Homily by The Rev. Marcia McRae
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bainbridge, GA, 14 Sept. 2014, Proper 19
Year A RCL: Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
What makes life fulfilling for you? Fear, resentment, anger or joy, peace, love?
A Cherokee Parable1 tells of an elder Native American teaching his grandchildren about life. He says to them: “A fight is going on inside me. It is a terrible fight...between 2 wolves. One wolf represents fear, resentment, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, inferiority, jealousy & lies. The other wolf stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, compassion & truth.
“This same fight is going on inside of you & every other person too.” The children think for a bit. Then one child asks: “Grandfather, which wolf will win?” The wise one replies simply: “The one I feed.”
Key words in this are resentment for the one wolf & peace for the other wolf.2 Which wolf do you feed? Forgiveness is an essential nutrient for the wolf of peace.
Jesus tells us in today's Gospel to forgive not just 7 times but 77 times. In the Bible, 7 is the perfect number, the idea of completeness like at Creation3 when God calls the world & us into being in 6 days & rests to enjoy that completeness on the 7th day. We are to have a day to rest & worship to celebrate our completeness in God's love.
Jesus challenges Peter – and us – to live into that completeness. Forgiveness nourishes it. Jesus expects us to offer an infinite amount of forgiveness4. How can we do this?
How can we do this when So-And-So has done what they did to me? How could they? They shouldn't have done that! They should have been reasonable. They should have cared about me. They should have respected me. They should have apologized.
Notice: How that set of questions & statements has a demand quality to it. They are from the wolf of resentment, demanding that the past should have been different. Demanding that the past should have been different is a really good way to stay miserable.
As Nelson Mandela said: “Resentment is like drinking poison & then hoping it will kill your enemies.”5 Resentment takes considerable energy & effort from us. And it's a way of staying near the person (who hurt you).6
More important than question of how could they do that to us is this question that speaks to the heart of our faith in Jesus: How can Jesus forgive us – each of us – as he hangs dying in agony, nailed to that cross?
Jesus cries out: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” If Jesus can forgive us for doing that, how can we not forgive each other an infinite number of times?
Notice: Jesus says “Forgive them. They don't know what they are doing.” In other words: We are clueless. Our bad behavior comes from ignorance & really bad behavior comes from profound ignorance. Our resentment is arguing with ignorance. You can't win an argument with profound ignorance. Beheading people shows profound ignorance.
When it comes to forgiving, many of us are like a car stuck in mud: we just can't get enough traction to get out of it. What stirs solid soil into mud? The murky water of resentment that confuses forgiveness with reconciliation & trust.
To get traction to get out of that mud, know this: There is a difference between forgiveness & reconciliation. God-given wisdom tells us there are times to forgive from a distance, times it is wise not to restore a relationship, for example, an abusive relationship. Think of what we've heard on the news about NFL players & have read in the Post-Searchlight headlines about an abusive father.
Forgiveness is something we do about a past experience that is totally independent from the person who hurt us. It may not be helpful to talk to the person we are forgiving. In most cases our motivation to talk to the person is to get them to acknowledge the hurt they caused.
The beneficiary of forgiveness is yourself. The secondary beneficiaries are other people in your life. Resentment leaks into all relationships, so people in our lives, who had nothing to do with the injury, suffer because resentment deprives those we love of our best self.
Forgiveness precedes reconciliation. It does not require reconciliation, which is an agreement between 2 or more people about how they will live & interact in the future. (Think of South Africa's Truth & Reconciliation Commission's work in the post-Apartheid era.)7 God longs for us to be reconciled, yet it is impossible to force a person to do that.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean we have to trust people, especially when they have yet to demonstrate that they are trustworthy. Forgiveness means we can continue to protect ourselves from untrustworthy people. But: we don’t have to protect ourselves with a wall of resentment.
The Art of Forgiving sets you free from the walled prison of resentment. It releases you from spending so much of your time & draining so much energy in that hard labor of resentment.
We can’t change the past. Demanding that the past would have been different does not change it.
Think of the unbearably hot & muggy weather we had the last few weeks & the gnats that kept us company to make us more miserable. Got that picture in your mind? Feel the misery & physical discomfort. Feel the frustration about what the weather forces you to do & what it prevents you from doing. How hot does it make that attic you have to go up into in the Parish Hall to check the roof? How much more yard work do you have to do now – with gnats – because it was too miserable to do it then?
Please join me in demanding that the heat & gnats wouldn’t have happened. Come on, demand that with me. Heat & gnats: we DEMAND that you were different last week. Say it with me: Heat & gnats: we DEMAND that you were different last week.
Notice how hard we have “demanded” that the heat & gnats wouldn’t have been the way they were.
What has changed? Look at the futility of our demanding that the past be different.
In the Art of Forgiveness, it doesn’t matter whether people should or should not have done something, despite how heinous their actions were. The fact is they did what they did regardless of its morality. Demanding they didn’t do it does not change what they did. So what are we to do with our demands?
Rather than demand that the past be different, we can prefer that the past would have been different. Converting demands into preferences keeps our values – your values – intact. Forgiveness does not require that we violate our values by saying something doesn’t matter – especially when it does matter.
When we say, “I would have preferred that you hadn’t done X or had done Z” we can feel a difference & notice what it is that we value that was violated. We can think about that value being with us in the future & sharing it with someone else...When we are looking forward to something, we get unstuck from the past.
As we get unstuck, we can release the person into the completeness of God's unconditional love.
As we release the person into the completeness of God's unconditional love, we stand firmly on Holy Ground.
Freed from the mud of resentment & unforgiving-ness, we can stand on Holy Ground in this place & share Holy Communion to nourish the wolf of peace.
Bacon, Ed. 8 Habits of Love: Open Your Heart, Open Your Mind. Boston: Grand Central Life & Style. Grand Central Publishing. 2011.
Book of Common Prayer And Hymnal. New York: The Church Hymnal Corp., and The Seabury Press. 1979.
Harper’s Bible Dictionary. General Ed.: Paul J. Achtemeier. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1971.
Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press. 1989.Jewish Study Bible: Jewish Publication Society TANAKH Translation. New York: Oxford University Press. 2004.
Lectionary Page. http://www.lectionarypage.net/. Accessed: 4 Aug. 2014.
Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. 2nd Ed. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2004.
The New American Bible for Catholics. South Bend: Greenlawn Press. 1986.
Voyle, Robert J. Restoring Hope: Appreciative Strategies to Resolve Grief and Resentment. Hillsboro, OR: The Appreciative Way. 2010.
Voyle, Robert J. “The Art of Resolving Resentment”. Forgiveness Forum: Teach Your Congrgation How to Forgive. www.appreciativeway.com. 2014.
1 Voyle, Robert J. “The Art of Resolving Resentment”. Forgiveness Forum: Teach Your Congrgation How to Forgive. P. 66.Ibid. Voyle. P. 54.
3 Harper's Bible Dictionary. P.711.
4 The New American Bible for Catholics. P. 1039.
5 Ibid. Voyle. P. 54, quoting Mandela.
6 Ibid. Voyle. P. 57. Note: Paraphrase of his quoting Kare Anderson.
7 Bacon. Ibid. Pp. 119-121.