I took the church service today, and the topic was forgiveness. Forgiveness, an easy word to say and a hard word to live out. I feel that so much of our Christian tradition has been tied up with not only forgiveness but with sin, how bad we are and how wonderful and forgiving God is. Yet, both statements leave an empty space that needs to be filled. We are not bad, we are wonderfully made, a glorious product of millions of years of evolution. But we are human, and are capable of such evil intent. God is wonderful but is also part of the created order, part of life itself, part of us as human beings. When we worship we worship something that is inherent in all of us, that drives us to love and grow and embrace others. When we falter, when we make mistakes, we look to each other for reconciliation and forgiveness, not to an external deity somewhere else. We look to the spirit within and amongst us to kindle the fire of love again, a spirit that never leaves, as though it might take a break, or worse still judge us as not worthy. God is not in the heavens forgiving or not forgiving, but in all of us, in all the created order, and being alive to it is one of the great gifts of the universe. For it can lead to wholeness in life for everyone.
Anyway, here is the sermon….
We live in a world that expects perfection. We are to have the perfect life, the perfect job, the perfect children, and we are to be the perfect parents. Ouch, I think I might have failed there. I wanted the boys to be neat and tidy, alcohol abstainers and be great cooks. Instead I got two beer drinking long hair lads who leave their bath towels everywhere except in the bathroom. And can bbq but not much else. So much for perfection, luckily they are also loving and kind hearted, phew!
Yet seriously our expectation of ourselves and others is often so very, very high, it is impossible to achieve. We have a picture in our mind of what life and people should be like, and if our picture doesn’t match reality we immediately get into the judging game. It must be my poor parenting, rather than my boys being themselves. Or its Matts fault!
In fact, this notion of perfection, I should say this impossible notion of perfection, is actually very dangerous, affecting our mental health and wellbeing. It can lead to a permanent state of anxiety and stress and an inability to really forgive and start over. Aren’t they or we supposed to be perfect! I think this idea of perfection makes it much harder to forgive because people are not allowed to be, well people. We lose the ability to see that we and others are human and make mistakes, all the time.
Jesus was very big on forgiveness, it’s everywhere in the gospel accounts. Which is why I’ve always been suspicious of our traditional understanding of the resurrection as a forgiveness of sins. Jesus was busily doing it already, welcoming and including those regarded as outsiders, as sinners, and encouraging us to forgive one another. He brought forgiveness into the human realm, in a way that was inclusive and universal.
So his message is actually very freeing. Forgiveness is not part of some secret society, we don’t need a priest to do it, or a minister, we don’t even need God to forgive us, as though God will smite us if we don’t. From the reading it sounds like the writer of Matthew was suggesting that. But God is not in the sky watching over us, judging our behaviour, rather he is as close to us as our own breath, waiting for us to open our hearts to one another. It’s like we move toward the life giving light when we love and forgive, away from the light when we don’t. But the light remains. Jesus knew that forgiveness, both for the person in need of it and the person giving it, produces a wholeness that is not achieved otherwise. Without it we become a shell of what we should be as human beings. Life can become very dark and lonely.
I have seen this in my own family. I had an Aunty who did not speak to her oldest friend for 40 years, after some sort of disagreement. Towards the end of their lives I am sure they would not have known what the disagreement or slight was about. But families were torn apart because of it.
Situations like this can harden the heart of those involved, and lives are less than they should be.
So forgiveness is not a divine act, it’s a human act, but it gives a divine result. Forgiveness can lead to renewal and transformation and reconciliation and new life if we let it. What is more divine than that. When we forgive we head to the light, the light of love, rather than the darkness of despair. We are released from repeating the same mistake over and over again, trapped in a cycle of judgement that is never ending. For we can become disconnected to one another, and community can falter when forgiveness goes missing and judgement is found in its place.
As Frederick Buechner says..
“When someone you’ve wronged forgives you, you’re spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience.
When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you’re spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride.
For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other’s presence.”
So it is not that Jesus expected us to be perfect, but to be human and whole. To see that we all make mistakes, and that we all need forgiveness sometimes. In turn we have to learn to forgive others, even if the person we are forgiving couldn’t give a toss. The point is not the expectation of something in return, but the act. It is a gift we can freely give and freely receive, and which can transform both parties.
As the reading suggests today, how much should we forgive, as much as it takes. For to be human and free, and whole, we have to forgive. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.
And a little song from Carrie Newcomer, to keep us leaning in toward the light.