Forgiveness: A Work in Progress

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on September 17, 2017.

Matthew 18:21-35

Those of you who get our mid-week email know that I have had a difficult time finding my way into this sermon on forgiveness. My placeholder for a sermon title is “A Work in Progress,” which meant that when it was time to send out the email and print the bulletin this sermon was only a work in progress; it still is. But it also means that I am a work in progress when it comes to forgiveness, as are each of you.

There are three contexts in which we desire forgiveness.

Some struggle mightily to forgive someone who has hurt or betrayed them.

Others acknowledge the hurt they have caused another, and seek forgiveness from that person.

And still others work to forgive themselves for a wrong they have perpetrated.

Like many, I have experienced all three of these scenarios at one time or another.

Reflecting upon forgiveness in each of these contexts can be extraordinarily painful. I know a number of your struggles to forgive or be forgiven, and I don’t doubt that we could each share painful stories of forgiveness denied. Biblical scholar Karoline Lewis acknowledges that the topic of forgiveness “sets in motion — deeply, tragically, painfully — memories of those people I was reluctant to forgive. It sets in motion thoughts of those waiting for my forgiveness. It sets in motion reminders of those whom I don’t think I can ever forgive.”

I think the pain we experience around forgiveness leads to a common understanding that forgiveness promises relief of our pain. In this sense forgiveness is transactional. In return for forgiveness, I will feel better. Good feelings between myself and another will be restored.

And, in addition to being painful, according to theologian David Lose, forgiveness is just plain difficult.

“I don’t mean,” he writes, “the occasional moment of warm-hearted forgiveness, overlooking someone’s minor slight when you feel magnanimous; nor do I mean the spontaneous forgiveness you feel when someone is genuinely contrite over some accidental – and again preferably minor – fault. What I mean are those things that are really hurtful; those times when the person seems disinclined to take responsibility, let alone apologize; those episodes that continue to wound each time you remember them; those words or deeds that have marked you deeply and painfully and feel like they’ll never go away. Those are things that are so incredibly hard to forgive.”

At a loss as to where to begin, I googled things like “Top 10 Ways to Forgive.” But after pouring over various self-help lists, I had still not found anything especially helpful. Desperate, I turned to the Bible.

Let’s begin by looking at the Greek word aphiemi in the Matthew passage, translated here as forgiveness. Its primary meanings are to send away, release, leave behind, and let go. Matthew uses this same word quite literally when he writes that Peter and Andrew aphiemi, or left their nets to follow Jesus.

Isn’t that interesting, this suggests that forgiveness isn’t about the restoration of good feelings toward someone, but has more to do with releasing and letting go. This might mean releasing attachment to a wrong committed by or against us, and could even require letting go of and leaving behind a person.

Forgiveness is more than a feeling.

The Matthew passage begins with this short exchange between Peter and Jesus. Peter asks Jesus if it is enough to forgive someone who sins against him seven times, and Jesus responds not seven but seventy-seven times. To the casual reader, this might sound like Jesus is setting an impossibly high standard for forgiveness; “OMG Jesus, it’s hard enough to forgive once, and you are asking us to forgive how many times?” But this exchange actually references a passage in Genesis. God promises a “sevenfold vengeance” against anyone who kills Cain; remember Adam and Eve’s son? Sometime later, Cain’s descendent Lamech promises mortal vengeance against a young man who injured him, not sevenfold as God promised, but seventy-seven fold.

Isn’t that interesting? This suggests that anger and hatred multiply over generations.

So, rather than setting an impossibly high bar for forgiveness, Jesus is using a reference from the Torah to demonstrate the power of forgiveness to restore cosmic balance. He is demonstrating a correction to thousands of years of self-centered retribution in order to break the cycle of violence that grips humanity. Jesus is inviting Peter (and us) “to undo the curse of Cain and Lamech that has kept their offspring trapped in cycles of envy, hatred, and retribution across the generations to this day.”

Again, the goal of forgiveness is not to hurt less. There is not a quid pro quo, do this and feel better.

Then Jesus tells a parable about a king who wants to settle accounts with his servants. The king’s servants would travel the kingdom collecting taxes. They were permitted to squeeze some extra money from the peasants for themselves as long as the king gets his cut. It appears that the tax collector in this story had failed to pass along the required percentage he collected, and now owes the kind the enormous sum of 10,000 talents. It would take a laborer about 15 years to earn one talent, so 10,000 talents would take 150,000 years to pay back, obviously impossible.

The servant throws himself upon the king’s mercy, and the king forgives all of this impossibly large debt.

Having just been the recipient of this extraordinary act of forgiveness, the servant is approached by another servant who owes the first servant 100 denarii. Now a denarii is a day’s wage, so this servant owed the other the equivalent of 100 days of labor, a lot, but attainable. But the servant who had just been forgiven by the king refuses to forgive the other’s debt and throws this one into prison.

In this story we might look to the king as our model, that like the king we should seek to be infinitely forgiving.

But the king in the parable represents God. Thankfully, we are not expected to fill the role of God in any of the parables that Jesus tells. God is God so we don’t have to be. And God has already forgiven us everything. That is the message of this parable. Forgiveness isn’t something we need to do, not once, not seven times, not seventy-seven times, because God has already forgiven everything, once and for all.

God’s act of forgiveness is already a limitless, measureless act. Forgiveness is never not present in our lives and in our relationships. Forgiveness is s a constant. It’s not optional. It’s not a choice. We act like it is — and that’s at the heart of Peter’s question. What do I have to do?

Our goal instead is to not be the unforgiving servant.

We cannot expect to be an infinitely forgiving God, but we can strive not to be like the servant who doesn’t acknowledge the king’s forgiveness and, when asked to himself forgive a reasonable debt, instead seeks vengeance.

By recognizing that the heavy lifting of forgiveness has already been accomplished by God, releasing our hold on some wrong perpetrated by or against us might just be attainable, not easy, but attainable.

This might mean taking responsibility for our own pain rather than affixing responsibility for our feelings upon another’s forgiveness. And when we do this we might find we are able to empathize with the pain of those who continue to judge us. Both these, responsibility and empathy, can help us remove ourselves from the unhelpful, outcome-driven forgiveness equation.

As is true for so much of life in the realm of God, there is a certain paradox in this approach to forgiveness. By not making the restoration of our own happiness the goal of forgiveness, but instead working to let go of our desire for others to feel or act in a certain way toward us, we will likely feel better.

Rather than urging you to just forgive, or forgive more, I think I will follow David Lose’ invitation to simply announce the king’s forgiveness, the unbelievable, nearly inconceivable, amazing and unpredictable and possibility-creating forgiveness of God which each of us has been granted, and invite you to recognize, acknowledge and let go into that gift, remembering that we are all a work in progress.

 

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Shane the Barber: Our Scars and God’s Mercy

haircut

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on August 6, 2017.

Matthew 14:13-21, Genesis 32:22-31

In 2008 I had open heart surgery to repair a leaky valve. With no guarantees of whether I would live or die, entering that surgery was, hands down, the scariest time of my life. I lived, of course, but was left with a thick, red rope of a scar right down the middle of my breast bone. Though the scar has now faded considerably, for several years it served as a stark reminder of my vulnerability and fear.

I thought of my scar when I read this morning’s story about Jacob. I don’t have time to share Jacob’s entire back story, but in short, he was a scoundrel. First he manipulates his twin brother Esau into signing over the inheritance from their father, then Jacob tricks his father Isaac into blessing him instead of his brother. Understandably, Esau is enraged after twice being cheated by Jacob, causing Jacob to flee for his life. After living on the run for twenty years, Jacob finally decides to return home to face his brother. But still fearing for his life, he sends his wives, maids and children ahead without him and settles down for the night. There, the story says, he wrestled with a man until daybreak. Many scholars believe that this “man” represents God, but I would instead suggest that the man is a metaphor for Jacob’s failure and fear. As he anticipates seeing his brother 20 years after swindling him, Jacob is finally required to confront the suffering he has inflicted face to face. Though Jacob refuses to give in to his past failures, this “wrestler” strikes Jacob’s hip causing him to have a permanent limp.

 

The next morning, Jacob looks up to see Esau approaching. Esau runs to meet Jacob, embraces him, kisses him, and together they weep. But even after Jacob is forgiven by and reconciles with Esau, his limp will forever serve as a painful reminder of his former treachery. As my scar gives evidence of my once broken heart, so Jacob bears the mark of his brokenness.

Last Sunday, having just returned from our mission trip to Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi, one of our church youth Mason Thomsen shared his testimony about an encounter with a homeless barber named Shane. Like this morning’s story about Jacob, this is a story about the scars we carry, and the fear and failure they represent. Both Shane’s and Jacob’s story also point us beyond our brokenness to acceptance and reconciliation.

It was our second day in Biloxi and my small group was scheduled to work at the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen, preparing and serving a meal to Biloxi’s homeless. We pulled up in our minivan to park in a dirt lot across the street from Loaves and Fishes, and there, under a tree, just outside my driver’s side door, were two men. One was sitting on an upside down, five gallon paint bucket. The other, Shane, was standing behind him giving him a haircut, electric trimmers plugged into an electrical box on a lamppost. Shane was going about his business as if outside haircuts on paint buckets was the most normal thing in the world.

Those of you who heard me preach a sermon about my barber Elvis know that I take my haircuts seriously; and I know a good barber when I see one. The first thing I thought when I pulled up was that this guy knows what he’s doing. The second thing I thought was, I need a haircut. I had every intention of getting a haircut before I left Simsbury, but didn’t find the time, and was feeling a little shaggy. So, on impulse I asked, “Hey, can I get a haircut?”

Shane looked up from his work and it was then that I saw that he bears some terrible scars, big, thick and red like the one that once ran down the center of my chest. One side of his face was badly scarred, and one arm had extensive, deep, disfiguring scars. “Sure, he said, you’re next.”

His scars were jarring, but I was not deterred. I indicated to Shane that we would be across the street at Loaves and Fishes. Once there, we quickly got caught up chopping vegetables for salad and were soon serving lunch to a long line of hungry people. I hadn’t forgotten Shane and my promised haircut, but did begin to further analyze my impulsive request. In particular, I wondered how he cleaned his clippers and whether going from one homeless customer, to another, to me was a sure fire way to get head lice.

Just as I was pondering this very question, Shane came through the soup line and asked if I still wanted the haircut. “Um, sure, as soon as I’m done here,” I said, head lice be damned.

By the time we finished it was pouring rain outside, but there was Shane offering to cut my hair right in the entry way to Loaves and Fishes. I did ask him if he had a way to clean his clippers and he assured me that he did, and so began my haircut from Shane the Barber!

Mason and the other youth in my group soon gathered around to watch this odd spectacle, and Shane and I began to talk, the way you do with your barber. Shane said he wanted to be a barber all his life. When he was six years old he would go to a barber shop across the street from his Mom’s beauty parlor and help clean up, and he began learning the trade by watching the barbers there. As if it wasn’t already obvious, Shane soon confirmed that he had had what could politely be called a hard life. He had done hard-time in prison where he further honed his barbering skills by cutting other prisoners’ hair.

He soon volunteered the story behind his scars. He had been driving in his van with his girlfriend and they were having a terrible fight. He said he pulled his van over to the side of the road to “take five.” I took that to be something he had learned in an anger management class, meaning to step away from a volatile situation. Unfortunately, when he stepped away from his van, his girlfriend got behind the wheel and ran him over with it. He described getting pulled up into and through the wheel well before being dragged down the street under the van.

All the while, Shane continued to cut my hair, telling these dreadful stories the way my barber Elvis might talk about a Red Sox losing streak. But I could tell from the feel of the clippers on my head that I was in good hands.

“You’re lucky to be alive,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“I don’t feel lucky,” he said. His implication was clear. He would have rather died that night than forever carry these scars as a constant reminder of his fear and failure.

Then the conversation turned.

“You guys are from a church.” Shane volunteered. “I used to lead my church choir. What songs do you know? How ‘bout this one.” And he began to sing.

He’s an on time God, yes he is.
He’s an on time God, yes he is.
He may not come when you want him,
But he’ll be there right on time
He’s an on time God, yes he is.

And that’s when I began to cry. Something about Shane, bearing the scars of all he had been through, singing about an on time God, really touched me.

So, this was the scene. Me, surrounded by five of our youth, getting my haircut in the entryway of a soup kitchen, hearing stories of unimaginable brutality told in the first person, Shane singing of a God that doesn’t come when you want him, but will be there right on time, and me weeping.

Saying that he hadn’t sung since his accident, Shane continued to sing songs we might know, encouraging us to join in. We knew a couple, like Lord Prepare Me to be a Sanctuary, and finally, my haircut done, Shane led Mason, Veronica, Justin, Julia and Thomas in singing a couple spirited verses of Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burden Down.

Think about those words in Shane’s mouth, Lord Prepare Me to be a Sanctuary, Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burden Down. With each new song I would shed more tears.

I paid Shane the price of a haircut, exchanged a bro hug, then the youth and I piled into the van and off we went.

Shane’s is the Jacob story retold. Shane has wrestled with his fear and failure and bears the marks of his brokenness. Though he has not yet experienced the face to face acceptance and reconciliation that Jacob did, he experiences these from God through his music. Jacob wept with Esau in response to the forgiveness he experienced, and I wept as a witness to that same experience of God’s mercy.

Our experiences of fear and failure don’t all leave visible marks. Some of us carry our scars on the inside and disguise our limp. But, I dare say, we’ve all got them, whether from encounters with loss, betrayal, condemnation, trauma or abuse, by the time we have lived to a certain age we will be required to wrestle with our shadow in the dark, and will leave these encounters with indelible evidence of our brokenness. And this isn’t a bad thing. Our scars and limps serve as a necessary reminder of our need for God’s grace and mercy.

And that mercy awaits each of us. Because we serve a God who doesn’t always come when we want him, but is always right on time. Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burdens Down. Amen.

 

A Matter of Life and Death

This morning I preached on the passage in the gospel of Luke where Jesus is asked about the connection between sin and suffering (Luke 13:1-5).  First, some in the crowd ask him about some people from Galilee who were slaughtered by Pontius Pilate.  Jesus asks, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than others from Galilee?”  Then, he is asked about eighteen people who died when a tower collapsed in Jerusalem.  Here again, Jesus asks if these people died because of their sins.  Jesus answers both of his own questions with a clear, “No.”  God does not punish us for our sins with suffering and death; God offers forgiveness, grace, love and mercy in response to the world’s sin and suffering.

I preached this sermon because I know there are people in my congregation who are hurting and believe that God is punishing them for something they have done.   Sometimes they don’t even know what they did, only that God must be angry at them about something because their life is so hard.

Then, this evening, I taught a lesson about forgiveness at our recovery ministry, Celebrate Recovery.  I noted that forgiveness includes accepting God’s forgiveness, forgiving those who have wronged us, and forgiving ourselves.  There was a man there who is drinking himself to death because of his inability to accept that God forgives him and so, is unable to forgive himself.

God’s love and forgiveness can save lives.  I have seen it happen again and again.  But one of the most difficult things about being a pastor is that while we can preach it, we can teach and council it, and we can try to embody it, we cannot make someone believe and live in the knowledge that God loves and forgives them.  This is where we need to practice letting go and letting God, no matter how painful it is.

Published in: on March 8, 2010 at 3:44 am  Comments (2)  
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