True Forgiveness - A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost (October 2, 2022)
Scripture Readings: Lamentations 1:1–6 | Psalm 137 | 2 Timothy 1:1–14 | Luke 17:5–10
How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal (Lamentations 1:1).
For a lot of folks, this has been a pretty heavy week.
Our neighbours to the East in Atlantic Canada have been dealing with the aftermath of hurricane Fiona; many places are still without power, and many lives have been completely upended, as homes and businesses were blown away by the waters and the winds.
Then came hurricane Ian, striking the island of Cuba with terrifying force, and causing horrendous damage there before slamming into Florida, South Carolina, and other Southern States. Again, many places in the storm's path were simply destroyed… lives were shaken to the core, or lost completely… with whole communities uncertain of how to rebuild and carry on.
These two storms were heavy enough, but this past week also gave us cause to remember that we humans can be just as brutal as the winds and the waves.
This week we also witnessed a big escalation in the war between Ukraine and Russia, with Russia now claiming control of large swaths of Eastern Ukraine through rigged votes, and threatening to use all necessary force to hold onto the territory they seized. These past seven months, we’ve already seen so much devastation in that conflict… cities leveled… civilians and soldiers alike viciously slain. And this same kind of story has played out so many times throughout our history… as we humans, created in God’s own image, to tend and care for each other and God’s good world, become instead agents of de-creation… and evil.
And this week, we were also reminded that evil and devastation don’t just take shape on battlefields far away… our own country has had its share in the spreading of desolation. This Friday was the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, a day set aside to reckon with the legacy of how indigenous peoples had so much of their lives and cultures stripped away by Canadian institutions and society… particularly in the practice of forcing First Nations children into residential schools, specifically designed to erase their traditional ways of life… and where they also faced incredible cruelty and abuse… often in the name of God.
(The Scream, by Kent Monkman)
As painful, and as shameful as this part of our story is, it needs to be told… and re-told… remembered… and brought into the light… in order to bring its evil to an end… in the hopes of finding a better way forward for everyone.
Like I said, this week was a heavy reminder of the devastation and de-creation of God’s good world at work in all sorts of ways. What should be said in response to a week like this?
Well, this morning, as we gather to worship the Living God, and hear His word to us, I’m sure we’ve noticed we’ve had some heavy Scripture readings to receive… especially the reading from Lamentations and Psalm 137.
Yet as heavy, as pain-filled, and shocking as these passages are, they remain God’s Good News, His gift to us… intended for days and weeks like these. Offering us not an escape or evasion of evil… but a path to take to endure it, leading us through the darkness and into the light of life.
The first step on this path is a clear commitment to the truth… to facing reality, as painful or as frightening as it may be. Sometimes we can be tempted to just try and deny the darkness… to just put on a happy face, and pretend that everything’s fine. Sometimes this temptation can be quite strong in the Church, when we think that believing the Good News means that real troubles won’t come our way.
But the Scriptures don’t offer a vision of life where the faithful are immune to trouble… or one in which the Living God is unmoved by our suffering. No, we’re given, again and again, the promise that God goes with us into the deepest abyss… and through the darkest night. He walks with us in the valley of the shadow of death, as the Psalmist reminds us… but more than that, He also raises us up out from its frightful grip… not giving us, as St. Paul says: “a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). In short, even in the most pressing and painful circumstances, the way forward isn’t to deny or ignore, or downplay the devastation at work around, or even within us… but to be honest about it with the Living God, our Saviour.
This is what we see at work in our first reading today from the book of Lamentations, a series of poems written in the aftermath of the downfall of Jerusalem. In our reading today, we heard the expressions of anguish and grief over the destruction of the Holy City at the hands of the brutal armies of Babylon. Jerusalem had become the last bastion of refuge for God’s people, surrounded by great and hostile empires on all sides, and with Jerusalem’s end so too seemed to end the promises God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to all of their descendants. For Jews, it seemed like the end of the world… with no future, and no way home again.
Perhaps we have had times in our lives like this… when everything stable seems to have been ripped away from us, leaving us lost, bowed down low with grief. Lamentations invites us to bring even our broken hearts to God… to be completely honest with Him, even as our world is falling apart.
The devastating fall of Jerusalem was the same wellspring from which Psalm 137 drew its bitter waters… with unspeakable grief turned into cries of fury against cruel conquerors. This Psalm is deeply unsettling with its graphic and horrific imagery… but coming as it does from the depths of despair, it’s not meant to be easy to hear. It’s the heartfelt expression of Jewish exiles wishing that what had just happened to them would to be done to their captors… calling for God’s justice to be done to those who had just mercilessly slain their children.
And remember, this is not a call to arms… it is a prayer… the pouring out of someone’s heart to God, and yet also inspired by God’s own life-giving Spirit.
In the book Hard Sayings of the Bible, one scholar makes the point that “These invocations are not mere outbursts of a vengeful spirit; they are, instead, prayers addressed to God. These earnest pleadings to God ask that he step in and right some matters so grossly distorted that if his help does not come, all hope for justice is lost.”
Where do we turn to when our grief turns into fury? When we are unable to contain our outrage at injustice, done to ourselves or to others?
Along with Lamentations, this Psalm is a gift to us… inviting us even in those extreme moments to turn our eyes and our cries to God… reminding us that even in when facing our most intense suffering and anguish, we can still be real with the Lord… we can come to Him, bearing every ounce of the weight we are carrying… calling on Him to do what is right, and trusting Him to not let evil go unchecked forever.
All this is the first step on the path: honesty… commitment to the truth… with ourselves, with those around us, and especially with God, who gives us space to grieve… and sacred words to pray that point us to His outstretched arms, calling us to trust in Him even when we must walk through the darkness.
So what is the next step, then?
Here’s where we turn to our Gospel reading.
At first, this passage seems like an abstract lesson about the power of faith, followed by some confusing statements about slaves simply doing what they’re told. It’s hard to see what’s going on here, and how it fits into the Good News.
Again, this passage makes much more sense when we see its larger setting and context, but for some strange reason, the lectionary cuts off the first half of this episode. That’s frustrating because it’s the first five verses of Luke Chapter 17 that set up the whole conversation, and help us get our heads around what Christ is saying to His disciples, back then and today. It's a heavy message, but one that is at the very heart of the Gospel.
After a series of confrontations with those who were claiming to be close to God, yet were opposing Christ’s ministry, Luke 17:1-2 says this: “Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”
Speaking to His followers, Christ warns them about causing little ones to stumble. How can we not call to mind all the indigenous children devastated by those claiming to be doing God’s will? Or the countless other examples of the weakest and most vulnerable of our society being exploited or abused? Clearly, these sins have no place in the Kingdom Christ came to bring.
Jesus continues in verse 3: “Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender…” No cover-ups. No downplaying abuse. If a fellow Christian sins, Christ tells us, we are to rebuke them. This isn’t about shaming people, but about honesty… integrity… commitment to the truth. Cultivating a community where things aren’t covered up, or dismissed, but dealt with. How much damage and devastation that has been done in the name of Christ would never have happened, or would have been stopped much sooner if we had just heeded His words?
But as important as all this is, Jesus has even more to say. Verses 3-4: “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”
It's to these words… this radical call to the way of forgiveness that makes the disciples respond: “Increase our faith!” They’re struggling to wrap their heads around this way of life… commitment to truth and to forgiveness, again and again and again.
And Jesus picks up on their resistance… their hesitancy to walk down this path He is leading them on. He responds to their call for more faith by pointing out that the amount of their faith is not the problem. As N.T. Wright puts it, in this passage Jesus gives us “one of the great lessons of Christian living: you don’t need great faith, you need faith in a great God… the stress is on the extraordinary power of God when invoked even by apparently tiny faith.” Lack of faith was not the issue. Lack of commitment to following God’s way of forgiveness was the real obstacle. Which helps make sense of what Christ says in the rest of our reading today.
The image of slaves at work would have made plenty of sense within their ancient context. Jesus is not advocating for the institution of slavery, He is using a common example of someone who is clearly not free to go their own way, and do whatever they like, but must follow another’s command. “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” Christ says to His followers. The obvious answer in their day would be no. They’re just doing what’s expected. Nothing out of the ordinary. Just like a soldier is simply expected to follow proper orders as a matter of course, Christ is pointing out that if we claim to be following Him, then we must go where He leads us.
In this case that means, alongside truthfulness, practicing forgiveness is simply the basic, bedrock, ordinary pattern of life for Christians. It may be heavy. It certainly is hard work. It may take all that’s in us, and more, but it’s not really optional. Forgiveness is central to God’s Kingdom.
That said, a few caveats: First of all, the call to forgive those who repent and actually turn from their sin is directed to us. We are to forgive those who wrong us. We don’t get to turn this around and demand that other people forgive us.
Sometimes people twist Christ’s call to forgive into a kind of weapon to help them keep getting away with hurting the people in their lives. They might say “I’ve said I’m sorry, so you have to forgive me!” But those who would misuse Christ’s call to practice forgiveness in this way should well remember what He said about those who cause “these little ones” to stumble.
At a less intense level, it’s important to remember that forgiveness is not a switch that we flip on or off, just like it’s not simply a feeling either. It is a choice, a commitment to let go of our resentment and our claim for revenge against the other person for what they have done to us, but it is a choice that must be made again and again. It is a process… a path forward. One that brings freedom, and leads to peace and life. But it is not one we can force anyone else to choose. We can repent, and ask for forgiveness, and hope and work to be reconciled. But we cannot demand that they forgive us. That choice is between them and God, who we can trust to help us forgive, even when our wounds, resentment, and bitterness seems as deeply rooted as a tree. And with even a tiny bit of faith that trusts and turns to Him, that deeply rooted tree can find itself thrown in the sea.
That’s because forgiveness, along with truthfulness is at the centre of God’s Good News, and everything Christ came to do. As He said to Pontius Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). Jesus made known the truth that God’s good world had run off course, led by our human hands towards all sorts of injustice, abuse, and devastation.
And at the cross, He held this truth up for all to see; as an innocent one crucified and killed. There’s no clearer sign of our sin.
But at the cross, in the midst of His agony and shame wrongfully heaped on His head, He cries out, not for vengeance… but for mercy. He cries out “Father, forgive them…” (Luke 23:34). Forgive us. Christ feels the heavy weight of all that is wrong with our world, but breaks the cycle of retribution and de-creation by the power of God’s love. His death becomes our path to life. His shed blood the means of our forgiveness… not just one time, but once and for all. And His resurrection from the grave means forgiveness will reign forever.
We Christians are called to take the steps of truthfulness and forgiveness as the path to life which Jesus leads us through the darkness into the light of God. And we can walk this path, as hard as it is at times, because we don’t walk it alone. Christ Jesus our Saviour has walked this path before us, and through His Spirit He is with us every single step of the way, leading us into all truth, and empowering us to practice true forgiveness. Amen.
 Walter C. Kaiser Jr. et al., Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 280.
 N. T. Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year C (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2000), 111.
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Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School