It’s very easy to write a mediocre sermon about forgiveness. I’m already halfway down the road of doing it. The scripture text for this week seemed an obvious choice for “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It’s the parable of the unmerciful servant from Matthew 18:21-35. It’s about a servant who owes his master thousands of dollars but has his debt forgiven only to go and throw a fellow servant in debtor’s prison for owing him a few bucks. The master finds out and rips the first servant to shreds for not forgiving when he was forgiven. Following the logic of the parable, we are infinitely indebted to God for our sins against Him, so it ought to be inconceivable that we would be unwilling to forgive other people.
There’s a bogeyman in my head that I’m often preaching to when the topic is forgiveness. He’s arrogant, self-righteous, and judgmental. He writes in ALL CAPS in the comment section on news websites, using lots of exclamation points and words like outrageous, egregious, and astounding. He knows exactly who the bad people are and why they need to be decimated from the face of the earth since there’s no point in trying to reason with them. The only problem with preaching to this bogeyman is he doesn’t go to our church.
The people I’ve met in our church tend to be humble, gracious people who are trying their best to serve God and their country faithfully. Perhaps some of you have a self-righteousness problem that needs to be addressed, but I hesitate to preach that kind of forgiveness sermon, because some of you have been hurt really badly by other people who played dirty and got away with it. I have had the strange fortune of never having been wounded deeply enough by another person that forgiveness could be a challenge for me. So it’s easy for me to say, “Look, God forgives you, so forgive other people. What part of ‘stop being self-righteous’ don’t you understand?!”
But if I preach a sermon to my self-righteous bogeyman and speak flippantly about the challenge of forgiveness, then I will fail those of you who have suffered wounds that seem unforgivable. So I’m stuck. I want to somehow speak grace into a situation in which forgiveness is hard if not impossible. My usual strategy is to say something like “Jesus feels your pain; He died on the cross,” but even that feels trite and dismissive.
What I can say is the first thing that Jesus said almost every time he healed somebody: “Your sins are forgiven.” Whatever else is true about the evils that other people have committed against us, the best hope for our ability to cope with our circumstances lies in our recognition that we need God to forgive us of our own sins and He has. We cannot change what other people have done to us, but we can at least enjoy the integrity and freedom of naming our own sin and accepting Christ’s redemption. However far we get in making peace with whatever evil we have suffered, it’s a journey we can only begin as sinners who are grateful for God’s forgiveness.