This is a sermon for the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Luke 17:1-10.
Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
That’s what came to mind for me, when I read Jesus’ words about forgiveness: “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.’”
Well, that’s all well and good, Jesus, I wanted to say. And maybe it’s fine if we’re talking about petty things – whatever the first-century equivalent of leaving the toilet seat up was – but surely there’s a point at which we have to look after ourselves, too? Is Jesus talking about putting up with ongoing bullying, or the like? Should I put my dreams – my own sense of self, even – out there to be trampled on, and issue an open invitation to be treated like a doormat?
But I don’t think he’s saying that. We need to balance this requirement for forgiveness with the verse before, which says that, “if another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender;” so this is emphatically not about putting up with bad treatment, or collapsing all boundaries.
But what I think it is getting at is what happens when the bad behaviour has stopped (even if it’s very much a stop-start pattern). And that is, that you let it go.
I’m very bad at this, I have to admit. When someone has done something that seems very much like the wrong thing, I hate to see them get away with it.
For example; there was someone who bullied me rather nastily in a particular situation. And even when that situation was over – because I left, not because the bullying was ever acknowledged or rectified – I was holding on to so much anger over the whole thing. I didn’t want to see this person. Didn’t want to hear them praised or given respect. I wanted to jump up and down and yell, “Can’t everyone see what this person is? Why are you letting them get away with it?”
In fact, the anger caused me so much of a problem – because I couldn’t avoid situations where it arose – that I ended up taking it to my spiritual director. “What do I do with all this emotion? Intellectually I know that this is over and I need to put it behind me, but emotionally I’m in another place, and I just don’t know how to move from there.”
He gave me this suggestion. “Sit down and write a letter to this person. Write about everything they did, how it made you feel, get it all out and hold nothing back. And then” – this is probably the more unusual part of his advice – “find a spot in the garden and bury the letter; find some plant that you really like and plant it in that spot. And as you put the plant in the ground, thank God for new life and new growth that can come out of even very hard situations, and every time you look at that plant as it grows and flowers you’ll be reminded that you, also, grow and flower out of hard things.”
Anyway, so I did as my spiritual director suggested, and I must admit I did find it helpful. (I also had a good laugh when the plant actually died; but at least I could laugh by then).
And he was right, of course, that we can grow and flower out of hard things. I can see that if, for example, I now have the courage to deal with conflict instead of avoiding it, it came in part out of that experience of seeing what happened when conflict was ignored.
But maybe that’s one thing that’s important in learning to forgive. Realising that God is at work in me, as well as in the other person, and we both need time and grace to grow and change. And being grateful for that time and grace and the growth that we can see.
But I think there might be something more than that, too. Because forgiveness – real forgiveness – comes from more than just my desire to be comfortable, and to have neatly dealt with any awkward emotional baggage. I think it comes out of an outlook which is optimistic about people.
Let me put it this way; to forgive someone the wrong they’ve done, to truly let it go, most of us need to believe that that person has changed. And, even more deeply than that, we need to believe that people can change.
That might sound obvious, but how many times have you heard people say things like, “a leopard can’t change his spots”? It’s tempting to believe that people are who they are, and they’re never going to change. And I say, it’s tempting, because that then gives us an excuse to hold on to our angers and our unforgiveness.
But. But I think it is one of the defining characteristics of Christianity that we believe that people can change. That we say that God believes people can change, and believes it so strongly that Jesus went through death and hell itself to give us the opportunity to prove him right.
So I think that deep down, forgiveness is more than letting go of the need to be vindicated. It’s more than dealing with my own wounded emotions. It is, in its own way, an act which makes known the good news of Jesus Christ; because if I believe you can change, if I believe you can be right with me and with God, I believe that what Christ did for us all, and what Christ is doing in you and me right now, actually means something. It makes a difference.
So maybe, when we think of our dreams, the ones that get trampled on, and the ones we want to protect, one of the dreams we need to hold onto most strongly is the dream of hope for the other person; the dream that he or she can grow and change and not just be forgiven, but have a new beginning and restored relationships.
So as we think about woundedness, reconciliation, and forgiveness, maybe that’s the dream on which we need to tread most softly of all.