Welcome! Today is Welcome Back Sunday. Many of us are coming home from the summer to the weekly routine of work, school and church that September and the beginning of the school year always seem to bring to us. This is a day when we celebrate the beginning of a new year in Christian community. This is a day when we gather together as community after a summer of activities that scatter us in different directions. Welcome to those who are visiting with us for the first time. This is a day when we especially hope that people who have not worshiped with us before will feel moved to walk through our doors and see what we’re all about.
Today, as we celebrate our coming together as people striving to live in Christian community, we stand in the shadow of our remembrance of the events of September 11. We stand in that shadow, giving thanks for God’s presence with us as we struggled with the horror of those early days—giving thanks for the courage of those who showed us the very best of humanity under the very worst conditions—giving thanks for all the ways our nation has been blessed.
Today, even as we celebrate our community and remember the way we came together in larger community to care for one another during the events of 9-11, we are aware of those who are struggling with to cope with yet another emergency. Once again, our country is faced with the need to reach out to our neighbors, to send aid to them, to do what we can to help them bear their burden, to hold them in our prayers.
This day is loaded with all kinds of emotions – excitement, worry, grief, perhaps anger, certainly sorrow for those whose lives have been lost or torn apart by the events of four years ago and of the last two weeks. In the midst of all this comes today’s gospel reading – a lesson in forgiveness.
When I first began to think of what I might say this morning, I thought of all the big things in our lives that call for forgiveness – all the pain we cause others, all the pain others cause us. I thought about the big things – the things that seem completely unforgivable – whether we are the perpetrators or the recipients of the actions that cause pain or difficulty in our lives. I thought about the big things we do to hurt each other, and then I thought about what it means to live in community. For one thing, it means we bump into each other a lot. Whenever people gather together, sooner or later, we are bound to rub each other the wrong way. Sooner or later, no matter how hard we try, we are going to say or do something that will cause someone else pain. And there are days when that is all we seem to be able to do, and there are days when it seems that’s all everyone else seems to be able to do to us.
That may have been what Peter has on his mind when he comes to Jesus with this question: “If another member of the community sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus responds: “As many as seventy-seven times” – which was no doubt a shock for Peter, who was probably congratulating himself for his open heart and his ability to walk in the way Jesus teaches. Seventy-seven times. You may remember that the old King James version says seventy times seven – 490 times. Some days it seems like 490 times might just cover the forgiveness that needs to be done. And there are days when it seems like once is more than we can manage.
I think that one of the reasons why forgiveness sometimes is difficult for us is that we don’t have a clear idea of what forgiveness really is. One of my favorite commentators, the Rev. Barbara Cawthorn, has outlined some of the things that forgiveness isn’t – in such clear terms that I want to share them with you.
One of our problems is that little saying: forgive and forget. That is nonsense. Things that happen really happen. Forgiveness is not an eraser that wipes out the past. Forgiveness doesn’t change history or undo the hurt that has been done.
Another problem is our tendency to believe that if we forgive, we send a message that what the other person did was okay. This is more nonsense. We don’t forgive things that are okay – they’re already okay and no action is needed.
Neither does forgiveness mean that harm didn’t happen. Forgiveness is not the same as acquittal.
Sometimes we think that forgiving someone means that the person gets away with what they have done. No. All our actions have consequences, and the person who sins against another – who harms another – must pay for those actions in one way or another.
We also choose not to forgive because the person who has hurt us isn’t remorseful. Can’t you hear us? “She’s not even sorry for what she did – how can I possibly forgive her?” Well, my friends, forgiveness is not about the other person. Forgiveness is about us, about the life we are living, about all the energy we put into being hurt and into holding that hurt close to us. Forgiveness is about taking our life back and refusing to be held hostage by history.
Sometimes we get caught in the “let bygones be bygones” trap. We think that too much water has passed under the bridge, that the hurt is too old to be forgiven. But if there is still pain, if we are still carrying the grudge or the anger, the experience is in the present, not the past, and it needs to be addressed in the present.
Finally, all too often, the problem is that we can’t forgive ourselves for something we’ve done. God is ready to forgive in the first moment, but we have a little more difficulty with that. We tend to hold ourselves to a higher standard than God does. If this is a problem for you, you might want to come talk to me about it. If it’s a problem for you, you certainly might want to think about what’s happening with you and God.
So, here we are, back together for a year of worship and work, fellowship and learning. In these next months, I guarantee you that somehow or another, some of us will manage to get cross-wise with each other. I’d be willing to put good money on the possibility that I’ll be caught up in that just like everyone else. In the months to come, we will get cross-wise with each other, we will cause each other pain, not because we mean to or want to but because we are humans. We are humans with our own individual needs and fears, quirks and understandings, perspectives and experience, hopes and expectations.
So where does this leave us? It leaves us with two things: First we need to remember that God forgives us as soon as we turn to God, and we need to accept that forgiveness. Second, we need to remember that we are God’s hands and voice in this world and extend that forgiveness to others.
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