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September 16/17, 2017

Lectionary 24a

Pr. Ben Adams

Living in God’s Limitless Forgiveness

Another week, another case of an unarmed black man killed by a police officer, another verdict… Not guilty.

Anthony Lamar Smith, may he rest in peace despite the fact that we still have no justice. How long O Lord must we wait until all people have equal protection? How long until those in power are not given the blessing of the state to hurt, oppress, or kill? And how long until our complicity with this system of injustice is over?

In a lectionary week where forgiveness is in the spotlight, I think we need to be clear about one thing in light of this most recent state sanctioned execution, the acquittal of St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley is not an example of Jesus’s limitless forgiveness but just another example of a quick and cheap pardon for a person of power and privilege.

And because this power is taken away from the victimized community, pardon is rarely, if ever, restorative to the whole community, and that is where the difference in forgiveness lies.

With forgiveness the power lies in the hands of the hurt, the wronged, or the victim. It is an inversion of power where the marginalized victims are the ones who decide the conditions of forgiveness and reconciliation.

It was then that I became exposed to the concept of restorative justice. This is an approach to justice that personalizes the crime by having the victims and the offenders mediate a restitution agreement to the satisfaction of each, as well as involving the community. This stand in stark contrasts to more punitive approach customarily taken by our current criminal in-justice system, where the main aim is retributive justice or satisfaction of some abstract legal principle.

And if we are being really honest, in many courtrooms, both victim and offender give up their agency, leaving justice to be decided by legal counsel and the state while the plaintiff and defendant are instructed to remain silent. In this system where we give our power away for silence, where we are incentivized to deny responsibility for easier sentences, or where we are forced into false confessions for threats of harsher punishment should we decide to stand up for the truth, justice is most certainly not being served, and restoration of our broken communities is sacrificed.

It wasn’t until 17 years later that this conversation was even possible, but when Sharletta was finally ready to take that next step in the process of forgiveness, the life giving effects of victim offender reconciliation were clear especially as they were ending their conversation. She and Raymond rose from opposite sides of the table and approached each other. He extended his arms. She asked him to turn his palms facing up. She then clutched his hands and said a prayer. She said, “I prayed that they would cause no more harm, that they’d be hands of comfort, that they would bring help and serve people and that they would no longer be hands of destruction but hands that bring life.”

That is the restorative power of forgiveness, but forgiveness that is not simply a quick decision made once, but a process that requires time and patience. It took years and years to even get to the point that a conversation was possible, but once that conversation was had between Sharletta and Raymond, it opened up the possibility of an ongoing relationship that Sharletta and Raymond both resolved to continue.

Limitless forgiveness like Jesus attests to in Matthew is so hard. We're talking Joseph for giving his brothers after they left him for dead type forgiveness, but that forgiveness becomes even more difficult and complicated when we consider the insidiousness of some forms of harm that require forgiveness, like racism.

What does a process of forgiveness look like for our inherent racism when for so long racism has not lessened, but simply continued to adapt into new forms from slavery, to Jim Crow, and nowadays to mass incarceration?

Think the relationship between Catholics and Lutherans. With this being the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, there are 500 years of division and pain that we must be honest about as we try to be one once again and move from our initial schism and conflict to once again sharing one another’s company at the communion table.

But when we reach that point and ask just how far our forgiveness should expand? Jesus reminds us of the deep grace God has shared.

This is/was a public sign where he will be made one with Christ’s death and resurrection, and therefore also be infused with God’s grace and forgiveness.

We too are involved, making promises to Thomas, and among those promises we will promise to be a community so infused with God’s limitless forgiveness that Thomas will know without a shadow of a doubt that he is loved and valued no matter what, and in being that community for Thomas is is our prayer that he learns to share that with others.

Because living in Gods limitless forgiveness means that In most cases we won’t be able to simply quantify forgiveness as a prescribed amount. Also, we must not forget that living in God’s limitless forgiveness has an effect on us too. Especially in cases where we have been forgiven, but we might continue to beat ourselves up thinking that our sins are somehow different or more unforgivable than others.

So when you’re in that space have trust in the Psalmist’s words when they say, “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is God’s steadfast love for us, and as far as the east is from the west, so far God removes our transgressions from us.”

Share that forgiveness. Amen.