(You may view video of this sermon here.)
Our question for today’s sermon reflection is about forgiveness. Your responses have been so rich that this will be a two-part reflection, this week and next. And someone said to me, “This needs to be our next adult ed. class as a church. Helping each other out with forgiveness” Sounds good.
How have Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness been helpful to you? Or how have you struggled with them? Or how have you found them unhelpful?
I pose this question to you now, and welcome your responses. I’ve posed this question this week to our church email lists and on social media. The bulk of this sermon will be me sharing your responses, so we can learn from each other.
Let me honor from the outset how this question about forgiveness can bring up painful experiences.
In sharing people’s response, I’m leaving out personal details and keeping things anonymous.
Many of you have been really brave and honest in sharing that you have suffered some terrible harm at the hands of others. Heads up, there will be references to abuse. I want to be a good caretaker of that vulnerability and strength. And let’s all remember that Christ is the ultimate caretaker of our vulnerability and strength – Christ, who knows betrayal, crucifixion, death, and resurrection as the agent of God’s reconciliation with a humanity that can inflict and suffer such harm. Sometimes we can identify with those who betrayed Jesus. Sometimes we can identify with Jesus who was betrayed. The point is that God loves us no matter what. The truth will set us free.
We are each and all beloved children of the living God. God’s love is so powerful, so true, so essential, that nothing we do and nothing that is done to us can take it away. God’s love is always there for us, by grace – it’s just for us to say “Yes.” But there are things we can do to others, things that can be done to us, and things we can do to ourselves, that can cause us to say “No,” to deny that belovedness of ourselves and of others. The journey of receiving forgiveness and offering forgiveness is a journey of turning that “No” to a “Yes,” a process of giving up the burdens of those things that block us from the free and unconditional love of God.
And it is a journey. It is a process.
In many of the stories you all shared about forgiveness you talk about how it takes time, and takes some deep wrestling with oneself and with God and with others and with the legacies of pain and guilt. You know, Jacob wrestled with the angel on the night before he reconciled with his twin Esau.
I learned about Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness many years ago in Sunday School. I have, however, had problems forgiving some of the people in my life. It has been a struggle practically all of my life, starting with my father. He abused alcohol, mentally and physically abused my mother, my brother, and myself, and I have never been able to forgive him for any of it. I have forgiven others, but the trauma I endured during my childhood has stayed with me. I will forgive him, maybe on my own deathbed, but not for now.
But not for now. That’s okay. Forgiveness should never be something we’re forced into, or shamed into. Especially with abuse, forgiveness should never be twisted into just another tool of that abuse. It’s not about condoning or excusing what is inexcusable, forgetting what is unforgettable. But, when the time is right, in the fullness of time, forgiveness can relieve us of the burden we have been forced to carry. It’s a process, it’s a journey.
Another person said:
Forgiveness is an essential element of my faith. I try to be as forgiving as I am forgiven. I am never successful. At the moment I am trying to forgive the person who has brought COVID directly into my world. Ironically, they did this by insisting, against all guidance, all safety protocols, on close contact with another, vulnerable person, during Bible study. They believed they were “protected” and they had a “personal conviction” against the vaccine. Now the virus has both of them and is spreading. So far I’ve only managed lip service to forgiveness, of them and of myself for not finding a way to keep this from happening. Working on it.
Here’s another honest word about the struggle:
It’s tough for me. I used to be able to forgive much easier when I was younger. Now I feel like pharaoh, “…and the Lord hardened his heart”…
But perhaps I’m realizing that the older I become, the more time and chances I get to make an ass out of myself. Therefore, the more understanding I have of being an imperfect, sinful man at my core, which was why I needed saving in the first place. I feel like I am close to understanding a deeper lesson here, but I am too distracted by the ripples of emotion to be able to see the depths of the truth
One of the deep insights of Jesus’ teachings that’s worth us hanging on to and wrestling with and just practicing, is this connection between receiving mercy and offering mercy. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Offering mercy can be a mercy for ourselves. And receiving mercy can release us to share that mercy with others.
Several of you shared about this in a very moving way:
I was physically abused by my first child’s father. Forgiveness took some time coming. He has come back into my life and I can see him for what he is, a complex and deeply hurt man. His sorrow is that he missed out on his child’s life. He has apologized, but I didn’t really feel I needed that. Hearing I forgave him long ago made him so relieved, reLIVED. I just couldn’t carry hate in my heart and live a good life.
And there’s this testimony I feel humbled to share with you:
I am a survivor of multiple episodes of violence and discrimination. But I’ve come to realize that holding anger in my heart only gives power to the people who have hurt me. Forgiveness frees me from their control. It doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten, it means I can move on to a new place, and forgiveness has allowed me to give back to my communities.
And someone offered this testimony:
I knew 2 of the women Ted Bundy murdered. For a very long time I refused to forgive him. I realized until I did forgive him, I was the only one being hurt by my hate. I will not forget. And I am so much more at peace by forgiving. 7 times 7 times 77.
And here are some more powerful words: recently, a friend explained who forgiveness is really for. It’s not for the abuser, or the robber, or the liar to live without guilt. It is for the abused, the robbed, and the deceived. It is a way for us, when we have been harmed, to release the weight of the grudge, the burden of hatred and to close up the black hole of victimhood. It’s for the forgiver.
And last for this week:
When Christ starts talking about forgiveness and the Kingdom of God it took people completely off guard. What I think he wanted them to know is that forgiveness is an expression of love which is the greatest trait in Heaven. When we are wronged and forgive, it helps heal both us and the perpetrator.
It’s so humbling to hear your wisdom, everyone. Thank you.
Several of you brought up important ways that Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness have been severely misunderstood and twisted, I want to say, into the service of sin. It’s come up a few times already, but next week we’ll give it it’s due.
For now, friends, let me leave you with these words from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, from his powerful book “No Future Without Forgiveness,” about the truth and reconciliation process after the fall of apartheid in South Africa:
“God does not give up on anyone, for God loved us from all eternity, God loves us now and God will always love us, all of us good and bad, forever and ever …
This is a moral universe, which mean that, despite all the evidence that seems to be to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word. For us who are Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is proof positive that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, that laughter and joy, and compassion and gentleness and truth, all these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts.” (No Future Without Forgiveness, 85-86)