Forgiving Ourselves

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on September 17, 2017 *

Texts for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost:
Genesis 50:15-21 + Psalm 103:1-13 + Romans 14:1-12 + Matthew 18:21-35


Please pray with me this morning, church:

Compassionate God,
Have mercy on us.
When the aches and stresses
Of everyday life get to be too much,
We often get short. With each other. With ourselves.
Teach us forgiveness again today.
Help us relearn the art of unbinding.


So, church…3 weeks out from Harvey…how are we doing?
Slowly starting to get back into routines? The kids are back in school… More and more traffic lanes are being opened up… Catching up on those emails at work…
And if you’re one of the many among us who are retired, you’re like, “I can’t tell the difference.”

Returning to a sense of normalcy, even if what we’re living in is a new normal, is an important part of recovery. And let’s be honest, it is a new normal that we’re living in. The Houston-metro area is permanently changed as a result of Hurricane Harvey. Nature has changed, development has changed, the people of Houston…are changed.
We’re not the same people we were three weeks ago. And we likely won’t ever be those people again.

And some of us here this morning are still just barely making it, right? For some of us this morning, we’re still cleaning up, ripping up carpets, spraying mold killer, putting up new drywall, painting…
It’s a weird in-between time that we’re in.

Maybe y’all all already know this from previous hurricanes or other disasters we call natural, but I was struck how time seems to stop in the midst of a crisis.
Everything else seems to fall away, and the only thing that matters is what’s right in front of you. Your safety, your family, your home, your neighbors, your community…
And yet, strangely, the world seems to keep right on going… Like, in the middle of our own hurricane, another stronger hurricane was barreling toward the Caribbean. While we were being pelted by torrential rain, a wildfire was raging in the Pacific Northwest.
For as much as my attention was so laser-focused on the needs of this immediate community around us, for as much as I didn’t have the capacity for everything else that was happening in the world, I’ve got to tell you, I was exhausted. I think I’m still catching up, to be honest with you.

Times of crisis demand more than our full attention from us. They push and pull and test us in ways that are outside of our normal and preferred ways of being. We might be short with one another, maybe with our loved ones. We might find ourselves with less patience, shorter tempers, and more easily annoyed with trivial things.
I’ve said it to many of you already in the 3 weeks since Hurricane Harvey, “Be gracious with yourself.”

And I’ll also add, “Be gracious with each other.”
Which sounds lovely in a sermon and makes for a nice greeting card, but honestly, is really, really hard in practice.

This Tuesday marks one year since I officially set foot on the campus of New Hope Lutheran Church to serve you as your Pastor. And as I’ve been reflecting on the past year, I feel really proud. I feel really proud about how much we’ve all grown in a year, how much we’ve gotten to know one another, how much trust we’ve built, and how much love we’ve shared.
I also know, as many of you do too, that it hasn’t always been rainbows and butterflies. We know it, right; there’s been tough spots. There will always be tough spots.
And the thing about tough spots is…they like to take up residence. By some virtue of the ways our minds work, we usually end up dwelling on the things we wished we would have done, the things we wished we would have said, and the people we wished we would have treated differently, hopefully better.

See the thing is…we have a little trouble forgiving.
Maybe it’s other people. Maybe it’s ourselves.
We may have even said, “I forgive you” to that person or to ourself, but then it comes up again, taking up residence, like it never left, which makes me wonder if we’ve really forgiven them…
Maybe part of forgiveness is needing to remind ourselves that we’ve forgiven them.

Maybe Peter’s struggling with this, too. “How many times am I supposed to forgive someone, Lord? 7 times?”
Maybe a tough spot has taken up residence in Peter’s head and he’s wanting to know at what point this thing is going to be kicked out.
So imagine Peter’s disappointment when Jesus tells him, “Not 7 times, Peter, but 77 times.” Or maybe it’s 70 times 7, the Greek isn’t super clear. At any rate, it’s more fingers and toes than I’ve got, so I’m going to need to borrow some of yours.

Which maybe is starting to get at what this whole idea of forgiveness really is.
Maybe it’s less about an accounting system and more about rediscovering how to live together.

Look, I’m not saying forgiveness is easy, it’s not. It takes a lot of inner self-work to truly forgive someone. Forgiving isn’t forgetting. When trust is broken, particularly very badly broken, you might forgive me for what I did, but you probably won’t trust me again.
And I think we’ve all heard or even said this before, “I’ll forgive you, but I will never forget what you did,” said through teeth and fists clenched so tight, you wonder if maybe we’re misunderstanding forgiveness altogether.
Forgiving isn’t forgetting, but it isn’t holding a grudge either. Because if you remember from last week when Jesus said, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” And holding a grudge or clinging tightly to the offense or offender with clenched fists is letting that thing or that person bind you up.
Forgiving isn’t forgetting, but it is trying to move beyond the offense or offender, so much as you’re able, to not let that thing or person exert control over you.

Forgiving is liberation, not so much for the other person, but for yourself.
Which is why I think the parable Jesus uses this morning is so beautiful.
A servant owed the king 10,000 talents, which in today’s money, as I figured out this week with the group of pastors I meet with, is the equivalent of 12.5 trillion dollars. A ridiculous sum.
And when the servant pleaded with the king, the king forgave the debt. All of it.
And then another servant owed the first servant a hundred denarii, which is about a hundred days’ wages. Not a small sum, but certainly not 12.5 trillion dollars. And even though the second servant pleaded with the first, the first servant had no compassion on the second, even though the first had this exorbitant debt forgiven.

Friends, forgiveness is a gift. As someone who has needed, who has asked for, and who has received forgiveness, I can tell you it is an incredible gift to the one who has been forgiven.

And as someone who has given forgiveness, I can tell you it is also an incredible gift for the one extending forgiveness. Because the gift in forgiveness is recognizing that we are the first servant in the parable. We are the ones who have been forgiven of our extraordinary debt.
Through the crucifixion of Christ, God refuses to count on fingers and toes, refuses to continue to hold our sin against us, and instead, through the outstretched arms of Christ, God embraces us and calls us “Beloved.”

Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk who lives in New Mexico, writes that God is a rule breaker. The One who would have all the right in the world to hold a grudge against humanity, against you or me, breaks the rule of what we consider to be justice because a relationship with us is more important than being right for God. Which means that forgiveness is less about giving something your blessing, and more about not giving something power.
I know forgiveness isn’t easy, and I know that I don’t always know how to tell if it’s truly taken place or not. I often have to remind myself that I’ve forgiven someone when that voice inside me starts taking up residence again, reminding me what they’ve done…
Or, more honestly, I often have to remind myself that I’ve forgiven myself for my missteps.

Which is why it does no good to try and count. Because 70 times 7 is an impossible number to try and reach when I’m just trying to get to 1…
And it’s why we have to remember to be gracious with ourselves, and why we must certainly try to be gracious with each other. To remember that we are the ones who have been given grace and who have received forgiveness.
That we are the ones who’ve been given this exorbitant gift. And that gifts are made for sharing.

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