The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
I start today’s sermon with a confession: There are times when I find forgiveness incredibly difficult. I’m talking about times when someone close to me has hurt me in some significant way and has not acknowledged their hurtful behavior. In the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” which is great language that references economic justice…and the phrase “debts” comes directly from Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. For me, though, the version of that prayer by John Philip Newell that we chant is hits even closer to home: “Forgive us the falseness of what we have done, as we forgive those who are untrue to us.”
Are there times in your life when someone has been untrue to you? Perhaps a parent who kept a long-hidden secret that you didn’t hear about until you were an adult? Maybe a spouse or partner who had an affair with someone else? A family member who has cut off relationship with you?
Oftentimes, we think of forgiveness in a transactional framework: someone commits an offense (great or small) and hurts another; then apologizes to the aggrieved person and asks for forgiveness; and finally, the person who has been hurt grants forgiveness to the person who offended. It’s a back-and-forth transaction that concludes in resolution and hopefully the restoration of relationship. But what if the person who has given offense never acknowledges their part? What if they cannot or will not take responsibility for hurting another? Is forgiveness possible?
When I was reading today’s text, I stumbled on the phrase in the NRSV “member of the church,” because there was no church when the gospel was written. The Greek word used is adelphos or brother, but the implication is that this is a brother or sister in Christ, as in the way Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”
My trepidation here is that this text has been used to keep people — especially women — in abusive relationships. Think of it this way: How often should I forgive my husband’s dalliances with another woman? Seventy times seven. How many times do I need to forgive the physical abuse he metes out? Seventy times seven. That is a misuse of scripture.
But here’s the problem with reading a given piece of scripture in isolation: you miss the context and the meaning. Immediately before this famous passage, we read, “If a member of the church [a brother] sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such as one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In other words, let them be untouchable.
My reading of that passage is that nobody gets off scot free. No one gets to treat anyone cruelly with impunity. No one can abuse another without being held accountable for their actions. But what about the person who has been sinned against? What about the victim? This text means that nobody has to be a doormat and let another walk all over them. Sometimes it is necessary to sever a relationship with a friend, spouse, or even a child, which can bring anguish all its own. I’ve been there.
And on an individual level, when one has been harmed or sinned against, there is a possibility to remove yourself from the situation and move toward forgiveness. You may need to divorce an abusive spouse and never see them again, and they may never acknowledge their part in the demise of the relationship. That could leave you with a tremendous burden of anger that continues to control your life. You may have had an alcoholic parent who didn’t meet your needs as a child and never got into recovery and asked to make amends, and even if they are long dead, you may be carrying the burden of anger that may never have the proper resolution you’d like.
You have a choice at that point: Do you continue to walk through life with a millstone around your neck, or do you choose to let it go? I’m not talking about staying in an abusive relationship or being a doormat or sucking it up. I’m talking about doing the deep work of saying, “I forgive you,” so that you can move on with your life. It’s really difficult for me, even when I think to myself, “Yep, I’ve forgiven you,” sometimes it becomes clear to me that I haven’t completely let go. (Many of you who have been through a divorce could possibly relate to what I’m saying.) Even though I want to be liberated from this hurt, I sometime have trouble turning it over to God, and saying, “This one is yours to forgive…help me release my anger and move on.” Too often, we self-reliant folks think we can do it on our own. But you don’t have to…you can ask God for help. And even if you cannot forgive today, you can ask God to help you along in the process of letting go.
When I began working on this sermon, I thought of one of the greatest signs of hope I’ve seen. It’s a piece of history that I wish the young people today who are on the front lines of the ongoing struggle for racial justice in our nation could have witnessed first-hand. I remember hearing Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he spoke at UC Santa Barbara in the 1980s, when apartheid was still the law of the land in South Africa, when Black men were being murdered by the South African Defense Forces or by their minions, when the most basic civil rights were being denied to all non-white segments of society. And when I was in grad school in London in 1984, one of the most popular songs in was “Free Nelson Mandela,” by the Specials. At that time, I did not think that Nelson Mandela (who later became the first President of the new South Africa) would ever be released from prison on Robbin Island. I certainly didn’t think that apartheid would be dismantled in my lifetime. But those things did happen…and more. Instead of steering toward retributive justice in South Africa, the nation chose the course of restorative justice. There was no blanket amnesty for all of the human rights abuses that happened under the apartheid regime, but if abuser chose to come forward and offer the full disclosure of their crime, to be accountable, and to come before an independent panel, there could be amnesty.
“The past, far from disappearing of lying down and being quiet,” writes Archbishop Tutu, “has an embarrassing and persistent way of returning and haunting us unless it has in fact been dealt with adequately. Unless we look the beast in the eye we find it has an uncanny habit of returning to hold us hostage.” [Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness, (New York: Image, 2000) p. 28.] Think about the failure of Reconstruction after our own Civil War…we still reap what was sown in those years.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which Tutu headed, was not pursuing retributive justice, nor were they granting a blanket amnesty, nor were they cloaking South Africa in a sense of national amnesia about the past, they were heading in a third way that cultivated “a culture of accountability.” There were four ordained Christian clergy on the Commission, and Tutu claims that “The President must have believed that our work would be profoundly spiritual. After all, forgiveness, reconciliation, and reparation are not the normal currency in political discourse.” [Tutu, p. 80]
I wonder what this chapter of history can say to us in 2020 in the midst of a pandemic, in a resurgence in awareness of white privilege and the oppression of Black Americans, in the maelstrom of political acrimony and divisiveness. Close your eyes and think with me, dream with me, of what the spirit of Truth and Reconciliation might do in our time. Could we deal honestly with our history: with Confederate monuments, racial and gender inequality, our own brand of imperialism? Could we have dialogue and forgiveness across the battle lines now being drawn between Antifa and radical right-wing militia groups?
“Christ is proof positive that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, that laughter and joy, and compassion and gentleness and truth, all of these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts.” [Tutu, p. 86] The archbishop speaks the truth we know in the depth of our souls.
Perhaps it is our task as progressive Christians in partnership with God, to be a force in our nation, at this decisive moment in our history, to change the path of the bully, survival of the fittest, might makes right, corruption and sin, and radical individualism and turn toward reconciliation, forgiveness, and love. Our survival depends on it. And like those who struggled against apartheid in South Africa, we are marching in the light of God.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.