Forgiveness at the Red Sea
I do love Peter. I always have.
He has rare moments of radiant faith, naming Jesus as the Christ, walking to Jesus on the water, and so forth.
But most of the time, he’s putting his foot in it.
He’s revealing, God love him, how very much he is not picking up what Jesus is putting down. And I 100% identify with him in that.
I’m always so grateful for Peter’s dumb moments, because they make me feel less alone in my own dumb moments.
So what is Peter’s mistake in our gospel lesson today?
He is trying to quantify grace.
He wants to know exactly how many times he is required to forgive fellow church-members.
Is seven times sufficient? I mean, forgiving someone seven times does seem adequate, even generous.
If we’re patient and compassionate with someone who has hurt us seven times, that would surely be more than enough to fulfill any requirements.
But that is exactly what is wrong with Peter’s approach.
Life in the church is not about fulfilling requirements.
It’s not about checking off boxes for how many times we forgive someone, how many times we care for someone in need, how many times we practice a virtue like gentleness or self-control.
And Jesus tells Peter that he’s in entirely the wrong frame of reference.
He says we must forgive seventy times seven times, which is really saying we must forgive an infinite number of times.
Because as we said, it’s not about keeping count.
If we’re still keeping count in our relationships, we’re sowing the seeds of their destruction.
Anyone who has been through a bad breakup knows this.
When you’re first in love, you forgive little faults and forgettings easily and joyfully.
But as the bloom wears off, you start to keep count in your mind—how many times they forget to take out the garbage, how many times they turn up the radio too loud, how many times you put away the dishes by yourself without help, how many times you pick their laundry up off the floor.
This kind of keeping count leads to keeping score.
You store up ammunition against your partner.
You fight dirty in arguments, bringing up old mistakes and transgressions in new conflicts.
When that happens, you know the break-up or divorce is not far away.
And it all started with keeping count.
It all started with asking the question, “How many times must I forgive? I want a number. I want to know when I’ve forgiven enough and can get some of my own back.”
What Jesus is trying to tell us with his parable today is that in the economy of grace, our only response to God’s unending and tender forgiveness of us is to extend that forgiveness to others.
I want to insert here the caveat I feel it always important to name when we preach on forgiveness: forgiveness does not mean tolerating or enabling abusive behavior.
It is possible to set boundaries around yourself and be clear with others what you will and will not tolerate from them, while still pursuing forgiveness as a spiritual discipline.
In fact, that might be a short blueprint for a healthy way of handling inevitable church conflict.
Forgiveness is a marriage of truth and compassion, and is not full and healthy forgiveness without the presence of both.
There are two main ways people abuse forgiveness. One is to extend compassion without truth. This is what we do when we use forgiveness to cover up legitimate conflict, sweeping it under the rug and enabling bad behavior in others.
The other is to articulate truth without compassion. This is what we do when we use forgiveness to build up our own self-image as noble and generous people, and to lord power over the transgressor.
Both abuses of forgiveness are false grace.
True and holy forgiveness requires much more of us.
It is a blending of truth and compassion that is at heart about an equalizing of both parties.
The transgressor and the offended are brought together on sacred ground, persuaded by the Spirit to lay down their weapons, and asked by Jesus how together they can name honestly what happened and chart a path forward together in love.
That is when forgiveness morphs into its rare and elusive sister, reconciliation.
When someone hurts us or we hurt someone, especially if it’s the seventy-seventh time like Jesus talks about, it seems a very long way to travel from hurt and anger through forgiveness to reconciliation.
But that’s precisely why we must abandon our old capitalistic mindset of counting how many times we forgive or are forgiven and reimagine forgiveness entirely.
Forgiveness is not an isolated, concrete event that we can achieve and then pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.
Forgiveness is an art, a spiritual discipline, a process, a daily pursuit of making ourselves vulnerable to healing grace.
And forgiveness requires above all the quality Jesus praises more than any other in the gospels: faith.
What does forgiveness as a practice of faith look like?
To explore this further, we can turn to our story from Exodus. We read today of the parting of the Red Sea.
This was originally read, and understandably so, as a victorious tale of the salvation of the Israelites and the destruction of the Egyptians.
There was no forgiveness. The Egyptians washed up dead on the seashore, drowned and defeated.
In the literal sense, this was the people of Israel being rescued and delivered by the mighty hand of God, and the oppressors being put down from their thrones.
But we modern American readers can’t very easily place ourselves in the shoes of the Israelites. We are not oppressed by anyone.
We’re dangerously close to being oppressors ourselves sometimes with our money, privilege, and power.
So how are we to read this story? How can we be taught by it?
Well, let’s return to what Jesus is teaching us about today—forgiveness.
Let us enter the story of the parting of the Red Sea and use it to help us reimagine forgiveness as a journey of faith.
Place yourself in the shoes of the Israelites on the edge of the Red Sea. The water stretches out before them, perhaps churning with waves or perhaps placid and still, but impassable nonetheless.
And behind them, the mighty Egyptian army, ready to slaughter them and drag any survivors back to slavery.
Now think about forgiveness in your life.
Before you lies the uncharted territory of true and full forgiveness that you know Jesus asks you both to offer and receive.
Behind you is the internal army of doubt, anger, insecurity and shame that pursues you every time you think about the most painful situations of unforgiveness in your life.
Suddenly that helpless feeling of being trapped that must have swamped Moses and Aaron and Miriam doesn’t seem so far away.
So what did it take for the Israelites to cross the Red Sea?
Did they run away from the Egyptians? No.
Did they build boats and outrun them across the water? No.
Did they try to swim and get across under their own power? No.
Neither power nor wealth nor ingenuity would save them here.
And neither will they serve us in our quest to offer and receive forgiveness.
What was required was faith.
Moses stretched out his hand over the waters, and who did the work?
“The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.”
The Israelites stood still in the place of greatest vulnerability, and trusted God to provide the path forward.
This is what is asked of us in our spiritual practice of forgiveness.
Life circumstances and our own tangled minds will drive us to the edge of the water with the army crouched at our back.
Hurts and conflicts will arise with friends, family, and fellow parishioners, and we will find ourselves unable to find a path forward into forgiveness.
But then we have a choice.
Do we try to fix it and figure it out ourselves? Or do we offer ourselves up to God’s deliverance?
If we can step out in faith, we will find that we too will go into the sea on dry ground, with the waters forming a wall on our right and on our left.
What does it look like to take the first step of forgiveness, out onto the dry ground that is beginning to appear?
It might mean asking the person who hurt you where their mind and heart was when things went so badly.
It might be going to the person you have hurt and asking if you can get together for coffee.
It might mean writing a note saying you’re sorry for what you’ve done, or making a phone call to say that you want to preserve a relationship but you’re not sure how to do it.
And it always means praying.
The first few steps of prayer off the beach and into the tunnel of water arching over you might be prayers like, “Lord, I’m glad you love this person, because I really can’t right now,” or, “Lord, how on earth will I ever make up for this terrible mistake I’ve made?”
The prayers further down the path will sound like, “God, please bless this fragile seed of growth my friend and I have started together as we pursue healing,” or, “God, thank you for awakening repentance within me, lead me toward reconciliation.”
Eventually we make it to the far side of the Red Sea, and the waters crash in behind us.
What of the dead Egyptians? What do they represent in our allegory of forgiveness?
Well, forgiving and being forgiven is a process of the resurrection of relationships, which means it involves death.
And every time we forgive or are forgiven, something dies within us that needed to die.
It might be pride.
It might be shame.
It might be a bad habit, or a blind spot, or a cruelty accidental or intentional. Those are your dead Egyptians washing up on the shore.
And when you see those negative qualities and imprisoning habits dying in the saving light of new forgiveness dawning in your life, you will rejoice like the Israelites did.
Jesus has told us clearly in our gospel that forgiveness is an absolutely indispensable aspect of our walk with him.
Most of us have not spent much time working out how to really go about it as a spiritual discipline, but placing ourselves in the story of the Red Sea helps us explore the process of forgiveness as a journey of faith.
We find ourselves either having been hurt or hurting others, and in that trapped and desperate place, we offer ourselves to God in faith, believing that God will fight the battle for us, God will create the path on dry land.
Praying with every step, we one day find ourselves on the far shore, the very parts of ourselves that kept us enslaved washing up dead on the sand behind us.
And then we take Miriam’s words of exuberant praise to ourselves, knowing it is God’s victory and not our own, and we lift our voices with her: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider has he thrown into the sea.”
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