After much thought and prayer - will I ever really understand forgiveness or do I understand and refuse to acknowledge that? - here is the base for my sermon tomorrow. Whether it will come out this way is anyone's guess, of course, but it is what I think God is calling me to say.
How many of us come to church today intending to say the General Confession while still hanging on to a hurt, anger or grudge which we have no intention of forgiving? I am in that number and I daresay I am not the only one here who is.
Three years ago, when I last preached these texts, I said that there was someone in my past who had hurt me and that when I thought of or talked about that experience, the hurt always came back. Except, by the time of that sermon, I realized that the hurt was no longer there, that there was no power in the story to make me angry with that person anymore. This week, as I read that sermon again, I discovered that I no longer remember what the person had even done and I felt really good about that. I still do.
But that event was more than twenty-five years ago! For way too long, I didn’t let it go nor did I attempt to do anything to reconcile with the person who I felt had hurt me. That’s a lot of General Confessions said while still carrying the burden of my lack of forgiveness.
Let’s face it, we are not good at forgiving. Even those of us who think we are probably aren’t. We are willing to say a quick “Oh that’s all right. It wasn’t that big a deal” to most infractions against us but we don’t always mean it. How often when we see the person we have “forgiven” do we once again think of the unkind thing she said or the lack of respect we feel from him? If we aren’t really going to forget these things, can we really say we have forgiven them? Are we just acting the role of the morally righteous in the hope that no one will see through the façade?
Jesus says we are to forgive way past the point of reason. But it is only recently that I have come to understand that forgetting really is a major part of forgiving. If we can’t forget, then we still need to forgive. If we hold a grudge or still chew over the painful events, we are being slowly consumed by our own anger.
It the parable, the servant who owes several lifetimes of debt ought to go away from his master’s room joyful and feeling lighter than air not that the heavy burden has been lifted from his soul. But instead, he lashes out in great anger when he sees someone who owes him a much smaller debt. We all know what’s wrong with this picture and we don’t see ourselves in it because none of us, I am sure, has incurred debts of such magnitude. And we are not too quick to move the parable from the realm of monetary debt to any other kind
because monetary debt probably doesn’t divide us from one another.
Harsh words, deeds done intentionally and especially unintentionally, things done and left undone are far more likely to separate us. And those may, in fact, be harder to forgive than a debt of money. Why? Because those things cut into the fabric of our life together in ways that money never will.
When your brother dies, you expect me to call, don’t you? Well, let’s say I forget to do that and when I next see you at the door after church, I don’t say anything about him or ask how you are doing. It is perfectly natural for you to think, “Maggie doesn’t care about me. She isn’t the least bit pastoral.” And when a friend is in need of care, you will say something like, “well, don’t call the church for help. Maggie doesn’t do pastoral care.”
Now what if I never knew that your brother died? Perhaps, in your haste to go to be with the rest of your family before and after the funeral, you didn’t call but you assumed that someone else would do that for you. But you try to brush it off by thinking that I must have been really busy and you want to believe that I still care about you even though it looks like I don’t.
Simply brushing this aside with an “Oh that’s all right” isn’t forgiveness. The only way to begin forgiving is, as we heard last week, to come see me and lay out the problem. Because if I don’t know that I’ve hurt you, how can I ask you to forgive me?
St. Paul warns us against passing judgment. I think that sometimes we confuse judgment and forgiveness. If you can just make the flat statement , “Maggie doesn’t do pastoral care” then you have passed judgment and think you can put it behind you. Forgiveness requires us to confront the one who has hurt us, remember the hurt even though that means living it again, and then being willing to see it from the other person’s eyes. One person’s throwaway line may well be another’s knife in the back. One person’s pain of rejection may be another’s unawareness of events.
When we judge others, we rarely forget why we have made that judgment. There is no forgiveness in our judgment of one another. That is why Paul exhorts us not to judge. Judgment leads to self righteousness and superiority and that leads right back to our need to ask forgiveness. For when we act out of our own sense of right, we very often cause deep pain for someone else.
Paul and Matthew are writing to and for specific communities, both of them very new Christians. Despite two thousand years of Christian history between them and us, we haven’t advanced all that far in our own faith that we cannot still learn the lessons these new believers had to learn.
We pray today that the Holy Spirit will direct and rule our hearts in all things. More than an annual collect for the day, that prayer needs to be one we say daily, even more than once a day. For the Holy Spirit is very good about opening our hearts and mouths to say the right thing and our minds and hands to do it. And by living a Spirit-led life, we will find the way to forgive each other our transgressions and then to forget them altogether. Then we can go forth into the world with joy knowing that God has forgiven us and our burden has been lifted from us.