Sermon: The Work is Ours

Note: We’ve been working our way through a “Be the Church” sermon series this summer. This weekend’s topic was “Be the Church: Forgive Often” – and the focus scripture was Matthew 18:21-35. Here’s my sermon… 

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“Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Dumbledore says people find it far easier to forgive others for being wrong than being right.” -J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

“To err is human. To forgive, divine.” -Alexander Pope

“Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past can be changed” – Unknown

Be the church: protect the environment. Care for the poor.

Be the church: reject racism. Fight for the powerless. Embrace diversity.

Be the church: share your earthly and spiritual resources.

Be the church: Love God.

And – Be the Church: forgive Often. It seems we left the hardest one for last. Forgiveness is hard. It is complicated. And it is necessary. But all too often we get caught up in the math of it all.

In our sacred story this morning, we meet Jesus teaching his disciples when the topic of wrongdoing and forgiveness in the midst of community comes up. Karoline Lewis summarizes the conversation for us:

Peter: “So, Jesus, just how many times should I forgive? Like, seven?”

Jesus: (thumbs up, gesturing up) “More than that, my friend.”

Peter: “Ok, like seventeen?”

Jesus: “Not even close.”

Peter: “Wait, like twenty-seven?”

Jesus: “Keep going.”

Peter: “You’re kidding, right? Thirty-seven?”

Jesus: “Try seventy times seven times.”

Peter: “But that’s ridiculous! Impossible!”

It is ridiculous. And yet, Jesus ups the hyperbole in a way only Jesus can by telling a parable. There was an indentured servant who owed his master 10 thousand talents (which, if we do the math, works out to be approximately 150,000 years worth of wages. I think Jesus was trying to make a point here.) The servant falls to his knees begging for forgiveness, and the master forgives his debts. On his way out the door, he runs into a fellow servant who owes him just 100 silver coins (doing the math again, approximately 100 days wages). But the first servant shows no mercy, grabs the other by the throat and demands repayment.

And then Jesus sticks with the dramatic hyperbole when he likens a life without forgiveness to eternity in hell.

David Lose points out that “Jesus is turning Peter’s question on his head by replying with a ridiculous, even impossible, reply. ‘You want to play the numbers game?’ Jesus more or less asks, ‘okay, how about this one?’ It’s not that Jesus wants Peter to increase his forgiveness quota – it’s that he wants him to stop counting altogether simply because forgiveness, like love, is inherently and intimately relational rather than legal and therefore cannot be counted. Had Peter asked Jesus how many times he should love his neighbor, we’d perceive his misunderstanding: love can’t be quantified or counted. But he asks about forgiveness and we miss his mistake.”

“Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past can be changed” and it is a constant practice. As Christians, we are called to allow forgiveness to permeate the way we live, the way we love. A life of forgiveness, is necessary in a life of love.

But, this week’s news has got me thinking – what about those times we are in need of forgiveness ourselves? And what about those times sin is not perpetrated by an individual – but by society? By a nation? By countless generations of an entire race?

How are we supposed to forgive the actions of a Nazi-Sympathizer driving his car into the middle of peaceful protesters? How do we forgive white nationalist inciting the violence of Jim Crow, marching towards churches with torches held high and hatred in their hearts? Especially when they are committing that violence in the name of a supremacy that includes, well… me? And most of you? When they claim to be wielding this hatred on our behalf?

How do we forgive politicians and leaders who can’t bring themselves to denounce the worst sin known by our nation – white supremacy – with clear, quick, and decisive words?

And what might it take for us to be freed from the sin of our past? What might it take for our nation finally let go of the remnants of that great sin that continue to stain our society at all levels: in our schools, our healthcare, the marketplace and the justice system?

“Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past can be changed…” but not denying its reality. 

Brene Brown, an accomplished psychologist and teacher, spoke out this week about the ways we white people are called to talk about Charlottesville and the persistent presence of white supremacy in the world. Brene’s body of work revolves around vulnerability and storytelling. She teaches that by owning our past – by knowing our own stories – we are freed to own our future. When we don’t deal with what we’ve done and what’s been done to us – when we box it up and push it aside – our past will control us from the darkest recesses of our being. But when we take out that box – when we open it up and hold the contents in our hands – we can come to know our own story so well that we can sit down and write our own ending to it – this is, of course, is not news to any of us who have spent time unpacking out past with a therapist.

This week, Brown called on this same process for our collective story. For too long, moderate white Americans have put our history of slavery, the Jim Crow era, and the civil rights movement into a box and shoved it aside. We’ve declared that work over and refused to see it rearing its ugly head in our own privilege and prejudices.

It is time for us to take the box out. To open it up. To hold it in our hands. And while this work might be excruciatingly painful, it is necessary if we are going to write our own ending to the story of racism in America – rather than letting hatred and violence of racism write it for us.

“Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past can be changed…”

So last weekend, 500 neo-Nazis and white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville shouting the slogans that perpetuated the genocide and lynching of our past. When they were met by crowds denouncing their words of hate, they embodied their slogans with violence and vehicles.

While I was disgusted that the KKK has been emboldened to gather in this time and place with a new found courage – one that brought them into the light of day and even gave them the permission to trade in their robes and hoods for khakis and polo shirts – I find hope this week in the growing number of people standing up to own this story. There were 500 neo-Nazis, But there were over 1000 clergy and community members proclaiming that love does indeed trump hate.

In a St. Louis Op-ed this week, our United Church of Christ executive minister for Justice and Witness, Rev. Traci Blackmon – who was a leader in the counter-protests, said she “recognized this moment, not as an escalation of white supremacy in this nation, but rather as its death rattle.” Indeed, because of the work of people like Rev. Blackmon leading us to own this story, white supremacy can and will die. But it will put up one last fight, and to defeat it, we (as in, us white people) will all be called on to own this story and write a very different ending.

“Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past can be changed…” and clinging to the promise that the future can.

This weekend, again white supremacists planned to gather in Boston. Last weekend there were maybe 500 – this week less than 100 still felt emboldened enough to gather. Last week there were 1000 people denouncing their words and spirit of hatred – yesterday? 15,000.

15,000 Bostonians showed up to say “no.” To say, “that might have been our past, but it will not be our future.”

The Good News is that God’s forgiveness is a given. God’s love is constant. God’s promise to live within and among us, offering new life and freedom, is at the very core of who God is – it is the thread that runs through our sacred story, in scripture and beyond. It is the very nature of Divine Being. The Good News is that the future can and will be changed –  when we own our story, confess our past, and step up to our future, we are stepping closer to God’s more just and generous world.

This work will not be easy. But it is ours to do. White silence is violence. I’ll be starting here in the coming weeks. I hope you will join me.

Let us pray: Compassionate One, help us to understand how racism finds life in our hearts and in our cries. In this time of tense anticipation, may we commit ourselves to be people of your way crying and creating a path for justice, equity, and peace for all people in this wilderness of hatred and racism. Amen.

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