Sunday, October 18, 2009

Forgiving Others

A few people have asked for copies of the sermon I gave today, so I thought I'd post it here... I've never posted a sermon publicly before... (This will probably decide if I ever do it again...) So here goes!

Sermon for Oct. 18, 2009 - "Forgiving Others - The Unforgiving Servant"

"We’ve been talking about forgiveness for several weeks now – what it is, why we do it, what it feels like to be forgiven… So, today we turn to one of the hardest parts (at least, for me) – forgiving others. Just moments ago, we recited the Lord’s Prayer together – something so familiar, that we often say it without thinking about what the words mean. What about the line, “forgive our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”? Sometimes the words “debt and debtors” are used – either way, “forgive me so I can forgive others.”

Let’s play with the image of debts for a moment… In the book of Deuteronomy, God commands Israel to cancel debts every seven years. Imagine that! Think for a moment of all the debts you may have – financial, time, work… It adds up to a lot, doesn’t it? Now what would it be like to suddenly discover that all your debts were paid in full – completely canceled out with no strings or obligations? I’d say that would be a miracle and call for a HUGE celebration!

Now I ask you to look at it from the other side. I ask you to take a moment and think of the debts that you hold against other people. I invite you later today or this week to use the insert in your bulletin to really think this through – who do you hold debts against, and why? And my question to you, is what would it take for you to let one of those debts go and mark it “paid in full?”

We pray all the time, “forgive my debts as I forgive my debtors.” What would it take for you to be able to live that statement out – with the grace of God?

Our Bible story today, is of the unforgiving servant. It begins with Peter asking Jesus how many times we should be expected to forgive someone – 7? I can almost see Jesus shake his head and chuckle as he says, “Peter… Forgiveness has nothing to do with numbers or math… Let me tell you a story.”

From the Message, Matthew 18:23-33:
23-25"The kingdom of God is like a king who decided to square accounts with his servants. As he got under way, one servant was brought before him who had run up a debt of a hundred thousand dollars. He couldn't pay up, so the king ordered the man, along with his wife, children, and goods, to be auctioned off at the slave market.
26-27"The poor wretch threw himself at the king's feet and begged, 'Give me a chance and I'll pay it all back.' Touched by his plea, the king let him off, erasing the debt.
28"The servant was no sooner out of the room when he came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him ten dollars. He seized him by the throat and demanded, 'Pay up. Now!'
29-31"The poor wretch threw himself down and begged, 'Give me a chance and I'll pay it all back.' But he wouldn't do it. He had him arrested and put in jail until the debt was paid. When the other servants saw this going on, they were outraged and brought a detailed report to the king.
32-35"The king summoned the man and said, 'You evil servant! I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn't you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?'

When have you felt like the first slave – knowing that you owe God everything you are and have, and yet – that you are forgiven?
And when have you been the slave attacking the debtor? How many people in your life do you hold captive for hurting you? How many have you thrown in a “debtors prison” – when you yourself have been freed? You know who those people are… You know by what you think of them, how you speak to them – or avoid them, how you daydream about them getting their due…

And what would it look and feel like if you were able to free them? Free them from their prison in your heart – and free yourself from the weight and burden of the work it takes to keep them in their debt. What would it be like if you were both free? If the debt was canceled?
Forgiveness is a wonderful thing. Forgiveness from our creator and our God is an extraordinary gift. This gift gives us hope for a new tomorrow – as well as hope towards new relationships with those who have hurt us. But forgiveness is not easy.

In James 2:13, we learn that in God’s heart, “mercy triumphs over judgment.” Wow! What wonderful news for us! That is amazingly good news as I stand before God with my failures hanging out… But sometimes, when I look at those who have stung me, disappointed me, and hurt me to the core - Sometimes I wonder if that same divine mercy should fall on those who have sinned so much worse than me?! I don’t know about you, but when someone has hurt me – their offense seems so much worse than anything I have ever done!

And that’s part of what makes forgiving so hard to do! Our emotions – anger, hurt, sadness, bitterness – can so easily get in the way… We pray, “forgive me my trespasses (or debts) as we forgive those who trespass against us,” but often we find ourselves unable or unwilling to forgive as God forgives because our emotions get in the way of mercy. We know the right thing to do – but sometimes we just can’t seem to bring ourselves to do it.

You’re holding a rock in your hand today… As we continue our discussion about forgiveness, as we speak of those hurts that have cut us deeply, as we consider those people in our lives that we are no longer in whole relationships with – I invite you to feel the weight of that rock, to think of that rock as one of those broken relationships. Feel the weight, the hardness, the coolness… And hold on to it for a few moments.

When someone offends or hurts you – what is your first response – or instinct to respond? I don’t know about you – but mine is to strike back, to retaliate. I want to hurt or offend that other person in much the same way they did it to me. Whether it be with words, actions, the silent treatment… It’s a human response to counterattack in some way - to make the other person feel our pain. We may even want them to experience something worse – just to make sure they get the point! This is what leads to escalating violence – something we see on our playgrounds, in the news, in our politics… This is hardly how Jesus teaches us to live.

In fact, Jesus said at one point, “If a man strikes you on the left cheek, show him the other one.” In other words, overcome evil with good. This is not a natural instinct. To return good for evil, to bless and not curse our enemies – to most, this would appear to be giving in, or trying to be a martyr. It would make us seem like wimps, wouldn’t it? As I thought about this, I thought of a line in our Book Group’s current book – The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus – Peter Gomes says “In an analysis of why traditional stories about Jesus do not appeal to contemporary young people, I read that one respondent said that, according to what he read in the Bible, Jesus is a wimp. Jesus would never make it in the average contemporary American high school, the respondent suggested, and therefore trying to do what Jesus did is either impossible, as he is, after all, the son of God, or undesirable, for in terms of the world he doesn’t win.”

To return good for evil, to bless and not curse our enemies… can seem like we have become doormats – OR – it can be a choice to choose nonviolent power and self-respect, which is part of healthy forgiveness. It is the freedom to claim our own power to make our own choice – and not give in to the ways of the world.

Are you still holding onto your rocks? Just because we make the choice to face a situation with good, doesn’t mean that when we are treated unfairly we won’t feel hurt and angry. Our hurt feelings are justified and we need to find a way to deal with those feelings in a way that allows us to hurt, while not hurting others in return. One way to begin to deal with them is to write them out. Think of the Psalms (if you’re not familiar with the Psalms – flip through them this afternoon) – they express every human emotion – anger, sadness, hatred, hostility and helplessness… They lament in grief and anguish. They are honest and raw. It may not seem the nicest way to handle a situation – to write such horrible feelings down – but God is with us in those dark moments. God wants to hear the honesty of what is on our hearts. God wants to soothe those hurts – and sometimes we have to name them, before they can begin to heal.

Maybe you’re not one to write things down – maybe you need to talk it out. Find someone you trust, a “neutral” person, someone who will listen and not judge, someone who will allow you to talk and cry and yell and moan… someone who will be with you as you struggle with the feelings that accompany being so deeply hurt. To be able to name the feelings and injustices done to you, and to be heard – can be a huge step on the road to forgiving another. I know in this community, Pastor Penny and I would be more than willing to listen and pray – anytime. In fact, we do it all the time! We can’t forgive for you – but we can certainly walk that road with you…

Another thing to remember: Forgiveness doesn’t happen in a single moment. It’s more of a “journey undertaken in hope, in company with God’s guiding Spirit.” Isn’t that a beautiful way to think about it? One of the resources I read this week put it that way – and I thought it was such a different way of seeing this thing called forgiveness. It’s an ongoing process with God by my side, and it takes time. It’s learning a whole new way of life in Christ. It forces us to look at our daily lives, our attitudes and practices - like truthfulness, humility, perseverance, generosity of spirit, and compassion. It’s learning to walk all over again – walking with God.

Not every child learns to walk in the same way, or in the same amount of time – and not every person will go through the journey of forgiveness in the same steps. I can’t possibly know your situation as you can’t possibly know mine. There are things in my life that anger me, that make my heart ache, that make me want to scream – or weep. And while, sometimes I think these things are so horrible – I know there are worse situations out there. You may be dealing with a situation far worse than mine, something I may never understand… We’re not here to judge one another’s journeys – only to support and learn and grow alongside.

In the Sermon Feedback group this week, as they discussed forgiveness, the book “The Shack” came up as one understanding. If you haven’t read it yet, please do. You may not resonate with all of it – but there are some wonderful images of God’s love and forgiveness in it. I came across one commentary this week that sums it up very nicely – this is from Rev. John Marks Hicks:
“God wants to redeem even those who have wounded us and he prefers mercy for them just as he preferred it for us. Our act of forgiveness releases them to God and takes the burden off us. We can let go of resentment, bitterness, and vengeance as we leave it in the hands of God. (Drop another rock…)
“Forgiving someone does not excuse their actions, but it does release them from our judgment into the hands of God who will handle the justice in the world. Forgiveness means that we are no longer vindictive, seeking to do the other harm. We no longer take them by the throat but hand them over to God.
…And not only do we release them to God, “we also release ourselves from the weight of resentment which is too heavy to bear and will only sour the sweetness in our lives.” (Drop another rock…)

But we can’t expect to walk before we crawl! Maybe the offense or hurt you carry with you is too big to forgive all at once… that’s ok. Sometimes, we need to start by learning to forgive the minor infractions that occur in our daily lives, first!

Someone in this congregation, who shall remain nameless, started an experiment on their blog a few months ago – an experiment in grace. They asked their blog followers, once a week, to take a moment and notice where you experienced grace in your week – did someone extend a grace to you? Were you able to put aside a cold or hard heart to extend grace to someone else? One of the first weeks this experiment was going on, I was on my way to work and I got cut off on 494 so rudely and abruptly that I nearly crashed into the concrete median! I was angry, muttered some unkind things under my breath, and stewed in my own injustice for a moment… And then, slowly I began to wonder why she was in such a hurry? Was her child sick? Was her parent dying? Was she experiencing a health crisis? In the scheme of the day, it was a minor infraction – but it’s something I could have held onto ALL day – and been really grumpy about. Instead, I chose to pray for her. I prayed that she was ok and that God would calm her heart (and her foot on the accelerator) so that she wouldn’t hurt someone else in her rush… It was a small token of forgiveness – but it was a weight that I no longer carried into my day.

When we can decide to offer forgiveness on the little things in our lives, we gradually develop new habits that help us to see people in fresh ways. We can open our eyes to new perspectives that maybe we never would have considered before. I guarantee, before this experience, I would have wrote her off as being rude, selfish, and uncaring about other people on the road! But a prompt from the Spirit (and a fellow blogger) made me take a breath and put myself in her shoes… give her the benefit of the doubt… and forgive her. A small step that day – but a huge leap in how I choose to offer and receive forgiveness now.

Sometimes it simply takes hearing the other person’s story – hearing their side of things. Sometimes, the resistance of our heart can melt away when we are able to see the whole picture! There is so much we do not see and cannot know about those who wound us. This is yet another reason, why ultimately, we need to find a way to give them over to God. Only God knows the deepest recesses of our hearts – and our offenders’ hearts…

While we may strive to understand – understanding is not the same as forgiveness, but it can set the stage for it. People do what they do for many reasons – but reasons are not excuses, they just might help us get past our emotional blocks, to a more merciful response.

And when we are able to hold on to that merciful heart – and find it within ourselves to forgive – the healing that occurs within us has no limits. It is a gift of freedom – of healing and empowerment! We are able to release the corrosive effect of anger and bitterness in our own souls and find peace. It empowers us to make a choice to become whole instead of becoming our wounds. Robert Muller, former assistant secretary-general of the United Nations wrote this:
“Be the first to forgive. For by forgiving you become the master of fate, the fashioner of life, the doer of miracles!”
I love that!

We are freed in the act of forgiving – but it’s more than a self-healing that we are after, as Christians. The act of forgiving also contains the hope of change and redemption for the other person. I read somewhere, I think on another blog this week, that when the writer decides they need to forgive someone, they actively pray for the person every day for a month. At the beginning, they don’t want to forgive the other – but they start praying. As they continue this process, they notice their heart softening, they find themselves praying more sincerely as time goes by until they really do want a better life for the other – they really do want God’s grace to surround the other – they really do forgive. At some point, we find ourselves hoping that not only will I be able to forgive the other – but that God will show mercy as well… It’s no longer about me – it’s about the other person, and hoping that God will be present in their lives.

As we begin to live our lives with a greater capacity for mercy – we find our hearts expanding by God’s grace.

Another quote from my studies this week: Do not keep accounts with our Lord… Go bankrupt! Let our Lord love you without justice! Say frankly, ‘He loves me because I do not deserve it… that is why I, in my turn, love Him as well as I can.’ Therefore, burn your account books!”

Burn your account books! Release your prisoners one by one. Close down your dungeon. Free yourself and those others that have weighed you down for so long…

Let us pray:
Gracious God, Forgiving God – we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the mercy beyond justice that you have shown us! We thank you that we are released from that prison – and ask that you help each one of us to find the freedom and joy of relinquishing these burdens we carry. Help us to share in the divine life you call us to by guiding us on this journey of healing and forgiveness. We thank you, God. Amen."

At the end people had the option of coming forward and placing their rocks (which they were handed as they entered the sanctuary) in a glass bowl, filled with water, to represent a first step in forgiveness (whether it be they're ready to start praying about a situation, they're ready to forgive a person, or maybe the're ready to forgive themselves). It was to represent throwing those rocks into the deth of the sea, the waters washing away the debt. It was a powerful moment of reflection - about 50 people in our small congregation came forward. Beautiful! (I'm so proud of this congregation and the risks they're willing to take - they surprise me everytime!)

Things I am thankful for today:

1. Cold meds - I was so SICK today! It really makes you realize how much pastors deal with to preach every week...
2. Hot tea.
3. My helpful hubby.
4. A wonderful congregation that makes me smile and laugh - even when I don't feel well.
5. Supportive church friends.
6. Warm, fuzzy blankets.
7. Long naps!
8. Hot showers.
9. Nyquil. My friend.
10. A GOOD nights sleep!


Beth said...

That was fun to read! I think I may make a copy! Very inspirational... and I have to tell you...I got a bit "mad" on Sunday because I dwelled on knowing I need to forgive some people in my life...and the humaness in me doesn't want to..but the spirit in me knows I need to...

Cheryl said...

What a fantastic sermon on forgiving others. You spoke right to my heart... Meg, you are truly a gift from God and I can't thank him enough for bringing you into my life. You rock my world!

Carol E. said...

Megan, I just want to tell you about that hokey idea of putting rocks in the water... I didn't find it hokey at all! I sat and waited quite a while, because I had a lot to think about. I wanted to release my rock into the "sea" after pondering properly, and giving up my thoughts to God properly rather than cavalierly. Keep up the inspiring thoughts and clever ideas! You're a gem!

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