Sunday, 13 September 2020

Forgiving others, as we are forgiven

Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church, 13/9/2020. Text: Matthew 18:21-35.

In the past couple of months, we’ve been mildly obsessed as a family with the musical Hamilton, the big-ticket show in New York and London which was released in a filmed version on Disney Plus this summer. We’ve watched it three times and listened many times to the music. For those who don’t know, it’s a mostly historically accurate portrayal of Alexander Hamilton, a key figure in the American revolution and the founding of the United States as an independent nation. It’s full of brilliant music and lyrics, and some very powerful moments. One of the most emotional scenes is concerned with forgiveness, so it’s directly relevant to this passage.

In a terrible series of events, Hamilton had an affair when he was a prominent politician and his wife Eliza was away. He was subsequently blackmailed by the husband of the woman he’d had the affair with, which for complicated reasons left him open to charges of public embezzlement. To clear his name of those charges, he wrote a public pamphlet confessing to the affair, ruining his reputation and breaking his wife’s heart. His young adult son was then killed in a duel defending Hamilton’s honour, leading to a huge rift between Hamilton and Eliza.

In a beautiful song, Eliza burns all of Hamilton’s letters, writing herself out of his future narrative. And then they move together to a quiet part of New York, where they grieve and Hamilton sings how sorry he is, and where eventually Eliza is able to forgive him – and as Hamilton weeps, the chorus sing the word “forgiveness” over and over again. Another character refers to Eliza’s forgiveness as “a grace too powerful to name”.

Because that’s the thing about forgiveness. It’s really hard - really really hard. It takes time and it takes real work to forgive someone who’s done you wrong. Seventy-seven times, or seven times seventy times, as Jesus puts it. And for the one that gets forgiven, it’s experienced as an act of supreme grace. 

Forgiveness is a central theme in Jesus’ ministry, from start to end. He came proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. When he healed, he often told people that their sins were forgiven. And as he died, according to the gospel of Luke, he said “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”. 

Jesus also taught about forgiveness in two important places in Matthew’s gospel. This is one, but the other we’ve spoken already in this service – the Lord’s Prayer, where he said the disciples should pray “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” ['forgive us our debts' in the Gospel], or “trespasses” as it’s often prayed in English churches, and went on after the prayer to say: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins”. That’s his only commentary on the Lord’s Prayer – forgiveness is literally the most important part of the prayer according to Jesus.

The Unforgiving Servant by James Janknegt 

And so to the parable. It’s really quite complicated with its different servants. First thing to say is that it’s full of hyperbole, with details that are made deliberately stronger than they need to be. The amount the first servant is said to owe is so large to be impossible – in our money today it would be perhaps £4 billion. That’s the national debt of a small country. But it shows the sort of person the servant would have to be – someone huge and powerful in a life of the kind of hierarchical society pictured in the parable. That would make him a great lord, owing many obligations to his king but in turn owed many obligations by those in the many layers of the pyramid beneath him. And if the king forgave the debts of someone at the top of the pyramid, all the people below him also had their debts forgiven. So in refusing to forgive this much smaller debt – roughly worth £7000 in today’s money – the rich servant was not being mean and selfish, he was actively going against the whole point of forgiveness. By having his own debts forgiven, he was supposed to have forgiven those of others; he was breaking the rules, not passing on the good thing he had received. And debt is precisely the word found in the Lord’s Prayer, still said in Scotland as “forgive us our debts”, but as sins or trespasses here.

And it’s not hard to see why Jesus tells this story, why he links it to the life of the church community. Because forgiveness really matters in keeping any sort of community going. Consider conflict within churches. Conflict can simmer and remain around for many years, because people stay in the same churches for many years, even sometimes generations. I was part of a church once, in a town far from here, where thirty years earlier there’d been a big argument over the use of the building, a group of people had left to worship in another part of town, and progressively the people who had left got old and died off, with just a small number of them remaining. But the rift hadn’t healed. And it was still a hurt that people didn’t want to talk about. They really needed to forgive one another, but they simply couldn’t do so.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a man who has dedicated much of his ministry to forgiveness. In South Africa after the end of apartheid, he chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which enabled an entire society of people to forgive those who had done unbelievable harm to them. Tutu has spoken and written at great length about the necessity and the power of forgiveness. He wrote that “without forgiveness, there can be no future for a relationship between individuals or within and between nations”.

We’ve all done so many things that we need to ask others to be forgiven, and many of us have had things done to us that are so hard to forgive. This is a subject that’s pretty difficult to confront. For some people, there are things that are too hard to forgive, or which take a very long time. It’s simply wrong to tell abuse victims, or families of those murdered, or people who have persecuted and hurt by institutions, that it’s their duty to forgive. One of the nasty and insidious ways that this passage has been used has to be try to force victims to come to terms with those who have hurt them, suggesting that otherwise they’re not fulfilling God’s will. Nobody should tell someone who’s been terribly wronged that they have to forgive.

And yet there are so many amazing stories of people who are willing to forgive those who have done them terrible harm. Desmond Tutu’s daughter, Mpho Tutu van Furth, herself an ordained priest, has written extensively of her experience in forgiving someone who murdered a person close to her. I heard her speak about this once, at the Greenbelt festival. She says that there is no one who cannot be forgiven – nobody is beyond forgiveness. Moreover, it is possible to forgive someone even if they show no remorse, and indeed by not forgiving someone you allow the one who injured you to dictate who you are. Forgiveness releases you to let go of the hurt and to move on. Or it might do so eventually.

Image: The Other Press

Nor is forgiveness just an individual thing. As a society we have committed so many acts that require forgiveness. The wealth of this nation for so many centuries was built on colonialism and on the slave trade, the exploitation of other people’s bodies to enrich people here. We can cast Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour, and quite right too, but our whole nation requires forgiveness. 

Right now, we are damaging our planet on a level that is wholly unsustainable, through the profligacy of our lifestyle, with its pollution and its destruction of natural resources. We need to seek forgiveness from the earth, but just as much we need to seek forgiveness from future generations, those who are young right now like the school strikers, but also those generations as yet unborn whose lives may never have the same richness of the natural world that all of us here currently enjoy. This is an individual matter – we could all drive less, fly less, use less plastic, eat more sustainably and so on; but more so it’s a collective matter, and we need to change it collectively. 

And I could go on about things we do, individually and collectively, that require forgiveness. I’m sure everyone here can think of many such things. But we have Jesus’ example to follow, in the forgiveness he gave to so many people through his teaching and through his life. The parable presents the negative side, of what happens if we don’t forgive. But Jesus offered forgiveness to so many, and continue to offer forgiveness to us today. God through Jesus forgives us of all our sins, however terrible; it’s simply asked of us to do likewise. In the Iona Community’s prayer of confession in their daily liturgy, the words of forgiveness read:

May God forgive you, Christ renew you, and the Spirit enable you to grow in love.

May it be so for all of us today, and may we find that forgiveness reflected in the way we forgive others. Amen.


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