(You may view video of this sermon here.)
A few years ago, around this time before Lent I was praying about what spiritual practice I should take on for these 40 days leading into Holy Week and Easter.
When I prayed about it, I was surprised to find that what come to me, clear as a bell, was, “as you forgive so shall you be forgiven.” I immediately realized that I had a back-log of grievances and of guilt that had been hardening in my heart for a few years. There were some things I had been avoiding coming to terms with, that I was ready to come to terms with.
There were two people from my past I needed to forgive and there were two people I needed to apologize to. So, it really was the right kind of balance for “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” And one of these situations, by the way, pulling back on our reflection from last week, actually was over literal debt – someone owed me money from years back, for various reasons I was angry about it. It was clear it wasn’t going to get repaid. But things were in a place where I could have some grace about it all.
Anyhow this was my Lenten practice that year –two acts of forgiveness, and two acts of apology. I’ll be honest, I didn’t particularly want to do any of it. But deep down I knew it was worth the discomfort and the risk. And Jesus says to do it, after all, so I should just do it and see what comes of it.
And I’m here to tell you – if you don’t know it already, or if you need to hear it from one more person – this Jesus stuff works. Now, there was plenty of human messiness in it, it wasn’t all tidy with a bow. It led me to learn some more hard things about myself and about others. But there was grace in the messiness. And, in the end, I realized that in the process I had become free of a weight that I had been carrying around for longer than I had been aware of, and it had helped some others become free of a weight they bore too.
What was most amazing was, to do it all together in a month made it really clear the connection between the openness to apologize and to stand in the need of forgiveness, and the openness to forgive others. Doing both together opened me to a deeper relationship with and reliance on God, and more of an openness to forgive myself. There truly is a flow of mercy that cycles around the Divine Source of all life, and we are open to our truest nature as broken and beloved children of the living God, when we are open to that movement of mercy in receiving and offering forgiveness.
This is a deep truth that’s central to what Jesus was teaching and showing. Forgive us our debts and we forgive our debtors. The measure with which we judge others is the measure by which we are judged.
In the parable we heard for today, someone who had received forgiveness for an enormous debt, did not allow that experience to open his heart to mercy. He was merciless with someone who owed him just a small debt who was begging for mercy. The consequence was that the merciless man became a victim of his own lack of mercy, he remained trapped in a cycle of punishment.
So, it’s really important that our need for forgiveness helps us to become humble and merciful in a way that respects the dignity and belovedness of others, as well as of ourselves. We’re not entitled forgiveness. It’s not your business if someone is ready to forgive you or not.
For example, if we’ve harmed others, it’s important to apologize and to demonstrate a sincere commitment to living a life of greater integrity, in an earnest and humble and respectful way that isn’t coercive or needy or retraumatizing for the person we have harmed. There’s a lot of wisdom here in the 12-step recovery community.
All of this is why it’s so important to keep God at the center. Our healing, our restoration, our integrity, our sense of perspective, comes from God. Divine mercy touches us at the very center of our being, as an outrageous gift we don’t do anything to merit, just like the gift of our existence itself. In this way, forgiveness from our Creator through Christ truly helps us to forgive ourselves and to forgive others.
Some of you have shared very movingly about all this. This week I posed the question to our church email lists and social media, “What has it meant for you to receive forgiveness – from someone else, from God, from yourself.” Here is what you had to say:
“It is difficult to accept the forgiveness of others until you forgive yourself. Likewise to accept God’s forgiveness requires faith in God’s essential goodness and a belief in our own essential goodness and worthiness. To accept forgiveness one must love ourselves. We must value ourselves and feel worthy of love and forgiveness. Forgiveness can free you from self loathing, shame and nagging unnamed guilt. With belief in Gods unconditional love and help you can get there and work on self forgiveness and self love. Once self forgiveness is achieved one can truly and sincerely forgive others and thus free ourselves from the ghosts of our past.”
“No amount of external or even divine forgiveness can do much healing without self-forgiveness.”
“I’ve done some really hurtful and destructive stuff during periods of pronounced mental illness. To family, friends, strangers, and to myself too. The love and forgiveness shown by my spouse, kids, and close friends saved my life on numerous occasions. It also planted the seeds of self-forgiveness, which has been much longer in coming.
My best peeps show me that Me, at my worst, does not cancel out who I am at my best, nor at my goofy, fumbling normal.
I have been forgiven. This is, among other things, a chance and a challenge to be better, more kind, and more giving.”
“Forgiving myself meant moving beyond perfection as a goal to be achieved – I had to come to believe that perfection in fact would be icky, and isolating – were I perfect , I couldn’t relate to any real human being –
I had to embrace that my mistakes and forgiving my mistakes made me a better more complete human – not less , not broken – but more real, able to offer authentic compassion to myself and others.
Of course, those still ascribing to the doctrine of perfection are turned off by those not presenting as or trying to present as perfect —
The perfection game is so frought…
Nonetheless, once walking through the threshold – I’ve found there is no returning – I’m forever changed – and fully imperfect”
“I feel called to be the community of unconditional love. That is not some sappy emotion but a commitment to work and change and grow. It is a commitment to be honest. That is where I have experienced forgiveness of myself and others.”
Thank you all for this wisdom.
And thanks be to God.
This is the last of our sermon series on forgiveness, which I think sets us up well for Lent. In Lent the theme that will guide us will be “Letting God and Letting Grow.” I look forward to exploring that together the coming weeks.