Mother Katherine’s sermon preached Sep. 13, 2020

Posted by on Sun, Sep 13, 2020 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 15th Sunday after Pentecost

September 13, 2020

When we are constantly challenged by fear or disasters, or like this weekend, an anniversary of one—it can make us feel powerless to affect change. It can also turn us towards becoming our best selves as we stop to seek the bedrock we have as children of God, that firm ground beneath our feet as followers of Christ. This is a time for deepening and strengthening ourselves by learning, practicing, and acting on the most powerful tenets of our faith. In doing this we enter, effect, and persevere through whatever the next incoming challenge may be. So today we focus on the powerful tenet of forgiveness.

It isn’t ‘second’ to love, but rather part of it, and one cannot have love without forgiveness. There isn’t one of us who hasn’t been wounded by another and felt the reproach rising up, and I hope you have had equally memorable experiences of forgiveness. Even so, there is still a kind of heartache because to forgive doesn’t make it not have happened and doesn’t make anyone forget. It doesn’t even eliminate the original pain—it draws us closer to it. Poet and theologian David Whyte writes, “To approach forgiveness is to close in on the nature of the hurt itself, the only remedy being, as we approach its raw center, to reimagine our relation to it… it is that wounded, branded, un-forgetting part of us that eventually makes forgiveness an act of compassion rather than one of simple forgetting.”

The parable we just heard is of a man who received forgiveness but treated it as a personal windfall, and then looked for more—whereby he sought to squeeze money from the one who owed him. He gave no thought to passing on that forgiveness, only about himself. The forgiveness the first man received didn’t take root or mean anything to him other than avoiding punishment. Remember apologizing for doing something ‘bad’, and then having your parent or teacher ask if you were sorry you did it, or sorry you got caught? That’s what we see in our parable here; the first one forgiven didn’t take it to heart and internalize what it meant. It didn’t change him. He was just sorry he got caught, and then turned to ‘catch’ the one who owed him. Jesus asks us to learn that harder lesson that changes us.

That’s where Peter is today. ‘How much do I have to do this Lord?!’  ‘Peter, if you’re looking for a number or trying to do the mental calculation of the seventy times everyone you know, they you haven’t got it down yet.’ Jesus teaches that as we receive abundant forgiveness we take it in with gratitude, let it change something within you, and then turn and give it to someone else who needs it. Can you hear Peter thinking, ‘easier said than done, Jesus!’ It’s hard when the one who hurt you does the “I’m sorry, but…” or says it dismissively and without meaning; “Oh, sorry,” and moves on. A colleague quotes C. S. Lewis’ comment that, “What we call ‘asking for forgiveness’ often consists of asking God or another to accept our excuses.” We have to reach for this higher standard, to learn from what we have done or how we’ve been hurt. The confession we are using from the Anglican Church in New Zealand says it thusly; “We will not conceal our wrongdoings” and “Some sins are plain to us; some escape us, some we cannot face.” As we come to God for the forgiveness we know is so constantly and lavishly given we need to get closer to those wrongdoings, dig deeper, understand and learn from them, and reimagine how life could be without the burden of those wrongdoings coming back onto our backs again and again. We accept God’s forgiveness in a way that changes us into a better person, one who will pass on that gift. I especially appreciate the words of absolution the New Zealand Church offers us; “God forgives you. Forgive others. Forgive yourself.”

In this, Jesus’ teaching is illuminated succinctly, and, while not necessarily easy, these simple words are arranged in the order we need live them. What is hard about each of these for you? Do we struggle to accept God’s gift? What do you wrestle internally to pray and ask forgiveness for? What has wounded you so painfully you cannot find a way to forgive? Being able to do so is a glorious and freeing thing, yet how do we deal with it when we hurt too much, or when that person is beyond reach of a two-way reconciliation, or has died? Can forgiving be meaningful even without their genuine understanding and heartfelt apology? This weekend brings to mind the pain of the 9/11 attacks, while many are engaged in discussions of forgiveness and restitution around our history of racism, still others angrily assigning blame for the coronavirus, and so on. I’ve always deeply disliked the phrase “Forgive and forget” because it isn’t true and it completely misses the point. And while I’m at it, I will also say I’m offended by how many things are written and posted saying ‘the biggest reason to forgive is because its a gift to ourselves.’ Again, not the point at all! Forgiveness isn’t to make us feel better, and yet it will. Forgiveness is an act of love in spite of knowing we will not forget the hurt. It’s an act of vulnerability and hope for the future of a relationship. It will mean a shift in going forward, in the balance of power so to speak, as we rebuild from that new place. Forgiveness teaches us what’s more important and values that far above something to forget or pretend we can erase somehow.

A moment ago I wondered aloud how we forgive when the other person is beyond reach of a two way reconciliation, or has died. That reconciliation we seek won’t be overt or articulated if that’s the case, but that doesn’t mean one cannot still forgive and reconcile ourselves to have faith in what God can do in that grace. We believe this life is not the end, and we are together with the whole communion of saints past, present and yet to come. We can seek and pray for reconciliation with those who are unreachable in our soul’s depth, even if we don’t hear it with our own ears. We work to do this because Jesus commands it and it is part of loving each other and ourselves, our own souls need that healing even if it’s hard and takes work.

The tricky part is getting out of our own way. What if we just don’t want to?! Forgiveness will ruin a perfectly good ‘mad’ and wreck that anger-fueled self-righteousness that keeps us so animated. I’ve been there too. Once after many weeks of praying unsuccessfully to forgive someone, I felt frustrated, sad, and angry—with God and with myself for not being up to the task. Finally I admitted it wasn’t happening because deep down I might not want to. I hated that realization, and yet I recognized its truth. So if I couldn’t pray my way to forgive, I would pray to want to forgive! When I did, it felt like the helicopter ladder dropping down to lift me up from the rising water! The Spirit moved in me and it was over. Not forgotten, but really better. Loving through the hurt and great pain is far better than it never happening, and such love is what Jesus taught and showed us.

I had to stop trying to serve my agenda and open myself to what God would do in me. It was a moment not of confidence but of desperation—and God was there. Forgiving let me remember that person in so many good ways, not just how she had hurt me. It let me see the whole, not just the worst of her and our friendship, and my spirit was strengthened as my being was opened. Receiving forgiveness is just as hard if not more so. It can be like being handed a gift while your hands are tied behind you. We seem unable or unwilling to accept it at times. Receiving is humbling work too, we have to put ourselves in how the other see things, risk trusting again.

Vulnerability isn’t simple though, and I believe the apology doesn’t count if “I’m sorry” is followed by “but…” We have to own our ability to injure, and the fact that we did so, intentionally or otherwise. It’s either that or we both lose the chance to reconcile, to grow the relationship, and the chance to grow in love ourselves. Again from David Whyte:

“A friend knows our difficulties and shadows and remains in sight, a companion to our vulnerabilities more than our triumphs, when we are under the strange illusion we do not need them.”

“Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn.  … All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die.”

In the future when I’m forgiveness-challenged, I’ll try to live into that absolution we use today, because it’s a road map for us as Christians, Jesus lighting the path to become who we are called to be; God forgives me. Forgive others. Forgive myself.

I ask you and pray for you to do the same. Amen.

© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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