The following is a link to our reading today from
Forgiveness does not mean condoning what has been done. It means taking what happened seriously and not minimizing it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence. It involves trying to understand the perpetrators and so have empathy, to try to stand in their shoes and appreciate the sort of pressures and influences that might have conditioned them. . . . By forgiveness we are saying here is a chance to make a new beginning.
First, Paul asks the Romans and us “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” And when Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive someone who sins against him, Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” With these two readings, our anger and resentment are left without a leg on which to stand. It just doesn’t seem fair. The sinners get all the advantages. We just have to keep on forgiving and forgiving no matter how many times we are stepped upon. Is Christianity a religion of doormats? Are we expected to be a bunch of wimps, letting other people take advantage of us? It can feel like our Gospel reading for today is just another burden being laid upon us by our faith. We know we are supposed to do what this passage says, but we feel we can't do it, so we just try to ignore it and the little bit of guilt we feel every time we hear this passage read in church again. But I don't believe that God is sending this message of forgiving those who hurt us as many times as necessary in order to burden us. I think God is sending us this message in order to free us and to help us find the peace and wholeness that we all spend our lives searching for.
Now, all by itself, anger is not that damaging. It can be about revenge and punishment, but I think more often than not it is about protection. It tells you that something you care about is being threatened. Anger is a caution sign for us. It signals to us that something is going on to which we need to pay attention. When we can pay attention to anger and reflect upon it, we can usually learn something from our anger, and we can channel the energy that anger brings with it into something positive, productive, and life-giving. Unfortunately, sometimes we get stuck in our anger, because staying angry keeps the person who has hurt us from getting close to us again.
I am sure all of us here have known someone who suffered from chronic bitterness. Someone, who reacted to every social interaction no matter how innocent or benign with anger and aggressiveness. Chances are this person’s anger began with a legitimate source. Perhaps a difficult childhood or marriage was the source of the hostility. Maybe the loss of a job or a loved one was the original fuel. But over time as this person has held on to the anger and nursed it and protected it, it has slowly but surely changed that person’s very personality, it has changed that person’s very soul, until that person is anger itself, and anything and everything triggers an angry response. And while most of us here cannot be described as being chronically bitter, if we are each honest with ourselves we can probably find some anger that we have held on to far too long.
It can be difficult and painful to look closely at our anger, but I promise you that the rewards of this work will far outweigh any difficulty or pain we might experience while doing it. For when we pause to look at our anger we can transform it into something good. When we pause to look at our anger, we can often see our own part in what we are angry about. When we step back and look at our anger, we can figure out what our anger has to teach us, and then release it into the universe. But when become stuck in our anger, then it is not simple anger anymore. When we hang on to our hurt and pain we have changed from being angry to being bitter. We change from being angry to being resentful.
We are being forgiven every day of our lives. We have been set free by God for no other reason than that God loves us. If we remain in bondage to anger it is our own choice. God knows that this forgiveness stuff is hard. God knows that it will take a lot of practice. How often should we forgive? Will seven times do the job? “Not seven times,” Jesus said, “but, I tell you seventy-seven times.” Forgiveness, as Barbara Brown Taylor wrote in her book Gospel Medicine, “is God’s cure for the deformity our resentments cause us. It is how we discover our true shape, and every time we do it we get to be a little more alive.” What God knows even if we don’t know it yet is that once we get into the forgiveness habit, seventy-seven times won’t be enough.
May you know the peace of forgiveness for yourself and for others.