Growing up, we had a Christmas gifting ritual that endured well into my thirties. My mother handed my brother John and I two identically wrapped presents and instructed us to open each present at the exact same moment. The first pair of presents might be a matching khakis, the second box maybe tandem button downs, and the third set of boxes twin Lands End sweaters. My brother is also a Methodist preacher, so more than once we arrived separately at a January Clarksville District Meeting wearing the exact same sweater, shirt, and corduroys. Where did this crazy gifting ritual come from? Maybe nothing says “we have no favorites” like matching outfits! My parents wanted to make sure everything was exactly equal! Beyond synchronized outfits, there was a tradition of an “equalizing check”. If John’s more personalized gifts cost more than mine, there would be an “equalizing check” for $147.63 to make us whole. My supply sergeant father grew up in a home that did not share love equally among the seven children, so the equalizing check was to the penny!
Equality, like justice and love, is a beautiful Christian core value. In Philippians 2, Paul describes equality as a hallmark of the Incarnation. Charles Wesley’s hymns echo how Christ’s “emptying himself of all but love” in order to dwell with humanity. Romans 12:16 charges us to “consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status.” James thunders, “when you show favoritism you deny our Lord Jesus Christ…has not God chosen the poor as heirs of God’s kin-dom?” When love looks at the world, it wants everyone to have enough. Jesus fed people, gave away free healthcare, and preached good news to the poor. Our souls long for equality. At Baptism, we vow “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression.” Compassion fires a passion for justice. Jesus flipped over the money changing tables thundering, “You have shut the people out and made God’s house a robbers’ den.” (Mark 10) Jesus sharply rebukes unjust church leaders calling them “children of hell” and “white washed tombs”. (Matt. 23) How do we balance Jesus’ tough personal rebukes and disruptive direct action with Jesus’ message of forgiveness, love, and reconciliation? How do we demand justice and offer forgiveness? That balance may take more than one sermon and only be found by doing justice and practicing forgiveness.
Compassion fuels both our aching for justice and longing for forgiveness. Love always longs for everyone to have enough, live in peace, and be whole. I wonder if our deep desire for fairness can keep us from experiencing forgiveness. If my brother steals my Christmas sweater or birthright, does not justice demand its return? Even if I don’t need the sweater and would have gladly given it to him, I want my sweater back. That may be part of restorative justice? But, if I want John to suffer for what he did to me, am I slipping away from love and sliding into judgment? Revenge, retribution, and retaliation crouch ready to tempt us. We may not crave a literal eye for an eye, but we like the idea that the thief makes amends, the criminal gets punished, the bully gets gutted, the cheater suffers loss, the liar gets exposed, the gossip loses face, and the sinner is shamed. An eye for an eye is a mathematical understanding of justice. How can our hearts abide in Love, peace or forgiveness if we want someone to suffer?
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. advises if we are concerned about a better world, justice, community and truth we can never advocate violence. Through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. …You may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that…. I have seen too much hate to want to hate. I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and sheriffs to hate, because every time I see it, I know that hate does something to their faces and their personalities, and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love.” (Where Do We Go From Here)
If we think of forgiveness as a legal matter, a mathematical formula, an equalizing check, that settles the score (making us even), we will struggle to experience forgiveness. Forgiveness, like love or compassion, is not a legal, accounting, or mathematical matter. Forgiveness can occur even when your sibling keeps trespassing against you by stealing your sweaters or birthright. Forgiveness, like love, needs nothing in return, so it is not dependent on the actions of the offender. (Luke 6:35) Forgiveness is the opposite of retribution, revenge, and retaliation. Forgiveness can demand justice, equality, and accountability while releasing the offender into God’s love and justice. (Romans 12) Perfect forgiveness longs for all people to be whole. Wholeness equires accountability.
Forgiveness is not a legal, accounting, or mathematical matter. “You have heard people say, ‘Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Creator in heaven. If you love those who love you, what is special about that? And if you are kind only to your kind of people, what more are you doing than others? Be perfect, strive to be like your heavenly Father/Mother.’” (Matthew 5)
Forgiveness is a way of being, an attribute, a lifestyle, a deep orientation to love. Forgiveness is a trusting that love will win, love will heal us, and love will make a new way. Forgiveness stops counting long before it reaches the 70x7th offense. (Matthew 18)Forgives opts out of the cycle of score settling. Forgiveness is the path Jesus offers:. “Forgive and know God’s forgiveness”. (Matthew 5) Forgive from the deeper spaces in your heart, so that you can experience the kin-dom of God. (Matthew 18) Forgiveness and justice are not incompatible, but they work in different arenas.
Many good people walk around church halls with an unconscious bitterness, a buried unforgiveness that keeps them locked into personal, classist, or racist relational spreadsheets. They unconsciously rehearse old unsettled scores. Our national dialogue has drifted into this kind of stuckness. Our god-given longing for justice can slip into bitterness, retribution, and revenge. . “Love keeps no records of wrongs suffered. Love does not delight when anyone suffers”. (1 Cor. 13) When our souls get slowly poisoned with unforgiveness and especially a desire for others to suffer, not even God cannot grow something new and beautiful in us. We must spit out revenge, retaliation and retribution. We must forgive to taste forgiveness. This is not simple stuff- I hope you will wrestle with it, and indulge my refusal to pretend it is easy or straightforward.
My brain does not work like most brains. Indeed, I struggled to learn to read. In the fourth grade, my teacher often read my misformed sentences aloud to the class. Maybe she hoped to shame me into better performance by proclaiming to the whole class, “Mr. Purdue, you wrote: The grill (G-R-I-L) walked down the street, how exactly can a grill walk?” I sat in a visceral, humiliated, broken silence as if I had peed my pants. Four decades later, I was telling that story to a clergy colleague when she suggested, “maybe you need to forgive Mrs. B.” Well, that suggestion made me angry (maybe a good indicator of unforgiveness), but during my morning prayers the next day, maybe the Holy Spirit suggested, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like Christ Jesus… Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that….I have seen too much unforgiveness on the faces of too many people… unforgiveness does something to our faces and our personalities. Unforgiveness is too great a burden for me to bear. When I bump into Mrs. B. in heaven, I hope I will say with a healed heart what Joseph the patriarch said to his siblings who sold him into slavery, “What you intended for evil, God somehow used for good!” (Genesis 50)
Forgiveness trusts that love will win. Forgiveness believes that Love heals us and somehow ushers us into a kind of “newness” of life. Our passage tells how forgiveness is the core orientation and mission of Jesus. For the love of Christ controls us/ drives/ urges us on, because we are convinced that Jesus has died for all people…(and this self-emptying equalizing love. Such amazing love changes everything.) (So) from now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view. That is a radical god-centric reshuffling of our worldview, wherein, we begin to see people through the eyes of Christ! (therefore) if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! This newness is not just some spiritual mumbo jumbo formula. It is a lifestyle, or way of being in the world. All this is from God, who reconciled us to God’s-self through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, (just as ) in Christ God was reconciling the world to God-self. Jesus’ mission is to restore the whole world’s relationship with God. How does this happen? By not counting the world’s trespasses against them. On the cross, Jesus pleads, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) God stops counting offenses. God forgives us “while we are still sinners,” “while we are still a long way off,” before we even ask for forgiveness. (Romans 5) God is entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making the Holy appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. If I am reading it right, then our life’s work is about forgiveness, peace making, love, and justice. We, as God’s children, stop counting and stop longing for people to get paid back for their sins, even as we may demand restoration or reparations. To stop judging others is a deep liberation.
Jesus describes the forgiveness lifestyle like this: “There was a noble who had two children. The youngest said to their folks, ‘Give me my share of your property before you die. An almost unimaginable mythically unrighteous request, but the parents sold assets and a few days later the youngest child gathered their stuff and sailed to Rome. It took years, but soon enough the child squandered their trust fund in dissolute living. In and out of rehab, selling food off trays while washing dishes at the casino, they came to themself and realized they needed to go home. Riding the Greyhound home, they practiced a little speech, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your child; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ Jesus tells us while the prodigal child was still far off, the father saw his child and was filled with compassion; they ran and threw their arms around him and kissed him. Then the prodigal began a little speech: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy… ’ But the father interpreted the speech saying to the attendants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe, and put it on them; put a ring on their finger and sandals on their feet. Call the caterers, hire a DJ, get a bouncy house, we must eat, dance, and celebrate; for this child of mine was dead and now alive again; they were lost and now are found!’ And they began to celebrate, except the older sibling, who held a soul crushing grudge- he kept counting and missed the party.
Forgiveness is not easy, nor does it end the work of justice to make all whole. But strengthened by God, let us forgive, so that we might taste the sweetness of forgiveness and live with a newness of life. Amen.