I was out at church yesterday getting some things for today, and as I was driving home I had Spotify on the radio. I am a geek for 80s pop music! And the first song that came up as I drove out of the parking lot was Phil Collins singing, “How many times do I have to say I’m sorry?” And I laughed at how appropriate that was for today’s sermon. Right after that was Annie Lenox singing, “Here comes the rain again.” Please God, would that be true! – for all of us on the entire west coast.
In my work with Episcopal Relief & Development I was on Zoom calls most of last week for fires the length of the West Coast. Every Diocese from San Diego to our own is in flames. Fires in Bonney Lake and Graham and in the Okanagans have taken homes and lives. 20% of the state of Oregon is on evacuation alert and it’s pretty close to a couple of you! Entire towns have burned to the ground. In our three states, over 3 million acres of land have burned in just the last few weeks. The smoke we’re all breathing this morning is toxic and it is the worst in the world for the past few days.
And we are still in the midst of a pandemic that has killed nearly 200,000 people in the US!
I say all this because, out of curiosity, I looked at the sermon I preached three years ago on this day. It was, of course about forgiveness…of how many times we are called to forgive. It was even more appropriate because three years ago this morning we were all sitting in church surrounded by acrid smoke from a fire that was set by a couple of teenagers who threw fire crackers into the Columbia Gorge for some Labor Day fun. The smoke wasn’t as bad as it is today, but the fire torched pristine wilderness and pines and fir trees exploded like matchsticks and the creatures who lived there perished. On that day I read a letter that someone wrote about forgiving the teens. He was lauded by some, but the comments of many were horrifically cruel.
There is another kind of wildfire raging right now. There is enough anger and frustration going on with political issues that it too is a tinderbox waiting to explode in a different kind of firestorm. This fire gets so hot that emotions are red hot in their intensity. Lines are drawn, people are divided. Fire-bombs are tossed on both sides. Revenge feels sweeter than forgiveness. It is far easier to blame one side or another for the situation we all find ourselves in.And the hurt is often almost too great to bear.
Jesus says we must forgive – and from the heart. That’s almost never an easy thing to do. It would not have been easy for Peter and I often wonder what put Peter in the place he was in, to even ask the question? How many times had he been criticized, slandered, beaten, demeaned, and not wanted to seek revenge? Surely he would be justified in hitting back. And Jesus says, “No.”
Forgiveness is so hard. We struggle to do so because we have been hurt in a way that cuts deeply into our hearts and souls. And, we often think that doing so will let someone off the hook. Or that by withholding forgiveness we will somehow make their suffering more severe. And sometimes it just feels good in the moment. What actually happens is that we suffer. We let the hatred and anger fester inside us and it hardens our hearts and destroys us little by little. Author Anne Lamott says that revenge is a lot like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.
Forgiving someone is actually not about them, it’s a gift of grace for us. And our world needs more grace. It’s letting go of something that is keeping us from becoming like Christ. The early Christian monk Pelagius wrote a letter to a new Christian saying, “…It is not what you believe that matters; it is how you respond with your heart and your actions. It is not believing in Christ that matters; it is becoming like him.”
It is not believing in Christ that matters; it is becoming like him. All this leads me to ask myself what or who I need to forgive so that I might become more Christlike. It is hard work and takes time. It often takes professional help. The story in the gospel shows how hard it is. The man who is just forgiven couldn’t pay it forward.
But to become more like Christ it would seem to be our life’s work. Forgiving someone doesn’t just free the one being forgiven. That actually might not even be possible. Forgiving restores and frees the one who forgives. It creates a new future, a new beginning, a new hope for life.
But in this story how can the one forgiven so much, turn around and fail to forgive someone else? I wonder if it isn’t to show us how hard this work really is and that as many times as we forgive we will also forget not to do it again..and again. I liked what one commentator I read said, “You have been forgiven…you will be forgiven.” We need to be reminded of this grace.
We also need to be reminded of one more thing. Offering forgiveness does not right a wrong. It does not make for healing unless the work of reconciliation takes place. It does not bring justice unless the work of restoration takes place.
It will not stop wildfires until we take responsibility for the situations we have created. Environments that support massive firestorms that destroy countless acres of land and people and creatures will not just go away until we do the work that heals our planet.
It will not stop racial division until we listen long enough to the hurts that people on the oppressed side of any situation have endured. They will continue to absorb such pain until justice is meted out for anyone who has endured prejudice or oppression.
In other words, if it’s our life’s work to forgive others, it is also our work to ask for other’s forgiveness. I wish it would be easy to do, but it is not. But, perhaps the Good News is that we have a place to begin.
In that awkward pause that I force us to make between the words, “Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor…” and “Most merciful God…” Take that pause and consider what healing might happen if you say “I forgive you…” But also take that pause to consider what it would mean to say, “Please forgive me!”
If our goal is to become more like Jesus remember that you are forgiven, and you will be forgiven again. And in your hopes and dreams and prayers ask too that you might be forgiven.
The Peace that follows the confession each week, offers us a chance to start over. May that Peace give us space and time and energy to do the work we are given to do to find that new beginning.
The Reverend Patty Baker
St. Clare Episcopal Church