St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church
Diocese of New Westminster
Anglican Church of Canada
Wednesday 7:00 pm
Thursday 2:00 pm
September 17th Pentecost 15, 2017 John Marsh
Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
Lily, a central character in the novel, The Secret Life of Bees, says the following:
“People, in general, would rather die than forgive. It’s that hard. If God said in plain language, “I’m giving you a choice, forgive or die,” a lot of people would go ahead and order their coffin.” ¹
If Lily’s statement is true - I think it is - then most of us will be surprised by the expansiveness of Peter’s offer:
Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" (Matthew 18:21)
Most of us will think that Peter’s offer is exceedingly generous, if not dangerously so!
After all, second chances, let alone seven, are rare in our experience as forgiveness rendered without contrition or penance is inherently risky.²
And so, in practice, we seek to manage the risk of forgiveness.
Even as we read the story, we resist it, putting in place a more balanced approach; we organize, strategize and create conditions for forgiveness, ways and means for releasing oneself from debt - financial debt, the debt of sin, does it really matter?
With a commitment to clarity of process we say, you must be sorry, you must intend to make amends, you must promise not to repeat the offense and you must be willing to do penance.³
Once these conditions are met, then you have ‘earned’ forgiveness.⁴
Now rationally balanced, its risk managed, forgiveness becomes ‘the economy of absolution’ and, as we do believe, economies can, must be controlled, managed and regulated.
But what if boundaries are pushed to the limits of possibility, daring to dance the impossible…
Jesus, as he often does, pushes the boundaries:
Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:22)
The impossibility of such a statement shatters our sensibilities!
And, and as was said, if it isn’t sensible we’ll resist no matter who says it.
But perhaps, there lingers a question - What about the possibility of an impossibility?
In The Secret Life of Bees, reflecting on her attraction to a black man in the segregationist south, Lily says,
That’s when I told myself five hundred times: impossibility. I can tell you this much: the word is a great big log thrown on the fires of love.” ⁵
Perhaps risking the impossible is birthed within the fires of love…
In depths of the heart, perhaps a divine spark will ignite a response...
Yet, seventy-seven times – that’s some love!
But where do we find such love?
In the time before today there lived a young Hasid. Now the Hasidim were Jews of a special kind – they loved the song and the dance of their synagogues. Needless to say, the Hasidim were generally not welcomed by the more orthodox Jews of the day. As it came to pass, this young Hasid, as is true of most young people, fell in love; he fell in love with the daughter of the leading orthodox Jew in his town. Following the custom of the time, the young Hasid went to the young woman’s father and asked his permission to marry his daughter. Consulting his daughter, who agreed, the father gave his permission on the following condition - if the Hasid agreed that he would never again go to the Hasidic synagogue then he could marry his daughter.
The Hasid went away feeling very sad because he loved the ecstasy, the song and the dance of the Hasidic synagogue. However, after considering the matter he decided that he loved the young woman more and so he agreed to the marriage covenant. The two were married and it is said that they lived a very happy life. Children soon followed and the Hasid considered himself a truly blessed man.
And yet, despite his blessings, the Hasid carried within his heart a hope, a longing that one day before he died he would be able to once again participate in the song and the dance of the Hasidic synagogue. Sometime later, it appeared that the Hasid was given the opportunity to fulfill his hope. His father-in-law, his wife and his children went to a far-off city to visit family members. During their absence, the Hasid went to a neighbouring village and once again participated in the song and dance of the Hasidic synagogue.
I’m sure that you will not be surprised to learn that his father-in-law discovered what the Hasid had done. Furious that the marriage covenant had been broken, he went to the council of rabbis and demanded that a writ of divorce be issued. The council of rabbis agreed to consider the case and after due consideration agreed that the marriage covenant had been broken and so issued the writ of divorce. The Hasid was divorced and never saw his wife or his children again. It is said that the Hasid died soon thereafter a broken and lonely man.
Now when the messiah comes, the messiah will sit in judgment of all such cases; and in this case, the messiah will weigh the evidence and the messiah will say that the father-in-law was indeed right to ask for the marriage covenant; and the messiah will say that the father-in-law was indeed right to go the council of rabbis and demand a writ of divorce; and the messiah will also say that the council of rabbis was indeed right in granting the writ of divorce.
But then the messiah will go over to the Hasid, smile and embrace him saying, “But what is that to you and me for I have come to heal those who are hurt at the hands of those who are right!
I have come to heal those who are hurt at the hands of those who are right?
What are we to do with a messiah who surprises us with unconditional acceptance and forgiveness?
Is it possible to follow a god haunting such actions?
Is it possible to stop resisting the shocking otherness of the holy?
Is it possible for us to cease making and defending our judgments? (Perhaps not, considering how easily we judge the ‘poor’ decisions of others or so easily defend our own decisions as correct and right.⁷)
Is it possible for us to see possibilities beyond our own judgments?
Is it possible for us to ask for forgiveness?
Is it possible for us to offer forgiveness?
Is it possible for us to let go, to turn the page, to refuse to hold on to bitterness and anger especially when we judge ourselves as right?
Is it possible for us to follow one who finds ground between right and wrong, good and bad?
Is it possible for us to follow one who finds possibilities between lines drawn?
Well truth be told, it may very well be impossible for us…
It may be nonsensical for us to even consider such a possibility…
It may be impossible for the god most of us believe in...
But is not the god of Jesus a god who calls into existence a people haunted by an alternative to the ways of the world, a god who seeks a people stirred, spooked by love, humility, forgiveness, compassion and courage?⁸
For the god of Jesus, forgiveness is a gift unexpectedly and freely given, which is to say that forgiveness cannot be reduced to moralism.
When forgiveness becomes a moralism (i.e. Christians must forgive) it loses its life becoming a burden to carry, a legalism, a matter of rules, an external expression of expectation.
When forgiveness becomes a moralism, it loses the shock of surprise, the dynamism of the gift.
When forgiveness becomes a moralism, it creates the grounds for abuses to creep in under the guise of faithfulness.⁹
When forgiveness becomes a moralism, the forgiveness, mercy and compassion of god drains away leaving canonical conditions.
When forgiveness is less ‘than a big log thrown on the fires of love’, it is less than forgiveness.
But still, truth to tell, forgiveness may be beyond our understanding, beyond all reason, beyond all accounting, beyond all cost accounting.¹ᴼ
Forgiveness may be impossible for us but perhaps not for the god of Jesus who calls, haunts us with life, love and compassion. (see Matthew 19:26)
If we are so spooked, are we not a people who gather in response to the god of life, a people who open to transformative possibilities of spirit?
Are we not a people who gather to hear sacred stories in which that which we name as spirit calls and challenges us?
Are we not a people who gather to pray even as the spirit turns our inarticulate groaning’s into prayer?¹¹
Are we not a people who gather around a table as a people broken but included, as sinners but nonetheless sent, as humbled but still empowered?
Are we not such a people?
Are we not called to open to spirit’s transformative presence?
A story (to some an unexpected story but, as was said earlier, financial debt, the debt of sin, does it really matter?)
Once, before the present moment, there was a seminary student who was about to graduate and be ordained; knowing that he would need a car for work, he had been saving his money. An acquaintance, hearing of his need informed him that he and his wife had a five-year old Toyota station wagon that they were intending to sell. Interested the student came to look at the car. The car was in excellent shape with low mileage. While most interested in the car, the student was concerned that he did not have enough money to buy it. “How much do you want for it?” the student anxiously asked. Moved by the student’s need and his nervous anxiety, the seller, handing the keys to the student, said, “Here, it’s yours! Save your money, I’m sure you have other uses for it.”
Imagine the surprise of having a debt forgiven even before the debt is incurred!¹²
¹ From the novel, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd p.277
² The gospel says nothing about contrition or any conditions attached to the offer of forgiveness.
³ See John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? p.73-74
⁴ Very much as a banker forgives a debt once all the payments have been made!
⁵ Ibid, p. 133
⁶ I first heard this story. A written version of this story is to be found in Tales of the Hasidim by Martin Buber p.57
⁷ Isn’t it amazing how self-righteous we become with those with whom we disagree!
⁸ See Matthew 19:26; Mark 10:27
⁹ Forgiveness cannot ever be construed as giving an easy pass to those who inflict harm or violence.
¹ᴼ Caputo, p. 73
¹¹ See Romans 8:26-27
¹² Some have doubted the truth of this story – it is, after all, both unexpected and uncommon. To such doubts, all I can say is, I was there.