Listen to the sermon here.
You made it here on daylights savings Sunday. Time changes can be challenging for us. We come to church earlier than last week and sometimes it feels so early we don’t want to get out of bed. A few years ago Bridget and I helped bring forward the communion elements at the installation of a priest friend of ours at the Church of the Holy Comforter. A friend of mine jokes that on Sundays like daylight saving Sunday, the church of the holy comforter is the place we find ourselves when we don’t want to get out of bed.
There is a story of a man who was lying in bed on daylight savings Sunday and he asked his wife, “Do you think they’ll forgive me if I don’t go to church today. Give me one good reason to go to church,” he asked her. His wife said, “I’ll give you two. It’s Sunday and you’re the pastor.” Yet you are here and we are grateful. The payoff is not only that we’ll have more sunlight this afternoon, but perhaps some lux et veritas, some light and truth, from God’s word this morning.
We continue our series on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Today we focus on a section of Matthew 5 in which Jesus suggests we practice forgiveness. Sometimes the things we are facing or are holding in make us want to curl up and hide under the covers. Yet Jesus encourages us to practice forgiveness in order to be free. Let us pray.
Loving God, on our Lenten journey you have called us to reflect. We don’t always like what we see. Help us to recognize that forgiveness is a critical part of our journey, for we have received it from you. Amen.
When someone offends or hurts us, where do we find the strength to forgive? The wisdom of the Bible suggests a kind of radical forgiveness, for our sakes. In today’s scripture, Jesus lifts up several phrases we have heard before. An eye for an eye. Turn the other cheek. Give them your cloak. Walk a second mile. Love your enemies. In each of them, Jesus suggests going beyond the conventional social norm.
In Jesus’ time when someone said an eye for an eye they were calling for restraint not revenge. In the Jewish context the hope was that when someone stole a sheep, for example, the offended party would respond equally, an eye for an eye, rather than by escalating. Yet Jesus says do not condemn an evil person, as the phrase translates.
In Jesus’ day slapping on the right cheek was a sign of social superiority. Offering the other was a sign of resistance. When Jesus said that when someone sues you and takes your shirt, give them your cloak, in the context of a legal proceeding, some interpretations hold that he meant that for an ordinary person to give their one main cloak meant many could be naked, and that would shame the aggressor. Jewish citizens could be compelled by soldiers to carry their supplies up to one mile no questions asked. Carrying them a second mile was in effect saying, “I can’t be held captive.” The torah required someone to love their neighbor. Jesus called his followers to an even higher standard, loving their enemies.
In each of the cases, Jesus requests that the person go beyond what is required. Jesus suggests that someone who has been wronged should respond with strength with a radical response of forgiveness.
The broader context of the Sermon on the Mount is that we do so in Jesus’ name and power.
This could be what we need to hear today. Someone says something and our cheek is turned into a landing pad for tears. A situation forces us to go a mile in a way we would rather not go and later we trace the situation to a family member. Something is taken from us by someone and we want that person to be as wounded as we are.
Jesus says we are to be perfect, as our heavenly father is perfect. Now perfection here does not mean being flawless. Jesus never calls us to something he knows we cannot do. The word used here in Greek is teleios, which means completeness or the purpose to which something was created or intended.[i] To be complete as our heavenly father is complete.
When someone wounds us and we have lost something we are no longer complete. That is what happens when someone takes our shirt or worse. Even if there have been apologies there is still suffering. We need to act ourselves in order to find our place of healing.
We listened to President Obama’s speech from Selma yesterday. I think of Martin Luther King Jr. who said that real forgiveness is not an occasional act: it is an attitude. It must be practiced and repeated for it and us to be complete. King knew from his own experience with injustice that humans are repeatedly put in situations of pain, loss and injustice. We cannot control that. What we can control is our response.
We often think of forgiveness for the sake of society. In a February New York Times op ed, columnist David Brooks lifted up the example of Brian Williams, the NBC news anchor. His desire for fame caused him to inflate his experience in Iraq and he got caught. Brooks writes, “Its a reminder that no matter how high you go in life it’s never enough…Even very famous people can do self-destructive things in an attempt to seem just a little cooler.”[ii]
Then Brooks calls for a new kind of rigorous forgiveness. Not forgetting the fault but allowing for forgiveness more readily than society currently does. He suggests it is not only important for someone like Williams but it’s important for society, that we forgive.
Or forgiveness for the benefit of a group. As in the Lord of the Rings, when Aragon forgives the ghost warriors for having acted poorly and holds their oaths fulfilled so they can be at peace. Or forgiveness for the sake of the healing of the person who has harmed us. Like Will Shuster suggesting that Sue Sylvester deserves a second change in this weekend’s episode of Glee.
Jesus’ point in this sermon is not any of that. Jesus’ point in the sermon is not to forgive to benefit the person who has wronged us, although forgiving someone begets their extending forgiveness and allows them to move on. The point is not to benefit society or broader groups, although forgiving someone encourages broader forgiveness. The benefit implied in this passage, as is typical of the Sermon on the Mount, is for the individual doing the forgiving.
This is why Jesus ends with his statement that they should seek to be better than the gentiles or the tax collectors. He holds his disciples to a higher standard. “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.”
Our final hymn today in part connects with Isaiah 43. In Isaiah 43 God says “I am he who blots out or forgives your transgressions, for my own sake.” Forgiveness for the sake of the one forgiving.
Why does Jesus suggest that to be whole we need to forgive so fully and call for such a radically strong response of forgiveness of going above and beyond what might be required?
The same reason that in Matthew 18 when Peter asks Jesus if he should forgive someone 7 times, and Jesus says he must forgive someone who sins against him not 7 but 77 times.
Because forgiveness is hard. We humans tend to harbor grudges. Once our hearts get wrapped around a hurt we can get lost inside the pain.
So our attempts at forgiveness often involve our quietly tucking the hurt somewhere with all the other wrongs that person did to us. We keep track of them until they get big enough for us to want to make a point. It’s like the gas station credits I get from shopping at Giant. If I shop at Giant enough I rack up points and eventually I can cash them in for $.30 off each gallon at the station on Old Georgetown. Then forgiveness, however, turns into retribution.
At first it feels right and even good to be angry. Eventually by being unable to forgive, we lock ourselves in with the anger.
The word to convey forgiveness in the New Testament Greek (aphiemi) means to free. Reformed theologian Lewis Smedes once said, “When you forgive, you set a prisoner free. And pretty soon you realize the prisoner is you.”
When Jesus tells his disciples to turn the other cheek, give the cloak, go the extra mile he is in the face of oppression, in effect, suggesting they say, “You can’t keep me down, I am not the victim, I am not going to be held back by this, I am stronger than your hurt.”
Now there are many kinds of pain that are so deep that we cannot shake them even if we try. Where someone who knows us best hurts us the worst. Where the forgiveness is really hard, and there will always be some scares.
Last week Jeanne Bishop’s new book, Change of Heart, was released. In 1990 Jeanne Bishop’s sister, brother-in-law, and their unborn child were murdered in their home by a deeply disturbed teenager, David Biro, a local high school student. It turns out that Biro’s father was a coworker of Bishop’s father years earlier. Jeanne Bishop recalled seeing the image of her sister’s murderer years before on Christmas cards exchanged between the families. Biro was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. This could be the end of the story, yet there was a change of heart. Bishop, a committed Christian, was haunted by the pain. Her book traces her journey and the specific Bible readings which led her to make a decision to visit Biro. Twenty years after the incident which led to the pain which haunted her, Bishop she visited Biro in prison and offered him forgiveness and through it, herself freedom.
Since the beheading of 21 Coptic Egyptians Christians in Libya last month by ISIS, a video message from an Egyptian named Anne Alfred has gone viral with half a million viewers. The video is inspired by Alfred’s Christian faith. In it Alfred calls for mercy in response to the tragedy rather than a cycle of hate. Both Christians and Muslim friends have been sharing the video with me on Facebook to suggest the world oppose the common enemy of radical hate with forgiveness.
We don’t have to start with situations like this. We begin practicing forgiveness by forgiving the person in the next cubicle or room or pew.
The good news is we don’t have to forgive on our own power. We forgive in the name and power of Jesus. Perhaps we start by forgiving ourselves, in a way only Jesus can help us do. For Jesus didn’t just suggest that people turn a cheek or hand over a cloak. He lived it. He carried his cross the extra mile, was left with his torn clothes, turned the other cheek, and said, “Forgive them father for they know not what they do.” Not in weakness but in the glory of the cross.
When he emerged from the tomb on Easter Jesus still had his scares. You might remember that in the lesson we often read shortly after Easter, Doubting Thomas asks to see Jesus’ wounds. There are scares which never go away. They are a reminder of not only the hurt but of the importance of practicing forgiveness, as well as the possibility of forgiveness amidst the scares.
In his recent work, The Book of Forgiving, Desmond Tutu writes about the four stages of forgiveness: “Telling the Story, Naming the Hurt, Granting Forgiveness, and Releasing the Relationship.” Tutu’s role as the Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa taught him a lot about scares and so writes that naming, “The truth prevents us from pretending that the things that happened did not happen.” The scares keep us from making the same mistake twice but they don’t keep us from releasing the relationship to free our lives.
As we move towards Easter we realize that God has given us more mercy than we can ever ask for or deserve. Lent is a time for thinking about new ways of being or living. It’s a time of fasting or giving up. Giving up the anger that holds us back. If we are staying up at night thinking of ways to get back at someone then practicing forgiveness might be our Lenten discipline.
When we recite our confession at the beginning of our worship service we proclaim in our assurance of pardon, “In Jesus Christ we are forgiven.” We say it all together. Forgiveness is not something that I or we can give to you. Only through Christ are we ultimately forgiven. Because God is the ultimate judge.
When we say that in Christ we are forgiven we are not only reminding ourselves that God has forgiven us but that we are like Christ when we forgive.
It is only in Christ that we are shaped into the full, faithful, forgiving people we are created to be. So when we are trapped by a cloud over our heads that is so dark that we don’t want to even get out of bed in the morning, let Christ be our comforter. For in his name we are forgiven. In his name we are free to forgive. Amen.
[i] William Barclay. Matthew. New Daily Bible Series. P. 204.