Forgiveness is not an Occasional Act

January 19, 2020
Sarah Brouwer

If you’ll indulge me I’d like to offer a brief rundown of the story, even though I know you are all good listeners- the events here are important and go by quickly. The story says Jesus was at home. We don’t typically think of Jesus having a house, but I like the idea that Jesus felt at home somewhere. And the story says there were so many people gathered in the home to listen to him speak, there wasn’t even room to get through the front door. In the previous chapter Jesus heals someone for the very first time and tells them not to speak about it to anyone, but word must have spread quickly because before he knew it another person was in need of healing, and heading toward the house. The four men carrying this person who is paralyzed realize they aren’t going to be able to push through the crowd, so they finagle a way up on the roof- presumably a dirt or thatched roof of some sort- and create a hole in it big enough so they can lower him in on a mat. Jesus, obviously noticing obviously that someone has come through the roof, is so impressed by their creativity and tenacity and faith, that he tells the man lying on the mat that his sins are forgiven. It may seem a strange thing to say to someone upon first meeting- and it was! This forgiving of sins didn’t sit well with some of the important religious folks gathered there, so they begin to question Jesus. But, in an act of authority, Jesus proves to them what he can do. Not only can he forgive sins, but he can also perform miracles. He tells the man on the mat to stand up and walk and go home, and the crowd is understandably inspired.

You may wonder what sinning and being paralyzed have to do with one another. The answer is, probably nothing. The sins of the paralyzed man are not the topic up for discussion in this story, thought it seems that way to our modern-day ears. The crux of this moment is actually a question: how come Jesus is allowed to forgive sins in the first place? You see, up until this very moment, the Hebrew people believed that only God could forgive. Check it out in the Old Testament. It’s pretty clear that God is the one that does the forgiving, until Jesus comes along and muddies the water a bit. The Scribes’ response shows just how significant this shift is: “Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Jesus can forgive because he is God, but they don’t know that yet. He is merely human to them. Jesus, remarkably, goes on from this story to teach people how to forgive each other. It’s a totally new concept at this moment in time, but it’s one that has informed our faith for centuries, and some might say we take it a bit for granted.

At this critical juncture in our nation’s history, the idea of forgiveness is worth reexamining. Now, let me say, for all to hear, before I utter another word: we have a forgiving God. A God of love. It is abundantly and overwhelmingly clear throughout the Biblical text that there are very few things that can separate us from God’s love, the two biggest being how we love God, and how we love one another. And even then, God is the alpha and omega, and casts an infinite net to bring us back through forgiveness. But for us, interpersonally, forgiveness is different. Now you might remember, later on in the Gospel story, Jesus famously tells the disciples not just to forgive an offender seven times, but seventy-seven times. But, seventy-seven is far from infinite. Forgiveness between people, as we all know, is more complicated than that.

In Matthew and Luke’s stories Jesus uses the word repent alongside forgiveness. Only if someone repents must you forgive them, particularly if they repent, or say they are genuinely sorry, and then take responsibility for their actions, multiple times. In Matthew, though, Jesus tells the disciples they can rebuke the offender, expressing sharp disapproval or criticism before they forgive. He also provides a process that goes from one-on-one forgiveness to calling someone out in public if they refuse to repent, involving the community so these actions don’t get swept under the rug.

What Jesus makes most clear is that we are called to try our best to forgive one another through acts of grace, truth-telling, genuine repentance, accountability, and change in behavior. And unless all of these things happen the way they are supposed to, forgiveness between mere mortals is not always possible. Nor is forgetting.

So, what does this acknowledgement from scripture teach us, then, in this moment in history, and in our own lives, and particularly on Martin Luther King Sunday? I think for a long time predominantly white interpreters of scripture used the Bible as a means to an entitled end. As long as we said sorry, white folks assumed we should be forgiven for all the sins that not only we committed, but also those of our ancestors. And, on top of that, we figured that we get to decide what our own repentance looks like. All this because we see that Jesus “says so.” We all know, though, there’s a long history of Western colonization, ripping people from their native lands, enslavement, and racism- we said “sorry” along the way, and made changes, but it’s almost always been on our own terms. We missed the memo about truth and reconciliation, the hard work it takes, and that the timeline for navigating this difficult road to real forgiveness cannot be set at the pace of the offender. Just look to the kids cartoon Daniel Tiger, the modern-day interpretation of Mr. Rogers. Daniel Tiger reminds us, “saying sorry is the first step, then how can I help?”

I’ve told you all parts of this story before, it’s a huge part of my personal faith journey and one that I’m still learning from. I did a two-week intensive class in Chicago at the end of seminary, and the class immersed us in real-life, face-to-face conversations about racism. Part of the class was the with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and other leaders and people in the community who had boots on the ground. As someone who grew up in a very affluent, white suburb of Chicago and who had continued on to St. Olaf College and a predominantly white seminary afterward, I had never been so shocked to know what was happening mere miles from where I grew up. I thought I knew what racism was before this, but I didn’t know. I didn’t know my upbringing, where I was raised, my very way of life was built upon privilege, which also meant that I kept racist systems at work in the world. I came to the shocking realization that I was, and am, racist. I uphold certain “norms” just by who I am socialized to be. I make my way easily through the world because of the color of my skin and the kind of access that provides me.

This new knowledge as an eager 25 year old made me feel like I had received a revelation that needed to be shared. I remember going home from that class to my parents’ house in Florida, where they were living at the time, and announcing to them that they were racists, too. As you can imagine, that didn’t go over so well. But, in my defense I had just been accompanied by these people in Chicago, who had, in the most loving and challenging way, changed God’s call on my life and how I would engage in ministry. The Gospel began to come so much more clearly into focus. The Kingdom of God wasn’t going to be furthered through my ministry if I didn’t seriously consider that my whole life was part of the force keeping the Kingdom of God in heaven and not among all people on earth. I had and continue to have a lot to own, and repent of, and it will be the work of an entire lifetime. But, at the very least, I stand here today willing to say it out loud without defensiveness, because God does not call on us to be silent about injustice and our own participation in it.

There was an article in Sojourners Magazine last spring that talked about forgiveness and racism, and the author, a public school teacher, told a midrash story about Cain and Abel- midrash means it’s not in the Bible, but a story someone made up about these two biblical characters after Cain murdered Abel. It goes like this. Cain and Abel meet in the desert some time after Abel’s death and sit down to a meal together. When Cain notices a scar on Abel’s forehead he begs forgiveness from his brother. Abel replies, “Was it you that killed me, or did I kill you? I don’t remember anymore.” Cain, relieved, notes, “Now I know that you have truly forgiven me, because forgetting is forgiving.” We sometimes see sweepingly beautiful instances of forgiveness from people after they have experienced excruciating suffering- some have been after mass shootings- and they get a lot of attention because it seems unbelievably generous. But, as the author of this article says, there is something dangerous about this story and others like it. Even though there is instant gratification in forgetting- for both the perpetrator and even sometimes the victim- there lies with it the probability of repeating past offenses. You see, white folks often think that if we could just forgive and forget, not only would we be released from our guilt around racism, but we also wrongly assume that those traumatized would be released from the pain and suffering of their past. But, we all know it’s nearly impossible to just forget when someone is hurt deeply, let alone if we experience that same kind of hurt on a daily basis.

As theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, grace is not cheap. Neither is forgiveness, and that’s a good thing. We should take the story from Mark seriously, as serious as the scribes were when they said, “who can forgive sins but God alone?” They were right. When we try to do anything on our own it usually doesn’t turn out very well. Thank God I don’t have to seek forgiveness alone, or offer it alone, either. I don’t let myself off the hook, but I recognize that I do it in community, and with God’s help. When I can’t forgive, or when I’m not forgiven, someone is there to offer it for me, or to me, because we’ve all decided we need each other to make any sort of difference. I look back at my 25 year old self and want to forgive her, too. Forgive her for thinking she needed to change the world, and her parents, on her own.

But, that’s why we don’t forget, and one of the things I’ve learned over these years and  need to stress is how thoughtful we need to be when we quote Martin Luther King, Jr. because so much of what he wrote and said was spoken for the encouragement of African American people to press on for justice- and not for white folks to use for their own comfort. When Martin Luther King famously wrote, “forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude” he meant it for black people to forgive their white oppressors, so they could begin to move on. When white people read these words, however, it’s important to know what side of history we stand on. But, maybe we can change how we read them. What if we read Dr. King’s words and said: ‘asking for forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude.’ Or even, asking for forgiveness is not an occasional act, but, as disciples of Jesus Christ, it is a way of life. I don’t mean you should walk around constantly feeling bad about yourself, or saying you’re sorry for your mere existence- there’s already plenty of shame we each carry around. But the spiritual practice of asking for forgiveness as a community shifts the position we take in the world. This kind of humility is the posture of the Gospel, and it is our high and holy calling. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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