“Forgiveness and Healing” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Hurrah! I am so grateful to be back with you. I may be almost as happy to be in the pulpit this morning as Tim Morphew is to be out of it. You may be ready to move on from three months of the Sermon on the Mount, but I trust you are not ready to leave the gospel of Matthew completely behind, because there’s more there than just chapters 5-7.
This morning I want to talk about forgiveness. It’s a big topic, so I’m going to tell you right up front about some things that I don’t plan to spend much time on in this sermon. OK?
- We are, all of us, in need of forgiveness from God. Romans 3:23 says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” These are sins of commission — things which we have done, or sins of omission — things which we have left undone, we are not perfect, and therefore need forgiveness.
You can argue with me about this if you want, but if you claim to be perfect, I will accuse you of the sin of pride, or else refer you to my husband, because you are delusional.
- The second thing I am not going to spend much time on today is the assurance that we are forgiven. This is less about our own humility and willingness to confess and change our behavior than it is about the grace of Jesus Christ, who died for us when we were yet sinners. Not only can we be forgiven, Christ has already forgiven us.
Amen! Is an appropriate response at this point, even if you don’t say it out loud.
So if we need forgiveness from God and are already forgiven by the work of Christ, what is there left to say? Those two balance out, right? Yes . . . but here’s the thing: what about other people? That’s what I want to talk about this morning: forgiving other people. I believe this parable from Matthew 18 hits the levels of forgiveness I am talking about. Verses 23-29 make the two points I just referred to — there is a slave who is found to owe an unimaginable amount to his master, the king. We should not be fooled into thinking this a merely an economic problem. In the same way that we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” we are not simply talking about people to whom we owe money. It would be a terrible mistake to think that if we don’t owe anyone money, we don’t have any need for forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer and in this parable, economic debts are a metaphor for all the ways in which we wrong other people, and other people wrong us. The king forgives that lifetime debt of his servant and releases him from it. And if the parable ended there, I would have a lot less to say.
But the parable goes on, the servant who was just forgiven an enormous debt meets up with someone who owes him pocket change. The first servant can’t wait to get his money back, and has the other servant thrown into prison. When the master hears about it, he is not happy. The message of the parable is pretty obvious, and verse 35 spells it out in case you missed it: we are in trouble if we do not forgive others.
This is a pretty simple concept to grasp, but man, it can play havoc with our sense of what is just and fair. It is not a zero-sum equation where you hurt me and I forgive you, and then I’m entitled to do something unkind to you and you have to forgive me, and so on. That is not the mathematics of the kingdom of God. The whole idea of forgiving other people is grounded in the assurance, the conviction, the grace that each one of us is in need of forgiveness, and God has already forgiven us through the work of Christ. If we don’t start there, the equation will never work, because getting even is not the point. Forgiving other people is not about negotiating an even settlement. Forgiving other people is about giving up our right — real or imagined — to be angry, resentful, and bitter. It’s possible that being angry, resentful and bitter will make the other party see the error of their ways and change their behavior. But in my experience, the only guarantee about being angry, resentful, and bitter is that I become and remain a person who is angry, resentful and bitter. The more I indulge those feelings by convincing myself that they are justified, the more they determine who I become.
[Slide] This is an image from the St. John’s Bible. The St. John’s Bible is a hand-lettered, hand-decorated Bible which was commissioned in 1995 and completed in 2011. This page is an illustration of a collection of parables from the gospel of Luke: the good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and the rich man and Dives. Mary and Martha, in the lower right-hand corner, listen to Jesus’ teachings. This illumination is by Donald Jackson, the lead scribe and designer on the project. I’m going to give you a bit to look at these images of these parables and see what you notice, or what strikes you.
Look at the panel with the homecoming of the lost son, and the welcome of his father. There are also lost coins and lost sheep woven through these images. Do you see anything which might have contemporary resonance? Look at the panel of the welcome of the prodigal son. The illumination for this page was done in 2004.
Today, of course, is September 11, the 21st anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers and other targets in this country. Jackson included the Twin Towers, in gold on the right hand side of the page, as a contemporary image of forgiveness. With memorable understatement, Jackson noted, “You’re really challenged to overcome your anger. It’s got to be really difficult to forgive.”
I don’t know what you remember about September 11, 2001 but there was a response of shock and grief. It also triggered a violent response: some misguided people actually killed innocent civilians because they were mistakenly thought to be of Middle Eastern descent, and therefore dangerous. The United States entered a war in Afghanistan which ultimately killed more than 2,400 members of the American military, and personally affected thousands more, including families in our own congregation. As you know, that war did not end until late August 2021, and ending that war was painful and continues to be so. If forgiveness is difficult for individuals, it is even more so for groups of people and nations. Are we being called to forgive the Boko Haram who kidnapped schoolgirls in NE Nigeria? About a third of those girls never returned to their families. Should we forgive Vladimir Putin for his invasion of Ukraine? We should never sanction violence and terrorism, but these things exist in other countries and in our own country; does that mean we have to resign ourselves to being angry and bitter? I hope there is another way to be in the world, and especially to be followers of Christ in the world. Remember, forgiveness — at least Christian forgiveness — begins with the conviction that God has forgiven us through the work of Christ. We must never let go of that conviction — not because being forgiven makes us superior to other people, but because being forgiven makes us like other people. People, Paul noted in Romans, are a damned mess — he didn’t use that phrase exactly, but that’s the result of falling short of the glory of God without the grace of Jesus Christ. Forgiveness — forgiving others and accepting our own forgiveness — is how we allow God to heal us. To heal our wounds and resentments, to heal our arrogance and indifference, to forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors. It is not an easy road; it does not mean allowing yourself to be hurt again and again. Forgiveness is loving ourselves the way that God loves us — and that means releasing the anger and bitterness which are corrosive to relationships between people and between nations. I don’t have a magic formula for how this happens, I wish I did. What I believe, and what I know from experience is that we have a choice, every day, about whether to work toward positive relationships; we choose how seriously we take Jesus’ teaching to forgive others in the way that God has forgiven us. I don’t get to choose what you do, but I can choose how I respond. Remaining bitter and unforgiving is certainly an option, but it is never the only option. Nations will never change until people choose to let go of anger and hatred. Jesus has shown us another way, the path of grace.
 Susan Sink, The Art of the St. John’s Bible: The Complete Reader’s Guide, Liturgical Press 2013, p 252.