Sunday, September 4, 2011

Forgiveness the 78th Time

I rarely speak of my own queerness from the pulpit, knowing that my words cause pain and division within my tiny congregation. Besides that, we are told often that our deeply personal lives do not belong in a sermon. Nevertheless, I spoke deeply personally today, and wept through half of it. There is power in sharing grief with one's community.

Sermon, Sunday, September 3, 2011
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings: 

by Stefani Dutey

I linger in the past
not concerned for the future
and not awake in my present

My actions are fast
no thought in consequences
nor what happens next

This grudge consumes me
a bitter taste for you
but my vengeance is pleasure

to hear your painful shrieks
from all that i'll do
will just get better and better

Lock your door
that won't keep me away
I'll break in within seconds

no creak in the floor
as i'm closer to play
with a flawless entrance

.. you can't escape this..

I have been thinking about forgiveness this week. I’ve been thinking that there’s not much more difficult than the concept of forgiveness. The idea of unlimited forgiveness turns my stomach, quite frankly. It’s tough to get my mind around it. “How many times must I forgive?” asks Peter. And Jesus tells him not just seven, but seventy-seven. It is, quite frankly, no wonder that Jesus was crucified.

I don’t know about you, but I have a list of grievances longer than the D&R canal, and some days it flows into a raging river wider and deeper than the Delaware. Let me share with you an email I received this week as an illustration. I have removed the gentleman’s name, but otherwise left his words intact. I have never met this man, but it seems he has spent some time reading my blog.

The subject line read "Anathema"
You are a disgrace to the faith. You are an unrepentant sinner in the eyes of God and He does not forgive the unrepentant. If you are a Presbyterian leave the denomination and take your lack of obedience somewhere else. It is queers like you who have denigrated this denomination and have said: "I will rather have half of a dead baby than none of a live and healthy one."

You personally are a disgrace. And you and your ilk have caused me to be ashamed of my denomination.

With no respect for you,
Retired PC(USA)
I do not know this man, nor do I know precisely which of my words or actions offended him so greatly. He lives and works far from me. But we are connected by our shared ordination and by these words he chose to send to me.

Forgiveness is hard.

Perhaps he understood himself to be like Ezekiel--designated as a watchperson for this generation, chosen by God to speak words of warning to the wicked ones who will surely perish. If so, then he must have felt he had no choice--the Lord's words to Ezekiel were that he must speak words of warning or he would perish as well. If one is on a mission from God, what can be allowed to get in the way? Surely not the emotional health of the wicked ones...

But for all of us who would speak prophetically, caution is advised. For we are given a complex, interlocking set of Scriptures, and not all of it reads as Ezekiel. We are left also with the Matthew text, which warns against being a stumbling block. And most certainly that email was a stumbling block for me this week.

These last two weeks have been difficult: moving, a hurricane, an earthquake, hauling garbage, hauling children, a sliced open finger, a busted toe, and the crushing realization that I am failing in my work as a mother, a pastor, a student, and a spiritual malaise that comes from doing too many things not very well. I have felt a bit like the villainess, Cassandra, from Dr. Who:

From BBC News

Receiving this email felt like a kick in the gut, when I was already laying half dead in the road.

How many times must we forgive? Not seven. Seventy-seven. Well how about the 78th time? Do I have to forgive then? I have heard these kinds of words in the church about queer folk for years. Do I have to forgive every one of you that utters them seventy-seven times? How about the 78th time? Must I?

How many wrongs make a right? The email I composed in my head would surely have been a stumbling block to the man who wrote me. I could easily make the case that *I* am Ezekiel. How many times do I have to forgive if I am Ezekiel? How many times if I am right? Seventy-seven? How about the 78th time? Must I really?

Does forgiveness mean we must tolerate abuse? Let someone hit us over and over, either verbally or physically? Surely not. Forgiveness and reconciliation do not mean acting the doormat. Failing to set boundaries *is* a stumbling block for those who perpetrate violence. Reconciliation means the restoration of right relationship--sometimes the right relationship is no relationship, or a limited relationship. But take care in how you cut off those relationships!

If your arm offends you, cut it off. If your eye offends you, pluck it out. Better that you should have no limbs or only one eye than be thrown in the fires of hell. If a person offends you, cut them off. If they will not repent their wicked ways, put them out. Better that community should be broken than be thrown in the fires of hell. Jesus said to do it. God told Ezekiel he should say it. It's in there--right there in the scripture. Cut it off, pluck it out, say those harsh words.

But, pause a moment. What if you are cutting off and plucking out one of the little children Jesus laid in front of you? What if in your anathema moment you become the stumbling block? Caution, friend. Amputation is permanent and you can't take it back. Christ calls out for forgiveness, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. The 78th too? Must we, really?

Look again at the Matthew scripture: "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." The pastor who wrote me and I, we obviously agree on very little. But when he wrote to me, he gathered us together in Christ's name, and therefore Christ is present. Christ there among us, present with these nasty words sent across cyberspace. This thought tempered my reaction. Seventy-seven. Probably even the 78th. Forgiveness. How unpleasant it is to be in communion with those who cause us pain! How deeply I resent the thought of offering forgiveness for these words. How deeply he might resent being offered forgiveness for words he felt were right. How often must I do this? How long, O Lord? Seventy-seven. 78. 79. It'll be 80 by next week.

My conflicted thoughts brought me to Anne Lamott, for nobody does conflicted as well as Anne Lamott. On days when it's all too much, I read Anne Lamott to remember I am not alone as a struggler in this life. Here is a portion of her essay called "Samwheel" in her book (Grace Eventually) Thoughts on Faith: (I am excerpting only a small part of the essay on this blog. Click the link to see the rest. Better yet, get this book.)
There are only six stores about Sam at seventeen that he'll allow me to tell, and this is my favorite. it's about a fight we had once that left me wondering whether anyone in history had ever been a worse parent or raised such a horrible child. It challenged my belief that there is meaning to life, and that we are children of divine intelligence and design.

Our fight was ostensibly about the car. We have an old beater that I let Sam drive whenever he wants...<seriously, go read the rest of this story>...
In the midst of their fight, Sam sneers in the way only a teenager can:
It was as if something had tripped a spring-loaded bar in me. And for the first time in our lives, I slapped him on the face.

He didn't flinch--in fact, he barely seemed to register it. He gave me a flat, lifeless look, and I knew that I was a doomed human being, and that neither of us could ever forgive me...
A bit later she sought advice from a mentor, who said:
"Let the hard feelings pass. Ask for help. Mary and Joseph had some absolutely awful moments, too. See if you can forgive each other a little, just for today. We can't forgive: that's the work of the Spirit. We're too damaged. But we can be willing. And in the meantime, try not to break his fingers."
Later she fell asleep on the couch, "still sad and angry and ashamed."
When I woke up the second time, I saw the last thing on earth I expected to see: Sam in the room with me, stretched out on the other couch...He used to nap on this same couch with his head on my legs and ask me to scratch it, and before that, he would crawl into bed beside me and kick off all the covers, and earlier still, he would sleep on my stomach and chest like a hot water bottle...Everything in the room stirred: dust and light, dander and fluff, the air--my life still in daily circulation with this guy I have been resting with for so many years.
How many times do we have to forgive? Seventy-seven? Really? What about the 78th? This is hard, painful work. How do I share table with those who believe that for me to love a woman is abomination? How do I do that without vomiting the dinner?

It is made easier when I remember that this man and I share ordination vows. It is made easier when I remember that Christ witnesses his words and mine. It is made easier when I remember that before he knew I am queer, and before I knew he had such thoughts, that we would have prayed together. But it is still hard.

Today's prayer of confession: 
Holy God, we cry out to you for forgiveness, but withhold it for others. We long to wipe the slate clean, to start fresh, to find that new beginning. Yet we hold grudges for decades. We pray that others will forgive our sins against them, but we tell others that there are no second chances. Forgive our hard hearts, our hard stances, our hard heads.


  1. And I wept as I read. I am grateful for (and awed by) your honesty and your willingness to share all of this - all of this - with all of us. Grace and peace to you, Katie, today and always.

  2. Oh, my, Katie. Please know that I admire and support you - as much for your willinngness to forgive as for any other reason (and there are many other reasons). Grace and peace to you in your struggle with yourself. Know that you are on the right track. Amen.

  3. Such moving and powerful words. True forgiveness is hard, yet it impossible. Know I support you, admire you, and walk with you. Thank you for being exactly who you are and sharing yourself so freely with ut. We are blessed.

  4. wow, Katie, just wow...

  5. last summer I lost a call I thought I wanted because the former pastor of the church organized opposition to the proposed new pastor, who happens to be a lesbian. I was bowled over by the feeling of being betrayed by a colleague, even though we had never met. Thank you for reminding me that I have to not just move past it, I have to forgive him. Which I can't do, but the Spirit can. Thank you for this word of life and truth.