“Oh, the Joy of Forgiveness – You Go First” Sept. 17, 2023
“Oh, the Joy of Forgiveness: You Go First”
Genesis 50:15-21/ Exodus 14:19-31
“Master,” Peter asked, “ how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?” 22 Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.” It’s been reported that at the end of her failed bid for the presidency, Hillary Clinton said, “the Bible tells us to forgive 70 times 7 times. I just want you all to know that I’m keeping a list.”
So, good morning to you one and all and welcome to worship on this perfectly glorious day. Our theme for the day is that of forgiveness, prompted by yet another one of those awkward conversations between Peter and the Christ as Peter asks the question, “ how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? How many times, Lord? How many times before I can quit faking it by being nice to them? How many times until I can break off all ties I have with this person? How many times, Lord, before I can start to get even? How about 7? that’s a nice even number. Does 7 work for you?”
I am, of course, embellishing on the story just a bit here. But really now- the idea that there would be a magic number for living out the acts of mercy that Jesus calls us to…. well, it’s a bit unrealistic. Picture, if you will, arriving here at church on a beautiful Sunday morning only to be greeted by a long list hanging in the fellowship hall giving us our assignments for the coming week. Let’s see now: how about 21 acts of compassion along with at least 7 heartfelt moments of empathy.
We should top this off with at least a daily expression of loving our neighbor as ourselves, ‘and don’t forget there is still a seven act minimum pertaining to the forgiveness of those who have done us wrong.’
Can you imagine? I didn’t think so. And that is why of all the not so bright questions that Peter asked the Lord during his time, this one stands up there in the top 10. I mean, Peter seems fairly sure that seven times is more than generous when it comes to the forgiveness of his fellow travelers. But Jesus blows this out of the water by offering up a set of numbers that can only mean one thing: there really is no number that could be taken as a prescription for forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a numbers game.
There’s the old saying, “You can never outgive God.” Apparently, you can never out-forgive God, either. Just how great is the forgiveness that God offers to each of us? There is really no counting it. Also, as Martin Luther King jr. once said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” You have to wonder if Peter ever really figured that out.
Meanwhile, we are still charged – we are commanded – To indulge in this thing called forgiveness. We are not asked to qualify or clarify or justify our acts of forgiveness. And we’re not encouraged to make a big show of our capacity to forgive. No, we are simply commanded to do it, and what’s more , we are reminded of this command every time we gather together in the words of the Lord’s prayer as we speak, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us; forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. The translations may vary but the meaning stays the same: forgive us our goof ups, our insensitivity, and even our streaks of just plain old meanness. Forgive us our lack of compassion and understanding, and then while you’re at it, forgive us for the evil that we harbor in our hearts and for the evil that sometimes escapes our lips. Lord, forgive us for all sorts of things; the list is long; the list is far too long.
But here’s the thing: once we come to realize and to understand and to believe that there is absolution and there is redemption and there is true and wholehearted forgiveness for the sins that have dragged us down; once we realize that God is willing and able to forgive all that – all that and then some- it changes everything. When we consider the magnitude of love and forgiveness expressed in the body and ministry of Jesus Christ; when we consider all that, then the forgiveness of those who have trespassed against us is not quite so daunting. Through the ministry of Christ, God taught us all we need to know about forgiveness, when you really think about it and it is comforting to know that he is and will always be a forgiving presence.
That’s not to say that our faith is a get out of jail free card, so to speak. I’m reminded of the story from the comedian Emo Philips who once said, “When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord doesn’t work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me.” I might add that the Lord doesn’t work that way, either.
When Peter asked that now famous question of how many times must we forgive, Jesus was quick to recognize it as a teachable moment. “How about 70 times 7?” he said, and Peter came to understand that the number may as well have been 7 million times 7.
But in the parable of the unmerciful servant, We get a glimpse of yet one more wrinkle in God’s command for us to forgive.
So once more, let’s consider the prayer that Jesus taught us in which we ask ofhim to be forgiven of our trespasses and our sins and our orneryness (and now here’s the good part) we ask that we be forgiven of all these things in the same way that we forgive those who sin or trespass or are just plain ornery against us. Oh how do you suppose that is supposed to work out? “Lord, forgive us as we forgive those.” “Lord, forgive us as we forgive those who have trespassed against us. us. Forgive us as we forgive.” It’s funny isn’t it but in light of the enormity of the grace and forgiveness God has shown to us, our efforts at forgiveness should be a piece of cake, but as Mr. Gershwin once said. “That ain’t necessarily so.”
Forgiveness, mercy, pardon: in a society that still clings to retribution and punishment, a little bit of old fashioned forgiveness can still change hearts and lives “.Forgiveness is”, as Mark Twain put it, “the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” With all that being said, Jesus continues to remind us that if we long for mercy, we must exercise mercy. If we yearn for forgiveness, we must learn to forgive. And if we seek pardon, it will be found by pardoning.
I’d like to close with a little exercise that I have been testing on myself. So far, I haven’t been very pleased with the results. So here goes-
A few days ago, we all observed the tragic destruction of the twin towers in New York City. For most of us, this commemoration was still somewhat of a personal and emotional event even though it was over 20 years ago, the memory is still fresh in our minds. We remember where we were when we heard the news; we remember what we were doing; and most of all, we remember how it made us feel.
We use words like shock and anger and rage and leave out that certain tightness in our shoulders and the hollow feeling in our gut. But we remember it; we remember it well.
My question for you here today is how do we find forgiveness for something so heinous and so gruesome? How do we do that? Is it even possible? Should we even bother? Like I said, I struggle with this myself. And as much because I would like to justify my anger, I’m reminded again and again of a prayer that we speak as a congregation every time we meet; particularly of the words in this prayer that speak: “oh Lord, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” If you seek mercy, learn to be merciful. And if your heart aches for forgiveness, then be that forgiveness. Be that force of love and compassion and understanding that changes the world.
It is said that one forgives to the degree that one loves, and I I’m inclined to agree. If we find ourselves struggling to be a forgiving presence, then look for the love- look for the love. And if all else fails, just remember, “there is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.”
Amen and Shalom
There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness. Josh Billings