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Journey to Forgiveness

4 The mountains skipped like rams, *
and the little hills like young sheep.

7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, *
at the presence of the God of Jacob. (Psalm 114)

In her new biography of her famous grandmother Dorothy Day, founder with Peter Maurin of the Catholic Workers Movement, Kate Hennessy writes a compelling book of three generations of love and pain and sorrow. Hennessy says that it took her five years to write this family memoir about her “paradoxical grandmother” Dorothy Day, her many “complexities and contradictions,” and in particular the deeply complicated mother-daughter relationship between Day and her only child Tamar.[1] 

Hennessy is the youngest of Tamar’s nine children.  Her book strips away the idealized public image that often surrounds her grandmother Dorothy Day, who is now on track for Catholic sainthood.  In many ways, their family story raises fundamental questions about the means and ends of doing the sacrificial work of social justice.

The genius of the book, though, is how Hennessy tells these deeply painful and personal stories with a rare mix of candor, compassion, respect and even genuine gratitude.  At the end of the day, the book is suffused with the spirit of forgiveness and acceptance.

Forgiveness, while being one of the requirements of living together, can be one of the most difficult and complex acts we perform.  It is difficult because in seeking forgiveness from another we have to acknowledge that we have failed to live up to standards we set for ourselves. We have to admit that there are times we have failed to be thoughtful or careful with another.  We have to admit that we have caused pain or broken trust with someone—often someone we care deeply about.  Sometimes, the hardest persons to forgive are ourselves.

But granting forgiveness to another is often no easy task.  The wound caused may be too deep, the trust damaged may cause us to doubt and even fear the other and our initial reaction may be to withdraw, to arrange our lives so to avoid any contact with the person who wronged us, or seek punishment to settle the damages against us.

In our reading this morning from the Gospel according to Matthew, we continue the teaching of Jesus to his disciples that follow along from last week’s discussion of how to live together in community. Following the conversation about how to reconcile with a church member who has committed an offense, Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive someone who repeatedly sins against him.  To our 21st century ears, the number 7 may sound like a small number of times to be expected to forgive someone.  As one who has been married for a number of years, I know that Sey hears that number and chuckles to himself.  But in the times in which this question was posed, 7 was seen to be generous. The tradition was that an offense was to be pardoned three times. So in effect Peter is asking if, as a follower of Jesus, he is to be a person who forgives above and beyond what is required by the law.  To which Jesus responds, he is to forgive without counting.  Seventy-seven times or seventy times seven, whichever is the correct translation from the Greek, means that you are to forgive without measure and without keeping a tab on how many times you have forgiven.

This lands hard on our ears and our hearts because we live in a world where everything is measured, everything counted. “Tit for tat” is the standard by which we live our personal, social, and business lives. If you get this, then I must get that. But Jesus says, “No. You are to forgive without counting, calculating, or keeping track.”

Because forgiveness is a spiritual practice. To live well with others, to live well with ourselves, forgiveness is something we live, something we embody, every moment. Forgiveness, like other qualities—compassion, kindness, or generosity—must be practiced, developed. The desire to reestablish connection with others is a part of who we are, but like any natural talent, it is perfected when it is practiced.  Forgiveness is not a tool you need just once in a while. Forgiveness is not like that molly wrench that you run looking for when the disposal gets clogged. Forgiveness is not a skill that you only need occasionally.

Forgiveness is more like the clothes on your back. It goes with you, it accompanies you, it girds you wherever you go. Each of us have multiple opportunities each day to practice small acts of forgiveness. I can forgive myself for forgetting to return a phone call—and then make a note to not repeat it. I can forgive a rare insensitive comment from a family member or friend and not attribute it to a sense of meanness but release it into the air as a moment of tiredness or poorly formed thoughts. I can be gracious when someone jumps in front of me in the express line with too many items. And this not only allows for a more forgiving world. It is a gift to myself when I am released from the constant stress of anger and resentment.

This is what I hear from this parable that sounds so harsh and vindictive. Forgiveness is essential. The only way to experience healing and peace is to forgive. Until we can forgive ourselves and others, we remain locked in our pain and locked out of the possibility of experiencing healing and freedom, locked out of the possibility of experiencing peace. The parable today does its work because it pushes us to the brink of our being. We are invited to see the judgment of the king not as inflicting some new punishment on the servant who refuses to forgive, but only describing the condition in which the servant already lives.

Forgiveness is a decision about the past that ultimately determines the future. When you forgive, you release the past and enter into an open future. When you cannot forgive, you remain captive to that past until the end of time. Forgiveness, in this sense, is freedom, freedom from the past, freedom for the future, the kind of freedom God wants for each of us.

Today we are blessed to be a part of the celebration of two precious babies and their families. As new parents, Michael and Laura and Kendra and Richard have been introduced into the world of learning how important forgiveness is. Nothing is more precious than the birth of a baby. But nothing is more humbling. These precious babies do not come with an ironclad manual of operation. Every moment of every day you have to make decisions based on the information you have on how best to raise healthy, happy, and compassionate children. These decisions will come when you are bright eyed and feeling very competent. And these decisions will come when you are bleary eyed and stumbling in the dark. But God’s forgiveness never ends. And because you live as a person already forgiven, you can be free to practice forgiveness in your hearts and in your minds— you can practice forgiving yourselves, you can practice forgiving your partners, you can practice forgiving the world that too often forgets how difficult parenting can be, and you can even practice forgiving these precious little ones who will continue to cause you restless nights, decide that they have had enough just when you need to run one more errand, and decide to speak their mind right in front of the assembled grandparents.

Embracing the spiritual practice of forgiveness opens your world from one of resentment to one of gratitude. Practicing forgiveness in small everyday encounters, prepares us all for the time when much larger acts of forgiveness are asked of us, as we know it most certainly will.

Stanley Vishnewski, a close friend of Dorothy Day who joined the Catholic Worker Movement in 1934 and remained with them until his death in 1979, once observed that “people came to the Catholic Worker expecting to find saints, and instead they found human beings.” Because human beings fail, forgiveness is essential. Forgiveness forms the very foundation of our identity as Christians, because we follow Jesus Christ who from the savageness of the cross forgave and in doing so unleashed a flood of gracious unlimited forgiveness into all our lives.

At the end of her biography, Hennessy recalls how her mother Tamar, who suffered so much and for so many reasons, once told her, “You don’t grow up until you forgive your parents.”  And we could add, “You cannot live in freedom until by recognizing that you have already been forgiven and practicing daily acts of release and reconciliation, you can forgive your parents and your spouse, your children, your neighbor, your boss, even and especially yourself.

[1] Kate Hennessey. Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty. New York: Scribner, 2017.

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