Note: This sermon was given over Zoom for St. Timothy’s Signal Mountain, Tennessee. The cover photo was drawn by the Rev. Christopher Bowen, Dean of the Chapel at Roanoke College.
Readings: Matthew 18:15-20
Forgiveness is hard to talk about in this day and age.
It’s hard to talk about forgiveness with a deadly virus closing in around us. When we can lay the blame for something so tragic on our neighbors who may or may not comply with health regulations; when we can blame politicians for putting politics above the common good. It’s hard to talk about forgiveness over the family table when our divisions split us in two like a sharpened ax through new pine. It’s hard to talk about forgiveness when we are angry and hurting; it’s hard to talk about forgiveness when finally, we are sad and broken.
In our gospel this morning, Matthew tells us to forgive each other. Forgiveness is wrapped up in the character of Matthew’s Gospel. It is counter-cultural. It is contradictory; yet this theme of forgiveness is pervasive. First in the beatitudes; then, Matthew tells us to love our enemies. Then, love your neighbor as yourself. Then, he teaches us to pray: Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
Forgiveness is central to the gospel proclamation.
Before our gospel reading today, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep. After the passage, he tells the parable of the unforgiving servant. In the story of the lost sheep, the shepherd goes after the one who has fallen away, the sinner. The shepherd does not abandon the lost one, instead, Jesus tells us, it is the will of God that no one should be lost.
So if someone sins against you, you must confront them. If they do not listen, you must take others with you. If they do not listen, you must tell the whole community. If they do not listen to the church, then they are as a gentile, or a tax collector: they are on the outside. They are alone.
But wait… that doesn’t sound like it is about forgiveness. It sounds like that is about seeking justice, or even revenge.
Jesus doesn’t want to cast out the sinners: Jesus wants to re-rehabilitate them. Jesus goes first to the tax collectors and sends the disciples out to the gentiles. We are lost sheep, brought into the sheepfold one by one. When something happens in the church, when one sins against another, Jesus offers a path to bring them back in. We cannot bury our feelings of anger under a facade of politeness. We also must stop and look in the mirror: as the author of First Timothy says “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim 1:15). Jesus comes first too us, and returns for us when we fall astray. Because of that, we are responsible to extend forgiveness to those outside ourselves. We have to offer forgiveness. We have to bring each other back in. For the sinner, finally, is another lost sheep from God’s flock. The sinner, finally, is as alone as we feel when we have been wronged, broken, cast aside, and hurt. When we pray, “forgive our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us,” we ask for our own salvation based on how we promise to treat others. We need forgiveness; but we can only receive forgiveness through offering it to others.
My college chaplain used to tell us forgiveness was about three things. We had to give up, give notice, and give a gift.
- We give up. When we are sinned against, we have to go to the other and say “you hurt me.” We make ourselves vulnerable. We give up power over that person, that power of “you owe me.” We give up our control over the situation. When we take revenge, we hold that control; but when we seek forgiveness, we have no guaranteed result
- Second, we give notice. We must tell the other person what they did. If we let the sin go unchallenged, it happens again. We lose a chance at reconciliation. We are saying “I don’t love my neighbor enough to keep them in the flock.” Jesus’ words in the gospel today guide us in how we give that notice.
- Third, we give the gift. Reconciliation does not benefit just the one who sinned; it benefits the one who was sinned against. We give up the anger, resentment, revenge. We gain peace. We gain a renewed relationship. We re-build community.
Our world is not structured for forgiveness. It is structured for rivalry, self-interest, revenge. Offering forgiveness is costly; it can, and it will cost us. Yet, Christ compels us to forgive: not seven times, but seventy times. For if we were not forgiven, over and over and over again for each time we fell short, we would be one of the lost sheep.
Who is Christ calling you to forgive?