Congregational Choice Sermon Topic preached by Canon Simon Butler
Isaiah 61:8-13; Matthew 18:21-35
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 14th August 2021
Congregational Choice Sermon: Should we Forgive and Forget?
Readings: Isaiah 61:8-13; Matthew 18:21-35
During this service three children – Hally, Sienna and Theodore – were baptised.
It’s wonderful to share this special moment in the lives of Hally, Sienna and Theodore. A baptism is an occasion for joy and thankfulness, as their families and friends celebrate the gift of these young lives, and the Church celebrates three new disciples of Jesus Christ.
New life always brings a sense of hope and possibility – who knows what these children will become? Who knows the difference their lives will make to the lives of others in the future? Today we pray that they would be a blessing not just to their families and friends, but to many more, including those who share the Christian faith with them.
But one thing I know that is absolutely true – because every adult in this church and watching online today knows – is that they will also be hurt in their lives. People will do wrong to them and, hopefully in only minor ways, they will absorb these wounds into their own lives. And it is also likely – because as much as we like to avoid the truth about ourselves – that they will also be people who, hopefully again in only minor ways, will do wrong to others and be the cause of scars that others bear too. A couple of weeks ago, on Reverend Aaron’s last Sunday, his son Gabriel (who is four) came running down the church to him. Aaron said, “Gabe, you know we don’t run in church.” “But mummy said I could!” said little Gabriel. “I’m sure she didn’t.” replied Aaron. “She did!” lied Gabriel. As Gabriel walked back to church, I said in jest to Aaron, “that was a pretty good example of the doctrine of Original Sin.” And he replied, ruefully, “Simon, since I’ve had kids, I’ve become more convinced of the doctrine of Original Sin than ever before!”
Why I am I telling you this? Why this talk of hurt received and given on such a happy day? Well, as part of a summer sermon series on subjects requested by members of our church, I’m preaching in response to a question posed by someone, “Should we forgive and forget?” I think the second half is what the questioner is concerned about. Even if we find it in our hearts to forgive someone, should we try and put out of our minds the hurts and wounds that have been inflicted on us? Is it wrong to feel the way we do even if we try our hardest to forgive someone?
“Forgive and forget” is such a standard phrase in English now that it may surprise you to know that it isn’t in the Bible, or even Shakespeare. The most likely origin is from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but it is part of our armoury of proverbial statements now to have become something of a cliché. The Bible does encourage and even expect Christians to forgive, and it does talk about God “remembering our sins no more” and “forgetting our sins”, but I don’t think I can discover anywhere where either Jews or Christians are explicitly asked to “forgive and forget.” Even the prayer that we pray later “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” seems to me to imply a process of forgiveness. This isn’t the occasion for a Greek lesson, but we might paraphrase the Lord’s Prayer as “begin to forgive our trespasses as we begin to forgive those who trespass against us.”
Why might forgiveness be more of a process than a one-off act? A story told by the Albanian Kosovan journalist Ardian Arifaj, told to a journalist in the aftermath of the cruelties of the Kosovan War in the late 1990s, may help us understand. Arifaj said, “There was a naughty boy whose father would hammer a nail into a piece of wood every time his son did something wrong. One day, the boy asked why, and when it was explained, the boy decided he would behave better. Each time he did something good, his father would remove a nail from the board. Eventually, all the nails came out.” Mr Arifaj let us a few second past, allowing suspense to precede the story’s moral. “Yes the nails were gone,” he said. “But the holes always remained.”
It’s because the holes remain – when atrocities and cruelties are committed in war, and when we inflict or receive emotional wounds ourselves – that our talk of forgiving and forgetting can only ever be a half-truth. We know – almost instinctively – that the greatest wounds inflicted on others, the war crimes and the crimes against humanity, must never be forgotten. We know that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. Too often we read stories of great wrong done to others – school shootings, mass murder, the abuse of the vulnerable – and the lazy journalist asks the victims or the victims’ families, “Do you forgive the person or people who did this?” This is a very unfortunate approach because, as psychologists know, forgiveness is hard work. It takes time to work through pain and hurt. It can never be simple and automatic. Forgiveness often starts with a decision to change a way of thinking – sometimes that comes quickly, sometimes it comes only when someone realises that their hurt and pain are becoming more harmful than the original hurt, and sometimes it never comes at all – and that way of thinking often over time changes our attitude to the person and the pain. Sometimes it’s possible to see the person who hurt you themselves as a victim too and that can help. But sometimes, especially when the person who has caused hurt or injury themselves remain unapologetic or unaware, forgiveness can only ever be incomplete.
For Christians, especially for those of us in the affluent West who often experience significant harm one step removed, we can easily talk about forgiveness in a cheap and naïve way. We too often have a too benign view of the world. But I want to suggest this morning that the best way for us to escape from that, and from the temptation to pretend that wounds and hurt don’t matter, is to remember that element of the revelation of God in the Old and New Testaments that God is a God of justice as well as mercy. “For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing…” we heard in our Old Testament reading. All that language of “righteousness” in the Old Testament isn’t just about God forgiving our sins, it’s about God putting right the wrong that has been done. The priest and theologian Fleming Rutledge says this, “Forgiveness in and of itself is not the essence of Christianity, though many believe it to be so. Forgiveness must be understood in its relationship to justice if the Christian gospel is to be allowed its full scope.” She then quotes the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after apartheid, who knows a thing or two therefore about justice. Tutu says, “Forgiveness is not cheap, is not facile. It is costly. Reconciliation is not an easy option. It cost God the death of his Son.” You may remember the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, when many perpetrators of great hurt and violence – on all sides – were granted immunity from prosecution on the basis of a full and frank confession in public of their actions. Even this extraordinary process, which went a long way to healing division in post-apartheid South Africa, was imperfect, with many feeling that too many people had literally got away with murder. Even our most sophisticated processes of seeking to go beyond the harm we inflict on others as human beings cannot always give justice that is proportionate to the offence committed.
When Jesus tells the parable of the Unforgiving Servant, which we heard as our Gospel reading, he is telling Peter that, at a human level, perfect forgiveness is impossible. “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’ Jesus magnifies the perfect number of Judaism – seven represents perfect forgiveness for Peter – with an impossible target of seventy-seven. We – with Peter – might think such a figure is ridiculous, and I think we are meant to. Jesus is exaggerating for effect. And the effect is to turn our thoughts away from the possibility of concepts of human forgiveness and justice as the starting point to the idea of cosmic, divine forgiveness and justice. God’s righteous anger against injustice and God’s righteous love in forgiveness – these are the places to focus our human concepts of justice and forgiveness.
We often think of God’s mercy as amazing and we are thankful for it, for the peace of mind and liberty that comes from knowing ourselves forgiven. But what if we also started to believe in the concept of God’s amazing justice, or God’s righteousness, which in Jesus’s mind, like all the Jews of his again, are closely linked ideas? God’s righteousness is the power of God to make things right that have been wrong. In other words, when God acts in forgiveness, he also acts in righteousness, not just to declare us “not guilty” of wrongdoing, but to put right that which was wrong. What if we started to believe again in a God not only loves us but puts us right, puts us in a right relationship with God and invites us to put ourselves right with the world through seeking forgiveness? This is what the Cross of Jesus is all about. This isn’t just a nice warm tale about “how much God loves us”, although it is that. This is a story of God coming into the world to put right that which is wrong with it, and enlisting his followers, who know what it means to be put right with God themselves, to work with him to put right the world in which we live. Only God can forgive and forget. Our calling as his followers is not just to love the world but to mend it too. Forgiveness and justice belong together. We cannot have one without the other.
In this moment of baptism, shortly to take place, Hally, Sienna and Theodore, will be declared forgiven for their sins, washed clean by the mercy of God, and through the prayer and example of parents, godparents and the whole church, be reminded that they can know God’s forgiveness time and time again, more then seventy times seven, forever. But in the same moment of baptism, they are being signed up, recruited to “Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil, and remain faithful to Christ to the end of your life.” And that means being part of a movement of God’s Spirit – which is another way of describing the church – in which not just cosmic forgiveness is offered to the world, but justice/righteousness is pursued, so that the wounds we inflict and receive may be healed and, if never quite forgotten, never allowed to become a cycle of violence, retribution and unforgiveness.
Only God can do this. So we turn to him in prayer that we might be able to do it in his strength alone. To God be the glory. Amen.
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