Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Some of you may be reading, Grateful, by Diana Butler Bass. I invite you to read it on your own and/or to discuss it with friends. (Three small groups this month) Extensive research claims that gratitude is profoundly good for you. Around the world people who practice living gratefully experience deeper peace, greater well-being, and an increased capacity for joy and greater resiliency. When we orient ourselves to gratefulness, we strengthen our spiritual musculature. Moving through life with a grateful heart has the power to uplift us, make a difference for others, and bring transformation to our world. (Grateful Living.org)
Giving thanks seems simple and obvious, yet somehow, like many instructions we find in scripture, it can be strangely difficult to sustain as a lifestyle or heart-style. Obstacles rise within us, often subconsciously, to pop our balloon. Righteous anger, self-certainty, and cynicism can be so much more seductive in the moment than an ‘attitude of gratitude.’
Most of us need help to cultivate gratitude slowly over time. That’s why the quote I received this week from the Grateful Word of the Day was so welcome. It comes from Robin Wall Kimmerer, biologist and Native American, author of Braided Sweetgrass. Kimmerer weaves together the wisdom of her ancestors with insights of Western science. She writes: “Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.”
It occurs to me that to receive this gift, whether from the earth, or from Native peoples, we must learn forgiveness. We must learn how to ask for it, as well as how to give it. Here is another teaching the bible holds as fundamental to faith which, for me, seems more difficult than gratitude. Forgiveness is for saints and heroes –not for ordinary Christians—right?
Historians and anthropologists have begun to point out our prized, so-called “Western” ideals of individual liberty, political equality, and the rejection of arbitrary authority were inspired more by Native American sources than by the Athenians of ancient Greece (p. 37). The words ‘equality’ and ‘inequality’ did not exist in Latin, nor their English, French, Spanish, German and Italian cognates until after the time of Columbus and the European encounter with the peoples of Native America. For the Europeans who landed upon these shores, unquestionable hierarchies ruled the day at every level.
Forgiveness is not simply a moment of apologizing and being forgiven. It is a process of grace to live into. Asking for forgiveness from Native peoples for genocide and the campaign of cultural erasure at Indian boarding schools can open a door to learning our own history and to healing wounds we may not have known we had—for us as individuals and for us as a people. Forgiveness is not for heroes but for each of us. Gratitude and forgiveness are fruits of the Spirit. These are among the gifts given to us in baptism. Such is the food we eat at the Lord’s Table. This is the path we walk by way of the cross.
We all know forgiveness was important to Jesus. Peter knew it. That’s why he asked. Wanting to impress, he picked a really big number. ‘How many times should I forgive someone? As many as seven times?’ (Matthew 18:21) Jesus’ answer was shocking. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” In other words, stop counting.
To underscore his point, Jesus offers Peter a hyperbolic parable and about a fictional king settling accounts with his servant. 10,000 talents is an enormous sum. It is ten times the amount King Herod received every year from all his territories—which was around 900 talents (Brian P. Stoffregen, CrossMarks). A talent is about 130 lbs. of silver and is the equivalent to about fifteen years of a laborer’s wages. By contrast, the 100 denarius the servant was owed by his fellow servant is a tiny fraction 1/600,000 the size of the first.
Like Peter, I suspect most of us are gracious enough to forgive neighbors, friends, or family members again and again. But, sooner or later, the ledger fills up and the bearer of forgiveness can become the carrier of a grudge. You may feel righteous and justified in carrying that grudge, but the truth is, Jesus says, carrying that grudge eventually becomes its own offense. Stop keeping score.
This parable challenges us to imagine a world without vengeance but also without economic debts and burdens. Here Jesus was not inventing something new but reasserting the central hope of Jewish tradition which is “…a vision of a debt-free world, an economic system based solely on God’s provision and generosity, a moral response of gratitude and humility on the part of God’s people, and regular rituals of debt abolition and freedom from contractual obligations. This was to be the economic and moral rhythm of Israel, linked together in a single social fabric and practiced through weekly Sabbath, Sabbath years, and the Jubilee” (Diana Butler Bass, Sunday Musings, 9/17/23).
The cross was God’s critique of worldly power and all petty religious and moralistic score keeping. On the cross God stands with the crucified, the cast-offs, the lynched, the broken, and the broke. By way of the cross, God has broken the wheel of vengeance and opened a pathway to healing, reconciliation, and generosity. By way of the cross Jesus has shown us the way to resurrection, transformation, gratitude, forgiveness, and joy.
Some of you will remember reading The Book of Forgiving (2014) by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu tells us what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not easy. It requires hard work and a consistent willingness. Forgiveness is not weakness. It requires courage and strength. Forgiveness does not subvert justice. It creates space for justice to be enacted with purity of purpose that does not include revenge. Forgiveness is not forgetting. It requires a fearless remembering of the hurt. Forgiveness is not quick. It can take several journeys through the cycles of remembering and grief before one can truly forgive and be free of the hurt.
As outlined by Tutu, forgiveness begins with a willingness born of the Holy Spirit to walk a fourfold path. First, you must tell our story. Second, you must name what hurts. We must do these things if we are to reach the third point in our journey of granting forgiveness, by which Tutu simply means seeing our abuser as part of a shared humanity. Only then do we reach the fourth step and either release or renew the relationship.
We cannot create a world without pain or loss or conflict or hurt feelings, or financial hardship but with God’s grace we can create a world of forgiveness and gratitude. We can create a world of forgiveness to love our enemies, to heal our losses and repair our lives and relationships. We can build upon habits of heart like gratitude which lead to greater generosity. All of us must walk our own path and go at our own pace to discover the power forgiveness and gratitude. Little by little, and sometimes all at once, this how God is changing us. This is how we change the world. This is how we live into the kingdom of God.