Forgiveness – sorry seems to be the hardest word
Ordinary Sunday 24, 14 September, 2014
Melissa Clark, Theological Student
This is one of those sermons that start in one way and then go off in a totally new direction as it goes along. Once I sat down to begin writing I couldn't get that Elton John song out of my head — "Sorry seems to be the hardest word". It starts off (excuse the bad grammar) "What have I got to do to make you love me, what have I got to do to make you care. What do I do when lightning strikes me, and I wake to find that you're not there". As the song goes on we realise that poor Elton is asking for the opportunity to say sorry for something that someone believes that he has done but it is being denied him. We don't know if it is his partner, friend, parent or child who he wants to talk to, we just know that he is certainly not being given the opportunity.
It got me to thinking about how often we have similar conversations with God. We ask for the chance to be forgiven at least as often as we pray the Lord's Prayer. "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us". That little word as means that we are offered forgiveness in the same way that we forgive...and in what way are we to forgive? Well according to Jesus, not the seven times that Peter asks for, but we are to forgive seventy times seven times.
So why seven? Well the number seven shows up quite a bit in scripture and is particularly meaningful in Genesis and Revelation. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh because he saw that it was "good" — he then requested that the seventh day be kept Holy, because when God says "good" we can be pretty sure that it means "perfect". Now going all the way to the end of the book we find the seven seals, the seven plagues and the seven angels of revelation at the end of time — when all things, all time, all works are completed in God.
The number seven, in other words, is a symbol of perfect completion. So when Peter asks if we are to forgive seven times he is effectively asking if our forgiveness needs to be perfect or if we can half way forgive. Maybe tell someone we forgive them but then refuse to speak to them after that, or spread around the gossip mill that 'yes, I have forgiven that person' without actually speaking with the person we feel has hurt us, or maybe taking someone's hand during the passing of peace yet holding onto a hurt deep within our heart.
In true Jesus fashion though we are told that even this seven fold forgiveness is not enough — we have to go further, further than we feel that we may even be able to, but it is what we are called to do.
The way in which we judge people's action reflects on us. In Matthew's gospel, just before the parable that we heard this morning, sits instructions on reproving others who sin, indeed it is this instruction that leads to Peter's question about how many times we are to forgive. Jesus talks about the way in which to approach someone who has sinned or wronged — you start by taking them aside privately to talk to them, and if you don't get the result you want you can take it public. This instruction can't be read without being mindful of the passage back in chapter seven about taking the speck out of your neighbour's eye whilst you carry a log in your own eye. In other words Jesus tells us to be really careful about seeing the faults and sins in others before first examining ourselves.
The handy theological dictionary app that I have tells me that forgiveness is "the act of releasing someone from a debt or obligation". This sort of releasing from debt or obligation is not a very popular action if our public discourse is anything to go on. I'm sure we all remember George W Bush's famous attempt at the 'Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me' saying. We have all seen opposing politicians calling out people as liars when policy backflips have occurred, banks foreclosing on debts and state and military revenge is sought in the most horrific ways, sometimes leading to war and terrible humanitarian disasters, when countries feel that they have been wronged.
Forgiveness does not mean the embrace of violence perpetrated against us. It does not mean giving free reign to those who would do us harm. It does not mean a ready acquiescence to those who are stronger than us. I'm not saying that people shouldn't be held to account at all but the context of these teachings is key. Forgiveness is a gift of grace, a reflection of God's love, not the curse of abuse or a reflection of our worst tendencies as humans.
The reality is though, that as much as we may try to not do wrong to others, sometimes people say and do things that hurt. It is really really hard to work our way through some of the things that happen to us — sometimes hurts run so deeply that they actually become part of the fabric of who we are. That if we were to honestly reflect on the pain that we are carrying we would see that our lives could be different if we had chosen to release the debt or obligation we feel was owed to us from someone else.
There is no easy answer to this really. If we are to take seriously our request that God forgive us as we forgive those who sin against us then we just have to keep working on it. At least we know that unlike poor old Elton John God will actually listen to us when we ask for help to forgive. The most wonderful and awe inspiring thing about God is knowing that we are completely and unconditionally loved and that we will always, always be heard when we pray with a true heart.
And that we will always be forgiven as we forgive those who sin against us.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.