As I've been thinking about the lectionary texts for this week, centered on the theme of forgiveness, I've had the beautiful Forgiveness Waltz by Jonathan Rundman dancing in my head:
It's like a dance
It's like a wheel
Less like math
Less like a deal
More like a heartbreak, beginning to heal
We can start over, we know forgiveness
This is a first ... I've never posted a sermon manuscript on my blog, but since I've joined the Rev Gals, I thought I'd share. Comments are welcome! I preached this already once this afternoon, and will again at the early service tomorrow.
See the note below about the well timed burst of sunlight that came towards the end of the sermon!
A Forgiveness Quilt
Genesis 50:15-21, Matthew 18:21-35
Back in Lent, in the depths of winter (remember that?), we spent a few weeks thinking and praying and learning about forgiveness.
Today, our Bible readings cast us back to that topic ... to that amazing thing that is at the core of our faith: forgiveness.
It is a thread that weaves all the way through the Bible. Here we have one of the earliest families in the Bible, ripping each other apart, having grudges, playing favorites, and desperately needing forgiveness.
As our church, along with the national Evangelical Lutheran Church takes on the challenge of getting to know the "Book of Faith" this year, our scriptures, through Bible study groups, personal study, and testimonies here in worship, we will find that the theme of forgiveness emerges again and again throughout our whole "Book of Faith" and it is in fact at the very center of our relationship with God. The whole reason God became flesh and came to live among us was to personify the love and forgiveness that is at the heart of God's relationship with us.
And isn't it interesting that this topic of forgiveness should show up again for us, right here at this time in our country's life, when we this week have been reflecting on the terrible events of 9/11 seven years ago?
What I would like to do today is patch together some thoughts about forgiveness from these four different areas: from the story of Joseph in Genesis, from Jesus' words about forgiveness in the Gospel, and from our story as a community which is in need of forgiveness, and which is called to forgive, and finally for each of us to reflect on our own need to forgive and be forgiven.
1. Forgiveness is about seeing the big picture:
In the reading you heard from Genesis earlier, we come into the very end of a long family saga. Remember the story of Joseph, the dreamer in the Old testament? He was the favorite of the 12 sons of his father Jacob. And his brothers hated him for it – so much so that they decided to kill him … but before they actually murdered the guy, they realized they could make some money if they sold him … so that’s what they did. Joseph was betrayed by his very own brothers and sold to be a slave. (This whole long story begins in chapter 37 of Genesis, and if you are interested in family sagas, this is a good one to sink your teeth into.) Well, if you’ve read the story or seen the musical …. You know that in spite of the brothers’ horrible acts toward Joseph, he manages to come out of all this just fine. In fact, he eventually ascends to power as the Pharaoh’s right hand man. Not bad for a shepherd boy from the country side.
And when Joseph’s brothers show up all these years later, in search of food in the midst of a famine, they realize that the brother they tried to get rid of years ago, now holds their fate in his hands. The brothers have not forgotten about their evil deeds. They know that Joseph now has the power to put them into prison or have them killed, or whatever he wants. And they are very afraid.
Joseph’s response is nothing short of incredible. Somehow he is able to let go of any righteous indignation he might have had over the way his brothers treated him so many years before. In fact, he feels their pain. He weeps with them. He does not focus on his own hurt; he steps back enough from the situation to see that his brothers are hurting, too. And then he takes another giant step backward from the situation, where he can see the really big picture. Joseph recognizes that he is not God. Even though he technically has the power to dish out whatever punishment he would like, he knows that it is God’s job to do the judging, not his. And with that knowledge, with that recognition that he is only a small part in God’s huge, gracious plan for the world, Joseph does the only thing he can do. Forgive his brothers.
Forgiveness sees the big picture. When we step back, and consider God’s work in our relationships and in our world, and when we trust that God is working for the ultimate good of everyone, we can forgive, and allow God to do the judging.
That’s the first piece of our quilt. Forgiveness sees the big picture.
The second piece of the quilt is this: True forgiveness does not keep score. In the Gospel lesson from Matthew, Peter comes to Jesus with a very interesting question: How many times must I forgive someone who has done me wrong? Haven’t we all asked that question at some point in our lives? Whether it is an annoying sibling or a spouse that you’ve dealt with for years on end, or a co-worker who just doesn’t get it, or a friend who perhaps takes advantage of your friendship … we all know what it means to have to repeatedly deal with the shortcomings of others. Our society tells us we don’t have to put up with it. Cut the toxic people out of your life! If your spouse bugs you, get a divorce! And I would not argue with that on some occasions, especially if there is any kind of abuse going on. However, in many cases, I believe we are called to do exactly what Jesus tells us to do today in this Gospel lesson: put away the score board. Stop keeping track of all the ways that someone has wronged you. When Jesus says forgive them Seventy-seven times, he is using a number of perfection. He is saying that forgiveness is unquantifiable. It lets go completely.
The advice to quit keeping score is sound. When we hang onto the wrongs and the wounds we have sustained over the course of a life time, they begin to define us. Jesus wants nothing less for us than for the goodness and love of God to define us, not the hurts that we’ve received. My father-in-law once said, when you refuse to forgive you are only poisoning your own well. It probably wasn’t original to Pastor Don Sponheim, but I always think of him when I think about this topic of forgiveness. Keep your well free of poison. Put down the scoreboard and forgive.
Now for the 3rd piece of our quilt: Hold our emotions up to the light of God. This thought is an extension of the 2nd piece. When we quit keeping score, it means we let go of the sour emotions we feel, and we hold them up to the light of God.
I read an interesting article this week, reflecting on the terrible events of 9/11 seven years ago. Brian McLaren, a pastor and author wrote: "In many ways we have run from the feelings of that day ... grief, grievance, unity, confusion, dislocation, vulnerability and solidarity. In many ways, we quickly transmuted those emotions into ones that we are more familiar with, ones we know how to "work with" -- anger, lust for revenge, blame, scape-goating, offended pride, even hate.” (read the article here)
Many times in our lives, legitimate emotions such as grief, hurt and confusion can quickly turn into anger and the desire to retaliate. McLaren's advice, to hold those emotions up to the light of God’s love, is so helpful. It’s sort of a different take on the idea of counting to 10 when you feel angry with someone. In addition to the calming effect that taking a little timeout can do, the action of holding our hurts up to the light of God offers a whole new way of realizing that God can actually do something good with the awful things that have hurt you. God does not want us to cling to our wounds. God does not want us to put all of our energy into exacting vengeance on those who have hurt us.
God simply wants us. God wants our hearts and our faith and our love.
It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? It sounds impossible, doesn’t it? That we could let go of our grievances and let God dole out the consequences? Believe me, I know! They say, the Pastor preaches the sermons she most needs to hear. Along with the rest of the human race, I am very good a holding grudges and keeping score. God’s reality is radically different. God asks us to trust. God says, “I know you are hurt. I have felt the hurts, too. I have taken them into my very own body, and died because of all the hurts in the world.” God says, “I know.” Hold those hurts up to me, Let my light shine upon them, redeem them and turn them into something new, because that is what I am all about. Making all things new. Do you believe it?
And now, finally the last piece of the quilt. It is a simple, but profound piece. It is the center of our faith, and our relationship with God. And here it is: You are forgiven. You are free. We need so much to hear those words, don’t we? We say them practically every week in worship at some point. But sometimes, it seems like we don’t really hear them.
A few years ago at my previous congregation, during the seasons of Advent and Lent one year, we decided to have a one-on-one statement of forgiveness for everyone who came up for communion. It was really quite simple, but the fact that it was one on one, and that there was touch involved made all the difference in the world. We pastors placed our hands on the head or shoulders of each person and simply stated, “In the name and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven” Something happened in that transaction. Many people wept openly. Many folks later said, I felt like a huge burden had been lifted from my shoulders.
The people had really heard the message of forgiveness. Today I invite you to wrap yourself up in this knowledge of the very fact that you are a forgiven, beloved child of God. Wear that clean garment into the world, and let God's love and forgiveness flow into your life, through you and out to those who need God's love the most.
That’s our quilt.
Forgiveness sees the big picture
Forgiveness doesn’t keep score
Hold your hurts up to the light of God
And finally, hear and KNOW that you are forgiven.
(As I was delivering this sermon on Saturday afternoon, a bright sunbeam streamed through the windows at exactly this moment!)
Now, wrap yourself in that quilt. Settle into the comfort of God’s love and grace, and pray with me.
Gracious and loving God of all forgiveness, we thank you. We praise you because we are in awe that you can look on our hearts, look past our wrongs, and love us for who we are. Thank you for the healing balm of your forgiveness in our lives. Help us, Lord. Help us to step back, and to see what you see. Help us to let go of our hurts, rather than letting them define us. Instead we ask that you would define us by you power and love and grace. Give us strength and courage to forgive as you have forgiven, so that we may live lives that bring glory to you. In your precious son Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.