September 17, 2017
Listen here, or read the text below.
If somebody offends me once, it’s relatively easy to let it go. If they do it again, I become wary and scowly. If they do it a third time . . . well, that’s it. I’ve had enough.
In the words of Jack Shea, “Most people stop forgiving and start getting even at two.”
So, you’ve got to give Peter some credit when he asks Jesus how often he must forgive. “As many as seven times?” Yet, his posture—and mine—is still that of getting even. Jesus, at what point do I get to fight back?
But Jesus says, “not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” In effect, I must forgive until I stop keeping score; until it’s the only response I know. That’s the way God forgives.
The psalmist understood God’s way of forgiveness in Psalm 103:
“The Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion.” At what point can I honestly say, “I am kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion?”
There is, of course, a dangerous side to this teaching that must be acknowledged. What if I’m just not able to forgive? What if my forgiveness is not met with remorse and repentance from the offender? What about circumstances such as domestic violence, when endless forgiveness actually fuels the cycle of abuse?
I don’t have pat answers. But this much is sure: the business of reconciling is complex and cannot be reduced to simple formulas. Every hurt, every violation, every inexcusable act is unique, and hits home in a different way. And so, every response is also unique.
I think Jesus is saying that in a world of endless hurts, the only way to avoid endless escalation of violence requires endless offers of forgiveness and endless acts of repentance. We must always be ready to do the difficult, complicated, messy work of reconciling.
And while nothing we do can take away God’s forgiveness, there are things that will hinder and cloud its powerful effect on us. And first on that list is when we fail to forgive others.
Like nearly all of Jesus teachings, this lesson takes lifetime to learn. Or rather, it’s a lesson learned many times over throughout one’s life. It’s not enough to teach this Bible story to children as they prepare for their First Reconciliation and leave it at that.
This is a lesson, like so many others, that needs to be taught and learned over and over again, at each major stage of our lives.
Indeed, forgiveness and reconciliation require a lifelong journey of learning. As do all the major lessons of faith:
In recent generations, we’ve focused on teaching these lessons to children and youth, but we have failed recognize them as lifelong learning opportunities.
We are a ten-decade society, a ten-decade church that focuses nearly all of its faith formation efforts on the first two decades. That leaves eighty years of lifelong learning unfulfilled.
We’ve created a drop-off mentality that fuels a “graduation” mindset. As parents and grandparents, we say, Here, leaders of St Charles faith formation, are my children and teens, my grandchildren. Just do unto them what you did unto me a generation or two ago.
And we, leaders of St Charles, responding out of our need to be needed, say: Thank you. Yes, give us your children and teens in September, we’ll give you disciples come May.
You should know that the research does not support this approach. Study after study shows that an hour of faith formation a couple of times a month—all by itself—has little or no impact in the long run of empowering a young person to take their faith and religious practice with them as they launch into adulthood.
The research also shows that as soon as children begin to realize that we are just doing it for them, for their sakes, that’s the moment they begin to check out. But if they perceive that it genuinely makes a difference for us, for parents, grandparents, and the other big people around them, they are much more likely to be beckoned in.
While it is crucial that we reach children and youth with the Gospel, it is the adults in their lives who have the greatest influence to do so.
And so our dream is to engage and nurture the lifelong journey of faith in each one of us, and do so in the context of the whole church community. We call it GIFT, Growing in Faith Together. It’s a series of intergenerational gatherings planned for this year under the theme of Solidarity with Compassion. More info coming your way in a bit.
In the meantime, your homework is simple. Read Psalm 103. Learn of the forgiveness and compassion of God. And when you come to verse 8, insert “I” in place of “The Lord” so that it reads, “I am kind and merciful, slow to anger, and rich in compassion?”