Sunday, September 4, 2011

Pentecost 12-A: The Forgiveness Factor

En el nombre del Dios, Padre, Hijo y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

High on the list of things I love about our Prayer Book are the Collects. In today’s Collect we heard: “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts…” because when we rely on our own strength we stand alone, but God, whose love and faithfulness are steadfast, promises to be with us when we remember, proclaim, and exercize God’s mercy.

When the Israelites heeded Ezekiel’s warning to repent of their sin and return to God, they sank into despair, “Our sins weigh heavy upon us [they said] …how then can we live?” Their sins weighed heavy on them, as one commentator put it, because they did not remember God’s mercy, and so they feared “being at the mercy of God.”

But, as Ezekiel reminded the Israelites, God takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked” but desires “that the wicked turn from their ways and live…” And God will wait patiently, providing us time and room to repent, to turn from our ways.

Jewish theologian, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, said: “There is always a dimension of God’s pervading affection where compassion prevails over justice, where mercy is a perpetual possibility.” Or as my daughter Jessica once said it: “The thing about God is the forgiveness factor.”

Grant us, O Lord, to remember your mercy as a perpetual possibility, to trust in the forgiveness factor with all our hearts…

God’s mercy is something we hope for in regard to our own sin, but do we hope for it as much for the one has sinned against us? Or do we wait, and wish, and watch for God’s punishment to fall on those who have wronged us?

What is our response to sin? What should it be? This is a particularly poignant issue as we approach the 10th anniversary of 9-11. The answer can be partially found in the video series on YouTube called: “The Forgiveness Series.” I’ve linked this on my blog: I’ll put it on our Facebook page too.

The Forgiveness Series is a documentary done in small parts interviewing first responders, individuals who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks, and regular folk on the street, and asking them about forgiveness. One of the videos in the series is about Cheryl McGuinness, whose husband was a pilot on the plane that was hijacked and flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Cheryl said she knew what her response to the evil that day had to be: she had to forgive – for herself and for her children.

Here are a few other comments from people in that video: “The first step in forgiveness is deciding you want to do it. It can take years…” “Getting even is utterly weak. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do. To rise above that takes a lot of strength…” “What usually happens is that people carry around anger in such a way that they are crippled by their own anger…” “Forgiveness is really a gift you give to yourself. You free yourself of anger and resentment…” “…[Forgiveness] doesn’t mean you condone what was done, it doesn’t mean you want that person back in your life. It simply means that you no longer carry with you this polluting force that really poisons you.”

Studies have shown that holding onto anger and resentment in our minds and in our lives, affects our bodies. “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you…like Cheryl did… with all our hearts…”

It remains a temptation, when we’ve been sinned against, to want revenge, to imagine God smiting our enemy and smiling on us as we watch them being punished for hurting us. But God’s wrath, as presented in Scripture, is always bound together with grace and mercy making space for repentance and restoration of life – for everyone.

Our wrath must be like that too.

Our beloved Episcopal Church, which is part of the world-wide Anglican Communion continues to struggle to find a way to live in communion with itself and with Anglicans throughout the world. Parts of the Anglican communion, even parts of the Episcopal Church, are using divisive terms like ‘schism’ and ‘excommunication’ and using Scripture to justify their position. In fact, this part of the Gospel of Matthew is often used to justify the excommunication of members from the body of Christ.

So let’s review Jesus’ instruction to us on how to respond to sin within the church. First, Jesus says, go to the person who sinned against you and meet with them privately. It’s possible that they don’t know they offended you or they don’t realize how offended you really were. Tell them when you’re alone so they’re not humiliated… because a humiliated person is more likely to be defensive than repentant.

If the person doesn’t listen, go back – and bring two others with you as witnesses so that you won’t be misinterpreted (this was a common practice in Jesus’ time). If that doesn’t work, take your complaint to the church. Seek the prayerful help of the whole community in restoring right relationship – because that’s the goal – restoring right relationship.

And if all else fails, Jesus says, let them be to you “as a Gentile, and a tax collector.” Now the Gentile and the tax collector were, in that culture, iconic examples of people living outside of community. That’s why this verse has so often been interpreted as biblical warrant for excommunication.

But it’s important to remember how Jesus himself treated Gentiles and tax collectors… remembering especially that the gospel we read today, is the Gospel of Matthew, who was a tax collector until Jesus called him to follow him.

So what does Jesus mean by this? If a person is outside of community, work to bring them in. If a person refuses to be reconciled, how many times do we offer it? In the verse that follows what we read today, Jesus says, “seventy times seven times” or in other words, as many times as it takes.

In some cases reconciliation is begun by our choice to forgive, to loose the sin, but accomplished by God, long after we have moved on or even died, because ultimately, reconciliation is the work of God (remember what Jesus did on the cross). Our partnership with God simply calls us to do our part – to loose the sin.

If we look at the body of Jesus’ teachings, we see Jesus calling his followers to be humble, to be welcoming to all, and to persevere beyond reason so that “everyone might come within the reach of [Christ’s] saving embrace.” St. Paul reminds us that Christians are called to live in harmony with each other to go beyond what is expected, reasonable, or even logical, in offering forgiveness and seeking reconciliation. That is, after all, what Jesus did for us.

When Jesus says, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” he is warning us, like Ezekiel warned the Israelites, that whenever we cling to sin, it will always lead to death. If we bind a sin on earth by withholding forgiveness (which means we have judged that sinner unworthy of grace) or by falling into despair (which means we have judged ourselves unworthy of grace) then that sin will continue to wield it’s negative power in our lives, leading us to despair and death – the ultimate in being lost.

But if we choose to loose any sin here on earth, it is loosed in heaven. In our Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent, (BCP, 451) after the penitent has made their confession and received absolution, the priest says, “Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and now are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Loosing sin opens the way for God’s grace to restore life. Christians are called to unbind sin by meeting it with forgiveness, to respond with love and do no wrong to one another, to overcome evil with good… over and over and over again.

This is not a call to become doormats for the wicked. It is a call to trust God with all our hearts
and to persevere in that trust beyond reason like Jesus did until every single one who is lost – is found and restored to life.

Today we will gather at our chancel and release whatever sin we are holding onto in our bodies and souls during our time of our healing prayer. Today we can loose the sin the continues to wield it’s negative power in our lives, and we can be free of it… remembering that we have already asked God to grant us the grace of trusting in God with all our hearts, trusting the ‘forgiveness factor.’

“Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts….”


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