Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin. November 22, 2020 Thanksgiving Observed Psalm 100 Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 Matthew 5: 38-41, 18:21-22
Have you heard the phrase “May you live in interesting times?” Legend has it that this is a Chinese curse, but no one really knows its origin. American use of it comes from a 1966 speech given by Robert Kennedy: “There is a Chinese curse which says “May he live in interesting times.” Like it or not,” Kennedy continues, “we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.” It is easy to express Kennedy’s sentiments in the pattern we heard in Ecclesiastes: -“a time of danger and uncertainty, and a time of creativity” The passage from Matthew’s Gospel also fits into this same formula – “a time of revenge and a time of forgiveness.”
Writing between 300 and 200 BCE, the writer of Ecclesiastes understood the tensions in which human beings live. The nouns may change, but our lived experience of “interesting times” can also be expressed in the formula: a time to self-quarantine and a time to receive vaccines, a time of an administration ending, and a time of an administration beginning, a time of civil unrest and a time for justice, a time to mourn the loss of a holiday season with those we love, and a time to rejoice in being together safely again in some not too distant future.
These are all “seasons” of human experience, but how does God encourage us in the between times and what does God expect us to do to move from that which has caused harm, trauma, despair, anger, fear and hopelessness to joy, peace, hope, renewed faith and confidence?
The Christian answer is to forgive – 77 times as Peter learns to his dismay. We know that we are asked to forgive as we have been forgiven, but forgiveness is not a switch we flip on and off. Much of popular culture has only a surface understanding of forgiveness. It is expected of us as a requirement of getting along, of being “nice.” It might work if the 77 things you are asked to forgive are your spouse leaving the cap off the toothpaste for the gazillionth time or your teen-ager forgetting to take out the trash AGAIN. But, it is woefully inadequate for the deep wounds of betrayal, the trauma of mental or physical abuse, the breaking of trust committed upon us or by us. And it has no application at all to the systemic harms done in our name; racism, income inequality, separating children and parents at the border for example.
Forgiveness is a process, not a destination. It is work and it is hard. So where do we begin? Christians know the work begins with God. God offers us grace always. No matter what we have done or what has been done to us or others, our gracious God loves and accepts us freely. Forgiveness is ours through Jesus. Full stop.
So, the first step in the journey to forgiveness is opening ourselves to God’s grace and extending the same to those who have harmed us and others. Grace is freely given, but forgiveness requires intention and practice. Forgotten in our culture of soundbites and tweets, there are some tried and true steps toward forgiveness that Christians have always practiced. The first is “repentance.” The concept in the New Testament comes from the Greek word “metanoia” which literally means “change of mind.” Christians add “and heart” to the definition. To change the mind and heart is to truthfully examine the motivations, decisions, and actions we have taken that harm others, and also require us to honestly name the choices and actions of others that harm us or those we love or those Scripture commands us to care for. Honesty can be gut-wrenching and truly frightening to face. But if we are ever to come to forgiveness, honesty is required.
Sometimes, we need help to name and know these hard truths. Conversations with a therapist or pastor or trusted friend, 12 step programs, prayer, reading Scripture or keeping a journal are all excellent ways to hold us accountable to the truth of what we have done or what has been done to us or to others.
Once truth has been revealed and accepted, the next step follows from the honesty of repentance. The Church calls this “amendment of life” What will we do to right the wrongs we have committed? How do we repair the damage and what will we do to stop it happening again? This, too, is hard work. And again, we may need the help of trusted others – and plenty of grace – to change the destructive behaviors in us that have harmed others. It may require therapy or participation in a 12 step program or giving ourselves over to the criminal justice system. It might be as simple as facing the person we have wronged, admitting our fault and doing what is needed to make them whole. It may also require us to respect the boundaries of those wounded by us and to accept that a relationship is not possible and our forgiveness will only come from God. Grace is free and will always be plentiful enough for us to live a redeemed life.
The same holds true if we are the one who has been harmed or if the harm has been done to someone we love. Forgiveness NEVER demands us to continue in relationship with a perpetrator, especially if there is no evidence of amendment of life. We need not grant absolution to an insincere apology nor accept unchanged behavior. There are some situations where the very best we can do is acknowledge that God loves and forgives the one who harmed us or others. And that is sufficient. Grace is free and will always be plentiful enough for us to live a redeemed life.
While repentance and amendment of life is the foundation of forgiveness in our individual lives, so too is it the foundation of our communal and civic life. It is more difficult on this scale, but the hard work still needs to be done. Truth and reconciliation processes are important to our communal life and the more we practice the grace of our own lives of forgiveness, the better we will be prepared to engage in a communal practice that heals civic wounds and wrongs. Even in the public square, grace is free and will always be plentiful enough for us to live a redeemed life. God’s grace is always free, but it is never cheap. There always is and always will be, work to be done. As we approach this strange and difficult holiday season, we must continue to do the hard work of forgiveness in spite of it all. God’s grace is always free and always will be. Grace is plentiful enough for us to live a redeemed life in whatever times we live. May God’s grace be a gift for which we give thanks – today and always. Amen.