Pentecost +17C - Forgiveness out loud

"Mulberry Tree" by Vincent van Gogh

Luke 17:1-10
Jesus said to his disciples, "Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive.”

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

This Wednesday, our Jewish siblings will observe one of the holiest days in their year: Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. This day, which takes place shortly after the start of the Jewish new year, is a day of reflection and prayer and fasting, recognizing one’s transgressions made against God and seeking mercy for the year to come.

In the days leading into Yom Kippur, there is a practice of approaching those in your life whom you have hurt in the last year, and asking them for forgiveness.

Because there is an understanding that forgiveness is not merely a matter of getting good with God; forgiveness is also a matter of bringing reconciliation in our communities. There is a recognition that if we are to honestly seek God’s forgiveness, then we must also honestly seek forgiveness from one another.

It is the question of forgiveness and reconciliation within the community that Jesus teaches about in today’s gospel.

Jesus first warns the disciples not to become stumbling blocks to one another in this shared work of cultivating God’s kingdom. Then Jesus continues: “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive.”

Jesus calls the disciples - and us - to cultivate communities of reconciliation in this world, and in doing so, to bring the heart of God’s kingdom to earth. We are called to create places of humility and trust where we can a)speak honestly about the ways we have hurt others/creation, b)make safe space for repentance, for changed hearts and minds, and c)possess enough grace and patience to forgive and to forgive again.

I don’t love the slave imagery at the end of our gospel reading, but the point is made clear - this work of honest repentance and forgiveness isn’t optional. The work of reconciliation is our obligation, it is what God’s community looks like, it is the center of our lives in Christ. We are defined as people of faith by our willingness to repent and forgive out loud.

No wonder the disciples respond to this charge with the cry, “increase our faith!”

Remember when Jesus told the disciples that in order to follow him, they have to be willing to give up all their possessions? They listened and nodded along and didn’t say anything. As if that felt totally do-able.

But now, when Jesus asks them to do the ongoing work of truth-telling, repentance, and forgiveness, they feel utterly unequipped. “Increase our faith!” they cry out, as if to say, “Jesus, this is hard! You don’t know what you’re asking! We can’t possibly do that!

The disciples ask for an added measure of divine intervention because recognize how hard it is to call out sin, to repent, and to forgive.

We might admit that we feel the same way - most of us might, indeed, rather clean out our closets and haul a truckload of stuff to the Depot than be asked to reach out to those whom we have hurt; most of us might rather write an impossibly big check to an international aid organization than admit, with humility, the ways that we have caused harm to others and to creation.

A few weeks back, Union Theological Seminary in New York City caused a bit of a social media stir, when photos circulated of a daily chapel service on campus of students, kneeling in front of a display of potted plants in the center of the worship space. Students had been encouraged, during a time of reflection, to approach the plants and to confess to them, out loud, the ways that they had failed to care for and protect God’s good creation.

On the surface, these pictures made the wider world uncomfortable, because it seemed strange and even inappropriate to talk to plants in the middle of worship. But on a deeper level, I wonder if this act of confession made its critics uncomfortable because we don’t like to admit the ways we cause harm in this world. We would rather not confess that we have been a stumbling block to the flourishing of creation and the flourishing of our neighbors.

If we had our way, forgiveness would be easy, all the time. And beautiful, and touching.

If we had our way, forgiveness would always look like a young black man, standing in the middle of a courtroom, embracing the white police officer who wrongfully killed his brother. The video of this was all over the news this week. A spontaneous extending of unwarranted grace.

And yet this image was troubling to many.

Because it was an image of forgiveness without truth-telling about the racial divides in our society that allowed for this tragedy to happen in the first place. It was an image of forgiveness without collective repentance for the harms that we and our society have caused people of color. It was an image that let us pretend that there can be forgiveness without the hard work of honesty and change.

But this is not what Jesus teaches us today. I know that there is plenty of “turn the other cheek” and “forgive seventy times seven” in the gospels, but Jesus never speaks of forgiveness outside of a context of transformation; he never speaks of grace apart from his desire to bring a living, breathing, here-and-now taste of the kingdom of God, a kingdom of reconciliation, a kingdom of justice.

This is why we need to hold that courtroom video in one hand, and the video of the deceased man’s mother in the other. A video in which she responds to her younger son’s act of forgiveness by challenging the systems that led us into that courtroom in the first place. She says, “What you saw and what you heard in the courtroom really showed what your system is and you must seek to do something about it. You saw a contaminated crime scene, you saw deletion of evidence by persons in high offices…You saw investigations that were marred with corruption and throughout the trial what I kept saying to myself is, ‘Botham was a child of God and we know he did not deserve what he got.’”

Truth-telling. Calling out injustice and sin. Repentance. Forgiveness. These things are part of a package deal. This is how reconciliation happens.

Increase our faith, indeed.

It is hard to speak and to hear truth about where we have caused harm. It is hard to respond thoughtfully when we are called out; it is hard to repent and to say, “I’m sorry, how can I help? I promise not to act like this again.” It is hard to offer forgiveness to those who have wronged us. And perhaps even hard to receive forgiveness, when it feels too tender and makes us feel too vulnerable.

And yet these things, my siblings, are the marks of living out God’s reconciliation in the world. These are the things that build up communities of trust and compassion. Reconciliation is how justice can flourish in the world; it is the way that generosity and generosity of spirit can thrive; it is the way that violence ceases and peace is cultivated. It is the way that God transforms us and transforms the world.

I would invite you, today, to consider which movement of reconciliation you would ask God’s help with today; which movement needs a little more practice; which movement causes you to exclaim, “Increase my faith!” Do you need an extra mustard seed of courage and trust, to speak truth about how you have harmed or been harmed? Do you need an extra mustard seed of humility, to ask for forgiveness? Do you need an extra mustard seed of grace, to offer forgiveness, or patience to offer forgiveness a second or third or seventh time?

I know this work of reconciliation can feel so big, so unattainable, so achingly slow and uncomfortable. But God promises that you already have everything you need to do this. You already have the divine spark of faith that makes you capable to enact reconciliation around you. It takes no more than a mustard seed for God to deem you worthy and for Christ to send you out to do this work.

And you do not go out unequipped.

Here, today, already, you have practiced speaking words of confession, in the presence of God and this assembly. You have asked for mercy. You have heard out loud the assurance of God’s mercy. You have been reconciled to God, and you have extended your hand in a gesture of peace and reconciliation to your neighbor.

When we say “The peace of Christ be with you always: And also with you,” we are speaking our desire, out loud, for peace in our relationships and in our community.

Here in this place, through confession and peace and scripture and prayer and table, we practice this work of speaking truths (even hard ones), extending ourselves in humility to one another, receiving one another in openness, and cultivating trust and peace among us, in Christ’s name.

Here in this place, and through the witness of this community and the saints before us, we learn that God’s grace is sufficient to work repentance and forgiveness in this world, through us. We trust that whatever faith we have, even a speck or a faint flicker, this is the faith that leads us to become Christ’s reconciliation and peace in the world.

October 4 was the commemoration day for Saint Francis of Assisi, a day for the church to remember his witness of peace and compassion for all creation. And we close today with a prayer that is attributed to Saint Francis, a prayer asking God to make each of us a vessel for pardon and of peace.

Let us pray.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.