January 24, 2021
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but I tell you seven times seventy.” ~ Matthew 18:21-22
Over two months ago, I received a phone call from the mother of a childhood friend of mine. Shirley called to let me know that Peggy Sewell died. Our family and the Sewells grew up together. My sister and I went to school with Parker and Amy. We shared family meals together and hosted team dinners. The Sewells left a goat tied to our front door as a gift which we sadly returned. We went to the good old Wylie United Methodist Church together every Sunday. I saw my dad cry for the first time when we attended Dr. Sewell’s funeral. Parker, my best friend from middle school, drove his mom eight hours to Luray, Kansas, to attend my father’s funeral. We both cried for our fathers and one another.
Sadly, over the years, between moving away, careers, getting married and raising kids we have drifted apart. Shirley’s phone call brought back memories to me, both good and bad, of the community I grew up with. I was so glad she called.
Life and God are relationship, and as we grow in the Spirit, “we realize we are part of a human family and that we want to live something together,” wrote Henri Nouwen. “Community is a way of living.” In concert with one another we celebrate, dance, mourn and grieve life together. We share the human experience in all its glory and all its heartache; we walk through the hills alive with the sound of music and we hold each other’s hand through the valley of the shadow of death. Community and relationship make life rich, full and “doable.”
What would we do without one another and the gift of community?
“The goal of the spiritual journey is to discover and move toward connectedness (community) on ever new levels,” says Father Richard Rohr. And we know that living in community, living in relationship is messy, and it is not easy.
How do we live in a healthy community? Nouwen believes that “forgiveness is what makes marriage, friendship, or any other form of community possible.” I agree wholeheartedly.
We cannot live together in our families, our churches, our towns and cities, or our nation if we do not learn to forgive one another. This is a Truth with a capital “T.” Capricious Peter who walks on water and flies off the handle asks Jesus, “How many times should I forgive someone? Four? Five? Seven times?” Jesus looks at Peter and I imagine Jesus saying, “Are you kidding me? Are you for real? We do not forgive four or five times or seven times. We forgive seven times seventy.” (see Matthew 18:21-22)
We forgive for eternity. It is a process. We cannot stay in a relationship, we cannot love our children or our parents, we cannot stay in a church or a town, or any community unless we practice forgiveness. We cannot govern ourselves without forgiveness. To forgive is not to forget or excuse someone’s behavior or to exonerate an unjust system. To forgive is to let go of our pain and our resentment.
Desmond Tutu, who knows the cruelty and the oppression of the unjust systems of apartheid and systemic racism wrote, “There is no future without forgiveness.” “Forgiveness is the only way to free ourselves from the entrapment of the past. We’re in need not only of individual forgiveness; we need it on a national, global, and cosmic scale,” says Rohr.
To live in a vibrant, life-giving community is to practice forgiveness. Father Richard Rohr founded the New Jerusalem Community in Cincinnati. Above the main doorway he had painted “70 x 7” to remind themselves of how to live with one another. Rohr says, “If forgiveness does not happen on a daily basis, there will be no community.” Without forgiveness our communities dissolve into hate, finger pointing, victimhood, and violence. “Nothing new happens without forgiveness. We just keep repeating the same old patterns, illusions, and half-truths.”
Last week we had a change in power, but will we have a change in heart? Is the way of forgiveness part of our national narrative? Our personal narrative?
Prompted by Shirley’s phone call and Mrs. Sewell’s passing, over the past two months I have reunited with some old friends and coaches from my past. It has been very healing and liberating for me to reconnect to the beautiful community of my youth. I did not realize that I had been hanging on to some old wounds, some self-righteous perceptions of my youth. Only forgiveness sets us free.
May we forgive one another as we have been forgiven.
May we admit to God our inability to forgive some offenders, and may we ask for the grace to let go so we can live in the present and not the past.
May we cultivate beloved community through the gift of forgiveness.
Blessings, peace, and forgiveness to you my friends,