Grace! Now what?!: a sermon on forgiveness & accountability
Our scriptures this morning get us thinking about big salvation events and encourage us to consider how we respond. First we heard a wonderful story that prepares us to imagine God doing something really big for God’s people.
The story was the one of the Israelites passing through the red sea; of escaping the life of slavery in Egypt to be given entry into the freedom of the Promised Land. God saved them. It was huge! I’ve heard this salvation story as the Easter Event of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Israelites responded to this moment of salvation by breaking out in song. What a good prelude to this parable, a story that Jesus told about a man who was forgiven an impossible debt.
According to the story, this particular slave owed 10,000 talents. Scholars help us make sense of this number helping us see that the amount was equivalent to 150,000 years of work. My husband, who is a numbers guy figured this out, assuming that the person was earning around $12/ hour, and realized that this debt would have been around 4 billion dollars.
The lord of the story, however, simply said to the slave, ‘don’t work about it’! Forgiving the whole, impossibly huge debt, he wiped the whole slate clean. But then, notice how the slave’s response…
The man who had just been forgiven a huge debt then went to a person who owed him 100 denarii (equivalent to $10,000 or 100 days wages)… grabbed him by the throat and forced him to pay!
Things do not end well for the man who lacks the same generosity he himself had just been given. Parable ended the way many parables in the Gospel end: with harsh judgement. Because of the harshness of this portion of scripture, I find many of us find this parable rather difficult for most of us to get into.
When we read parables, we often try to ask ourselves the question: who am I in this parable? Perhaps the way to get into this parable is to allow ourselves to pause at the point where we find ourselves.
If we do this, I suspect that many of us may relate to the one who was forgiven an enormous debt. Afterall, we all are imperfect people. We all sin. We all fall short of the glory of God.
When we come to that momentary silence before the confession of sin in our liturgy, we can call to mind some ways we have fallen short. Over the course of our lives, for things known and unknown, done and undone, we are acutely aware that we have sinned.
Again and again, we turn to God, we confess our sins. And we people of faith believe this radical thing: We believe that our gracious God does forgive us!
The Christian community has been founded on God’s radical generosity. We are given second, and third-- and endless opportunities to continue walking in the light and the love of God. In God’s mercy, we are made new.
We who are members of Christ’s body are called to rejoice in the free gift of God’s grace we receive, and then respond. We are called to give it back. In big and small ways, we are called to extend to others that grace we ourselves have received.
Jesus always imagined the beloved community to be a group of followers who know ourselves to be forgiven. Consider, for example, the prayer Jesus taught us to pray. We pray that God would forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. We respond to this knowledge by working to forgive one another.
Forgiving comes easy… sometimes. It seems to me that it is pretty easy to forgive if: 1) The hurt has been fairly minor, and 2) if the person who hurt us is genuinely remorseful.
When the offense is small and remorse is real, it’s so simple for us to say: “hey-it wasn’t that big of a deal… and I know you didn’t mean to do it… it’s ok!”
And in situations like that, the breach is repaired simply. We may swallow a little pride, but we accept their apology. Harmony is restored pretty easily…
All of this is very good. And yet, forgiveness is not always so easy. The work of forgiveness is so much harder when the hurt has been significant and our trust has really been betrayed.
Forgiveness is also so much harder when the offender isn’t actually repentant at all!! And even worse yet, if the offending person seems intent on continuing to harm us (or other people) that we love again and again, there are times when forgiveness doesn’t even actually seem healthy… or just!!
Friends, I know that I’m muddying the water on the topic of forgiveness. This, however, is what life does. Life complicates things. The wide array of experiences we have in the course of our lives muddy the water on topics like forgiveness.
Bear with me. Before I hop back into the scriptures appointed for today, I want to call to mind a full year of experiences I had that really muddied the water on forgiveness.
This was when I was still in my twenties. I lived in New Orleans and worked as a clinical social worker with victims of domestic violence and their children. The grant funding required that all my clients were parents who were currently in violent relationships with significant others. Officially, my clients were the children who lived in the home, but to work with them, I spent time proving support and counsel to their caregivers.
In our time together, I started to catch onto the fact that many of the families with whom I was working were getting some really bad advice from seemingly well-intending folks at church. Sometimes that bad advice was rooted in the scripture we heard today.
The quote was told to them, again and again was this very quote we heard in today’s Gospel. “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’ teaching about forgiveness were reiterated to them in the form of advice. In effect, clients were being admonished, essentially, to stay quiet, to not rock the boat, to forgive even while (every form of suffering) suffering continued. This pressure to keep from holding abusers accountable for their behavior had disastrous consequences... for the whole family!
Looking back on this time, I wish I knew then what I know now. What I know now is that if we want to understand the wisdom of scripture, we need to place it into the whole narrative of the Good News. As we hop back into the scripture we did hear today, what we find is that when we place Jesus’ command to forgive back into the context of the rest of the chapter 18, it is clear that the call to forgive is set within the context of the call to be accountable to neighbor.
At the very start of chapter 18, we hear Jesus speak of children (of the little ones) as being the greatest in the kingdom of God. Woe to you who would be stumbling blocks to them, Jesus warns. Some verses later, just before the passage we heard today, Jesus provided clear instruction about how members of the body are to properly hold one another accountable when they are injured. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” If they do not listen, go and get support from others in the community.
Even as we joyfully recognize that God forgives the Sin of the whole world by Jesus Christ, it is critical that we also recognize that Jesus always imagined God’s kingdom as a place where the little ones, the vulnerable ones, are safe and protected.
This means that sins are worth paying attention to. This means that the conflicts that arise in community are not to be swept under the rug, but rather are to be dealt with carefully, thoughtfully, and in the open.
When we put Jesus’s words of this call to forgiveness properly into the context into which he was speaking, we can see that the call to forgive DOES NOT MEAN that we hide our eyes to abuse of any kind.
We need each other to hold us accountable. Our relationships are gifts of God’s grace when they are based on mutual care, on fidelity, on trustworthiness.
Sometimes all of us need truth to be spoken in love in order for us to recognize the ways we are failing to keep our promises to love our neighbors. None of us are perfect. None of us can see clearly how we effect one another. While it may be uncomfortable and awkward, what we are doing when we hold one another accountable for what we have done and what we have failed to do, what we are doing in effect is helping one another grow in grace and love.
The beloved community is called to be a place of safety; a community where we protect one another so that ALL of us can dwell in the safety and freedom that God intends for each and every one of us.
Forgiveness does NOT take the place of accountability. Forgiveness comes along side accountability. These are not mutually exclusive.
Forgiveness and grace infuse the Christian community. Forgiveness and grace is the glue that hold the Body of Christ together.
God has paid the debt for our sins. This salvation we have come to know; to know in a personal way.
The parable begs us to ask ourselves the question: What do I do with the freedom and grace I have received?
- Do I extend the gift of grace to others I have received to others?
- When I forgive, do I forgive from my heart and really wipe the slate clean?
- Do I act graciously to others when they are courageous enough to let their guard down and be real with me?
- But- just as importantly: Do I use my freedom to protect others from violence and oppression? Do I do all I can do from my position to make our world safe and free for even the little ones among us?
There is challenge and there is grace in today’s Gospel for all of us. We all have places where we KNOW we could grow; grow in our ability to hold one another accountable; grow in our ability to forgive as we have been forgiven.
Regardless of what grace and challenge this parable raises for us as we enter a new week, let us remember that the God we follow is a God who is gracious and abounding in steadfast Love. Our God forgives us our debts, not because of how much we deserve forgiveness, but because of how much God loves us.
Thanks be to God, our forgiving, life giving God offers us new life and more freedom each and every day.
May we strive, each day, to forgive as we have been forgiven; May we strive, each day, to walk in Love as God loves us! Amen.