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Be the Church: Forgive Often (Sermon for June 28, 2020)

Sujatha Balinga is the director of the Restorative Justice Project. She is a recipient of the MacArthur ‘genius grant’ and a Buddhist and a survivor of childhood abuse. She has been a victim advocate… and a law student on her way to becoming a prosecutor… and a defense attorney… and a restorative justice advocate.

And she has been twenty-four and angry and lost.

When she was twenty-four and angry and lost, she did what people do when they’re twenty-four and angry and lost. She went backpacking through India. She got off a bus in McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamshala. And, through what she describes as “an unbelievable course of events,” she ended up sitting down with the Dalai Lama.

And she asked him—she who was a survivor of abuse, she who was angry not just at her abuser but at a world full of abuse and violence and harm, she who was twenty-four and angry and lost—she asked him:

“How do I let go of this anger and this rage? How do I forgive my father?”

And the Dalai Lama listened to her. And he didn’t give her an answer. Instead, he asked, “Do you feel like you’ve been angry long enough?”

This summer, we’re spending time with this… thing; this list that the Untied Church of Christ has. It’s on mugs and aprons and coloring books and stuff. It’s on a banner in front of our church building. And it goes like this:

Be the church. Protect the environment. Care for the poor. Forgive often. Reject racism. Fight for the powerless. Share earthly and spiritual resources. Embrace diversity. Love God. Enjoy this life.

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about protecting the environment. Last week, we talked about caring for the poor. And now, we’re here: be the church; forgive often.

Forgiveness is at the core of our faith. On the first Sunday of every month, just before we take communion, we confess our sins and we are given an assurance of our pardon. On the first Sunday of every month, just before we take communion, we are reminded of the heart of the gospel: in Christ, we are forgiven.

But… far too often… we imagine forgiveness as such a little thing.

On the one hand, we like it when other people rush to forgiveness. There are big examples of that: our media made spectacles of family members forgiving the people who murdered Botham Jean and Walter Scott and the Emanuel Nine. And there are small examples of that: we’ve all wondered why so-and-so can’t just get over it and forgive us for whatever slight injury we’ve caused.

All of us long to get rid of our guilt and our shame. All of us long for forgiveness. And all of us long for others to rush to forgive us.

On the other hand, we hold on to our own anger; we feel righteous in our own trauma; we have a right to our own lament. We withhold our forgiveness and demand justice: we demand repentance, we demand apology, we demand punishment.

We long for forgiveness. And we hold on to our trauma. And, together, we all live in our brokenness.

In today’s reading, Peter goes to Jesus with a question.

“Jesus, if one of my friends and neighbors sins against me… how many times should I forgive them? Like… seven times? Is that enough? Because that seems like a bunch of times and it seems like enough times.”

And Jesus answers him. And different manuscripts say different things. But what it comes down to is this:

“No. Not seven times. Seventy times. Or seven times seventy times. More times than you can count.”

And then Jesus tells a parable:

There was a king who was settling accounts with this slaves. And there was a slave who owed him one hundred fifty-thousand years of wages… and who couldn’t pay him back. So the king decided to sell the slave, and all of his family, and all of his stuff, and take the money from that (and it still wouldn’t be enough). But the slave fell to his knees and begged.

“Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. I’ll pay you the whole one hundred fifty-thousand years of wages. Just have patience. Please.”

And the king did. He took pity on that slave and he showed mercy. He forgave the whole debt.

Now, that slave went out and found another slave who owed him one hundred days of wages; a fraction of what he himself had owed; a fraction of what he himself had been forgiven. And he demanded that this other slave pay him. And that slave ell to his knees and begged.

“Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. I’ll pay you the whole one hundred days of wages. Just have patience. Please.”

And the slave who had been forgiven did not. The slave who had been showed mercy showed none. He had his fellow slave thrown into prison until the debt could be paid.

And the king heard about it. And his pity vanished. And his wrath flared.

So the king went to the slave whose debt had been forgiven and said, “I showed you mercy and you showed none. As you did, so shall be done to you. But you owe one hundred fifty-thousand years of wages.”

And the king had that slave handed over to be tortured until his debt could be paid.

And Jesus ends the parable with this: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

I don’t like that parable. I don’t think that God is like that king. The God who I know is abundant in mercy and indiscriminate in generosity and steadfast in love. And the heart of the gospel is that we will not be treated according to what we have done, but that in Christ we are forgiven.

But…

Trauma begets trauma. And while some of us carry more trauma than others—and some of us have caused more trauma than others—all of us carry trauma. Hurt people hurt people. And while some of us have been hurt more than others—and some of us have hurt people more than others—all of us are hurt.

There is not one of us—there is not one of us—who is not part of the cycle of trauma and hurt and violence and injury that we call sin. And trauma begets trauma; hurt people hurt people.

And I know it’s just a parable, but I think that the slave whose debt had been forgiven was doing what so many of us so often do: he was still living like he was carrying a one hundred fifty-thousand year debt. He was demanding the payment of a one hundred day debt so that he could feed the payment plan on a debt… that… … …had been forgiven.

And, sometimes, we demand repentance and apology and punishment to feed a trauma that we’re only carrying… because… …  …we’re carrying it.

And I need to be careful here. There are times when we need to hold our anger. There are times when we are righteous in our trauma. There are times when we must exercise our right to lament. There are times when we need to rage. There are times when protests are the shout of marginalized and riots are the language of the oppressed. There are times when our anger is the fuel that we need to bend the world towards goodness.

But there are also times when we need to let go.

Sometimes that’s easy. And sometimes that’s hard.

Sometimes, that anger keeps sneaking back into our homes and leaping back into our arms. Sometimes, that trauma calls to us in the night, and we wander into the living room to find it sitting on the couch. Sometimes, that lament rises up from inside us and we are singing it in the shower.

Sometimes… forgiveness is a discipline. It’s a thing that we have to do every. single. day.

Sometimes, we need to remember that Christ broke the cycle of sin. And while we might need to be angry for a while, that anger does not own us. Once it has served its purpose, we can send it away into the wilderness. We can live differently.

Sujatha Balinga did not forgive her father during her conversation with the Dalai Lama. She didn’t leave the room with a weight lifted from her shoulders. But, a while later, she was meditating. And during that time, she forgave her father. She had been angry long enough.

The rage that had been driving her desire to be a prosecutor—her desire to punish people on behalf of her victims—was gone. She changed her course. She became a defense attorney. And then she became an advocate for restorative justice.

And restorative justice and be a big thing: it can be about what the police do, and what lawyers do, and how we dismantle the prison system. But it can also be a small thing: it can be about how we approach people who have wronged us; it can be about how we approach people who we have wronged.

Once we have been angry for long enough—once our wounds have turned into scars and our trauma has receded in the background—do we approach our lives and our relationships like we owe a debt to our trauma? Or do we approach our lives and our relationships like that debt has been forgiven? 

And just in case you think that recognizing that forgiveness is easy, let me assure you that it is not. Just in case you think that offering that forgiveness is easy, let me assure you that it is not. 

It is a big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled thing. But thank God I know some people who can do big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled things. Thank God I know some people who can be leaders in doing big, bold, wild, dangerous, grace-filled things. Thank God I know some people folks who can be the church.

Amen.

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