Sermon for Sunday September 13
Forgiveness. The theme of our readings this Sunday is forgiveness – or coping with the inability to forgive. Ohhh, it sounds so simple, but it’s so hard to do.
Peter was really asking for it wasn’t he? “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” He might end up spending a whole day forgiving somebody! Well, he walked right into that one! Jesus answered him: “Not seven times, but I tell you, Seventy-seven times.” Well! I guess he told him! And us.
Jesus’ story of the slave whose debt was forgiven is telling, isn’t it? The forgiven slave couldn’t see himself in his fellow slave who owed him money in turn. He had no empathy for his fellow slave. He only saw as far as himself. That great source of knowledge, Wikipedia, defines empathy as “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference. The ability to place oneself in another’s position.”
But it wasn’t just his lack of empathy that landed the slave in trouble. No, it was what it led to – his inability to forgive. We don’t actually need to have empathy to forgive. But it helps to make our act of forgiveness real – a teaching moment. Directly after the lesson he had been taught by his king, this slave failed to apply the lesson he had learned to himself. He couldn’t find it within himself to forgive as he had been forgiven. He was so puffed up and self-assured from his experience with his lord, (his last minute “save!) that he couldn’t offer the gift he had received to others. No. He lashed out, giving in to his worst instincts. And he suffered for that.
God’s love is freely given. We can never hope to earn it. No bartering with God. That isn’t how God’s love works.
And now, today, consider that this is the weekend following September 11, one of the darkest days in our country’s history. Let us ask ourselves: can we even consider forgiveness of those who attacked us? It’s almost too much to comprehend. How can God ask it of us?
And yet, the harrowing possibility of being asked to forgive what we consider unforgivable leads me to ask us to consider the other side of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is healthy – literally. Forgiveness means letting go. Forgiveness is good for you! To forgive is to unburden ourselves – it removes the weight, the lingering heaviness of anger. When we are advised to forgive and forget, that’s not just empty advice. It’s useful! It’s helpful! Forgiving and forgetting allows us to cast off the weight of a painful memory that holds us back and prevents us from moving on. Forgiving is freedom.
How many years did Joseph’s brothers live in fear and regret and self-loathing, waiting for their father to die and for Joseph to carry out his revenge on them? And all for nothing. Joseph knew. Joseph knew that as painful as it had been, God had worked through everything that had happened to him – for good, for the survival of the tribe of Abraham. Even more important, he knew that judging his brothers meant that he would be taking on the role of god, a role he was never meant to have. He knew: God is God and we’re not. God didn’t want him to judge his brothers. That wasn’t his place. They had clearly judged and punished themselves. Joseph found it in himself to trust God and to forgive his brothers. The apostle Paul is pretty clear on how people can get wrapped up in rules and regulations. I have a feeling he was well-trained in the rules and regulations of the temple. Our reading from his letter to the Romans make his opinion clear. We don’t need to waste our time indulging in criticism of each other. He advises church members to welcome those whose faith is weak, but not so they can all get involved with each other in quarrels over opinions over theology – or vegetarianism, for that matter. (How like seminary!) He reminds them that God has welcomed them all.
Something else that I’ve never thought of before: Paul advises us not to be critical of a fellow church member’s servant. Good advice, I’m sure, but I doubt we’re likely to run into that problem here at Good Shepherd.
Paul acknowledges that different people are going to have different opinions about things, even down to what time of day they prefer. And that’s OK! It’s more important to get along than to establish how right we are. It’s better to be flexible. But Jesus points that it is most important, whatever we do, whenever we do it, that we do all things in honor of Jesus.
In Paul’s time, people were used to the fact that there were slaves and servants and masters – very few independent people. We’re not used to that. We’re not used to hearing that it is God’s intent that we belong to God – as if we are God’s slaves or servants. Because that is who we are. God expects each one of us to understand that we are his.
What is important is that we live as if we are not our own person, but as if we belong to God, to Jesus. For when we die, we shall all stand before Jesus as equals with each other, and as his possessions. Equals who are always and only accountable to God.
And where our accountability to God serves us best is in our relationship with God, because he cares for us and loves us. When we fall short he is able and willing to forgive us. But most important, he is able and willing to help us forgive ourselves. And sometimes, that is the most difficult thing, isn’t it?
How do we forgive ourselves? By trusting in Jesus Christ to grant us forgiveness and hope and to help us, even in the face of our guilt, to help us move on. If you have ever felt truly and painfully guilty about something, you know how important this is. To be able to move on. To face your guilt and move beyond it, to face yourself and learn from whatever you have done and move on to a better version of yourself, to the new and improved you! That cannot happen without honestly forgiving ourselves.
To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.
Lewis B. Smedes, author and theologian in the reform tradition