“I grew up in the stickball streets of New York City,” writes Edwin Friedman in his book, A Failure of Nerve[i],
where car fenders served as the bases we touched as we ran by and trees were something that got in the way of a line drive. It was not until several decades later, as I was clearing saplings to make room for my own children’s suburban playground, that I learned the truth about trees.
[i] Edwin H. Friedman. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (Seabury Books, 2007).
The first one, a skinny twelve-foot dogwood, came out so easily. All I had to do, it seemed, was bend it back and forth and watch it pull itself out of the ground by its own roots. Dogwoods rarely live more than a century. The second, however, hardly half that size, was a beech. To my shock, no amount of bending seemed to work. Finally I began to dig around its base, found its nourishing filigree network below the surface, and then to my surprise located its tap root, almost as thick as the trunk, which would not have surrendered to any force I exerted up above. Beeches can easily live six centuries or more, defying all manner of storms. The next tree was an oak, barely one or two [years] old, maybe a foot above the ground. “This one will be the easiest,” I thought, as I reached down with both hands to yank it from the soil. I lost the tug of war completely. The well-known “sturdiness” of the oak begins at the beginning.
What made such a deep impression on this city-slicker that autumn afternoon was that the strength and fruitfulness that trees exhibit above the ground is connected in the most direct and natural manner to the part of the tree we rarely see.
We can imagine a number of lessons to be drawn here. Friedman looks to persistence of form as one of them: He explains further: “the connection between generations of living things is more like an infinitely long collapsing telescope in which each generation to some extent overlaps the next.” You and I might say it another way: the nature of our connections in the present can have much more to do with what has been transmitted for many generations than it might with the logic of any current relationship. It might also be true that the “culture” we adopt now has much to do with the shape of our future. Our forms and practices, our ways of being and acting affect not only our five year plan, but our five hundred year plan.
Friedman understood that the presence of the past is evident in the functioning of families, organizations, sports teams, entire nations, and it is certainly present in our churches. The presence of the past can be seen in the ability of families and communities to survive crisis and in their inability to change.
Some are more like dogwoods, some like beech trees, and others like sturdy oak. And I suspect one of the current questions being put to the church as a whole, and to individual congregations like ours, is whether we are connected to the root structure that we need to survive this moment in history when the recent past is in question, and the future depends less on reputation, and more on our root structure, on the validity of our life together, of the sustainability of our practices and the values on which we base them.
In other words, it has to do with a persistence of form. And the texts for today, and in fact for these last few weeks all seem to understand that a practice of forgiveness is a deep taproot of this Jewish then Christian Way that has given it stability and sustainability for thousands of years.
In Genesis, Joseph is presented with the opportunity to take revenge on these brothers who have done such harm to him, yet he chooses forgiveness understanding that the only future of any worth is found in this assertion that, if anything, God is a God of mercy.
The Roman church finds itself in the midst of cultural, economic, emotional, and religious revolution. Everything is changing. People are being accused and attacked. They are frightened and defensive. The future is uncertain. There is chaos without and within, and this underground movement in first century Rome finds itself gathered together with little in common. Jews and Gentiles together, they can’t even agree on what is right to eat or what day is right for worship. One’s act of honor is another’s offense.
How do you forgive when you can’t even agree that an offense has occurred? And yet, for Paul, the practice of forgiveness is a deep taproot reaching to the deep reservoir of our common baptism that holds the community in place as an uncertain storm rages around it. So the Romans passage ends:
10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.[i]
Jesus’s parable is perhaps the starkest example of the taproot strength of God’s mercy that shapes the character of our own community. The parable itself is filled with hyperbole. The debt the master forgives almost effortlessly is absurd. It is equal to a day’s wages of a 100 million laborers. The Lord in the parable is excessive in both severity and mercy; there seems to be no limit to either. And yet, how can that be?
The storyteller is employing the poetics of the impossible, rather than the prose of the probable.[ii] Like the deeply rooted reality of God it proclaims, the parable interrupts business as usual. It uproots the status quo, and calls us back to the perfect mercy of God that has the power to draw gratitude from deep within us, and has the potential to resurrect community when nothing else might.
Remember this is an answer to Peter’s question to Jesus about forgiveness and really the limits of forgiveness. It worries that perpetual forgiveness is not really a good thing for human community. If we let others walk over us without any accountability, how can we expect to get anywhere? Some kind of repentance, some change of behavior must be necessary as well.
But ultimately forgiveness is not about who I’m forgiving. It is about me. It is about you. And it is about the power of our maturity, our Christ-likeness to ultimately change our environment. Our practice of forgiveness is rooted in God’s forgiveness, in God’s perfect mercy, and its power to transform.
There is little room here for immaturity as the Lord’s response to the forgiven servant who turns around and refuses to forgive in kind makes clear. We are not gathered and shaped around the lowest common denominator or the most immature members. We do not lose ourselves or our convictions in the midst of conflict. We do not sacrifice those things that we hold most central to who we are. In fact, just the opposite. It is the ability to remain connected to one another by forgiving that creates the possibility for something new. People who are cut off from one another do not heal. It is the type of maturity that allows for the elimination of blame from the equation that becomes our way to health.
Maturity is the willingness to take responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny because ultimate accountability is to God who is merciful. It is tied to this persistence of form.
Nelson Mandela was thrown into the notorious Robben Island prison in South Africa and imprisoned for 27 years of his adult life—simply for imagining and then demanding his freedom and the freedom of his people in an age of apartheid. Mandela went to jail believing in violence. But when he finally walked to freedom he was a changed man, with such a total devotion to non-violence that he captured the heart of not only his own nation, but a world-wide movement.
He said that as he was walking out, he took a look at the prison towers and realized that if he did not forgive he would be in prison for the rest of his life. Mandela had to put to death his anger. And in the hard act of forgiving, Mandela found himself free. And in forgiving, he found a way for people who had been natural enemies to find peace.
It is no less true for us who are rooted to this merciful God. We are a people who forgive, even if it takes 77 times to get it right. This is our way to peace. Thanks be to God.