Is. 55:6-11/Ps. 34:15-22/Mat. 6:7-15
“Forgive us our sins,” we pray, “as we forgive those who sin against us.” I often tuck in a quick “Lord, have mercy” after those words. Or go off on a tangent like, “actually, God, don’t forgive me the way I forgive others, just forgive me. And help me be a better forgiver.”
Forgiveness is a big, complex and even messy thing, a big part of the Christian thing, a big part of Jesus’ teaching, as we know. On Saturday Br. Curtis will lead a workshop here on the topic of forgiveness. We’re calling it a workshop for good reason: it is work! Forgiveness can be hard work. We shouldn’t be glib or sentimental about it. Forgiving can be especially difficult when the offense is great or repetitive.
This evening I’m going to “file by title” the whole topic of how to forgive and talk instead about why we forgive. Why we forgive and why we seek to be forgiven.
It is partly about having our stains removed, I suppose, about our souls being bright and shiny and ready for heaven. We talk about being “cleansed from our sins”. “…though your sins be scarlet, they shall be as white as snow…” [Is. 1:18] But it’s more than that; it’s also about the Kingdom, the coming Kingdom. “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” as the Lord’s Prayer puts it. The Kingdom and forgiveness have a deep connection.
The Kingdom, which is another big part of Jesus’ teaching. The Kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. The Kingdom coming into the world, the reign of justice and peace, the triumph of life over death, of wellness over every type of disease, of love over hate: the ancient prophets’ vision of the Peaceable Kingdom, as it is sometimes called. Central to the whole Christian vision of things.
The Kingdom has yet to come in all its fullness. And, therefore—and this is key—therefore, the Christian orientation is toward the future. We have roots in the past, of course, we can’t erase our memories, but our primary orientation is toward the future, the coming of the Kingdom in its fullness.
And this is not mere wishful thinking. The increments of progress toward the Peaceable Kingdom may be slow, may be halting, may move in retrograde from time to time, but there actually is progress in the human condition. The Peaceable Kingdom is actually a concrete reality toward which we are moving, in our stumbling, zigzagging way.
I’m really excited, pumped about the presidential election this time around—I’m trying very hard not to be too obnoxious in my enthusiasm! One of the reasons I’m so excited has to do with the Kingdom: we’ve actually made progress! It’s like hiking up a mountain and suddenly coming to a place where you can look down below and see how far you’ve come. Visible, tangible progress. A few days ago I held in my very own hands a sign of the Peaceable Kingdom: it was a ballot; a ballot with the names of a woman and a black man. One of the two nominees for the next president of the United States of America will be either a woman or a black man. This would have been virtually impossible even a few years ago.
We should stop to savor this important moment in history, whoever wins. We’ve fought long and hard for gender equality and racial equality. The battle is not over, but we have certainly come a very long way. We’ve done our hard work and the work has paid off.
Which should give us enormous encouragement to carry on. The Peaceable Kingdom is coming—“on earth as it is in heaven”–and we have our part to play. Progress takes a lot of hard work, but it’s real. It is not an illusion. It is not just a fluke. So, all you progressives out there, keep progressing! The future calls!
Which is where forgiveness comes in. Desmond Tutu said somewhere that “there is no future without forgiveness”. I think his context was the political and racial turmoil of South Africa, but this principal works at lots of different levels. Living into the future requires being unbound from the past. Not forgiving and not being forgiven can bind us, can tie us in knots and get us stuck in the past.
For me, this is the most compelling reason for forgiveness. I think it’s less about removing our “stains” and more about setting one another free. Setting one another free for the future—for the future here on this planet. For the Kingdom to come, we need to be unbound and free to move ahead into God’s future. We need to be unbound from the past to be set free for the creative, constructive work of the Kingdom, for the creative work of social progress.
And, for me, forgiving and being forgiven are less about purity and more about relationships, more about mending the social fabric. If everyone is running around forgiving and being forgiven, we re-weave the social fabric. And in the mending and re-weaving the social fabric can become even stronger than before. Forgiveness is about re-weaving a strong and beautiful social tapestry. And a strong and beautiful social tapestry is what the Kingdom is about.
It’s Lent: a season to be mindful of our sin. But also a time to remember the forgiveness of God proclaimed by on Cross. Our sins are forgiven! Yes, we need to acknowledge our sins, have contrite hearts, and repent—and then be done with it. We don’t need to wallow in a self-absorbed, self-indulgent, false piety of excessive penitence! Even Lent is no time for false pieties. Lent is time to get up off our sorry knees and do something constructive: there’s a world out there needing to be healed. Even Lent is no time for beating ourselves up. Not when Christ has already forgiven us—better to get out and do something for others. Better to get out and build the Peaceable Kingdom. Better to go vote!
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house…? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn…” [Is. 58:6-8]
Break every yoke, break the bonds of unforgiveness. Why? We have things to do. We have places to go, people to see and lots of loving to do. A future to dream of, a Kingdom to build, even in our own time.
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