When I was growing up, there was a house down the street from us which had slightly tattered window coverings and the front lawn was like a graveyard of broken things. Posted on the fence was a “No trespassing” sign. I remember asking my mother what trespassing was so I could be certain not to do it to anyone who lived in that weird house. When she explained that it meant going into their yard uninvited I thought, no problem. Soon after that, when I first learned the Lord’s Prayer, I thought it was weird that out of all the sins that Jesus would suggest we ask God to forgive it would be our trespassing. I pretty much made it a policy to stay out of strange yards, and since no one seemed to wander into ours uninvited, I thought I was covered. Only later did I realize that trespassing was only one of countless was to trespass against others. And now I get it — kind of. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Jesus always seems to be pairing God’s forgiveness of us with our forgiveness of others.
But why? Why is he always pairing them together? I kind of always thought that it was a way of guilting us into forgiving others — like the parable from today — hey, I forgave you 3 trillion dollars and because of that you should feel not just bad, but tortured if you don’t forgive the 200 bucks that another other guy owes you. Like Jesus was saying hey, I died for you and you can’t even be nice to your little brother? As though God can get us to do the right thing if God can just make us feel bad about how much we owe God. But that just doesn’t seem to me to be the God revealed in Jesus Christ. That seems like a manipulative mother.
And these questions about what forgiveness really is, and why is it so important that we do it, was all happening for me this week amid all the remembrances of 9/11. I kept reading and re-reading these Bible passages about forgiveness, and every time I’d take a break my TV or computer would be filled with images of burning towers. Which made me wonder...can evil be forgiven?
Now that I’ve mentioned evil here’s a disclaimer: This sermon will in no way answer the question of why a loving God allows evil and suffering.
Our human culture would say that evil is fought through justice and might. The way we combat evil is by making sure that people get what they have coming to them. An eye for an eye. You attack me and I’ll attack you. Fair is fair. And there are times in my own life when I’ve been hurt and I’m sure retaliation would make me feel better. But then when I can’t harm the person who harmed me, I just end up harming the people who love me. So maybe retaliation, or holding on to anger about the harm done to us, or living in fear of it happening again, doesn’t actually combat evil; it feeds it. In the end we can actually absorb the worst of our enemy, and on some level even become endangered of becoming them. Because it would seem that when we are sinned against, when someone else harms us, that we are in some way linked to that sin, connected to that mistreatment like a chain through which we absorb it. And we know that our anger, fear, or resentment doesn’t free us at all...it keeps us chained. And evil persists. Sin abounds. Brokenness prevails.
So it would seem. But Richard Rohr reminds us that we can tell a lot by what a person does with their suffering: do they transmit it or do they transform it? So while it’s true that God may not prevent evil, and we may never fully understand why... God does have a way of combating evil. It’s not punishment and it’s not retaliation, fear, or anger. It’s forgiveness. Forgiveness is God’s way of combating evil.
Of course this offends our impulse for justice or retaliation. But that’s the God revealed in Jesus. Like it or not, this is what we see at the cross. At Calvary, God allows our human system of scape-goating, fear, and retaliation to play its natural course, which ends as it always does: in the suffering of God. And then in turn, God shows us God’s system by not even lifting a finger to condemn those who put him on the cross, but instead proclaims, of all things, forgiveness. In doing so God cuts the world loose from our own sin because God can’t stand to see us chained to it. At Calvary we see our God entering deeply into the suffering caused by human evil and saying this. ends. here. I will not transmit it.
We are cut loose. God’s forgiveness is like giant bolt-cutters. And then God says go and do likewise. Forgive as you have been forgiven. Cut others loose too. Jesus commands it. It’s not actually a suggestion. He commands us to forgive just as he commands us to love.
But the problem with this is: doesn’t forgiving a sin against us, or an evil done to many, come perilously close to saying that what they did was okay? Isn’t forgiving over and over just the thing that keeps battered women battered?
This week, as I was thinking about these passages, I thought that maybe forgiveness is actually the opposite of saying that what someone has done is okay...it’s saying it’s so not okay that I am not going to absorb it any more. I simply won’t be tied to it. What happened on 9/11 was not okay. That’s why we need to forgive. Because we can’t be bound to that kind of evil. Lest it find the evil in our own hearts and make its home there.
Now, in all fairness I should say that I myself don’t naturally have a forgiving heart. I love a good resentment as much as the next gal, and if I can go on a rant and get other people to see what an ass that person is, then all the better. Holding onto a grudge or a resentment can feel like a big delicious feast I can return to again and again until I realize I am the main course. Our refusal to forgive can eat us alive.
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Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor living in Denver, Colorado, where she serves the emerging church, House for all Sinners and Saints. She blogs at www.nadiabolzweber.com and is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television.