Sunday, September 17, 2017

Pentecost 15A, 2017: The gift of being forgiving

I had the privilege today of supplying at Ascension Episcopal Church in Hickory, NC. What a deeply faithful and joyful community of faith they are!

Lectionary: Exodus 14:19-31, Psalm 114 , Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

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

When I was a teenager, I was on a swim team with my younger sister. We used to practice in roped off lanes between
the docks on our lake. During one swim practice, my sister got a cramp and began to go under. When I jumped in to help her, she – like many other people who fear they are drowning – began to fight me.

I was trained as a lifeguard and she was an experienced swimmer, but the problem wasn’t about swimming. I knew my sister could die if I didn’t connect with her just then; and surprising even myself, I called out to her: “Sissy, do you trust me?”

The question caught her attention and she stopped flailing for just a moment. I used that pause in her panic to grab her into the save hold. Once in the save hold, her head was near mine, so I could speak assurances to her as we headed for shore.

In our story from Exodus God tells Moses to stretch out his hand. When I hear this I hear God saying this to Moses: Do you trust me? Will you go where I lead you, even if it’s into the sea where you might drown? I have promised to lead my people to the Promised Land, God says. Do you trust me? Take my people with you. Some are going to fight you. They’re just afraid. Hold onto them anyway.

Isn’t that the challenge facing every church community now? Within each faith community are people in various places on their spiritual journey. St. Paul refers to them as strong and weak in faith – which I think is a teeny bit judgmental, given his later advice, but…

As the early church struggled to evolve from being exclusively Jewish to being inclusively Christian, St. Paul cautions the people to refrain from passing judgment on one another, and from despising one another, reminding them that God has welcomed them all. But then, as now, people do pass judgment; and they fight, sometimes to the point of despising one another – yes, even in church! I know it’s probably never happened here, but it does happen – trust me.

Thankfully, our gospel reading addresses this issue directly. Peter asks Jesus, “if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? times?” Seven being a solid Biblical number. Jesus answers, “Not seven… but seventy-seven times.” In other words, as many times as it takes to free yourselves from the sin that interrupts your relationship.

We all sin.

Most of us talk about sin as those things we do that are wrong or harmful. That’s partly right. Theologian Karl Barth talks about sin as a state of separation – separation from God and separation from one another. It is in that state of separation that we do those things that are wrong and harmful.

So, it’s kind of like the disease versus the symptoms. We know there is a disease by the presence of the symptoms. We can treat the symptoms, but unless we cure the disease, we are not healed. That’s why Jesus brought us redemption by the forgiveness of sin, by bringing down all barriers that separate us from God and from one another.

Jesus didn’t just treat the symptoms, he cured the disease. In his most miserable moment, his most painful, humiliating moment as a human, Jesus prayed, and his prayer takes our breath away: “Father, forgive them…”

At our most miserable moments, when we are being unfairly treated, when those with power over us are acting corruptly, is this our prayer?

Years ago I visited a place in England called the Cathedral at Coventry. The city of Coventry was bombed into near oblivion during WWII and the cathedral was destroyed. When you go to the cathedral now, you will see that they didn’t clear away the rubble from the bombing. They simply built the new cathedral and attached it to the bombed out shell with a walkway.

The very first thing you see as you walk into the narthex of the new cathedral, built into the tile in the floor, are these the words: “Father forgive.” And every day they offer Noonday Prayer in the bombed out shell. They do not forget, but they do forgive.

We all sin. We all need to be forgiven. And we all need to be forgiving.

Jesus makes this very plain in the story of the wicked slave in the gospel. The slave-owner (God) forgives the slave who begs for mercy on the debt he can’t pay. Then that same slave goes out and cruelly and violently punishes those who owe him. When the slave-owner learns about this, he becomes enraged: You wicked slave! he says. I forgave you all your debt ... Shouldn’t you also have forgiven? For your lack of forgiveness, you are condemned to the punishment of eternal pain.

The lesson here is: when we refuse to forgive, we, like that wicked slave, are the ones who suffer.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said: “Forgiveness is a choice we make, and the ability to forgive others comes from the recognition that we are all flawed and all human. We have all made mistakes and harmed someone. We will again… Each of us has the capacity to commit the wrongs against others that were committed against us.”

And so we work to forgive those who have hurt us, harmed us, betrayed us, angered us, ignored us, demeaned us, made us feel ugly or worthless or embarrassed. We work to forgive those who shut their eyes and cover their ears to the truth – to our truth – whether it’s because they can’t hear it or because they won’t hear it. We work to forgive those who should have known better, who should have loved us better, but didn’t – or couldn’t.

To forgive is to trust that God will bring about divine justice, reconciliation, and wholeness from every experience of brokenness on earth. When we try to do this ourselves, it’s like trying to save ourselves from drowning. We can’t.

Each of us will need to be forgiven at some point in our lives, and each of us will need to forgive someone else – from the heart, as Jesus said. As Episcopalians we have the unique gift of the Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent to help us get there. (BCP, 447) I highly recommend this rite. It’s what used to be called Confession.

I often hear the penitent, say that upon hearing the words of absolution spoken, they have an experience of release and freedom that is surprisingly intense – and transforming. I know that’s my experience as a penitent.

Forgiveness is a spiritual muscle we need to develop, and that’s what we do each Sunday together at our celebration of Holy Eucharist. We need one another, and we need to share in the nourishment of Word and Sacrament regularly together because that what strengthens us and unite us. We need to eat together, pray together, and play together. We even need to disagree together.

Church is where we learn and practice forgiveness so that we can take it out into the world, because as you know, our world remains sorely divided and enslaved by sin.

I close today with a poem from Mpho Tutu, Desmond Tutu’s daughter. It’s called “I will forgive”

“I will forgive you.
The words are so small, but there’s a universe hidden in them.

When I forgive you, all those cords of resentment, pain, and sadness
that had wrapped themselves around my heart
will be gone.

When I forgive you, you will no longer define me.
You measured me, and assessed me,
and decided that you could hurt me,
that I didn’t count.

But I will forgive you because I do count.
I do matter.
I am bigger than the image you have of me.

I am stronger. I am more beautiful.
I am infinitely more precious than you thought me.
I will forgive you.

My forgiveness is not a gift that I am giving to you.
When I forgive you,
my forgiveness will be a gift that gives itself to me.”


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