September 13, 2020
The Unimaginable – September 13, 2020
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Now that Labor Day has passed and it’s actually felt like fall this week, we’ve come to a time of blessing and curse: Blessing, in that the Chiefs have begun their run for another Super Bowl; and curse, in that the fall’s political campaigns are heating up – as if they weren’t already overheated.
About the campaigns, I’ve had a few versions of the same conversation over the past couple of weeks: What happens after Nov. 3? In formerly normal times, the nation’s attention would turn either to governance or transition, depending on an election’s outcome. This year, whatever the outcome, I have a feeling the attention will fall elsewhere first – to accusation, dispute, and more division.
Regardless of the election’s outcome – as the Church, we’re going to have work to do. Because, as individuals and as a nation, we’ll have to practice forgiveness; and the Church is God’s primary instrument for that work. Of course, we already face the need to forgive – and not just because of arguments on social media or the news channels but because of conflicted conversations even right here at church. Getting to forgiveness of the people whose words and actions we can’t abide – that may seem nothing less than unimaginable.
Well, today, we get a Gospel reading at just the right time. If you remember last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus was teaching his followers about what to do when church members sin against one another. It’s progressive intervention: First, own your injury and talk to the offender one-to-one. If that doesn’t take care of it, bring a witness or two to confirm what happened. And if that doesn’t take care of it, draw the circle larger and let God work through it to draw the lost sheep back in. It’s hard work – and it’s just the start.
Peter hears Jesus say all this and asks, in today’s reading – OK, “how often should I forgive” someone who sins against me? “As many as seven times?” (Matt 18:21) That number, seven, isn’t as random as it sounds; in that time and place, seven signified completion, bringing something to its fullness. But practically, forgiving someone seven times seems like a pretty high bar – dangerously close to the line where you pass from being kind and loving to being just a sap.
But Jesus says no, Peter, not seven times but 77 times – or, depending on how you want to read the Greek, 70-times-seven times. That’s a lot of times. And as Peter’s jaw drops, Jesus launches into today’s parable.
Now, you can spend time dissecting this one, trying to decide whether the king represents God or represents abusive authority in this world. But either way, the message is the same. In the kingdom of heaven, in the reign and rule of God, forgiveness is not optional; and we face dire eternal consequences for holding others’ sins against them. As we pray each week, maybe each day: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
I probably don’t have to convince you that God wants us to forgive. The harder task might be to convince you that we – that you – can do it.
So, let’s remember one of the few moments of positive shared cultural experience from the past six months – the release of the musical Hamilton for streaming at home. I won’t ask you to put up your hands if you forked over the 70 bucks to get Disney Plus, but I sure did. I love Hamilton. It’s stunning on so many levels; but beyond that, I think it has some Good News in it, too. If this musical tells us nothing else, it tells us that even an astronomically gifted individual, driven to excel, not throwing away his shot – even Alexander Hamilton found that what he needed most was a relationship that he himself nearly destroyed.
As history knows, Hamilton had an extended affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds. And in a desperate attempt to save his reputation, Hamilton confessed it all in a pamphlet he published, a devastating blow to his wife, Eliza. In the show, Eliza sings a heart-rending song, “Burn,” in which she not only burns his love letters but hopes that he’ll burn, too. Of course she feels that way. Of course all she can feel in that moment is devastation, and she wants Alexander to feel it, too.
Then, just when it seems that things couldn’t get any worse, Alexander and Eliza’s son, Philip, challenges a man to a duel to protect his father’s honor. Alexander finds out and gives Philip dueling advice, but he fails to stop it. And young Philip is killed, leaving Eliza’s heart shattered – again, with Alexander bearing blame. You’d understand if she just left him and returned to her wealthy father’s home.
But soon after that, in the song “It’s Quiet Uptown,” Alexander and Eliza are walking together on a journey of healing. Alexander’s trying to make amends. Eliza’s trying to open her heart to him and to the possibility of their life together, even with his betrayal and the gaping wound of their son’s death. They’re trying to “do the unimaginable.”
I worry that forgiveness is becoming nearly unimaginable for us right now. I worry that we’re losing our capacity to come together and heal when we’ve hurt and been hurt. Maybe we’ve never needed today’s Gospel reading quite so much.
Now, we might see forgiveness as an act of weakness – and it can be, if we try to forgive silently and alone, without telling the truth of how someone’s behavior has affected us. When we’re hurt, or when those we love are hurt, we have to say so and hold the other to account. Forgiveness starts with truthful confrontation; and it’s got to include acceptance of responsibility and amendment of life. But the bottom line, Jesus says, is that forgiveness has to happen.
- But why? Well, because you can’t live eternal life without it.
I’d say that’s true first in this earthly chapter of eternal life, our heavenly practice round. Here, we’re working the bugs out, training our muscle memory with God’s own skill set, which is love. We don’t come that way on our own. When we’re hurt, we want the offender to hurt, too – it’s our damaged wiring at work. But forgiveness, the “antonym of revenge,”1 teaches us to heal. It grounds us in God’s own nature, Love teaching us love. Like Eliza and Alexander walking in the park in the quiet Uptown, we have to try the unimaginable in order to learn the skill.
And when we do, we find ourselves, stumblingly and haltingly, following Jesus’ way, living no longer for ourselves but for him who died and was raised for us (2 Cor 5:15). You see it in Eliza Hamilton’s own story. After Alexander was killed in his duel, with Aaron Burr, Eliza spent time in grief’s dark pit. But her practice of love had prepared her to rise up, too. She writes Alexander’s biography, making sure someone tells his story. She raises money for the nation’s monument to George Washington. But most tellingly, she founds and runs New York’s first private orphanage – the betrayed widow and grieving mother spending decades caring for children. A reconciled relationship with her husband empowered her for nothing less than revealing heaven on earth. It brought her resurrection. As the apostle Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God,” Paul writes, “who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Cor 5:17-18) That’s our heavenly work now – eternal life, chapter 1.
And you know, I think that will be our work in eternal life, chapter 2, as well. If you take the idea seriously, eternal life means just what it says – living with other people, eternally. We’re stuck with one another. Unless you take a view of heaven that says only the people you like make it there, then we’ve each got serious work ahead of us – and for a really, really long time. I mean, eternity does give us the chance to build relationships with people we could never have known here – and I can’t wait to sit down for drinks with Abraham Lincoln. But I think we have tough work ahead, too. Because, along with building relationships, heaven means rebuilding relationships – and that means forgiveness. So, here in our practice round for eternity, we better get busy practicing.
In the dark times, maybe forgiveness does seem unimaginable. But hard as it is, God keeps calling us to come back to the table to tell the truth, to cry the tears, and to forgive.
[Play “It’s Quiet Uptown,” from Eliza’s entrance at 1:37. Clip is 3 minutes.]
Welcome to heaven.
- Hare, Douglas R.A. Matthew. In Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, James Luther Mays, ed. Louisville: John Knox, 1993. 216.