(Hebrews 11:1-3; Matthew 6:12,14; Isaiah 1:15-20)
All this business about forgiveness, giving and receiving forgiveness, it can be challenging and confounding. But this is at the heart of our faith, so I hope it is challenging and confounding in the positive sense: an opportunity for growth by encountering something surprising, an unexpected gift: the unexpected gift from a God of grace. We seek forgiveness as a matter of faith, the realization of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen.
So let’s explore this together. My reflections this morning are indebted to those of you who were at our monthly vespers service this past Wednesday, where we’ve been slowly going through the Lord’s prayer, line by line, month by month, contemplating the meaning of each line. This month we explored these lines in the Lord’s Prayer “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” and you all shared some real wisdom and experience, and honesty about the challenges here.
I had wanted us on Wednesday to focus just on the “forgive us our debts” debts part, to focus on what it’s like to receive forgiveness from God, and to ask for forgiveness from others. And then my plan was next month we’d contemplate the next part about ourselves forgiving others.
But you all at the service corrected me and said: No the two are linked – “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” – there’s a relationship between them that you can’t ignore. It’s even a conditional relationship: if this then that, if you’re able to forgive then you are able to be forgiven. And, as we talked, we saw that the reverse is true: if you are able to be forgiven then you’re better able to forgive.
So let’s explore that this morning: the relationship Jesus teaches about between receiving forgiveness and giving forgiveness.
Someone on Wednesday reminded us that Jesus taught a parable about this. The story Jesus taught was about a man who owed a king a huge debt. It becomes clear that he has no chance of paying this back. He pleads with the king and the king forgives the debt. But what does this guy do after getting bailed out like this, but turn around and himself shake down this poor guy who owes him chump change. The king hears about this, and takes the man by the ear and says, “I just showed you mercy, I just forgave this huge debt you owed me. Why can’t you show just a fraction of that mercy to this poor guy who owes you next to nothing? Sorry, buddy, you blew it, you’re debts are still on and they’re way overdue so you’re gonna get what’s coming to you.”
This story is saying something about the relationship between receiving and giving forgiveness. This man first received forgiveness, but then because this didn’t move him to himself give forgiveness, that initial forgiveness disappeared.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
This man may have had his debt erased, but he was not willing to have a converted heart, he did not accept freedom from a debt-ridden heart. If he had truly received forgiveness his heart would have been converted into a heart of mercy, it would have been converted from a heart that was hardened with this effort of keeping score, into a heart that was immersed in a merciful God and opened to the free flow of God’s mercy.
It’s easy in this world for our hearts to get debt-ridden and constricted with keeping score. People hurt each other, and entire tribes and nations hurt each other, and not just little stings, but horrible traumatic historic harm. And they may never acknowledge the harm, they may excuse themselves or even glory in their power to do harm, they may never feel guilty about what they’ve done, let alone humble themselves and seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Now, that does happen, that can happen, and reconciliation is more possible than we give it credit, but it’s clear that it doesn’t always happen.
These hurts that we suffer are profound, and they can be profoundly heavy. They can cause us to harm ourselves, which is most common, and they can cause us to harm others. Nothing is more dangerous than a person with a chip on their shoulder, a chip on the shoulder is the mark of a debt-ridden heart, obsessed with keeping score. The world owes me for what I’ve suffered, and I’ve dished it out enough times that I might as well double down. But there can come a time when we get sick of all that suffering, and tired of all that weight.
In the conversation on Wednesday the image of weight, of burden came up a couple of times. Forgiveness is letting go of the weight that comes when we hold on to harm.
The journey of forgiveness, of giving up the weight, this is the journey of getting really honest about the harm that has been done. Forgiving is not about forgetting, it’s about being really honest about the harm done and the burden of it, and then letting go of that burden and accepting the embrace of a loving God.
If we’re seeking forgiveness for the harms we’ve caused to others or the harms that we’ve caused to ourselves, getting really honest about these harms often means coming to terms with the harms that others have done to us. So here is one reason for the flow between receiving forgiveness and giving forgiveness.
But let me share with you what I think is the heart of the matter. And that is our relationship with God. In our passage from the prophet Isaiah, God is saying to the people, “I’m hiding my face from you, because you’ve got blood on your hands and you won’t even admit it and instead you act like you’re all pious. Ask for forgiveness, ask to be made clean, and you will be free to once again be in a relationship with your God. But if you don’t seek forgiveness, if you’re not willing to be honest with yourselves, know that you’re choosing to stay stuck in a cycle of violence.”
Violence, harm, debt-ridden heart constricted with keeping score, sin … whether we inflict it or have it inflicted on us, this causes a rupture not just in our relationship with other people, but also in our relationship with God, who is the source of all our being.
When we violate another person, or if another person violates us, we get cut off from our true nature as children of God. We become disconnected, dislocated from our true home with our Creator. Forgiveness is the journey of reconnecting, reuniting, whether we’re giving forgiveness or receiving forgiveness, the journey is one of coming home to our true nature as beloved Children of God.
That is why forgiveness is at the heart of our Christian faith. What is at stake here is a restored relationship with God. According to our faith, the relationship between humanity and God is already restored. The deed has already been done. It’s just up to us to trust and say “yes.” It’s a gift, its’ free. God is waiting to embrace us, regardless of whether we owe a little or owe more than we can possibly pay back, regardless of whether we’ve been hurt in ways that have cracked us a little or that have broken us right open. God is waiting, abounding with astounding mercy, confounding mercy. We just need to surrender and say “yes.”
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered August 7, 2016, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)