has him thrown in prison. The other slaves report the situation to the king, who summons the slave and has him thrown in jail, saying that, because he did not show mercy, he will not be released until he has paid every penny of his debt.

Christians have traditionally understood the parable in this way: the king is God. In forgiving our sins, God has offered us extravagant, absurd mercy – in fact, the amount that the slave owes the king, ten thousand talents, is equivalent to about six TRILLION dollars. We must respond to God’s mercy by being merciful to one another. The slave refuses to forgive the debt of a hundred denarii, or about ten thousand dollars – a large amount of money, but nothing compared to his own canceled debt. If we refuse to be merciful to others, how can we expect God to be merciful to us? So goes the traditional interpretation. And there’s something to be said for it.

But I have some questions: first of all, I think that Jesus and his listeners would have known that there was simply no way that a slave could reasonably owe a king ten thousand talents (again, that’s six trillion dollars). That amount of money is simply absurd, to the point that the king’s character is implicated – what kind of funny business is he pulling that a slave could be so deeply in debt? Secondly, the end of the parable, where the king reinstates the debt, runs counter to everything we teach about forgiveness. Our Christian tradition teaches that forgiveness – like baptism – cannot be undone. Forgiveness may be an emotional process, but once you have offered forgiveness, there really aren’t supposed to be take-backs.

It makes me wonder whether this parable speaks not about how forgiveness ought to be done, but about how forgiveness is misused in church and society. Surely you have your own stories: forgiveness offered and then retracted, forgiveness used as a bargaining chip or a weapon, forgiveness demanded by the powerful from the powerless, forgiveness taken advantage of.

So how does forgiveness work? How are we supposed to do it? And are there any limits?

Jesus says that we are supposed to forgive extravagantly, profligately, not seven times, but seventy-seven. That seems like a step in the right direction – that forgiveness should be generous and abundant, like God’s love. But still that can go wrong.

Recently, I’ve been following the media coverage about NFL player Ray Rice. Rice has been suspended from the NFL, after a video was released showing him assaulting his then-fiancée, now-wife, Janay, knocking her unconscious in an elevator. Between the incident and the release of security camera footage, the couple married, and Janay reports that she has forgiven him.

I don’t know about their relationship specifically, but I do know that forgiveness is often part of the cycle of domestic abuse. Experts actually use a graphic showing this cycle – that’s how predictable it is. An abusive episode happens – whether that is a physical assault or some other form of abuse – then the abuser feels guilty; he (or sometimes she) apologizes, begs for forgiveness, promises it will never happen again; the victim forgives; there is a honeymoon period, often with flowers and gifts, then tension starts to build, until another assault takes place. All of this takes place cloaked in secrecy, hidden from view. Too often, when victims reach out for help, they are reminded of teachings like the one we heard today – that they are supposed to forgive seventy-seven times. But I think there is more to forgiveness than that.

In the cycle of abuse, forgiveness keeps victims trapped. Forgiveness should not trap us; it should free us. In the cycle of abuse, forgiveness keeps things from changing; but forgiveness should not keep everything the same; it should be an instrument of transformation.

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who led South Africa through a process of reconciliation in the wake of the fall of Apartheid, knows quite a lot about forgiveness. In his most recent book, he speaks of forgiveness having four steps. The first step is telling the story, he says. Forgiveness does not mean sweeping what happened under the rug. It does not mean silence and secrecy. Forgiveness requires us to tell the story, to acknowledge what happened.

The second step, he says, is naming the hurt. It is not true or helpful to say that a harmful or cruel or violent act was “no big deal.” You have to name the hurt and the harm; if no harm was done, then no forgiveness is necessary. Recognizing and articulating the pain and hurt opens the door for forgiveness. 

The third step is asking for and/or offering forgiveness. A reporter asked Desmond Tutu whether the perpetrator had to repent and ask for forgiveness, and Tutu replied that, while it was better for the perpetrator if they did so, forgiveness could take place without their involvement. He said, “If forgiving depended on the culprit owning up, then the victim would always be at the mercy of the perpetrator. . . . As the victim, you offer the gift of your forgiving to the perpetrator who may or may not appropriate the gift but it has been offered and thereby it liberates the victim.” 

The final step in Tutu’s fourfold path of forgiveness is renewing or releasing the relationship. Not every instance of forgiveness can or should lead to an ongoing relationship between victim and perpetrator. Indeed, in abusive relationships, it is often better for both victim and perpetrator if the relationship is released.

Another aspect of forgiveness, one that Tutu doesn’t highlight explicitly in his four steps but that I think he and Jesus both understood implicitly, is this: forgiveness happens in community. Not behind locked doors of secrecy and shame. Not in silence and darkness and hiding. The parable speaks of fellow slaves who witness the king’s act of mercy and hold the vengeful slave accountable when he fails to respond with grace and mercy toward his neighbor.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean hitting the reset button, it means going through a process of letting go of your anger and desire for revenge; it means giving up the right to get even; it means cutting the ties of debts and scorecards that keep us shackled to those who have harmed us. God’s forgiveness is boundless and immeasurable; God meets us where we are and forgives us when we fall short. But not so we can keep on in the same old errors and mistakes. We are forgiven with unimaginable grace and love so that we can be liberated from old harmful patterns and liberated into new ways of living.

When we hear Jesus’ teaching to forgive seventy-seven times, we hear that we should forgive abundantly, profligately. And that is true. Forgiveness is about letting go of our obsession with getting even, settling up, keeping score. If we keep score on our acts of forgiveness, we are missing the point. 

But forgiveness is supposed to change things, too. Forgiveness is not supposed to keep us trapped in cycles of violence and harm, looping through the same events over and over and over again, like the characters on that television show. Forgiving does not mean forgetting what happened and going back to the way things were. Forgiveness – God’s forgiveness of us, our forgiveness of others, and others’ forgiveness of us – frees us from those cycles, lifting from us the burdens of sin and violence and pain, so that we can live more fully into who God calls us to be: people of peace, compassion, justice, and grace.

Thanks be to God.


No comments:

Post a Comment