Many of you will remember the old TV series Happy Days and the classic character Arthur Fonzerelli – the Fonz. One of the continuing jokes on the show was that The Fonz could never say “I am sorry.” Whenever he would try to say the words, they would get comically stuck in his throat. Of course, there were a few notable exceptions, and it always ended up with a happy ending.
But I think when it comes down to it, there is a lot of The Fonz in a lot of us. When it comes time to pray the prayer that Christ taught us, we get stuck on this phrase: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” We can cruise past “Our Father” and “Hallowed be thy name” and “Give us our daily bread.” But when we are really honest with ourselves, we get to that word “forgive” and it gets stuck in our throat. And there isn’t always a happy ending when it happens.
There are these things in our life that make us struggle with forgiveness. Emotional dynamics that stop us from accepting or offering forgiveness. Barriers that keep us from being truly reconciled – to God or to one another. I would name three this morning. Three things that keep us from being able to pray the prayer as Christ taught us to pray. Three things in opposition to a life of true forgiveness. Three things that cause us to pause as that word gets stuck.
The first barrier that causes us to miss the true power of forgiveness is retribution. It is the way of the world, and our first assumption about the way that things work. “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye,’” Jesus preached. We assume that we need to achieve full payment for the wrongs caused us.
When there was a shooting in an Amish community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in 2006, the incident made national news not only because of the violence perpetrated, but also because of the response of the community. Immediately following the event, they took the stance of forgiveness and grace. Of course, the actual complete emotional process of forgiveness did not happen in days, or even in months or perhaps years. But the initial stance of forgiveness – and not retribution – changed the tenor of the event and the healing process for all involved.
But it doesn’t need to be a significant wrong such as a murder or violence to get in our way of true forgiveness. I love the way that Rob Bell talks about this retribution. He speaks about “death by papercuts,” the tiny offenses that stack up in our lives and in our relationships. Maybe someone shares with you some gossip that they have heard, and enjoys the telling a little too much. Or maybe someone criticizes you or doubts your work or acts out of suspicion and mistrust. Or maybe someone tries to give you a compliment, but it really is a way of hiding something darker and more diabolical. This is what Bell calls a “chocolate-covered turd.” It looks great on the outside, but the more you bite into it, the more you realize that there’s something wrong:
• “That dress looks great on you. It really hides your thighs.”
• “I loved your presentation this morning. After what I had been hearing around the office, it shocked me how well-spoken and knowledgeable you were.”
• “Your kids were so well behaved at the concert last night. It was refreshing to see them sit quietly and listen.”
• Chocolate. Covered. Turds.
And when people say these things, it bugs us. Really bugs us. More than we like to admit. So, we sit up late at night and hatch a plan for retribution. What we should have said in response. How we can get them back the next day by cutting them down just as harshly. Or how we can retain our support, our encouragement, our best efforts on their behalf. It is an opportunity to get them back for the ways that they hurt us.
But Anne Lamott says that “not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” She says that the healthiest thing for us is to learn to forgive. It is the only way. In fact, she says that earth is like forgiveness school – we are here to learn how to forgive, to overcome our assumption of retribution, and to come out healthier on the other end. She says “To forgive someone is the hardest work we do….. And then that miracle of grace, like a spiritual WD-40, that gets into the very stuck, grinding places inside of us.” And forgiveness happens.
Don’t settle for retribution. Speak instead the truth of forgiveness.
The second barrier to understanding and practicing forgiveness is tolerance. Now, in general, tolerance is a good thing. It is something that we need to learn to behave in modern society. We need to learn to be tolerant of others, even those who are different than us. Tolerance is good. Tolerance is helpful. Tolerance is not forgiveness.
Tolerance tends to minimize the offense for the sake of getting along. It is a gloss. A simplification. N.T. Wright calls tolerance a “low grade parody of forgiveness.” He says that it is simply sweeping the real issues under the carpet. Instead, forgiveness takes those issues out and deals with them head on.
Barbara Brown Taylor echoes this sentiment in her book Speaking of Sin. One of her most significant points in the book is that we tend to avoid language of sin, preferring instead to talk about disease or context or culture. But she wants us to reclaim the word, instead of hiding from it. She claims:
Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away. Human beings will continue to experience alienation, deformation, damnation and death no matter what we call them. Abandoning the language will simply leave us speechless before them, and increase our denial of their presence in our lives. Ironically, it will also weaken the language of grace, since the full impact of forgiveness cannot be felt apart from the full impact of what has been forgiven.
Instead of soft peddling the concept of sin, or encouraging tolerance instead of forgiveness, we have to name our sinfulness. I won’t speak for anyone else, but I know that in my own life, I am much better naming other people’s sins than my own! I can understand this whole sin thing, because I see it pretty clearly in all of you! But, me? Of course not. What was it that The Fonz had a hard time saying? “I was wr…I was wr…I was…let’s just say I was less than right.”
We have to pause at that phrase, “Forgive us our sins” and drill down to what that really looks like. In ourselves. In our interactions. In our offenses and broken relationships. Only then can we move from brokenness to restoration. From offense to reconciliation. From guilt to grace.
Don’t settle for tolerance. Speak instead the truth of forgiveness.
A third barrier to forgiveness is individualism. We mistakenly think that sin is only a personal matter, and that forgiveness is a transaction that takes place just within our own individual sphere. But it is Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas that remind us that Jesus taught us to pray – in plural – “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” They contend that Jesus was teaching that sin is not a personal problem, something that we can just stay within our own silos and deal with. Our relationship with God is caught up with our relationship with others is caught up with our relationship and understanding of self. In Matthew, Jesus expands and clarifies this phrase by talking about forgiveness more fully:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
We cannot see grace and forgiveness in this silo mentality. Instead, our sin against God is related to our sin against one another. And our forgiveness – or lack thereof – of others is tied to the way that God forgives us. Of course, Jesus is not saying that God will only forgive us if we forgive first, in the way that we tell our kids: “Be nice to your sister and you’ll get a cookie.” No, Jesus is speaking from the truth that forgiveness can only be received if it can be given. We cannot understand what forgiveness is personally if we cannot share it with others.
Perhaps this is a good time to talk about one of the most significant discrepancies in the Lord’s Prayer. Several of us celebrated the life of Phyllis Burkhart this week, and in the praying of the Lord’s Prayer, I neglected to say which word we were going to use. And so, of course, there was that awkward moment where people from various Christian traditions gather together where some of us were praying debts and some of us were praying sins and we all had to wait for the others to get all the way through their trespasses.
So which is it? So is it trespasses, debts, or sins? The most accurate answer, of course, is yes. Remember that there are at least two versions of the Lord’s Prayer in the Gospels: Matthew and Luke. Matthew record’s Jesus words as “Forgive us our debts as we have also have forgiven our debtors,” in just about every version since the King James in 1611. The slightly older version of the Tyndale Bible used trespasses, and that was in the first Book of Common Prayer, hence the popularity.
But Luke has this crazy translation that feels even more confusing: “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Sins and debtors. Come on, Luke, stick with one, at least.
But N.T. Wright again suggests that there is a very crucial reason that Jesus would have said it this way. He meant it. When he said debts, he was talking about actual economic debt. Jesus was well-aware of how many of his hearers had to deal with debt, how many owed their money, their crops, their land, their children or their own lives to Roman usury. Debt slavery was a common way of life. And so, when Jesus said, “forgive everyone indebted to us,” he wasn’t just talking metaphorically, but literally. He was tying his prayer to the ancient Hebrew idea of Jubilee. Basically, the idea of the Year of Jubilee was commanded in the Law of Moses as a cancellation of all debt. Every 50th year, land went back to its original owner, financial debts were cancelled, and debt slaves were freed. When Jesus said “forgive everyone indebted to us,” everyone within earshot would have known that he was talking about Jubilee.
Of course, we’d like to think that our world is so different than Jesus’, but perhaps our own community is not that far from Jesus’ context. Think of the realities of overwhelming credit card debt, of grotesque interest rates at payday loan centers, of the cultural demand to keep up with the Joneses as fed by Madison Avenue, of current day “debtors prison” communities like Ferguson that imprison people for not being able to pay traffic tickets. Perhaps we know all too well what Jesus meant when he said that we must forgive everyone indebted to us. And while we like to turn our heads and stay in our own individual cocoons, perhaps Jesus is calling us to a forgiveness of debts that is not only metaphorical and personal, but also economic and social. Can we truly pray “forgive everyone indebted to us” without asking how we participate in the economic injustices of the world around us? How we turn a blind eye to those suffering under unfair indebtedness? How we use our individualism as an excuse to hold back on the fullness of the forgiveness that Jesus spoke of? Wright suggests that we as a church must be Jubilee people.
Don’t settle for individualism. Speak instead the truth of forgiveness.
Today, you are invited to join the ranks of the people of the Jubilee!
If you are still drinking the rat poison, choose today to join the people of the Jubilee.
If you are still nursing that old wound, choose today to join the people of the Jubilee.
If you refuse to forgive even yourself, choose today the grace of God, as the people of the Jubilee!