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July 31, 2016, 1:40 PM

Forgiveness


2 Corinthians 5:16-21
16 So then, from this point on we won’t recognize people by human standards. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn’t how we know him now. 17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!
18 All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to God’s self through Christ and who gave us the ministry of reconciliation. 19 In other words, God was reconciling the world to God’s self through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. God has trusted us with this message of reconciliation.
20 So we are ambassadors who represent Christ. God is negotiating with you through us. We beg you as Christ’s representatives, “Be reconciled to God!” 21 God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God.
 
Matthew 18:21-35
21 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?”
22 Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times. 23 Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began to settle accounts, they brought to him a servant who owed him ten thousand bags of gold. 25 Because the servant didn’t have enough to pay it back, the master ordered that he should be sold, along with his wife and children and everything he had, and that the proceeds should be used as payment. 26 But the servant fell down, kneeled before him, and said, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 27 The master had compassion on that servant, released him, and forgave the loan.
28 “When that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred coins. He grabbed him around the throat and said, ‘Pay me back what you owe me.’
29 “Then his fellow servant fell down and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back.’ 30 But he refused. Instead, he threw him into prison until he paid back his debt.
31 “When his fellow servants saw what happened, they were deeply offended. They came and told their master all that happened. 32 His master called the first servant and said, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you appealed to me. 33 Shouldn’t you also have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34 His master was furious and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners, until he had paid the whole debt.
35 “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
 
“Forgiveness”
 
It has been 10 years this coming October since the shooting at West Nickel Mines Amish School, October 2nd to be exact. Ten years ago a milk delivery truck driver, deeply troubled after the loss of his own daughter, entered the Amish school and shot the 10 girl students, killing 5 of them. Such a horrendous tragedy made national news within hours of the shooting. Reporters from around the world flocked to the small community outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. One of the first members of the Amish Community the media interviewed was a grandfather of one of the deceased girls. He began his interview by astounding the reporters as he boldly and firmly offered forgiveness to Charles Roberts, the gunman, who took his own life after shooting the girls. Just a few hours later, the Amish community gathered at Roberts’ house to offer comfort and compassion to his wife and children. The world was stunned.
 
Later that week the family of Charles Roberts was invited to the funerals of the Amish girls, and the number of members of the Amish community outnumbered the non-Amish at Roberts’ own funeral. Such a display of forgiveness had not been witnessed so globally before, it held the world mesmerized. It was beautiful and heart wrenching to behold. What a powerful witness to the Christian understanding of radical love and forgiveness! And yet, because of the nature of the media coverage, this story left many with major misconceptions about forgiveness, instead of a deeper understanding of it.
 
The news coverage asked all those misconceived questions: “How could the community forgive and forget? How could they get over the deaths of their daughters so quickly? If Roberts had survived, would they really have let him get away with it? What if he didn’t repent? What if he wasn’t sorry for what he did? How were they able to make such heartbreak go away so quickly?” These are some of the stumbling blocks to forgiveness, a deep lack of understanding for what forgiveness is all about. It is what makes Jesus’ command to Peter, in our Matthew reading, and the subsequent parable so difficult.
 
Forgiveness is about relationship. Forgiveness is about our relationship with God, our relationship with our own self, and our relationship with the sinful situation that led to pain, hurt, and injury. In working through forgiveness, we do not promise to forget. On the contrary, God is a God of remembrance as well as forgiveness. God demands that we remember; remember the situation or event that led to the wounding so that we do not repeat them. And God demands we remember the experience of forgiveness so that we will recognize it when it comes again. Forgiveness allows us to remember without reliving, to remember without being overwhelmed again by our emotions. In forgiveness we lessen the hold that the sin and situation has on us, so that we are not controlled by it, bound by it, shackled to it.
 
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison under the apartheid regime of South Africa. In a press conference following his release, and the fall of apartheid, he issued this statement, he said: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Mandela chose to move into a life of forgiveness—to not remain imprisoned by anger and pain, or a need for retribution and vengeance. He didn’t know if the perpetrators of apartheid and his imprisonment would be repentant. He did know he would never forget all he experienced in prison. He also knew that the perpetrators would have to face some severe consequences for their actions, but he hoped his forgiveness had the potential to create a new reality for his beloved nation of South Africa. And it did. Mandela and other key leaders led their nation in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a time of confession, forgiveness and reconciliation. I invite you to google this and read some of the powerful stories. Nelson Mandela chose life abundant in the radical love and forgiveness he experienced in and through Jesus Christ.
 
Jesus came among us, as God made flesh, as an embodiment of the radical love and forgiveness of God. In our gospel reading today, Peter lifts up our human wrestling with forgiveness. He offers a rather generous understanding of forgiveness. Peter was willing to forgive someone’s repeated sins against him as many as 7 times—the number of completeness in scriptures. Let’s face it, in the way forgiveness operates in the world, forgiving someone of the same sin 7 times in a row is rather magnanimous. After all, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” right? How mind blowing is Jesus’ response? Not 7 times, but 77 times, or 70 times 7. It is a confusing sentence to translate. But Jesus still gets his point across—stop counting. Forgiveness is a way of living, and not a series of individual actions. We don’t keep score of how many times we forgive someone. That is a human concept, not a divine one. Paul assures us in his first letter to the Corinthians, in that famous love chapter which is describing God’s love and our call to embody that love, that God’s love keeps no record of wrongdoings. Stop counting.
 
Then, Jesus tells a parable to highlight the nature of Forgiveness—that the forgiveness we receive and the forgiveness we offer are inextricably linked. We cannot have one without the other. We can debate the severity of the parable another time, but the reality it points to is that the forgiven servant did not truly experience the forgiveness of the debt—he registered that he was ‘off the hook’ but he did not truly understand the radical gift he was given, for he did not embody it in his own life and relationships. He was still trapped in the system of debt and repayment, even when offered a life of forgiveness and abundance.
 
In the Lord’s Prayer we pray about forgiveness—every single time we pray it. “Forgive us our trespasses (sins, debts), as we forgive those who trespass (sin, debtors) against us.” In other words, we forgive as we have experienced the forgiveness of God. And if we are unable to offer forgiveness, we have not experienced the forgiveness of God. This is a truly horrible place to be. The other problem we run into here is that we often take our misconceptions of forgiveness and project them onto the forgiveness of God.
 
Let’s take a moment to look closely at the most visible example of God’s radical love and forgiveness that we have as Christians—the crucifixion, the cross. Scriptures say in many places that Jesus died for our sins. Those of you flinching in your seats, or wincing, are reacting not to scripture, but to the projections we humans have cast upon that statement in order to make God’s forgiveness look more like our own.  That statement has been connected to the human understanding that God could not forgive us our sins unless someone paid for it. I just heard a hymn recently that even talked about God’s wrath toward us, and Jesus appeasing that wrath on our behalf. Usually though, we hear more about Jesus paying the debt for us with his blood. This is called substitutionary atonement, a rather new concept in the history of God’s people. If something is forgiven, there is no repayment. The debt is wiped clean. Repayment is a settling of accounts. It is not forgiveness.
 
Let’s look again at our parable from Matthew. A servant owes the king a debt, but look at the debt. The Common English translation calls it a bag of gold or silver, but the measure of payment is called a talent. One talent equaled about 130 pounds of silver—130 pounds of silver!! That is equal to 15 years of a laborer’s annual wages. This servant owes the king 10,000 talents, 10,000 130lb. bags of silver or gold. 10,000 units of 15 years wages! That is 150,000 years of work. How can anyone speak of repaying that debt? It is not possible. As the servant kneels before the king and begs for more time to repay, the king is fully aware that a repayment by this servant is impossible. The king forgives the debt. The king doesn’t make someone repay it on the servant’s behalf. He sees the plight of the servant and wipes the debt clean. It is the servant’s behaviors that follow that radical forgiveness that leave the servant in a deeply broken relationship with the king. But in the beginning, forgiveness is offered without repayment, without contingencies. It is just simple forgiveness. That is the essence of forgiveness. Or consider the father of the prodigal son from Luke’s gospel—running to meet the prodigal son before a word is uttered.
 
Jesus died for our sin. Sin, as we explored last week, is anything that is not God’s way. It is a broken relationship with God, which is reflected in our relationships with one another and with all creation. We find ourselves developing patterns that are unhealthy-spiritually, physically, emotionally. Those patterns create cycles or circles of sin that are self-perpetuating. How can we get out?
 
Living into the mystery of the cross is a lifelong part of our faith journey. However, I did encounter one example of speaking of the cross in relation to the cycles of sin and the need for forgiveness. It came from the story of missionaries who traveled to a remote area in the jungles of Eastern Ecuador to evangelize a group of tribes with very, very limited contact with the outside world. The white missionaries—men with their wives and children—journeyed there to bring Jesus, and to end a cycle of violence that was devastating the remote tribes of that area. Their story is told in a really excellent movie entitled, “The End of the Spear.” To make a long story short, the tribes believed absolutely in retaliation and retribution—vengeance. If someone from the other tribe spears a member of my tribe, I must spear them back ten-fold. That was the law of the jungle and it was devastating the tribe.  After a tragic event, the women and children establish a home on the edge of the jungle and begin a wary and careful relationship with the wives of the tribes. The wives explain to the tribal wives that this man named Jesus came to change the understanding of spearing—Jesus was speared, but Jesus didn’t spear back. Jesus was speared, but he didn’t spear back. Jesus broke the cycle of violence. This message spread throughout the tribes and changed their interaction—New Creation! Forgiveness—Radical Love.
 
This is the ministry Paul calls Corinth to in our first reading today, the ministry of reconciliation. It is the ministry that Paul calls us to today. We can break these cycles of sin and violence and brokenness.  We can embrace a new pattern—a new creation! We can emulate Jesus as we encounter him on the cross—Jesus was speared, but Jesus didn’t spear back. Instead Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.” Forgiveness is a way of being, practiced in community. It takes time. It takes patience. It takes that practice and the community to practice with. C.S. Lewis wrote in this ‘Letters to Malcolm’ that he prayed to forgive someone for 30 years before he could finally say that he had. But he didn’t give up, he didn’t stop praying.  He continued in his community to practice. May we too join together in a life of forgiveness, in the ministry of reconciliation. May we model for the world the gift of radical love and forgiveness. Hear this blessing from Jan Richardson, The Hardest Blessing, Let us pray:
 
 
If we cannot
lay aside the wound
then let us say
it will not always
bind us.
 
Let us say
the damage
will not eternally
determine our path.
 
Let us say
the line of our life
will not forever follow
the tearing, the rending
we have borne.
 
Let us say
that forgiveness
can take some practice,
can take some patience,
can take a long
and struggling time.
 
Let us say
that to offer
the hardest blessing
we will need
the deepest grace,
that to forgive
the sharpest pain
we will need
the fiercest love,
that to release
the ancient ach
we will need
new strength
for every day.
 
Let us say
the wound
will not be
our final home;
that through it
runs a road,
a way we would not
have chosen
but on which
we will finally see
forgiveness,
so long practiced,
coming toward us
shining with the joy
so well deserved.
 
Amen.

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