The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 17, 2017
I once knew a woman that had a memory, they said, like an elephant. She could recount any wrong done to her by anyone in the county, or to her mother or grandmother, for that matter. Like the Appalachian feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, wrongdoing--and remembering--was generational for this woman, and it carried on to her children. She was willing to forgive, but she never forgot. And she passed that gift of remembering down to her children. And they remembered everything she’d ever done wrong to them. And they never forgot.
Forgive and forget, we say. But she never forgot. And so I wonder what she thought about forgiveness--what forgiveness meant for her. I wonder what we think forgiveness means to you. What forgiveness means for me.
My sister and I loved to play Monopoly growing up. I liked to be the car or the little dog. My mother would sometimes be the top hat. I never wanted to be the shoe. But whatever game piece I was, as I moved around the board, I was wary of that corner space, “Go to jail.” Or, if you were very unlucky, you might draw the card, “Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.” This was an unfortunate sentence. But, if you were very lucky, you might be holding another card, the “Get out of jail free” card, which would let you out of jail, back to the action, back to racing around the board, buying properties, collecting rents, and bankrupting your opponents. “Get out of jail free” was forgiveness. A reprieve. A chance to get back out there. Isn’t that what forgiveness is about?
We know we are supposed to forgive one another. We pray for forgiveness at every service: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we say. And I don’t know about you, but usually I think of forgiveness as something a parent gives to a little kid. Oops, I broke the window! I’m sorry! Forgive me! Don’t punish me! Or like that “get out of jail free” card. Forgiveness is a pass on something we’ve done wrong; it’s avoiding punishment, right?
No. That’s not what forgiveness is about, though I confess to you it’s what I think about when I think about forgiveness. Real forgiveness, true forgiveness, seems to elude us, as it does Peter, who really wants to understand. Who really wants to get it right. Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? Is seven enough? That’s a gracious plenty, right? Three strikes and you’re out in baseball. Seven times is really generous! But Jesus says, Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
Over and over again. Forgive over and over.
How can that even work?
I want to tell you three stories about forgiveness.
Several millennia ago, maybe seven or eight thousand years ago, there was a boy called Joseph. He was the son of Jacob, also called Israel. He was the grandson of Isaac, and the great grandson of Abraham and Sarah. Joseph was the next to youngest boy out of twelve boys and at least one girl in his family; he was the firstborn of his father’s second wife. He was younger, a bit clever, and very annoying, and most of his dozen brothers hated him.
One day when he had been particularly insufferable a few of his brothers decided to kill him. Instead their brother Reuben convinced them to throw him down a well. (That’s better, right?) And so they did. They felt a little bad about leaving him there, though, and so they sold him as a slave to a caravan of merchants heading to Egypt. (Again, better than letting him die in the well, right?) And so they were rid of Joseph. Remember, however, that Joseph is clever. And even as he is borne away into slavery in Egypt, all is not lost. He works his way up through the ranks of servant eventually to become the second most powerful government functionary in all of Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh himself.
When Joseph was in his thirties, and his authority in Egypt well established, a famine struck the ancient Near East. Joseph, because again, he is clever and wily, had stored up on behalf of the Egyptian government so much grain that he could not even measure it all. And so all of the Egyptians and the surrounding tribes and nations came to the Pharaoh to beg for grain. They came to ask Jacob for help.
And amongst those who came were the sons of Jacob, his father, the Israelites. Not knowing who he was, they came even to Jacob for help. And Jacob fed them. He gave them grain. He saved them. And years later, when their father died--it’s always at the funeral that things come out, right?--when his father died, his brothers came to him and begged forgiveness.
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. (Genesis 50:15-21)
Joseph’s forgiveness didn’t unwind all the past. It wasn’t a “get out of jail free” card. But it saved his brothers and their families. And it acknowledged a far greater truth--that God’s goodness prevails even over our sinfulness; that the love that is God triumphs even over death and destruction. His brothers had intended to do Joseph evil. But God used it for good. Joseph didn’t put himself in the place of God, which is, at the root of all things, the original sin. He simply continued to love his brothers.
Here’s another story about forgiveness. Basil, Cardinal Hume, formerly Archbishop of Westminster, tells this story.
When he was a boy the young Basil sneaked into the pantry of a neighbor’s kitchen, poking around for a treat or something good to eat. He found there, in the unattended pantry, a bushel of apples--just picked, ripe and fragrant. There were so many apples, and surely his neighbor wouldn’t miss just one.
So sure enough, Basil reached out and took just one apple. Just one. And, as he turned to run from the pantry with his purloined fruit, he ran into the neighbor himself. And what do you think the neighbor said to him? Of course the neighbor told him to put it back. And of course that’s the right thing to do. But later in life, as he pondered the mysteries of God’s forgiveness, Basil the adult, the Benedictine monk, the Archbishop, began to suspect that there might have been a different response.
He began to reimagine the story so that, as he turned and ran from the pantry, right into the neighbor, the God figure in his re-imagining, God might have said, “Basil, I see you’ve taken an apple. They’re so ripe, so fragrant, so delicious. Here, why don’t you have another. Go on. Take two.”
What do you feel when you hear that story? Profound relief at the forgiveness and generosity of God? Confusion or even anger that the boy isn’t corrected, or even punished? I have to admit I struggled with this story for a while. I wanted to explain to young Basil why it was wrong for him to steal.
But God, who has all the apples, is generous and giving. Is loving and forgiving. Here, take two.
This word “forgive” has nothing to do with “getting out of jail free.” It has nothing to do with punishment postponed or remitted. It has nothing to do with getting away with something. It doesn’t even have anything to do with correction, or reproof, or reproach. It’s neither fair nor just. But it is lifechanging.
This word “forgive” that Peter is struggling with, this word “forgive” that we are praying for--forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us--this “forgive” isn’t even about other people. It’s not about those who’ve sinned against us. It’s about us ourselves. It’s about how we have been forgiven by God. It’s about God’s radical willingness to love us in spite of how we have failed to love God. And it’s about the possibility of something new, of something radically alive with generosity and wholeness.
The word “forgive” that Peter asks about--Lord, how many times should I forgive someone--that word, in the Greek root, is aphiemi. It’s the same word in the Our Father--“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And it’s the same word in another story that you may remember, the story of Lazarus.
Jesus’s friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were about the most hospitable folks we know of in the gospels. They always had friends over. They were always welcoming people. And when Lazarus fell ill, Mary and Martha sent for Jesus. But he didn’t arrive in time. And so, when he finally made it to their house, Lazarus was dead and in the tomb. Jesus, with tears in his eyes, called his friend forth from the tomb, and Lazarus came out. Jesus’s next words to the community, as Lazarus stepped forth from the tomb into the sunlight, were “Unbind him and let him go.”
The Greek word that Jesus uses is aphete, from the same root, aphiemi, that Peter uses to mean forgiveness. That Jesus himself uses when he teaches us to pray, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus isn’t saying Lazarus has done something wrong. He’s saying that Lazarus is freed, set forth, sent forth, going into new life.
And that’s what forgiveness is.
It’s not a “get out of jail free” card. It’s not a pass, an excuse, an avoidance of punishment.
It’s a chance for something new. For wholeness, for reconciliation, for a new life.
It’s what’s offered to us in Christ’s death and resurrection. That God loves us so much that, despite our failings to love God, even in the moments of greed, lust, wrath, pride, or whatever sin you can imagine when we put ourselves in the place of God, that God still holds onto us, expecting that we can be in better relationship. That we can love God, that we can love one another, as we ourselves have been loved.
For that’s what God does. Even in the face of our sinfulness, God is still there, loving us, giving God’s own self to us. Even as we take all the apples for ourselves, God is there saying, take more. Here I am. As Christ pours himself out on the cross he forgives the thief who hangs by him. He forgives those who have crucified him. He is there, offering his love. Inviting us into loving relationship. And sending us out, forgiven, to love one another and the world.
When you come to the altar today, receive God’s presence in the Sacrament; receive Christ’s forgiveness. And be transformed, sent out to something new, to love God and love one another. That’s the story of Joseph--responding only to the love of God, not the hurt that’s been done to him. That’s the story of Basil Hume--God’s gracious love, offering even more of God’s own self. That’s the story of Lazarus--sent forth into new life. That’s our story--healed, forgiven, restored, and sent forth into new relationship, new life in Christ.