Sacred Tension

Rev. Tom Baker
St. John’s Church, Harrison, Ark.
Proper 19, Year A
September 11, 2011
Matthew 18:21-35

Three stories from my life …

Story number one: When I was nine or ten, I wanted more than anything a frog suit for my GI Joe but my parents thought I didn’t need another toy, after all I had a room filled with toys. But all my friends had GI Joe’s with frog suits so I had to have one too. So as I walked down the aisle of our local toy store and saw the GI Joe frog suit sitting there on the shelf temptation got the best of me. Looking around nervously I quickly stuck the toy I wanted under my jacket. At the checkout lane, with my mom no less, a man walked up to me and asked to have the toy I stole back. My mother was shocked, embarrassed, and angry. I was looking for some crack to crawl in. When I got home, my mild mannered father spanked me—he’d never done that before—and then made me write a three-page apology letter to the store manger and go to confession before he’d forgive me.

Story number two: In high school I remember joining in with my friends as we made fun of an overweight girl in our class. Teenagers can be cruel and many of the things we said, I’m sure, deeply hurt that poor girl. It was only later that I found out that she ate in order to comfort herself. Her home life was in shambles. Her parents fought all the time, her dad was an alcoholic, and her mom hardly ever left the couch. She hated school, her home, her life, and God so much that one day she decided to swallow a handful of her mother’s sleeping pills. Her attempt to kill herself failed, and after the police investigated they quickly determined she had to become a ward of the state. For years she was moved from foster parent to foster parent until she finally found a place she could call home. A place where she could begin the long struggle in forgiving all those who made fun of her, forgiving her parents, forgiving herself for thinking that she wasn’t worthy of love, and forgiving God for not being there when she needed God.

Story number three: A few days ago I was making my rounds in the hospital when I met a woman in her 90s who was admitted from the nursing home. Because I was leading a healing service later that day, I was wearing my collar. Seeing me, the patient began to cry and pleaded with me to hear her confession. I told her I was an Episcopal priest and if she needed a Catholic priest for confession I’d be happy to call one for her. She told me she wasn’t Catholic she needed to really talk so I sat down and listened to her “confession.” The patient told me of always hiding the fact that she grew up very poor in rural Arkansas. She never had enough to eat, wore the same clothes day after day, and felt embarrassment and shame for working as a maid for her rich uncle. She spoke of never forgiving her father for not being rich and successful like his brother, whom she idolized. She said that she was so afraid of poverty she married for money and then proceeded to teach her only son that wealth was the most important thing in life. Looking back on her life, she felt responsible for how greed consumed her son and for his failed marriage. The patient was especially sorry for how she allowed fear to guide her life, all the resulting pain that she caused, and that’s why she needed to seek forgiveness.

No matter how old or young we may be, no matter what we look like, o matter how rich or poor, no matter who we are, Jesus knows full well that we all wrestle with forgiveness. He knows that finding forgiveness—and offering forgiveness—is hard work. It’s an emotional, physically demanding, brain-wrenching, and spiritual effort. And yet if we are to call ourselves Christ Ones—people who follow Jesus—we are called to forgive and remain in relationship.

I can’t think of a more important Gospel to be read on this day when we struggle with memories of attacks, destruction, and death than this reading from Chapter 18 of Matthew. Much of Chapter 18 deals with what you do when someone does you wrong or when you cause harm. In Chapter 18 of Matthew Jesus talks about how we balance the need for accountability and forgiveness. Jesus teaches that if there is a hurt between you and someone else, go talk with them and work it out, no matter how painful it may be. If that doesn’t work, get a third party involved to mediate. If that fails, call in the community of faith to help work things out. If that doesn’t work, well, then treat them like tax collectors and gentiles—of course we all know that Jesus extended the kingdom especially to those people. No matter what, Jesus always wants us to remain in relationship, to never break the tie between us.

When I stole that GI Joe frog suit my parents were angry, shocked, and embarrassed. The trust they had in me was broken. They held me accountable for what I had done and yet they also remained in relationship with me. Because of that, I not only learned you don’t steal; I also knew my parents would continue to love me.

That girl in high school who I and others teased, who didn’t have parents, and tried to commit suicide—today she runs a halfway home for troubled teens. Her pain and wounds allow her to connect to those who come to her looking for understanding. She also doesn’t coddle her kids; if they did something wrong or experienced a wrong done to them, she makes sure they face it, head-on, no matter how painful. Yet she also reminds them that no matter how much pain they may feel she will be there by their side and give them a place to call home.

After that woman poured her heart out to me in her hospital room, I asked her what would happen if she told her son she was sorry. “Oh,” she said, “I could never do that. I’ve never told him how poor I really was, I’m too ashamed of never really loving his father, and I can’t face being responsible for his unhappiness and greed.” It was then that her son walked into the room and admitted he was standing outside the hospital door and had heard every word. With tears in his eyes he told his mother he had divorced his wife because he didn’t want the same kind of marriage his parents had. He also admitted that he’s slowly letting go of all his toys and is trying to stop chasing the almighty dollar. As they embraced, mother and son began to heal the pain between them and because they honestly shared their fears and failings they also found understanding and love.

Jesus challenges us today to remain in relationship with one another no matter how painful it may become. Peter says, Do I need to forgive seven times?—which was ultimate number of times anyone was expected to forgive in his day—and Jesus raises the bar by saying, No, 77 times. Be always willing to enter the tension between forgiveness and accountability, for that, Jesus says, is where grace is found. It is where God is present.

And so on this day of remembrance we gather before this table to re-member—reconnect—ourselves to our Lord who isn’t asking that we forgive and forget. Nor is Jesus asking us to never forget and always punish. Instead Jesus says his disciples must remain in that sacred tension between accountability and forgiveness. For it is within that tension that we remain in relationship with one another, and that is how Jesus defines forgiveness—remaining in relationship.