I have a confession to make. It is not one I make easily or lightly. It is one that I would prefer to never state publicly but in the interest of full disclosure, I think it is necessary that I reveal this to you today. I hope that what I am about to say won’t shock you or make you love me any less but if it does, I accept that as my punishment for what I am about to tell you. Are you ready? Are you sure? It is going to be quite shocking and maybe a little scandalous. Okay, here it goes. I have a hard time with the concept of forgiveness. The old saying, “Forgive and forget”? I can do the forgetting easily enough but the whole forgive part is something I struggle with.
I suspect it is the same with many others, perhaps even many of you in the congregation. What is it about forgiveness that we find to be such a challenge? Why is it easier and sometimes better for us to continue to hold a grudge for years, rather than simply forgiving those who trespass against us?
Perhaps I should back up a bit and first define what forgiveness actually means. According to Webster’s Dictionary, forgiveness is defined as “to give up resentment of or to cease to feel resentment against”. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? All it requires is that we give up our resentment of another. Yet, this seemingly simple act seems so hard for so many of us to do.
Here, in this Scripture text, we hear Jesus’s words about forgiveness and how important it is to the Christian lifestyle. Peter asks him, “Lord, how often shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Seven times? Jesus replies, “No, you shall forgive him seventy times seven.” Now, Jesus isn’t saying that you should literally only forgive your brother 490 times and then at the 491st time, you can say, ok, that’s it. No more forgiveness. It is a metaphorical meaning implying that we should forgive without ceasing. We should forgive without any limitations on it.
I have to stop here and ask, though, really? Is it really supposed to be that way? It is easy for Jesus to say that we should forgive our brother or sister when they have done us wrong, like when they talk about us behind our backs. However, I wonder if Jesus would say this to a woman who was sexually abused by her brother. Would he tell a woman who’s been raped that she should forgive her rapist? Would he tell an abused child that they should forgive their abuser? Jesus’s platitudes about forgiveness might have worked fine for the community he was in and the times he was in but they seem to bear no relation to the world we live in today. Instead, they come off as cheap and empty and hollow and don’t seem to offer much comfort to our modern day troubles.
Or do they? A few weeks ago, Rev. Fred Phelps passed away. For those of you who have somehow managed to avoid knowing who Fred Phelps is, he was the founding pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. This church has single-handedly promoted hatred and intolerance and is infamous for their picketing at Matthew Shepard’s funeral and also at funerals of military personnel. The church has been labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and is generally seen as an extreme example of the conservative Christian movement.
Now, I’m about to say some stuff that you might find controversial or perhaps even surprising. You might think that when I first heard that Phelps was on his deathbed and had entered his final days that I was happy or excited or perhaps wanted to perform a cha-cha on his grave! You might have thought that I would be the first to throw a party to celebrate the death of a man who has done nothing but spread hate and intolerance toward me and my fellow LGBTQ sisters and brothers. I’m not gonna lie, if this had happened a few years back, I might have done just that. It would have been very easy for me to simply wish for him to be suffering in hell. I don’t think anyone would have begrudged me that much.
Yet, here’s what I have come to realize. In order to be a Christian and a follower of Christ, it is essential that I also be able to forgive others, even those who have deeply hurt me. Does this mean Fred Phelps gets a free pass and that we can excuse everything he ever said or did? No, it does not. Let me make this perfectly clear. I do not excuse, condone or in any way endorse anything that Rev. Phelps or the Westboro Baptist Church does or says. This man spent a lifetime hating people that he probably never even bothered to take the time to get to know. He spent years spewing vitriol and promoting a false Gospel and a false God.
Yet, and here’s the controversial part of my sermon, I forgive him. I hope that he is up in heaven partying with Jesus and Matthew Shepard and that he has found the peace in death that he so clearly never had in life. Best-selling author Anne LaMotte has this to say about forgiveness: “Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You're done. It doesn't necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person.” Would I want to sit down to lunch with Fred Phelps? No, I think not. I don’t think anything productive or healing would happen there. I no longer feel the need to hit back. I no longer feel the urge to wish him suffering and misery. I no longer wish him anything but peace.
This next weekend at SFTS, we will be presenting our Fourth Annual Production of the Vagina Monologues. This is a show about female empowerment. It is a show about women who are willing to speak up and say that they are no longer going to allow the abusers to win. It is also a show about forgiveness. In the show, there are several monologues about women who experienced sexual violence against themselves. Women who were violated, raped, abused or otherwise broken down and told to be silent because their voices aren’t worth hearing anymore anyway. Yet, what the show acknowledges is the fact that this won’t be the case for these women anymore. They are about to rise up, speak up and declare their truth. The truth that they are beautiful and wonderful people just as they are and that no one can tell them otherwise ever again.
What is most striking about the monologues, at least from my perspective, is the fact that none of these women seek revenge against their abusers. None of them declare any type of ill will or wish any sort of harm on their attackers. This, in its own way, is an example of forgiveness. The realization that they are strong and empowered in spite of what has happened to them is an example of what is possible through the power of forgiveness. They exemplify the idea that you don’t have to hit back. You don’t have to ever see your abuser again but you also don’t have to allow yourself to wallow in sadness and shame.
What we see in Jesus’s parable of the unforgiving servant is what happens to us when we are unable to forgive. We see a servant who is punished severely by his master because he cannot forgive his fellow servant of a relatively small debt, even after the master forgives him a relatively large debt. The master, in this case, is meant to be God. God can forgive us of anything we’ve done. That’s the very nature of God. God can forgive Fred Phelps. God can forgive an abuser. God can forgive anyone, no matter how large the debt or terrible the burden.
Of course, we aren’t God. We are human. Humans are subject to all kinds of failings. Thus, I want to really emphasize here that it is okay to be unable to forgive. It is okay to be angry. It is okay to be mad. It is okay to be feeling whatever you are feeling. Your feelings are valid and important and need to be acknowledged. As someone who spent years being verbally abused by people close to me, I totally get that anger. I totally get that wanting to see the abuser suffer or be punished. It makes perfect sense. It may even make us feel good. At what cost, though?
The whole concept of forgiveness in the New Testament is based on the idea that those who are able to forgive others are also able to receive God’s forgiveness. When we fail to forgive others, we also fail to receive God’s forgiveness for us. We fail to be better than our abusers. We fail to be better people.
Anne LaMotte also has this to say about forgiveness: “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” We can’t continue to be in community with others if we aren’t willing to forgive them as well. Holding a grudge does a disservice to both parties. Are we willing to continue to be Christians? If so, we may have to make the hard choice to forgive not only others, but also ourselves. When we do, we open ourselves up to receiving God’s forgiveness.
What does this mean, then, for our modern context? Does it look like an abused woman forgiving her abuser? Does it look like forgiving Fred Phelps? Does it look like being willing to enter a church again, years after feeling driven out due to hatred? While it could look like any or all of those things, I hesitate to ever use the word should because I know that may not be possible for many of us. What I will say instead is that I think forgiveness looks more like being willing to move on with our lives without becoming abusive ourselves. We can break the cycle of abuse but only when we are willing to forgive. This doesn’t mean we have to ever see the person again. It does however mean that we have to be willing to let it go. Not in the sense that we can never talk about it again or that we should just shut up. Please don’t think I am ever advocating for that. Instead, I am advocating for us to love ourselves. For us to forgive ourselves. For us to find peace with ourselves and with each other. This is the true path to forgiveness. This is the true path to letting go. This is what Jesus was advocating for with each of us.
We need to stand up and speak our truth. We need to stand up and proclaim our power. We need to stand up and proclaim that we forgive our brothers and sisters for what they have done to us. We need to create a new paradigm. Let us be more willing to forgive. It might not be easy. It might take some time. Yet, as Christians, it will always be the right thing to do. It will open us up to new things. It will open us up to receiving forgiveness from others. I encourage you to leave this place today and go forth sowing seeds of forgiveness. You just might be surprised by what blooms.