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Welcomed Home

(a sermon for March 31, 2019, the 4th Sunday in Lent, based on Luke 15:1-32)

Tell me the truth now; when you heard this morning’s scripture reading, didn’t you think to yourselves, Oh, I know this story; I know where this is headed!

Actually, I’d be really surprised if you didn’t have that thought; after all, not only is it safe to say that this story of “The Prodigal Son” is among the most beloved of Jesus’ parables, quite honestly it’s probably logged more pulpit time than nearly anything else in the gospels!

I know I’ve preached on this passage several times over the years and no doubt you’ve heard it more times than that; and from every possible perspective, from that of the rebellious younger son who runs off and squanders his father’s money only to end up feeding pigs in a far off land, to the elder “good” son who stayed home to run the family farm; and of course, from the point of view of the waiting father who welcomes his once-presumed-dead prodigal son home with great rejoicing!

It is a wonderful parable about sin and redemption, grace and joy and our very human tendency to stubbornly refuse those things!  Which is wonderful; the trouble is, however, this is one of those biblical stories so familiar to our ears that it’s pretty much become like one of Aesop’s Fables, in which we can skip right ahead to the moral; which in the case of this story would be, “No matter how badly you have messed up in your life, pick yourself up, wipe the pig slop off your clothes (!) and go home; because there’s love and forgiveness waiting for you there, and once you’ve been welcomed home you can start over where you left off…

…oh, and if you happen to be the older son in this parable… stop your pouting, and go to the party already!”

That would be the moral of the story as we’ve always known it.  Not that this is wrong, mind you; it’s just not wholly what Jesus was getting at when he told the story!  You see, one of the problems with the over-familiarity we have with stories like this one is that they’ve lost, shall we say, their “shock and awe” value! When Jesus told this parable, he intended it to be surprising, shocking, even in a way offensive to the ears hearing it; not as the warm and fuzzy bit of self-help advice that we so often glean from it.  And the key to understanding that comes in knowing that Jesus offered up these parables not so much for the benefit of the inner circle of his followers and well-wishers, nor were they even directed primarily to the crowds of the curious that surrounded them, but rather they were for “powers that be;” that is, the Pharisees and scribes who were, as Luke succinctly puts it, “grumbling,” and complaining that Jesus was spending altogether too much time in the company of sinners and lowlifes.

Actually, in this instance, Jesus tells three parables which when told together culminate in that story of the prodigal son.  The first is about a lost sheep, or more accurately, about the shepherd so passionate about finding that missing member of the flock that he’ll leave the other 99 behind while he beats the bushes in the search.  And, wouldn’t you do that?  Oh, and while I’m on the subject, Jesus goes on to say, who among you, if you lost a coin – even if was only one coin out of ten – isn’t it true that you’d fairly well tear the house apart trying to find that one single coin?  And once you’ve found it – the sheep or the coin, don’t you just want just call all your neighbors and friends to celebrate that that which was lost is now found!

So… given all that, how about that rebellious younger son?  I mean, yes, he essentially tells his father to drop dead – whatever I’m getting in the inheritance, give it to me now because, Pop, I am out of here (!) – but tell the truth, which one of you wouldn’t do that for your son, to give everything you ever had and worked for to this obnoxious, ungrateful rebel kid of yours?  And then, once he’s left and he’s wasted all your money on parties and gambling and women, and then comes home looking like “the wreck of the Hesperus” and smelling of a pigsty, who among you wouldn’t welcome him back home with a hug and a kiss, not to mention the biggest homecoming celebration anybody’s ever seen?  Who among you wouldn’t do that?

Cut to the faces of the scribes and Pharisees, and of course, their scowls say it all:  No… nobody would do that…ever!

I mean, lost sheep and missing coins, that’s one thing; but feasts and fatted calves for lazy, irresponsible prodigals, that’s just crazy talk!  Actions have consequences, Jesus, and bad behavior results in punishment, that’s just the way it is; it’s what our sacred law says and that’s how we’ve always matters such as this, so why would you even suggest such a thing, Jesus!

And that’s when Jesus lets the shock give way to awe:  oh… excuse me, did you think I was talking about your behavior?  These aren’t stories about what you do; these are stories about what God does, about how God behaves.  Don’t you get it?  God is the seeking shepherd who will sacrifice nearly everything in order to bring the lost one home; God is that woman who is relentless in her search for one little lost coin amongst many.

And yes, God is that waiting father, who when he sees his son “while he was still far off,” doesn’t even consider what’s gone on in the past; just that his beloved son who he believed to be dead and gone from his life forever was home! And so he ran – of course, he ran (!) – he literally sprinted across that field to embrace him and welcome him and celebrate his return.  Because “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine persons who need no repentance.”

Or to put it another way, forgiveness is ours to receive and that forgiveness comes from God.

Last week, you’ll remember that we talked a lot about the importance of and need for repentance: that crucial opportunity that you and I have to change and turn around and do what needs to be done to bear fruit before God; and the need for and the receiving of forgiveness is all wrapped up in that.  But that gives rise to a question, one that is very much a part of this parable and, for that matter, one that’s been debated across the ages: what comes first, the repentance or the forgiveness?  Asked another way, in order to be forgiven do we first need to come clean for all your sins and start a new life, or is the new life the result of being forgiven?  Truth is, we can make a case for both points of view in this story.  Quite honestly, our human attitude – not to mention the way we do confession in the church – it tends to side with the idea that repentance is required for forgiveness.  But that’s what makes the story that Jesus is telling about this sinful, “prodigal” son so radical.

I love what the late author and Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon wrote about this: he maintained that even when the younger son “[comes] to himself” there in the pigsty, there is no real repentance.  “This is just one more dumb plan for his life,” he said.  Yes, he does confess the sin. “That’s true.  He got that one right.  ‘And I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’ Score two.  He gets that one right” too.  But then he gets it dead wrong:  he starts to negotiate; he tries to rationalize out what his best bargaining points are. Maybe I can work as a hired hand, or whatever; honestly, this is not unlike a kid coming to confess his or her transgression and then adding, well, at least I’m being honest about this so that maybe it’ll reduce my time of being grounded?

Ultimately, wrote Capon, “this is not a real repentance; it’s just a plan for a life.  [But] what it is, is enough to get him started going home, and consequently, when he goes home, what happens next is an absolutely fascinating kind of thing.”

It’s God.  God is what happens!  Did you notice in this story that the father never actually says anything to the son?  There’s no effort to extract a confession from him, no “what have you got to say for yourself, young man?”  There’s just this loving embrace and the kiss, this incredibly emotional welcome home.  It’s only after all this that the son manages to get the confession out of his mouth; and even then the father’s already busy calling the servants to get this party started!

It’s amazing, isn’t it?  The scribes and the Pharisees, and yes, even you and I, we tend to think that in order to receive the forgiveness and restoration we’ve been seeking we’ve got to do everything properly and in good order; but here’s God who just up and forgives, not because all the dots have been connected but simply out of love!  And it’s all because of this relentless desire of God that his children should be welcomed home; that’s the source of this amazing and unending joy “in the presence of angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

And don’t misunderstand here, the prodigal does repent; it’s just that as Jesus tells the story, the real confession and the true repentance comes about in celebration of the forgiveness that he got for nothing!  None of us, you see, can earn forgiveness;  there was nothing that the prodigal son received in his homecoming that he actually deserved.  For all practical purposes, he was indeed dead; he had ceased to be his father’s son.  And yet in his father’s arms he rises from the dead and he’s able to take his place again at his father’s side.

And yes, I totally get the anger and frustration of the older son – don’t you?  I mean, doggone it, he was the “good” son!  He’s done everything right, and we can understand how he isn’t about to sit down at the same table with what Barbara Brown Taylor has beautifully described as this “self-centered, pig-loving, sin-sick brother who has cost his family so much grief.”  sThe older son represents every one of us who have strived to do the right thing and follow all the rules and yet feel like we’ve never gotten the credit we deserve for doing so. It’s a telling tale that even when the father makes his case for forgiveness, we’re never told whether or not the “good son” ever buys his father’s argument.  And we do understand that kind of reluctance; for just like the older son, we do like to know who’s right and who’s wrong, and it does feel kind of good if you’re the one vindicated in the process!

But at the end of the day, you see, it’s not about what we do.  Yes, it is good that we’re living the life of faith as we should, great that we’re “walking the walk” more than merely “talking the talk.” But ultimately, it’s what God does that matters. And here’s the thing: this old, familiar story serves as a fresh reminder to all of us that what God is doing in Jesus Christ, what’s soon to happen on the cross – indeed, what’s already happened on the cross – is all about God’s utterly indefatigable determination to welcome each and every one of us home from wherever we have been, no matter how far off.

There is deep within each and every one of us a want, a need, a deep yearning for home.  It might be found in a physical structure, it could be with a family or a circle of friends, and it so often finds its expression in our gathering together as the people of God in this sacred place… a place, a people, a life where we feel truly welcomed home.  Well, the very good news is that God wants to welcome us home… the question is, what will we do about it?

To quote Barbara Brown Taylor again, while all this is going on with the father and the older son, “there is a banquet going on.  You can hear the music and the dancing even out in the yard, and there is plenty left to eat.  Your father won’t make you go in the house.  He’ll just stand in the yard with you to protect you, the same way he protected your brother.”

But, here’s the thing you need to remember: he does want you to come to the party and to come as you are! This is a true celebration; it is a gift to be forgiven and to be welcomed home.  All you need to do is say yes… accept the gift that’s offered you and come inside!  And when you do, if you do, then nothing’s ever going to be the same; life… new life is yours.

So come on in, because the celebration is on…

… and thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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And When You Pray: Debts or Trespasses?

(a sermon for July 16, 2017, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost; fifth in a series, based on Psalm 32, Mark 11:20-25 and Matthew 6:9-15)

It’s just a little scene that, pastorally speaking, has repeated itself time and time again over the years.

Maybe it’s at a funeral, sometimes at a wedding where I’m the officiant; or for that matter, it could be a regular service of worship, particularly one where there are people present from different churches or faith traditions.  But it’s always the same thing:  everything’s going along just fine, and then you start to pray the Lord’s Prayer and everyone along with you; and it continues to be fine… at least until you get to that one line, that piece of the prayer that we’re looking at this morning:  “And forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors.”  For it is at this moment that even the most spiritually unified of congregations will become strangely disoriented; hesitating, stumbling and looking up from their prayerfulness, suddenly unsure of what they’re supposed to say next:  is it “debts” or “trespasses?”

This may seem like a small matter, and in the greater scheme of things, I suppose that it is; however, I also have to say that I’ve seen more than a few times of prayer disrupted, if not unraveled, by the lack of a shared and appropriate translation!  I mean, which is it:  are we to “forgive our debtors,” or “forgive those who trespass against us,” which not only sounds and feels different to say, but is also a bit longer; which matters, especially if you’re in a “mixed group,” so to speak.  I remember once leading a graveside service where I prayed, as I’m familiar, using “debts and debtors” but those who were gathered prayed as they were familiar, saying “trespasses;” which is fine and wholly appropriate, except that when I paused just a moment to let them say, “…as we forgive those who trespass against us,” their voices quickly faded away to nothing (!) and they literally looked up to me for guidance, as though when I stopped speaking, that meant they were supposed to stop, too (or at least until the moment I started again with, “And lead us into temptation…”)!

Now, this actually speaks to something that we’ve been referencing throughout this sermon series: the danger of our letting such an important part of our worship as the Lord’s Prayer become little more than something we say out of habit; or more to the point, the tendency we have of praying these petitions unto the Lord without really understanding what it is we’re actually asking!  So maybe it is a valid question after all, this matter of “debts” versus “trespasses,” especially when it comes down to that which is at the center of this part of the prayer that Jesus has given us: our request for and our need of… forgiveness.

And the thing about it is, at least where the question of “debts or trespasses” is concerned, scripture doesn’t really give us a definitive answer.  Matthew’s gospel, from which we read this morning, very clearly refers to debt, which then, as now, suggests a financial indebtedness; and that’s not by accident.  For the Jews of Jesus’ time, you see, financial indebtedness was akin to the worst kind of oppression and slavery; there was no greater crime, so to speak, than to have failed to pay back what they owed And so to pray, “Forgive us our debts” was to acknowledge that one’s unrighteousness and sin was the debt incurred to a Holy God; in other words, every time we violate the laws, the principles and the will of God in thought, word and deed we are creating for ourselves a mountain range of moral debt unto the Almighty!

Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, on the other hand, is a bit more to the point: “…forgive us our sins” (11:4) is how it’s translated there.  And here’s a fun fact; trespasses?  That particular word isn’t really part of the Lord’s Prayer at all (though it’s a word that does turn up elsewhere, and in fact, as part of our readings today): our use of “trespasses” in the Lord’s Prayer itself dates back to William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible into English in 1525!  But regardless of the translation, the meaning ends up exactly the same:  we are each and all of us debtors… sinners… trespassers; for we have broken God’s loving laws time and time again.  And when we come to this point in Jesus’ prayer of asking God to “forgive us our debts” (or our trespasses, or our sin) we are both confessing this to be true about ourselves, and asking that somehow, someway by his grace and love God might forgive us that huge mountain of debt we’ve built up.

I’m reminded here of an old colleague and friend of mine from my seminary days who in a class one day confessed to us that perhaps the hardest thing he ever had to do as a newly minted student pastor and preacher at this little church in Maine was to stand in the pulpit and look into the eyes of that beautiful, wonderful elderly lady in the third pew with the kind and gentle soul – pillar of the church, dontcha know (!) – and, holding fast to the biblical truth of our faith, to say to her and everyone else in that congregation, “You are a sinner .”   Now, in this particular tradition of faith, we’re not exactly “hellfire and brimstone” in our approach to such things; but I have to say that this is a truth that haunts me as well, and nowhere more so than when I look in the mirror.  This is the sad truth of our existence, friends: we are all sinners; by our unrighteousness we are so deeply indebted to the Holy God that there is never any hope at all of paying off that indebtedness n our own.

And it would seem hopeless, except that there is good news; and that good news is that ours is a God who desires mercy more than judgment, and who will be faithful, just and above all, forgiving to those who would acknowledge their sin, who, in the words of the Psalmist, “will confess [their] transgressions to the LORD,” and thus have their sins be covered.  As The Message translates it, “Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be – you get a fresh start, your slate’s wiped clean. Count yourself lucky – [for] God holds nothing against you and you’re holding nothing back from him.”  This is true forgiveness and a gift of true grace, and all of it begins, simply and profoundly enough, by our coming humbly to God and saying from the heart, “forgive us our debts…”

However, all this said, there is a catch… well, not so much of a catch as an understanding.  And it comes in the other half of this particular petition of prayer:  “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…” “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  It’s one little word that makes all the difference – “as” – and in the words of Charles Williams, “No word in English carries a greater possibility of terror than the little word ‘as’ in that clause.”

Yes, it is true that we are all sinners; but it is equally true that we are all sinned against; we are not just the perpetrators of sin, we are the victims of sin; we have been hurt and sinned against, betrayed, abandoned and made to feel far less than what we are.  And so as such, then, we not only are debtors, we have debtors as well.  And the question is – the question always is – what do we do about that?  What kind of attitude are we to have toward all these debtors in our lives?  We may well struggle with our answer to that, but make no mistake, God’s answer is clear, and it’s right there in our prayer:  “…forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

There is a correlation, you see, between the way you and I treat our debtors and the way God treats debtors like you and me.  Since we’ve been including Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday through the weeks of this sermon series, I’m sure by now you’ve noticed that as Jesus comes to the end of this teaching on how we should pray, there is something of a caveat:  “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  It’s also there in our text from Mark, in which Jesus reminds Peter and the other disciples that the power of prayer is such that even mountains can be “taken up and thrown into the sea,” but then adds, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”

And for any of us who would be looking for loopholes where this is concerned, rest assured that this same principle is confirmed throughout scripture. The measure of mercy that we extends to others will be the measure God extends to us; or to put it another way, no one can truly love God and be un-forgiving to a brother or a sister. Are we to take this to mean that our forgiveness from God is earned solely on the basis of how we forgive other people?  No; remember that our forgiveness is a gift of grace; but, to quote pastor and blogger Ken Baker, “If we choose to hoard the forgiveness granted to us by failing to forgive others, not only do we disobey the Lord’s teaching, but also we miss the full benefit of forgiveness, [for] God’s purpose in forgiving us is that we might be reconciled to him and to each other.”

To be forgiven so that we might forgive; in the end, you see, it’s all part of the same gift.  Divine forgiveness strengthens and empowers us to share mercy that would otherwise be beyond our ability; forgiving others their “trespasses against us” is what brings us into a closer relationship with the one who fills our lives with deeper purpose and a fuller love.  This is central to everything we know to be true about our faith; and it’s been made real in the life, death and resurrection of our Savior Jesus:  we forgive “as” we have been forgiven… friends, for us to neglect one part of that equation cannot help but diminish the other!

And so when we pray this prayer of our Savior, this is what we say: “forgive us our debts (or trespasses) as we forgive our debtors (or those who trespass against us).”

I trust that each one of us in this room today can easily claim the blessing of forgiveness for ourselves; but I ask you this morning, beloved: who is it right now that we need to forgive?  Who are those who right at this moment stand amongst our debtors? Maybe it started as just a small thing; a minor slight, a misspoken word or hurt feeling; but now here’s someone to whom you are estranged.  Who has trespassed against you? Perhaps the one you thought you could trust and with whom you risked a relationship, but who ended up breaking a confidence or who betrayed you in a way that you feel is irreparable?  Maybe it was the one who took advantage of your good nature or your generosity and left you feeling empty and used?  Or could be it was someone who withheld from you the affection or the caring or the kind of blessing you so desperately needed at some given time of your life, or even now?    Or maybe it’s that ever growing mountain of offenses, either real or perceived… but which cumulatively has begun to tear you apart from the inside out, and which has ever so slowly but surely changed you and put a wedge in the center of your relationship with God…

Whoever it is, whatever it might be, it might be good for you to remember today that there is great power in forgiveness; like love itself, forgiveness has the power to move mountains… and us, as well.

Forgive us our debts, O God, as we forgive our debtors.

And let our thanks always be unto you, O God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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I Love to Tell the Story: The Unforgiving Servant

forgiveness(a sermon for August 31, 2014, the 12th Sunday after Pentecost; third in a series, based on Matthew 18:21-35)

I ask you, are there any more difficult words for us to speak than “I forgive you?”

I have to confess that whenever I approach a biblical text like the one we’ve shared this morning I am frequently overwhelmed by its utter enormity in the face of reality.  By that, I mean that it is one thing for us to hear Jesus’ teaching that if a brother or sister sins against us we are to forgive that person “not seven times, but… seventy-seven times”  (or seventy times seven,” depending on the translation!); it is quite another for us to actually put that teaching into practice!  I think, for instance, of the woman who has suffered years’ worth of physical and emotional abuse at the hand of their spouse or partner; is she literally expected to “forgive and forget?”  Or the parents and families of children who have been abducted and have gone through things no child should have to endure: in all honesty, friends, as a parent there’s a very big part of me that wonders if forgiveness in such situations is even possible!  And yet, if we are to take Jesus at his word in our reading this morning, not only are we to forgive those who sin against us, we are to do so without hesitation, and without limit!

It’s one of the cornerstones of the Christian message, friends, but I’m here to tell you this morning that it’s way too big for me!  I can’t always hold on to it the way I should; more often than not I struggle to rise to the challenge of it.  But, then… I suspect that I’m not alone in that, am I?

I mean, we don’t even have to think in terms of such extreme scenarios to feel the enormity of what Jesus is asking: all most of us have to do is consider all those sins of thoughtlessness, verbal cruelty and an uncaring spirit that have been done against us; the “little” slights and offenses that in and of themselves don’t seem like all that much, but cumulatively have a way of wreaking havoc on relationships; creating conflict that festers far too long and much too deeply, often to the point of eating us alive!  Think for a moment of the worst thing that someone has ever said to you or done to you – for that matter, not even the worst thing (!) – think of someone just recently who has really hurt you by something they’ve said or done, and then imagine saying to that person, “I forgive you,” and what’s more, meaning it; having it come, as the gospel puts it, “from your heart.”  Think of that, and then you begin to get some sense of the enormity of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness.  The fact is, this is one of those passages of scripture that tends to weighs a ton upon our shoulders, because it has a way of exposing our weakness that we can’t avoid!

That’s what’s at the heart of the admittedly difficult parable that we’re looking at this morning: the deceptively simple story of a man who is forgiven a huge debt that he owes a king (10,000 talents, we’re told, a huge amount even by today’s standards), and yet refuses to show mercy to a fellow servant who owes him, by comparison, a paltry sum; an act for which, in the end, he’s punished, thrown in debtor’s prison and “handed over to be tortured” until every denarii of the formerly forgiven debt is paid off.  “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you,” Jesus says to them, “if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Now granted, this is a story with a very clear moral: that those of us who have been forgiven ought to forgive; that forgiving “seventy-times-seven” is not merely a suggestion, but an imperative; and that there are consequences for a lack of mercy.  But what I would suggest to you today that there’s more to the parable than simply that.  Because remember that as he so often does, Jesus uses this story to make a point about the Kingdom of God; and in this case, the kingdom is to be compared to this extraordinarily forgiving king who had mercy on his slave who had run up such a debt!  So what we really have in this story is this remarkable evocation of the utter grandeur of God’s incredible and limitless forgiveness; and we end up seeing this forgiveness in comparison to our own, which as it turns out, is far, far less than that of God!

In other words, this is not a story that portrays you and me in the greatest of light!  Like Peter, we might well be interested in knowing what we’re required to do where forgiving others is concerned (“How often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”); how many times we need to be magnanimous about things before we can then legitimately hold on to our well-deserved grudge. But here comes Jesus, who not only raises the seven acts of forgiveness to 77 (and quite possibly 490!), then who goes on to talk about a king, of all people who easily forgives the debt of a slave on a scale that we can’t even begin to comprehend!

But that’s the point, you see; for this is a story about a God who is greater than our comprehension… and more forgiving than we deserve.  For though we’ve run up this incredible debt of sin; though the conflict and separation that exists between us and God so often just seems to fester and worsen by “the devices and desires of our own hearts,” God still forgives; and does so again, and again, and again, easily and joyfully erasing the debt we’ve accumulated and reconciling us to himself.

It all comes down to God’s forgiving heart; God’s relentless determination to make us his own and to bring us all into the circle of his divine purpose.  Bottom line is that we all stand in the need of forgiveness; and it is only by grace, manifest in divine forgiveness and love, that we are set free from the sheer weight of the moral debt that we owe God.  But here’s the irony of it, friends; all those things that are seemingly impossible for us to forgive are in the end forgivable offense in light of what God has already forgiven us!  What this parable teaches us is that just as love given can be the only true response to love received, the only way that we can adequately answer to God’s forgiving heart is to rise to that challenge of forgiving others!

And, no, it’s not easy for us; nor is it usually a one-time effort.  L. Gregory Jones, a professor of theology at Duke University, writes that forgiveness is not some “isolated, occasional heroic act, but rather [it’s] a way of life, a constant practice of Christians.”  Its central goal is “not to get over guilt; it is to reconcile, to restore communion with God, with one another, and with the whole creation.”  In other words, forgiveness is what brings us together.  When we truly forgive others, we are reaching out to heal brokenness.  We are doing what God has done for us, and we are participating in what God intends for us with each other.  And in that regard, it is true; forgiveness from our hearts is our mandate as Christians; and moreover, it’s what marks the beginning of new life, of changed hearts, and even a better world.

You know, to tell the truth I’ve debated as to whether to tell you this story from the pulpit, because frankly all these years later I still feel a little embarrassed about it.  But I think I will, because for me it serves as something of a parable about forgiveness and new life.  You see, years ago while I was in college (and very young and stupid), I accused a good friend of mine, a girl I worked with, of stealing something from me.  The details of what happened are unimportant except to say that my accusations were baseless, and they hurt my friend a great deal.  Incredibly stupid… but we were kids and in those days I managed to do stupid in great abundance!  In pretty short order when she’d confronted me with how much I’d hurt her, I offered up what was a heart-felt apology, we made up and that was pretty much the end of it…

…except for the better part of a decade, friends, I never forgot it.  I felt so bad about what I’d done, accusing this sweet girl about being a thief.  I mean, here I was, studying to be a minister, for crying out loud (!); what kind of a Christian does that to a friend?  And I always said that someday I was going to tell her again just how sorry I was that it had ever happened;  but, since she’d gone on with her life and I’d gone on with mine, I doubted that I’d ever get the chance.

Well, as fate would have it, a number of years later I did get the chance (she asked me to sing with her in church, believe it or not!) – so while we were rehearsing I mustered up the nerve to ask if she remembered what had happened way back when.  Now, I don’t know if she was being kind, because at first she acted as though she didn’t even know what I was talking about.  But then, as I began to remind her of the whole, horribly embarrassing story, I began to see that tiny flicker of recognition in her eyes;  and when I’d finally finished pouring my heart out, she just smiled, put her hand on my arm and said, “Michael, I forgave you for that years ago!  Why are you still thinking about it?”

Friends, I’m not kidding when I tell you that at that precise moment, it was like the weight of the world was lifted up off my shoulders and tossed away forever!  I think about it now, so many years later, and I still realize not only what an incredible, gracious gift that was, but also and especially what it says about the kingdom of God in our midst; what it says about you and me and our calling as Christians and as the church: to bring together those who are divided and conflicted and hurting under the shelter of God’s infinite and redeeming love; dwelling together in great anticipation of the promised kingdom of heaven.

I only say it because as I look out on all of you sitting in these pews every Sunday, I know that a lot of you have come here nursing grudges of every shape and size.  I know how it goes, because I’ve been there:  someone was rude to you and never apologized for it.  That so-called “friend” let you down, broke a promise or betrayed you in a way that has really damaged the friendship.  You’re mad at your spouse, or your family, or your neighbors, or your church, because somewhere along the line they slighted you, or ignored you, or insulted you, or failed to be there for you the way they said they would; and maybe they did it inadvertently, but maybe they really were being judgmental and mean!  At any rate, you’re hurt, you’re angry, you’re confused, and you honestly don’t know what you’re supposed to do about it!

Friends, believe me when I tell you that this is the stuff that “gray areas” are made of!  But it’s precisely in the midst of this kind of hurt and confusion that Jesus comes to us, urging us to forgive as God has forgiven us.  How many times do we forgive those who sin against us; seven times?  Seventy-seven?  Seventy times seven?  Might as well be seventy million, because in Christ the numbers don’t matter; it’s our way of life that does!  Beloved, forgiveness is our spiritual work: it is the music we play before God, and sometimes it’s a very hard song to sing.  But as any musician will tell you, when we keep working on the song – when we practice, practice, practice (!) – eventually we discover that beautiful melody that’s always been inside of us; that wonderful song of love and mercy that God intended for us to sing all along.

So might we learn to sing – and forgive – ever and always from the heart.

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2014 in Jesus, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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