“Forgive us, as we forgive”
October 12, 2014
Genesis 50: 15-21 and Matthew 18: 21-35
Today we continue with our sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer as we focus on the phrase “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This prayer for forgiveness sits in the middle of a string of three imperatives: “give us this day our daily bread (which we explored last week);” “forgive us as we forgive;” and “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” (which we will dive into on the 26th. So today we take up what some would argue is the heart of the Gospel, the heart of what it is to be followers of Jesus, and that is forgiveness.
But before we begin, Let us pray: “Holy God, throw open the doors of our hearts, lift high the windows of our minds, that you spirit may move among and through us and that in this time your wisdom may guide us into new insights as to what it is to forgive and be forgiven. And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God our rock and our redeemer, Amen.
Once again, I found myself, this week, running out of time. So the thought crossed my mind, that what I would do this morning is confess to you that I did not have time to write a sermon and then to proceed to ask for your forgiveness. “What could be better,” I reasoned, to actually have an experience of forgiveness this morning instead of just talking about it!
But I thought better of it. Because, forgiveness, I fear, has far too often be reduced to a kind of accountability “get out of jail free card” that is played when it is to our advantage. “I’m sorry, forgive me?”
And, as people of faith, we may feel that forgiving is something we have to do even if our heart is not really into it.
It is time to think anew about forgiveness. For forgiveness, is so central to faith that Jesus instructed us to ask of it and to engage in it each and every time we pray, and yet it is something I wager, we are a bit unsure of.
Let’s begin by being clear about what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not condoning or conciliation, where an offense is minimized in order to gain favor again. Forgiveness is not forgetting or excusing, casting aside the offense in order to just move on. Forgiveness is not justifying, somehow arguing that there was good reason for the offense in the first place.
Forgiveness in our Christian tradition is not even predicated on the one who has given offense being repentant of it. Jesus words on the cross “Forgive them for they know not what they do” speaks a profound challenge since there is something in our soul that rebels against the idea of forgiving those who we think are not deserving of it.
So what is this forgiveness that Jesus commands that we ask for and participate in? This forgiveness that is at the heart of a life of faith?
Forgiveness is a transformative practice that when we engage in it, it enables us to shed the layers of resentment, shame, anger and guilt and emerge more and more fully into the light of who we truly are, unburdened, radiant and fully alive and through whom God’s goodness can more and more fully become present.
I find it deeply moving that Jesus instructs us to pray these three central imperatives of “give us this day our daily bread”; “forgive us as we forgive” and “lead us not into temptation but deliver us.” I find it deeply moving because Jesus knows our vulnerabilities and our brokenness and knows that without God’s help our tendency would be to take more than our daily bread; our tendency would be to store up resentments and hurts. And our tendency would be to succumb to temptation and become enslaved to our addictions. There is this undertow in our human condition that seems to pull us down into a kind of fearful, crisis mentality looking at the world as unsafe and unpredictable and the only rational response is to look out for number one because God knows no one else is going to.
The Lord’s Prayer is an intentional counter to this undertow of fear. This prayer for daily bread, forgiveness, and deliverance lifts us to a place of safety and abundance, and places us again and again into right relationship with each other and with God. It is a prayer of return to Eden which is our birth right and our blessing.
Last week, I suggested that key to receiving each day our daily bread is the need to make peace with the frantic doing of our time and to take up God’s call to honor the Sabbath. To take time to open the window of eternity in the now of our days and rest in the peace of God’s presence.
Today, I would like to suggest that key to our ability to ask for and to give forgiveness, is very much tied up with what this provocative statement that Joseph makes in the text this morning. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”
The passage that Cindy read to us from Genesis comes at the very end of the book. Genesis the first book of the bible that begins with the story of how human kinds fell from the state of original blessing and harmony and now ends with the remarkable story of forgiveness. The Joseph story is a long and rich one. In the text today, Joseph is a middle aged man, but as Amy recounted, the story opens many chapters ago when he was just a boy of 17. Joseph is his father’s favorite son, rather precocious, a dreamer and interpreter of dreams, a visionary. He is also much despised by his older brothers. So much so that they conspire to kill Joseph, but come up just short of doing so and instead traffick him, selling him to a passing caravan to takes him as a slave into Egypt.
Bad goes to worse as Joseph is falsely accused by the wife of a palace general and is thrown into prison. Favorite son, to slave, to prisoner. Despite all of these terrible things that happen, what is remarkable about Joseph is this ability to resist the accumulation of resentment or shame or anger in the face of the horrible offenses that he suffers. He experiences how wrong they are. But he does not hold onto the offense.
Instead he keeps his eyes and heart open and moves forward. Which in the story means that in prison he has the opportunity to interpret the dreams of his fellow prisoners and gets such a reputation for doing so that when Pharaoh has some dreams that no one in his court can interpret, Joseph is called upon. So impressed is Pharaoh by Joseph that he makes him a kind of deputy Pharaoh, putting Joseph in charge of assuring that there will be enough food for all the people in the years of famine that are coming.
Joseph takes up this work of deputy Pharaoh and it is in this capacity, now thirty or so years after his brothers sold him into slavery, that he meets them again. They have come down to Egypt because there is no food where they had been in Cannan. When they first meet Joseph they have no idea who he is, but Joseph recognizes them straight way. When he finally reveals himself to them, they are terrified for they are sure that Joseph will punish them for their crime, make them suffer for the suffering they inflicted on Joseph.
But instead what does he do? He weeps and embraces them. Calls them brother again and pledges to care for them and their little ones.
How can he do that? How is he able to forgive them? And clearly he is not just saying that he forgives them while still holding onto resentment in his heart. For the text tells us that he is so moved by the fear and hurt in his brothers’ eyes that he weeps for them, reassures them and speaks kindly to them. And the text tells us, does indeed care for them until his dying day.
So how, how does he do it? Joseph’s ability to shed the resentment, shame, and anger that he could very well have wrapped himself up in given the betrayal, hurt and suffering that those closest to him put him through, seems to have everything to do with how he understands his life to be intertwined with the life of God. He knows that what he has suffered is not the will of God, he puts responsibility for his suffering right on the shoulders of his brothers (though you intended to do harm to me,) but he sees that God is working in and through the hardships of his life to transform those hardships into something that is in service to God’s goodness. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”
This is a remarkable and life freeing theology. While our human interactions can often bring hurt and brokenness, God is at work so that we do not remain in that place of hurt and brokenness. God is entering into that brokenness and transforming it, breaking open new possibilities and hopes. I want to be very clear about this. Joseph knows his brothers did wrong. They hurt him. They are to blame. But Joseph refuses to remain victim to his brothers’ crime. He walks through that dark valley trusting that God is leading him and will deliver him and that God is working to transform the wrong done to him into something good. This is not Pollyannaish “everything is good because everything is god’s will.” This is rugged courageous, hope filled trust that even the valley of deepest darkness can be transformed into green pastures through the love and power of God’s goodness. Hurt and brokenness are not ignored nor forgotten, instead they are transformed and redeemed. Forgiveness then is the expression of this fierce trust and hope in God’s goodness and providence.
I was of course joking when I started this sermon by saying that I thought about just telling you I did not have time to write a sermon and then ask your forgiveness, saying that what is important is not just talking about forgiveness but instead experiencing forgiveness. But that of course is true. In the Gospel account, Jesus tells us that it is not enough that we trust that God forgives us and is even now working to deliver us, but we too must enter a practice of forgiveness for ourselves. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We must practice the difficult work of unwrapping the layers of resentment, shame and anger from around our hearts. We must practice turning away from blame and hate against those who have offended us. We must practice turning towards and leaning into the presence of God, trusting that we will be lead even through the deepest darkness. The degree to which we are able to truly forgive others will be the degree to which we truly experience the freedom of what it is to be forgiven and the grace to become instruments of God’s peace in the world.
And so we practice, and so we pray “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Amen.