January 19, 2020

Roll Down Justice: “Community of Forgiveness”                                    

Matthew 18: 15-22

Rev. Nancy Talbot at Mount Seymour United Church

The first thing I noticed when I read this morning’s scripture reading was the way it compels us, when an offender refuses to listen, even to the church, to treat that person as a Gentile and a tax collector.  My immediate thought was to wonder if we were being told to treat people poorly if they refuse to confess their wrongdoings.  Tax collectors and Gentiles were notoriously being treated poorly in ancient Israel.  Then I remembered that Jesus was notorious for treating tax collectors and Gentiles with love and compassion and I realized that this passage is meant to challenge our thinking about people who have done us or others wrong and how we treat them.  To underline that point, when Peter takes Jesus aside and asks him just how many times are we  supposed to forgive a member of the church who sins against us?  As many as seven times?  Jesus famously replies “Not seven times, seventy-seven times.”

Even though this passage is about sin and forgiveness in the church, clearly there was some kind of conflict going on in the church that the writer of Matthew’s gospel is referring to, broken relationships and the need for forgiveness to mend them are present in every kind of community that has ever existed.  They are present in churches, in governments, in nations, between nations and in families.

Writer Anne Lamott says Earth is forgiveness school.  At family gatherings where you suddenly feel homicidal or suicidal, remember that in all cases, it’s a miracle that any of us, specifically, were conceived and born.  Forgiveness begins with forgiving yourselves, and then you might as well start at the dinner table.  That way, you can do this work in comfortable pants.*

And it is work.  Anybody who actually likes confronting someone about their wrongdoing is probably on some kind of a power trip.  And who among us enjoys admitting to our own wrongdoing.  Dysfunctional relationships have thrived on our aversion to this kind of truth telling and resentment harbouring since time immemorial.

Forgiveness is something we choose to do.  Our reading suggests it’s something that doesn’t always take the first time it’s offered. Because it’s hard work and because it doesn’t always take, it is something we have to practise doing over and over and over again until it becomes ingrained in us, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.  And that’s just for one person who has harmed us.  Forgiveness is really a spiritual practise.  It’s something we work at over and over again.

Many of you will be familiar with the famous image from 1972 of Kim Phuc running naked in the street after napalm had been dropped on her village by the South Vietnamese Military.  In a recently released documentary, she addresses the subject of forgiveness sharing how embittered she became after the attack that so dramatically affected her life.  Hatred and anger built up inside of me, she says, and I kept asking why me?  Ten years later Kim was suicidal.  In the same year she also found a copy of the New Testament in a library in Saigon.  She became a Christian and when she did, her enemy list became her prayer list.  She began to pray for everyone she had once felt so much hatred towards, everyone who caused her suffering and pain: the pilot of the plane that dropped the napalm, the military commander who gave the order, anyone and everyone she could think of.  “Forgiveness set my heart free.”**

We may wonder what forgiveness has to do with justice, it often seems like such a personal subject.  Several years ago, Kim Phuc was quoted as saying “Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness and love are much more powerful.  We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope and forgiveness.”

Inherent in the need for seeking justice is the reality that injustice has been done.  Forgiveness is part of how we move towards making right what has been wrong, reconciling what has been torn apart.  And it can be a very slow process.  It is not something that can always happen quickly.  We hear in Kim Phuc’s story the years it took her to reach a place of even starting to forgive and then the process of praying and praying for the people who were responsible for harming her.

For great injustices, for situations where entire communities and nations have been or continue to be afflicted and oppressed by political regimes or systems such as we heard Flavio Caron talk about last week when he spoke of the harm done to Indigenous people in Canada over centuries; for situations of domestic abuse including childhood sexual abuse, forgiveness may include a long process of grief, outrage, sadness, loss and pain.  It’s why the hearing of stories is such an important part of any Truth and Reconciliation process.

True forgiveness does not paper over what has happened in a superficial way.  It’s not about denying, supressing or ignoring pain.  At its’ best it honours grief and betrayal allowing time to ripen until sometimes it simply dissolves into freedom.  Which is why sometimes we have to act our way into forgiveness with a series of words and gestures to break the pattern of hurt and anger that can so easily become ingrained in communities, in entire nations and in individuals.

Let me give you an example of that with a situation that happened in my own life that was a big injustice but it did tap into a larger societal and systemic injustice.

I was having dinner with my newly married best friend from childhood and her husband Mark.  Mark said something to me about my sexual orientation that was so offensive to me I couldn’t bear to stay sitting at the table with him.  I stormed away from the dinner table and kept on walking right out the door.  It’s the only time in my life I have done that. He never apologized to me for that incident, but because he was married to my best friend, we had to learn how to be in relationship with one another.  And so we practiced sharing kind words, eating a meal together and celebrating life events like the birth of his daughter.  We acted as if we cared for one another until our hearts were actually softened and we did begin to genuinely care.  I never fully recovered from his hurtful comments although over time I did gain a better understanding of where he was coming from that night and I even found some compassion for him.

Several years ago, Mark died from an aneurysm.  Our relationship has never been better.  You may think I’m just making a joke, but I’m serious. When Jesus says in our reading for today “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” what’s really being said is that as people of faith, as human beings we are trusted to make discerning decisions about one another, including convictions of guilt and acts of remediation or when to let someone off the hook.  And so I trust that what Mark and chose to let go of and not properly deal with here on earth has been let go of in life beyond this life and therefore there is no longer any need for me to hold onto any resentment.  We are held in a greater truth and a greater love than he and I were ever able to express on earth.  Perhaps we always were.

At the core of the Christian practice of forgiveness is an understanding of the way God forgives us.  The first step in understanding how God forgives is accepting that as human beings we all  mess up.  We hurt one another intentionally and unintentionally.  Even when we haven’t directly caused one another personal harm, we are all complicit in the brokenness of our world, in systemic injustice that causes poverty and oppression, in over consumption that causes damage to our planet.  Over and over again in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, God’s forgiveness is paramount.

For Christians forgiveness is most clearly portrayed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  In his humanity, Jesus lived in the world we live in.  He loved and experienced love as we love and  he experienced insults and the ultimate injury, betrayal, oppression, abandonment and state sanctioned execution.  But he did not allow himself to be defined by the worst of human behavior.  Instead he modeled a way for humanity to break cycles of destruction, a way of grace.  He offered a new way of living together, a way that speaks of the value of every human life and the way forgiveness really can set us free to begin again.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, says that to live a forgiven life is not simply to live in a happy consciousness of having been absolved for our sins.  It’s really about knowing in the depths of our being what restored and right relationships with God, with ourselves and with others is really all about.  It therefore serves as a stimulus and sometimes an irritant provoking us to protest all versions of social and personal relations that are not also reconciled and right. ***

I am drawn to large scale stories of forgiveness.  Last summer I thoroughly enjoyed reading Mark Sakamoto’s booked “Forgiveness.” It’s the true story of his maternal grandfather Ralph who spent years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the second world war and how that experience completely broke him and his paternal grandmother Mitsue who was expelled from her home in Vancouver after the attack on Pearl Harbour and sent with her family to a sugar beet farm in Alberta where she engaged in back breaking labour.  Both of their experiences during the war threatened to erase their humanity.  And yet when Ralph’s daughter and Mitsue’s son met at a high school dance and fell in love, they had to find a way to learn to forgive and they did.

Stories like these give me great hope for the future of our relationship with our Indigenous brothers and sisters.  They make me believe that one day peace with justice is possible between Israel and Palestine and other war-torn countries.  Forgiveness allows us and compels us to imagine a better future and to keep working towards it.

And yet there’s something about focusing on this big forgiveness stories that can easily distract me from my own work of offering and seeking forgiveness in my day to day life.  Anne Lamott may be right in saying we may as well do the work of forgiveness in comfortable pants, sitting at the dining room table with our families and friends, but I’ve already told you how bad I am at doing that.

So there’s something quite wonderful about participating and building a community of forgiveness like the one in which we have gathered here this morning:  a community that reminds us of the power of love and the worthiness of every human being; a community that reminds us that we are as valuable as any Gentile and any tax collector; a community that attempts to speak truthfully and patiently about conflicts that have arisen; a community that acknowledges anger and hurt and bitterness and works to overcome them; a community that works away at loving enemies and befriending strangers; a community willing to recognize our complicity in the injustices of the world and yearns for and works for the possibility of reconciliation; a community founded on love and fueled by grace.

May we continue to work at being that kind of community together until everyone is reconciled.

*Anne Lamott, 12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing, Ted.com, February 12, 2019

** Phan Thi Kim Phuc on Pain and Forgiveness, Brief But Spectacular, CBC January 8, 2020

*** Rowan Williams, Resurrection, 2003.