September 13, 2020 P. Escamilla
Community wounds even as it blesses.
Maybe that’s why Peter raised that question in the primal stages of the church’s existence. He wanted to get ahead of this sad and unfortunate truth about the church that would unfold through the ages, wanted this put into words, clarified for him what forgiveness required, as if he already knew those poignant words that Thomas Clarke would utter centuries later to describe who we are and how we too often behave: “Community wounds even as it blesses.” Henri Nouwen put it a little more simply: “We all love poorly.” Bump into furniture, hurt feelings, we frustrate one another, irritate, offend, disappoint, wound each other.
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst.” That verse comes just before the verses we read today. We heard them read last Sunday when we shared worship with Saint Paul’s United Methodist Church in Houston. “When two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” We might add wryly, sadly, ironically, where two or three are gathered in my name, there are our hurt feelings, our immaturities, our selfishness, our prejudices, our presumptions, our careless words, our insensitivity. That’s church. Community wounds even as it blesses.
And so, here is Peter, even in the pristine days of the earliest church trying to get it right, trying to voice that concern and how to resolve such a dilemma early on. “How many times do I forgive a member of the church who sins against me?” Being generous, he offers a number: seven times. He wants to get the specifics of this ironed out so there will be no question. He wants measurable, attainable criteria. He wants a surveillance metric for mercy so that he can say, “Check. I’ve done that seven times. That’s my quota. We’re done here.” And Jesus’ answer, as usual, inverts the question, subverts the question, turns it on his head. His answer is, “Not seven times, Peter. Seventy-seven times.” Or seventy times seven, the Greek might read.
What can we learn from this simple exchange that is supposed to have defined the Christian behavioral ethic for all time as being one of forgiveness? First of all, the obvious. All these numbers traded back and forth underscore the fact there’s no math in mercy. Seventy-seven — or seventy times seven which would be 490 — either way, it’s a dizzying number. Too many to count. I remember Little William at a congregation I formerly served, at the Easter egg hunt he was counting his eggs in his basket. I said, “William, you’re really good at counting.” He looked up at me and beamed and said, “I can count to 27. Sometimes even higher.” 27, even higher, 77 or 490. It’s too much to number and keep track of. It’s Jesus’ way of saying, “How many times to forgive? To infinity and beyond. That’s how many.” It was Jesus’s way of saying, take the stick that you keep hidden with the notches in it—the wrongs done, the dates, times. Take that stick and pitch it into the bonfire of the vanities. That’s all it is and there’s no room for that here in the beloved community. No scorecards, No this for that. No tit for tat.
Earlier in the sermon on the mount you’ll remember Jesus said, “You have heard that it was an eye for eye, a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, No. We’re not answering violence with violence, meanness with meanness, insult with insult, wrong with wrong.” Gandhi took his idea further: “If we are to live by the rule of an Eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, very soon it will leave the world blind and toothless.” You are to be a forgiving community. A community of forgivers letting go of hurts and grudges and griefs and bitterness, resentment, scorecards and getting better at that all the time. If never perfect, then growing toward that grace of a lifestyle and an interior disposition of forgiveness.
In our book of worship there’s a Litany, which I have found captivating to think about and so thoughtfully placed. It’s a Litany for saying farewell to a pastor and for a pastor to say farewell to a congregation. In that exchange at the end of a pastor’s tenure, you can imagine all the things that have occurred, have been shared in those years of ministry together. You can imagine some bumping into furniture, some saying things that shouldn’t have been said, not saying things that should have been said, all of that. In this Litany is the phrase I find so powerful: “I release you.” Church, I release you. Pastor, we release you.
I made a call once to a prospective member who had been attending the church and we’d been befriending them and I just wanted to call and check in to see if we were moving closer toward a decision to cross a threshold of faith and renew discipleship and faith and become a member of the church. I placed the call and Howard answered and I said, “Hello Howard. Paul Escamilla calling from the church. Am I disturbing you?” I usually ask that question and usually the answer is, “Oh let me call you back in a few minutes.” Or, “No this is fine. I was folding laundry and I’m glad for the interruption.” “Am I disturbing you, Howard?” Pause — “Not yet.”
If we’re together long enough, you and I, you can be sure eventually I will disturb you in the course of our life together and you will probably disturb me and we will disturb each other. Give us time and we will wound one another. Not willfully, not on purpose, but simply because as Henry Nowan said, “We all love poorly.”
Community wounds even as it blesses. We can nurse the grudge, or nurse the wound to healing—but not both. What can we learn from this simple exchange between Peter and Jesus? There is no math in mercy, and forgiveness takes time. Or I might say, given this numerical exchange, forgiveness takes times. I like to think about Jesus’ answer as having a double meaning. Not only forgive your brother or sister in faith seventy times seven. If they sin against you that many times, possibly the meaning also is forgive that person again and again and again for the same wrong. You know the one, you’ve let go of it and released them and then it comes back in your sleep to haunt you and the next morning you wake up with that same grudge and I have to go back to my prayer closet and forgive again. Release again. Forgiveness takes time. Forgiveness takes times, lots of times. Either way, it’s not instant, or forever. I’ve often thought of wrongs that I’ve experienced, having to go back to them again and again. I’ve put them away, they take on a life of their own. They find their way back to me and if the heart is open just a bit, they squeeze in and situate themselves a second time. A third time. A fifth time. Deeply wronged years ago by the institutional church. My work, my life, my prayer day after day after day, deliberately, purposefully. Sometimes I meant it, sometimes I said it wanting to mean it. I forgive. I release. I let go. Forgiveness takes times, practice, sometimes finding our way to a person to help us work that out — a therapist, a counselor, maybe a pastor — that work of letting go of a grievance, of hurt.
Let’s be clear, forgiveness does not necessarily mean forgetting, nor does it mean that you’ve told somebody that what they did was okay, was acceptable. David mentioned earlier, there still is an “I’m sorry” that is expected and required. Those who do wrong are accountable for the wrongs we do to one another. It is not condoning or allowing a hurtful, or harmful behavior, such as abuse, or addiction, or adultery, or bullying. Forgiveness, rather, is working to let go of the anger we harbor towards another person, or in the case of ourselves, the guilt we feel for something we’ve done. Forgiveness, we might say, is less a practice of the inspection of the other and their hurtful behavior, more a practice of introspection, looking at our own deep-rooted habits of resenting, of begrudging, of holding onto hurts.
Let me pause here and ask you, who is coming to mind for you? Who occupies a generous piece of real estate in your psyche, your heart — rent free by the way — as you keep their company and stew over what they’ve done to you — maybe last week, last year, maybe last century — who is that? You’re nursing the grudge instead nursing the wound to healing. Who is that for you? Who has wounded you so deeply that you’ve decided it’s worth all that emotional capital for you to hold onto that hurt rather than turning your heart to love and grace and goodness beyond that moment of injury, that experience of hurting? What’s your next step in practicing forgiveness? Holding them up to God, praying for their well-being, praying those words daily, maybe hourly, whether you always mean them or not, praying those words, I release you, I forgive you, and again and again maybe for the same wrong, day after day after day, until our prayer becomes our soul’s meaning, our soul’s earnest experience of release and forgiveness.
There’s no math in mercy, Jesus seems to be saying. And mercy takes time, takes times, and finally mercy moves in all directions at once. It moves outward, it moves inwards. Every time it’s expressed, it goes both ways, all ways. The Lord’s Prayer, which many of us pray weekly, sometimes more often, has at its very core an inextricable relationship between forgiving and being forgiven, releasing another and being ourselves set free. The Syrian Aramaic version of that beautiful prayer is translated this way: where we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, the Aramaic translation goes this way, “Loose the cords of mistakes that bind us, as we release the cords we hold of others’ guilt.”
Thomas Merton: We can only know how to forgive others once we have experienced forgiveness ourselves.
Jesus loved us first, gave his life for us, his suffering and his death for us, for the life of the world, and from the cross said, “Father, forgive them.” By which he meant you and me. “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” Peter, soon enough — you know what I’m about to say — will be forced to come to terms with his own need to be forgiven in profound ways by his teacher, his Savior, by others too. He’ll have to set the math aside, seek the mercy of Jesus, already extended, and then accept — this is the hardest for us sometimes — accept his own acceptance by God as one who is held beneath God’s abundant mercy.
We pray a prayer when we draw near to God in confession. Kyrie eleison, greek for “Lord, unbind.” And as we pray a confessional prayer it is also our professional prayer, our prayer directing us into relationship. Lord, unbind. Lord, help me to unbind. Mercy goes in all directions in that prayer. It comes to us, it comes through us.
Shakespeare. I have lived by those words, the Merchant of Venice, Portia to Shylock. “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath and is twice blessed. It blesseth the one who gives and the one who receives.”
“Community wounds even as it blesses,” Thomas Clarke would so profoundly write. But here’s the good news. Community, if it wounds, then beyond the wounds if we hold onto each other, more than the wounds, there is a healing of the wounds, there is a blessing beyond the wounds. And we’re all a part of that work — of healing, of reconciling, of forgiveness based on our own experience of forgiveness. Who is in your mind? Who is on your probation list in your prison that really is your prison more than it’s their prison? Find someone to bless today, who has been wounded by the church, or the world. Find someone who needs to be released from your clutches today, whose been wounding you, perhaps still, find accountability there and honesty, but beyond that, a release of your own anger and resentment and bitterness and hurt, release that person, find your own self unbound and set free in the unbinding.
Martin Luther used to say that our hands had fingers so that money could fall through them freely. Our disposition in life is to be generous, to be extravagant in our giving. I like to think that what’s true of our treasure should also be true of our grievances, that they too should fall through our fingers just as freely. I want to invite you to try this where you are, to extend your hands, to open them, to imagine who that is, what that is, that grievance, that bitterness, that resentment, falling through your fingers. Even as you and I spread our fingers to release that grievance, are they extending mercy or receiving mercy? Pardoning or receiving pardon? Are the two really that different?