Praying and Living Forgiveness
When I was in elementary school, we got report cards every six weeks. Six weeks zooms by now, but in those days it was like a semester, a term of months on end. As the weeks dragged by, I was never ever worried about what grades I would get; but sometimes I sweat bullets about what comments the teacher would write on the back. The word “conduct” named the category that was my greatest challenge. Teachers would threaten to write bad reports to parents if we talked out of turn, broke into line at lunch or recess, took up unnecessary class time with silliness, or were generally impolite to other students. I am not sure what would have happened had we spoken disrespectfully to a teacher herself. Such was so far from anybody’s mind that it was never discussed.
One grading period, my second grade teacher, Eva Stone Long, otherwise known as “Sister Long,” wrote a comment on the back of my report card. Among a couple of compliments, she noted, and I quote verbatim, “…likes to talk too much.” I was horrified. Not because it was not true, of course, but because I knew I would catch it when my parents read it. And I was totally right. Interestingly, I cannot remember what Mama said, although I am sure it was plenty. But Daddy, I recall, virtually came uncorked. The message I got from his protracted lecture was that it was fine to make any grade I made, but what would never ever do was to get a “conduct” comment. The least I could do, he pronounced, was to go to school and behave.
Good behavior generally means conforming to somebody’s idea of deportment, like Mrs. Long’s. Those of you who have grown up in a more permissive society probably have no idea of the weight that people my age and older (and maybe some a few years younger) carry around in the form of ethical baggage. It really isn’t ethical, of course. It is internalized fear of being called down for misbehaving. Now, to be sure, some people have escaped that heavy burden by kicking over the traces and becoming utter nonconformists. Such people are not likely to show up in church, not at least until they have made a bit of peace with social expectations, even in a rather freewheeling place like St. Stephen’s. And the reason is rather obvious. They see the Church as being in the business of policing people’s behavior, and they don’t necessarily want theirs to be policed. It is all right, of course, for the Church, like other institutions—school and court, for example—to nurture good behavior in other people (including our children) inculcating in them good behaviors and sharpening their distaste for bad. At the same time, this idea that the Church is all about making people nice and culture gentler is exactly what draws some people to it.
Something is terribly, tragically wrong with all this. And it is wrong not because there is anything the matter with being nice and well behaved (I want to say nothing to discourage either), but because we have somehow managed to warp the notion of good behavior to mean conforming to prevailing social expectations and specifically to exclude several kinds of behaviors that Jesus seem to think were pretty important. One of those practices is forgiveness, a theme that fills our scriptures today. I do not mean to say that forgiveness is not integrated into the fabric of societal expectations, because to some extent it is. Polite society expects that folks will apologize for oversights and mistakes, and that generally those apologies will be accepted. But forgiveness in the radical sense described in today’s gospel or in the Genesis story about Joseph and his brothers is far past anything that can be described as accepting an apology. It comes out of a different way of looking at reality. It reflects values so qualitatively different from our cultural norms that this kind of forgiveness can be rightly called subversive.
As some of you are aware, my sermons this year all look at the practice of prayer from some angle, and today’s focus on forgiveness is no exception. In its simplest state, prayer is practicing the presence of God. It is practicing being Godlike. Right there emerges some boundaries of what we do and do not pray for. To the extent that we know anything about the nature of God—and we Christians claim to know a right good bit, inasmuch as we have identified Jesus as the embodiment of God—we can say with assurance that one does not pray for the destruction of one’s enemies for example. No, one may pray for protection, for the enemy to have a change of heart, for strength to withstand the assaults of the enemy; but the Christian stops short of praying for the destruction of enemies for the simple reason that Christ commanded us to love them. He did not, by the way, suggest that we do so because it would be immediately rewarding or because it would save us lots of time resolving conflicts or yet because it would be a popular practice or easy.
The parable of the unforgiving slave is crystal clear. The slave is enjoined to treat his fellows as the master has treated him. God shows mercy on us, therefore we show mercy on others. “Forgive us our sins” is a prayer that is predicated on the assurance that we will forgive those who sin against us. Now how it is that we can pray such a thing day after day, week after week, year in and year out, while harboring grudges, driving wedges between ourselves and others, collecting injustices, hating those who have wronged us is, well, not so big a mystery. Quite simply, we do not believe what we say. We do not believe what we pray. And when we come right down to it, we don’t believe Jesus.
Need I point out that ten years ago today the People of the United States of America—certainly not without exception, but on the whole—gave to their government permission to wreak vengeance on our enemies. You may argue that the teachings of Jesus are no way to conduct a foreign policy, and I suspect Jesus would indeed agree with you, disinterested as he was in the foreign policies of empires. But that does not get us off the hook, because the hook is consistency and honesty. If you are going to wage war, wage war; but don’t try to baptize it and call it “Christian.” It you are going to hate your enemy, whoever he or she is, go ahead and hate; but don’t turn around and expect that God will show you mercy when you show none yourself. Punish your enemy if you must; but be aware that it leaves you defenseless when you pray a hollow prayer, “…as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
That is strong stuff! You will no doubt point out to me that nobody can live this way; that the nation would be in tatters if we tried it and your own life would be untenable if you risked it. Moreover, I suspect that some sitting right here could point out that the preacher today has no earthly idea of what it is to suffer untold abuse at the hands of tormentors, that your own experience of victimhood qualifies you as an exception to the ethic of forgiveness. Fair enough. I could respond by saying, “You know, you’re right. This is too hard a teaching to take really seriously. It is after all an ideal, one of those many that the gospel—indeed the Bible—is packed with. God, being really sweet, has no intention of making us feel bad about our propensity to hate, but wants us rather to feel quite affirmed. Thus, the notion of being forgiving is a nice one but altogether unworkable, a fact of which our Omniscient God must surely be aware.” And so forth.
But something else is in play here. Look at it this way. Why do you suppose that God would actually care whether we are forgiving or not? What does it matter? Why would Jesus have put so much emphasis on forgiveness? For an answer to those questions, I turn to the last chapter of the Book of Genesis, in which Joseph and his brothers finally come to terms about the brothers’ dreadful misbehavior in selling him into slavery and then lying about it, and Joseph’s response to it all. Years have passed since the brothers conspired to get rid of their pesky little arrogant sibling. Still more years have passed since famine had driven them from Canaan to Egypt in search of grain, only to find there that the presumably lost Joseph has become vizier to Pharaoh. All this while the brothers have had an uneasy conscience about their guilt, and now with the buffer of their old father gone, they wonder if Joseph will cash in on the grudge he might rightly bear against them. So they first send him a message, restating what the old man had said about how Joseph ought forgive their trespass. Joseph responds by weeping. They get up the courage to go see him, and kneeling down, present themselves as his slaves. Then Joseph says something profound. “What you meant for evil against me, God meant for good.” With that statement the story utters a profound truth. God is bigger than our projects and prejudices. In the long sweep of human activity—indeed of the world itself—the very guilt behind the heinous crime, the evil intention, the awful deceit: God has pulled all this together into the great pageant of salvation in which nothing is lost. Through the whole tragedy, God has caused a remnant to be saved, bringing long-term good out of short-term evil. Joseph thus has no effective choice but to forgive his brothers, for to do otherwise would be to pose himself against the very Word that God had already spoken.
We do, I hope, get the message: that forgiveness is the very nature of God, because God’s purposes are always to bring about good. That is what the world cannot give through the machinations of empire and the assertion of one group or one person over another. For God’s good to happen on a human scale inevitably entails more than a few Josephs who can see beyond the moment to the overarching Providence that holds all souls in life and all the world in its healing embrace.
That is the real ethical agenda of the Church. It is to continue to be the community that God has created to express this urgent push towards life, to embody the fierce compulsion to save. One cannot join or long belong to the forces of good if one’s focus shifts from forgiveness to revenge, from community to tribalism, from merciful to unmerciful. God’s work is healing and wholeness, and so the vocation of Joseph and of you and me is that same healing and wholeness that conquers hate and evil, bit by bit, when we live the words we pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”