Sermon by Pastor Joel Crouse
Sunday September 17, 2023
Peter went to Jesus, and asked him: If someone sin against me, how often do I need to forgive them? Seven times?
And Jesus said: Not seven times, but I tell you seventy-seven times.
Seventy-seven times. I don’t know about you, but that is number I struggled to reconcile. And yet, as I thought about it this week, I realized that this number is actually pretty reasonable. When I see relationships break down, or fall apart, it is never because someone forgave only once. It is because they forgave what they saw as slights or mistakes or inconsideration or hurts to their person, again and again and again. No one ends up estranged from family or departed from a good friend without feeling pain; and in some cases the work that goes into it amounts to seventy-seven times of going back and trying again.
But perhaps the number distracts us: what we really need to tackle is what it means to forgive.
I will speak today about my own journey with forgiveness. I know many of you are struggling with your own efforts to forgive. We spend a lot of time hashing out what went wrong and who did what, and much less time figuring out what healthy forgiveness looks like.
Even if I had that answer perfectly clear, I doubt I could achieve it. I have been an imperfect forgiver, and when I read the gospel, I am forced to dwell on that reality. Indeed, I have spent my own fair share praying on the subject of forgiveness. What did I pray? Sometimes, I focused on my feelings of hurt and injustice, my own perception of wrongdoing on the person who I felt, as Peter does, had sinned against me. At other times, I spent a lot of energy beating myself up for not being able to easily reach a place of forgiveness, for not being able to fully repair the relationships and return to the love and acceptance I once had for the person involved. I prayed on my own thirst for justice. I lamented my failure as a person of grace to forgive. I look inward with recrimination and outward with finger-pointing. And none of that got me very far.
I have previously described my idea of forgiveness as a triangle. We often get stuck at the base the triangle. In one corner, there’s the one we need to forgive; in the other, there we are, trying to be forgiving. But at the peak of that triangle is grace – grace and God. That is where healing and understanding lie. That is where I found it.
Martin Luther talks about the grace within and the grace without. There is the grace that we achieve as individuals doing our best, the grace we aspire to, the grace we demonstrate that inspires others. And then there is the grace of God, which surpasses all understanding. The grace of God which carries every burden and somehow never falters. The grace of God which celebrates imperfection. The grace of God which understands when we falter. The grace of God which says: you have done your best; let me carry the rest for you.
How does that relate to forgiveness? First of all, what do we mean by forgiveness? In the parable in our gospel, we hear the Reign of God compared to a king who forgives a man his debt, but then condemns the same man when he does not forgive the debt owed to him. Just as God forgives us, we are told, we are meant to forgive others. But God represents perfect love, and perfect forgiveness. And we are not perfect. We can never forgive as God does.
The base of our triangle suggests that to find forgiveness we need to change, or we need the person who wronged us to do the changing. But what if we seek out the third point, and ask what does God want? Do I think God wants us to live in painful relationships for the sake of forgiveness? I do not. Do I think God wants us to fight with the one who wronged us until they, somehow, see reason? I do not. Does God want us to stew in hate, or wallow in sorrow for the years remaining? Why would a loving God want such a thing?
God wants us to find peace and kindness and acceptance. To forgive, we don’t need to forget. We don’t need to restore things as they were. Often, we should not. Forgiveness is the acceptance of situations and people we cannot change. It is about showing kindness to the people around us, and equally, to ourselves. It is about finding peace in the presence of pain and difficulty. We do that by knowing ourselves, by being honest with God, and practicing kindness. Forgiveness is sometimes about leaving the debt on the ledger but not asking it to be paid, and not expecting it to be wiped away. Just leaving it there for God to manage. Because time and grace often take care of our life’s accounts in unexpected ways.
I think the hardest part about the struggle to forgive is what else it steals from us. It taints our time with those we most love. We can become so focused on the pain we feel that we overlook the people who really care about us. We behave in ways that break other things and fix nothing.
Now, I see that forgiveness is like a hike up a mountain. We have no control over the weather or the terrain or any other hikers on the trail. We control only the steps we take for ourselves. For those, we look to God, and we ask ourselves: Are we being kind to others and to ourselves? Are we being present to those who need us and love us? Are we serving where we are able? If we can answer those questions with a yes most of the time, we leave the rest with God. Forgiveness can be messy work that requires trust in God. May we know ourselves, be honest with God, and practice kindness, trusting that time and Grace often take care of our life’s accounts in unexpected ways. Amen.