Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We find ourselves today in the midst of a Lenten sermon series focused on the theme of “Letting Go.” We began by talking about the need for each of us to evaluate our physical and spiritual clutter, asking “What is mine to keep, Lord? Where are you inviting me to loosen my grip?” Next we talked about letting go in the sense of trusting God to be in control - a shift in perspective from the way many of us are used to thinking, that it’s all, always and forever, up to us.
This morning’s texts address the topic of letting go of wounds, or hurtful experiences.
This topic can be deeply personal. So many different dynamics could be at play that I want to steer very clear of offering one-size-fits-all comments. Instead, I’ll simply share with you three different images from the gospels today in the hope that something in the mix might prove helpful as you reflect on any wounds you hang onto that are difficult to let go.
First this text from Matthew’s gospel in which Peter asks Jesus – “Lord if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Seven being the number of completion in ancient Israel, Peter’s pretty sure he’s got his bases covered here. He’s starting to get the hang of the way this guy operates. He knows Jesus won’t think one time is enough to forgive someone – so let’s go for the gusto, pull out all the stops and suggest SEVEN times! And of course Jesus’ reply goes so much farther – not seven times, but seventy-seven times (or in some versions, seventy times seven). I suppose we could get all bogged down in whether the final answer is seventy-seven or four hundred and ninety; clearly the point is we’re going to have to forgive people a lot.
It matters that we offer forgiveness. Why? For one thing, consider the alternative – what does it do to our hearts to carry around an old injury or a grudge? Sometimes the person we hold the grudge against isn’t even aware of it, yet it continues to eat away at us, inflicting in the end far more pain than the original offense. Letting go can be a healing thing to do for ourselves, as individuals.
Notice too that Peter specifically asks the question about another church member – in other words, part of the body, part of the family. And just how long would a family survive without forgiveness? Think about the number of times over the years you’ve gotten into an argument of one kind or another with a brother or sister … a child or a parent … a spouse? How many times do we need to forgive each other to continue the relationship? The question becomes nonsensical if an actual number is expected – there is no magic number – you simply forgive your little brother, your big sister, your child or spouse as many times as are necessary to stay a family. So, too, with the church. As my grandpa, a Baptist minister, used to say: “The only problem with the Church is it’s made up of people!” While we’d like to think people will always behave kindly, lovingly, appropriately in churches, that’s not always the case. Toes stepped on and noses bent out of joint – unfortunately, they come with the territory in a church family, like they do everywhere else. How many times should we forgive? As many times as we need to forgive, to stay in relationship with one another – seven, seventy-seven, seven hundred, whatever. Letting go can be a healing thing for a community, too.
Now I will say it relieves me greatly that in Luke’s version of this same teaching of Jesus, he says, “if there is repentance, you must forgive.” Otherwise we’d be left with the sense that forgiveness needs to happen in a vacuum. How often will people annoy, offend, or hurt you? Even the people you are closest to will do it from time to time. Not always intentionally, and often they’ll apologize, and particularly if the repentance is real, it’s appropriate to forgive, as many times as necessary. Forgiveness being in these circumstances one way to let go of our hurt, to unclench our spiritual fists, as it were, and move on.
But there are wounds, and there are wounds, right? What if a blow is inflicted quite intentionally, precisely in order to injure you, and there seems not to be the slightest regret, or at least not true repentance, in the sense of changed behavior. Allow me to tread on some dangerous ground here for a minute, calling to mind a text that has been used all too irresponsibly over the years – but one which I believe has a very different meaning than what we’ve been taught.
In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” How many wives have been battered, how many children cower in fear of a cruel parent, only to think the Bible has told them not to resist, or to protect themselves? Worse yet, how many preachers over the years have taken these dangerous words and gone precisely that route – explicitly telling their congregations that such treatment at the hands of another, if not justified, is at least to be tolerated.
But here is a place where careful cross-cultural translation is critical. Certainly at first glance Jesus’ words “sound like ludicrous counsel to those living in a violent world. It sounds as if Jesus is not just standing on a mountain, but is living with his head in the clouds, as if he’s saying, ‘Just lie down and let the world run over you.’” But Tom Long urges us to take a closer look at his words. “’If someone strikes you on the right cheek,’ assuming they are right-handed, they are most likely not using their [fist or even the palm of their hand]. Think about it. Most likely they’re backhanding your right cheek...In other words they’re humiliating you.”
Walter Wink observes, “The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place. And notice Jesus’ audience. He says, “If anyone strikes you.” These are people used to being thus degraded. He is saying to them, ‘Refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.” In other words, if they’re going to hit you, don’t also let them humiliate you. Change the terms. Change your stance. Thrust forward your other cheek; in other words, position yourself so they must take you on as an equal.
Sometimes the only way to let go, to free ourselves from a cycle of hurt, is to change the terms. There are things we can control in life and things we cannot. For better or for worse, one of the things we cannot control is another person’s behavior. This is why I find Long’s interpretation of the “turn the other cheek” passage so powerful: I can’t change the fact that someone has hurt me. But what can I change, so that I won’t be hurt again, at least in that same way? Turning the other cheek, in order to preserve my dignity. You may be a bully – but I get to decide how deeply I let you hurt me. You might slap my face, but you can’t take away my worth as a child of God.
This flips completely the implications of that text for abusive relationships, doesn’t it? You may be a bully, but I still have value and worth; I am made in God’s image, I can change the terms, I can change my posture, my stance. I can also walk away.
So sometimes letting go of a hurt is a matter of forgiveness – particularly when our refusal to forgive has been as hurtful to us as to the person we can’t bring ourselves to forgive. When we’re the ones with the festering sore. At times like these, for something not to consume and control us, we need to release, forgive, and move on.
But sometimes before we can ever let go or forgive, we need to remove ourselves from the source of injury, to get ourselves out of a hurtful situation, or at the very least to change the terms, focusing on what we can control and planting our feet there. At times like these, for wounds not to consume us, we need to take decisive action.
And now to our final text –as he sends his disciples off to travel around the country Jesus says “Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet…” Did you happen to notice the contrast between the opening verses of that passage (Jesus giving the disciples power and authority over demons and diseases – that’s a serious amount of power!) and then this blunt observation - this doesn’t mean Joe Shmoe down the street is going to be impressed. What a terrific reality check Jesus offers his disciples here. Sometimes this ‘fishers of men’ thing is going to work out, sometimes it’s not. You can drive yourself crazy worrying about the times it doesn’t work. But you’re going to be far more productive if you can recognize those moments for what they are worth, shake them off, and move on. You have far too much important business to be about, to waste any time on this. Remember what you’re here for. Keep your sense of perspective and priorities. Give it your best shot, and if it doesn’t work out, so be it. I can almost hear a Taylor Swift soundtrack in the background as they knock the dust off those sandals: “The haters gonna hate, hate, hate … Shake it off!” Not every battle is worth fighting. Don’t wallow in your disappointment. Let it go…
So again letting go can mean accepting that someone is really sorry – letting go of the hurt and offering forgiveness in order to maintain the relationship.
Letting go can mean releasing yourself from the expectation that someone’s hurtful behavior will change, that genuine repentance will come. In this case, letting go could mean releasing yourself from your role as victim, taking charge and taking control – changing the terms of the relationship.
And sometimes letting go can mean just that – shaking that proverbial dust off our feet so we can move on. Not every battle is worth fighting, not every hill worth defending to the death.
So there is our trio of gospel images this morning, all of them invitations to let go of old wounds.
Image one: Seventy times seven – and more – opportunities for forgiveness within the church family, as in our own families …
Image two: Cheeks once slapped to inflict humiliation as well as pain, now turned proudly in a new direction, changing the terms of the fight …
Image three: Dust shaken off feet that simply have too many places to be, people to see, things to do, to remain stuck in one place.
Noses bent out of joint, turned cheeks, dusty feet – where do you hear your invitation to let go?
 Tom Long, “One Christian’s Voice Against the Death Penalty,” in Journal for Preachers, Lent 2006, p. 41.
 Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millenium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), pp. 99-100.