There’s an old Lyle Lovett song called “God Will” that offers some great wisdom about forgiveness. The character in the song is someone who has been wronged by a lover, and he asks:
Who keeps on trusting you
When you’ve been cheating
And spending your nights on the town
And who keeps on saying that he still wants you
When you’re through running around
And who keeps on loving you
When you’ve been lying
Saying things ain’t what they seem
But I don’t
But I won’t
And that’s the difference
Between God and me
Today’s gospel lesson is all about forgiveness, which is one of the hardest things for any of us to both give and receive. Last week, Jesus spoke about how to handle conflict in the community, and reminded us that our relationship with God cannot be separated from our connections with each other. This week, Peter asks Jesus just how far we’re supposed to go with all this. “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive, seven times?” And let’s be clear, even that seems like a lot. If someone offends me seven times, I start to get a little irritated with the whole situation. But Jesus’ response is “Not seven, but seventy-seven times.” And of course, his point is that the forgiveness we’re called to show one another should have no limit.
I don’t know about you, but that’s more than I can do. That’s just too much for Jesus to ask of me. It’s hard enough to forgive the small irritations we all get stung with: someone else’s annoying habits, or tv volume, or sharp tone, or forgetfulness, or whatever. But what about the really bad stuff that happens, to us, or to those we love. Jesus just tells Peter to do it with no acknowledgment of just how much he’s asking. So what gives here?
Two thoughts: First, it’s important to say that Jesus isn’t telling Peter (or us) that we have to forgive anyone who has ever wronged us. Jesus is talking about our relationships with each other in the church. Remember, last week I talked about how the church is like a spiritual gymnasium where we practice grace with each other so that we can be signs of love out there. Forgiveness is one part of the spiritual exercises we rehearse in here with each other. Don’t hear what Jesus isn’t saying. Jesus isn’t laying on a guilt trip because we can’t just offer blanket forgiveness to the really monstrous and horrendous things that are done to us or to others in the world.
And second, I think Lyle Lovett was exactly right. Forgiveness, whether for small or large hurts we suffer, isn’t something we do. Forgiveness isn’t about garnering the psychological and emotional energy to feel good about some wrong we’ve suffered. Forgiveness isn’t simply pretending that a wrong never happened. Forgiveness is something that God does on our behalf. We are simply asked to consent. Forgiveness is drawn from God’s bank account, all we do is sign our names to the check.
That sounds pretty good, but how do we actually do that? The answer comes in the parable Jesus goes on to tell: we learn how to forgive each other by facing down the full extent of how God forgives us. The first slave has an unimaginable debt forgiven, and then he is ruthless in collecting debts from others. The king can’t understand how someone could really know what has been given to them and not give it to others.
That’s how it is with us. I think a lot of times in church we get it all backwards. We often think that church is the place where we try to impress God. You’re supposed to be on your best behavior in church, and put on a shiny façade for God and everyone else. And actually, that’s what most of us do everywhere in our life. Think about the time you spend in your life trying to impress, trying to prove your worth, how much energy to you expend trying to avoid failure, or at least keep people from seeing the ways that you have failed or are imperfect. Church should be the exact opposite of that. This is the place where we are called to fully expose to God the capacity we have to damage other people in our lives, church is the place where we can fully face down our own imperfections, the ways we have failed in our lives, so that we can feel the full embrace of God’s love in spite of the worst we can be.
I say it a lot: the good news of Jesus is that God doesn’t love us because we’re good enough. God doesn’t love us because we’re successful enough or because we’ve earned it through properly polishing that shiny façade. God loves us simply because God made us, and there’s nothing that can change that. The only way you can consent to God’s forgiveness of the irritating person next to you is if you feel the full depth of God’s love and forgiveness for you.
So the work we have to do here each week is to stop trying to impress God and everyone else. The work we are called to here each week is to bear the fullness of ourselves, with our failures and shortcomings and shame and whatever, so that having seen, and touched, and tasted God’s love and forgiveness in here, we can use our lives to show that love and forgiveness out there. Amen.