Sermon: The Practice of Forgiveness

[Preached on Sunday, September 17, 2017 (Proper 19, Year A) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, MN].

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Matthew 18:21, 22


The theme of our Gospel this morning can feel deceptively simple – forgiveness. Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if someone in the community sins against me how many times should I forgive? Seven times?”

Seven feels appropriate. Adequate. It’s more than once, so I am not a complete jerk, but doesn’t give grace away too freely. After all, what would the community or society think of us if we were me give grace away wastefully? I do have an image to uphold.

In response to Peter’s reason, Jesus responds by suggesting that forgiveness is an open-ended process. “Not seven times,” he says, “but infinity. Shape your life around the practice of forgiveness.” According to Jesus, forgiveness is not transactional. Forgiveness is a posture, a way of being in the world, a way of openness, and generosity, and grace.

I believe many of us know that. Anyone with any passing knowledge of Christianity knows that forgiveness is at the center of our faith. It’s in the Lord’s Prayer. We know the “what,” but I often wonder if we understand the “why?” Why must we forgive those in the community who sin against us? Why does Jesus remove the loopholes or excuses we are so desirous of finding? Why does forgiveness matter so much to God that, at least as the parable frames it, God is willing to stake our very salvation on it?

I ran across a children’s book this week called The Mountain that loved a Bird by Alice McLerran. At face value, the book isn’t really about forgiveness. Rather, it is about the new creation that is possible through brokenness and vulnerability and that’s where it dovetails nicely with the practice of forgiveness. Forgiveness is, at its heart, about new creation. The book is about “a Mountain made of bare stone. It stood alone in the middle of a desert plain. No plant grew on its hard slopes, nor could any animal, bird, or insect live there.” As we further enter the story, a bird named Joy appears one day and chooses to rest on the top of this lonely Mountain as she continues her journey to find a place to build a home. Joy sings to the Mountain who, starved for love and community, says to Joy, “I have never seen anything like you before… Must you go on? Couldn’t you just stay forever?” Joy responds, “Birds are living things… We must have food and water. Nothing grows here for me to eat; there are no streams from which I could drink.”

As the conversation continues, we discover that Joy is moved that the Mountain actually cares about her. No other Mountain had ever asked her to stay. She decides that she will continue on her journey, but that she would return each spring to visit the Mountain. She even pledges to teach her children to visit the Mountain on their journeys to find new homes so that long after she was gone, Joy would still come to the Mountain. “The Mountain was both happy and sad. ‘I still wish you could stay…but I am glad you will return.’”

Joy visited for many years. Each time Joy visited she would say “I am Joy, and I have come to greet you.” But each time Joy left, the Mountain grew more and more sad. One spring, as Joy was leaving, the Mountain’s heart broke. “The hard stone cracked, and from the deepest part of the Mountain tears gushed forth and rolled down the mountainside in a stream. The following spring, when Joy came singing “I am Joy, and I have come to greet you,” the Mountain did not reply. It only wept, grieving the fact that Joy would soon be leaving. “When it was time for her to go, the Mountain still wept. ‘I will return next year,’ said Joy softly, and she flew away.”

That next Spring, Joy came carrying a small seed. The Mountain was still weeping. Joy searched for a tiny crack in which to hide her precious gift. She tried to sing to the Mountain, but “seeing that the Mountain was still unable to speak, she flew away once more.” During the next few weeks, that precious seed in the tiny crack began to grow. Its tender roots slowly broke apart the hard stone of the Mountain, drawing nourishment from the softening rock. That next Spring, Joy brought another seed, and then another, and then another. She still sang to the Mountain, even though the Mountain was still only able to weep.

As years passed, the roots of the plants that sprung from the seeds that Joy brought during her visits softened that hardness of the Mountain. “As softened stone turned to soil, moss began to grow in sheltered corners.” All types of green growing things began to spring up all over this formerly barren, hard Mountain. Eventually a tree even grew. It’s strong roots reached to the heart of the Mountain, and as “the Mountain began to notice the changes that had been taking place… the Mountain’s tears changed to tears of happiness.” Joy still visited bring more and more seeds.

Eventually, the green from the Mountain began to flow out into barren plain until all the Mountain could see was life and beauty. Animals of all kinds came to the Mountain and found home and rest. “Opening its deepest heart to the roots of the trees, [the Mountain] offered them all its strength. The trees stretched their branches yet higher toward the sky, and hope ran like a song from the heart of the Mountain into every tree leaf.”

That next spring Joy came, but instead of a seed, she carried small twig. She circled high in the sky and landed on the branch of the tallest tree which had grown from that first seed planted so many years ago. “She placed the twig on the branch in which she would build her nest. ‘I am Joy,’ she sang, ‘and I have come to stay.’”[1]

I am Joy, and I have come to stay.

Jesus’ invitation into a life of forgiveness is an invitation us to be continually born again, perpetually born anew, to share in the continued unfolding of creation right before of our eyes. Living in any kind of community, but especially an explicitly Christian community, is a school for charity. Community is where we learn how to love one another, not through forums and lectures and classes, but through the grinding nature of relationships that soften our jagged edges.

Joan Chittister suggests that “Holiness… is not something that happens in a vacuum. It has something to do with the way we live our community lives and our family lives and our public lives as well as the way we say our prayers.”[2] What she is saying is that there is something germane to the very nature of community that is meant to produce in us the compassion, the love, and the grace of God. Its why we need one another, why our fullest humanity is expressed in community. It is not just the positive experiences, the transcendent worship, or friendly relationships. Sometimes it is the hard times that prove to be the most transformational – the times we deeply hurt one another, the times we fail to listen generously, the times we insist on our own way, the times we would rather be right than be in relationship with one another.

If we live in community long enough, we will have ample opportunities to forgive and to be forgiven. Just as sure as the sky is blue, each one of us will be on either side of that encounter. How we navigate those spaces is what is important because one thing is clear: forgiveness is a big deal to God. In his essay on “Forgiveness,” C.S. Lewis says plainly, “To be Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you…  to refuse is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves.”[3]

To refuse a life of forgiveness is to choose to remain as the “Mountain made of bare stone” that “stood alone in the middle of a desert plain.” It is to choose to remain isolated, and cold, and lonely, and hardened, and inhospitable.

To refuse is to give Joy no place to live and build a home in your life.

Forgiveness isn’t easy and often it is an open-ended process. But if we are desirous of Joy taking up residence in our lives we must risk the vulnerability of forgiveness. We must allow our hearts to break for the pain and suffering that might experience. We must allow our brokenness to cradle and cultivate the seeds of a new creation.

Joy is here. Can you hear her?

Will you give her a place to stay?


[1]  Alice McLerran, The Mountain that loved a Bird (Natick: Picture Book Studio USA, 1985)

[2] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (New York: Crossroads, 2010), p. 25.

[3] C.S. Lewis, “Forgiveness” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 182-183.

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