15 A Pentecost: Forgiveness and not forgiveness

Well, here I am with a brand-spanking new knee
but I am still learning how to walk.
So don’t push me too hard
or I’ll fall over and not be able to get up.

I wish I had something to come back to
better than that Matthew gospel
but Michael and Virginia didn’t get to choose
while I was gone either.

So a word of warning:
if we were to come at someone with two witnesses
and start accusing them
of having done something wrong,
that accused person is going to
clam up,
get defensive,
and be spitting mad.
Good luck with that method
of reconciliation.

Oh, and the tribunals of the church
have a lovely history
of ferreting out guilt and innocence —
like drowning people
to see if they are really a witch
because witches won’t drown.
Oops. Well I guess she wasn’t a witch after all.
This little well-trodden story
is more a Matthew than Jesus gem for sure,
and here’s the clue:
“if the offender refuses to listen even to the
church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile
and a tax collector.”

First of all, Jesus was pals
with Gentiles and tax collectors
and treated them like everyone else.
And secondly, the word “church” — Ekklēsia —
in Jesus’ day meant simply, an assembly or gathering
rather than the Christian connotation
it came to have a half a century later
in Matthew’s day.

So this is one of those times
I am going to say goodbye to the text
because it wanders far away
from the teachings of rabbi Jesus.
I’m not being critical of Matthew,
there are historic reasons
for him to render this text as he did.
I’ve delved into the history before
when this has come up in the lectionary cycle —
I’m sure you remember those sermons
from three and six years ago.

To be fair, Matthew’s story
about Jesus telling Peter
how to resolve alienation
may work out well between individuals
within relatively equal power relationships —
and maybe even within a family.

But it probably is not a great idea
within an institution that has a hierarchy.

But this story is about forgiveness,
as is Mary Oliver’s poem,
and the truth is, in the Church,
we are no better at talking honestly about forgiveness
than we are about exploring sex.
We idealize the one
and ignore or fret about the other.

From what I can tell,
from my own experience
and having been privy to the experiences
of many others,
the way we think about forgiveness
and the way we describe it,
does not truly exist.

Where an injury or violation
is deep, severe, or violent
our fantastical Christian notions of forgiveness
are not real.

Forgiveness is not something that
that happens —
a point on the horizon we arrive at
and then we have forgiven someone
or someone then receives forgiveness from us.
Rather, forgiveness is a process
that meanders
and never ends.
Forgiveness is not a state of being
that is once and for all,
it ebbs and flows.

In fact, forgiveness looks and feels different
at different times and places,
just as memory is modified
by time and circumstance.

Forgiveness has the wobbly legs of a toddler
learning to walk.
The babe forgets one day’s progress into the next,
and crawls again on the way to remembering
that he or she has taken steps.
Forgiveness is likewise, up and down
and full and anemic,
and restful and anxious,
and calm and festering.

When the wound is severe,
or the alienation deep and painful,
forgiveness is not a happy-ever-after ending.
Rather, it is a process of learning
and knitting
and unraveling
and gathering up
and quilting.

Just like a poem
or a cathedral, forgiveness
is never complete;
never done once and for all —
not when the injury or fracture has been profound.

Forgiveness and reconciliation
meander
and flow
and evolve over time
rather than coming to a final end.
And you know what? That is also it’s power.

So long as we remain open to the process
of forgiveness and reconciliation,
they have the potential to continue healing
in new and profound ways.
When we wash our hands of forgiveness,
and pretend it is done and over,
never to go there again,|we lose the on-going gifts of healing.

Healing itself is a process —
a never-ending and evolving process.
That is it’s power, too.

So the goal is not to forgive and forget,
the task is to remember
and work at learning
and gaining perspective.
But most important of all,
forgiveness is not a gift given to the offender
it is a work of healing
given to oneself.
I don’t forgive you
for what you did to me,
I work at healing it
so that it does not continue to wound me.

What you do with the aftermath,
disruption, and sometimes evil
of your actions in wounding me,
that is your business to deal with.
That is your woundedness to heal.
That’s what Mary Oliver’s poem is getting at
when she talks to “past darkness.”

Sometimes it is very helpful to think about
the opposite of something
when we are trying to understand it.
So the opposite of forgiveness is useful to think about.

Holding onto our wounds
and protecting them from healing
is resentment.

The opposite of forgiveness is resentment.
The French root of the word resentment
means to re-feel or re-think.
So wounds we do not submit
to a healing process
are kept alive
by re-feeling them and re-thinking them
over and over and over again.
It hurts so good
and we enjoy the resentment so much.

And why would we choose
to keep a wound alive
rather than engage it in a healing process?
Is it because we are so wounded
we can’t believe in healing, ever?

Do we relish vengeance
and hate mercy?

Here is what I think,
fresh off my knee replacement
and obviously still rehabbing.
It hurts to heal.

It is painful to engage in the healing
of any wound,
whatever or whoever the source.
In order to heal
we have to enter the wound
and be vulnerable to it again.
To use my knee as an example,
I have to keep stretching muscles and tendons
that recoiled in surgery
and if I do not keep stretching
and pulling
and exercising them
they will be forever shrunken,
tight and brittle.

It hurts to heal
and sometime we would rather
resent: re-feel the injury
and stir the bile of bitterness.

Recognizing and acknowledging
that to forgive
is our work
and for our own well-being —
not something we do or give
to the offender —
robs us of hatred
and blame
and vengeance.

So some people choose
to build a mote around the wound
and not engage in healing.
Instead they suck on bitterness
and keep the wound festering.

It is absolutely self-destructive
and does nothing to the offender.

I shouldn’t end though,
without acknowledging
there is of course, a kind of transactional forgiveness.
A student loan is forgiven.
A penitent receives absolution after confession.
”I’m sorry, I forgot the mayonnaise.” “That’s okay,
you’re forgiven.”

But the kind of forgiveness that
matters most
and is hardest to come by
is a healing process —
one that we engage in
for ourselves and no one else —
and it has a field of gifts
unknown
until encountered.
That is it’s power.

That’s all I got after all this time off.