Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World 2-17-13

Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World

    The Worship Committee, chaired by Sally Newport, is getting more active these days. I asked them to think about what they would like our preaching series during Lent to focus on. They brainstormed several topics and decided on “Forgiveness.” We could hardly have a series on a topic more basic to Lent or to our faith in general. On the first Sunday in Lent we almost always read about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, but this year, this topic will aim us more often to Paul’s writings. Today, we read from Romans, a very important passage, first from the NRSV, and then from the Message.

Romans 10: 8b-13    The word that saves is right here, as near as the tongue in your mouth as close as the heart in your chest. It’s the word of faith that welcomes God to go to work and set things right for us. This is the core of our preaching. Say the welcoming word to God—“Jesus is my Master”—embracing, body and soul, God’s work of doing in us what he did in raising Jesus from the dead. That’s it. You’re not “doing” anything; you’re simply calling out to God, trusting him to do it for you. That’s salvation. With your whole being you embrace God setting things right, and then you say it, right out loud: “God has set everything right between him and me!” 11-13 Scripture reassures us, “No one who trusts God like this—heart and soul—will ever regret it.” It’s exactly the same no matter what a person’s religious background may be: the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help. “Everyone who calls, ‘Help, God!’ gets help.”

Feb 17, 2013           

Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World

Cathy and I were sitting in my room talking one evening early in our relationship, almost 20 years ago, when the phone rang. I answered the phone and was surprised to hear the voice of Liz. I hadn’t spoken with Liz, my ex-wife, for most of two years. Not since she left, not since the divorce had been completed. I had been married to Liz for a little more than a year when she suddenly left the relationship, just left. Left me confused, startled, broken-hearted.
She called to ask for forgiveness.
Now that seemed like an appropriate thing to do to me. I didn’t want to say, “No, I don’t forgive you!” But in the suddenness of this phone call, I was taken aback.  I thought I had forgiven her, but the words did not come easily in the spur of the moment. I had tried so hard to figure out what I had done wrong. Her asking for forgiveness, admitting that she had done something wrong, was helpful, but she wasn’t saying what she had done, so it felt a bit forced.
I think I managed to stumble out some words of forgiveness, but they were not very satisfying. They didn’t bring any kind of closure for me. In some ways, that had already happened….

We are going to talk and think about forgiveness for the next 6 weeks, from now until the end of March, from now until Easter. In order to talk about forgiveness, we are going to talk about brokenness, our brokenness as individuals and our brokenness as a people, a community, a church. Unfortunately, we are broken on so many levels. There’s more to talk about than will fit in these 40 days of Lent, but 40 days is about all we can handle to think about our brokenness, the ways we have “missed the mark.” The church calls that brokenness, that missing the mark, sin. Sin or brokenness is the reason we need forgiveness. In an unforgiving, broken, sinful world, forgiveness is an amazing thing.
Paul, in this amazing passage in Romans, says that God’s forgiveness is always available to us, as near to us as our lips and our heart. He says we don’t have to do anything to deserve God’s forgiveness. That forgiveness, that grace, is available to us simply by saying with our lips, “I will follow Jesus. I will live as God wants me to live.” and meaning it with our heart. Paul says God’s love is as near to us as our breath, our words, our heartbeat. God’s grace and forgiveness is right there. All we have to do is take it.
So that’s what we’re going to talk about for the next month and a half – how to accept that forgiving grace, and how to offer it. We’ll talk about steps of forgiveness, based on Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief – 1. Denial, 2. Anger, 3. Bargaining, 4. Depression, and 5 Acceptance and hope. We’re going to think about times when it’s possible to forgive too quickly, and the difference between hearing about forgiveness and really accepting it.
See that’s the real crux of the matter right there – accepting forgiveness, changing, turning  our lives around. Paul says God offers us forgiveness freely. God offers grace to everyone no matter what religion or background. The only question is whether we accept it. The only question is how deeply we receive that forgiveness, and how it makes us act in the future.
That’s what was so hard about that phone call I received nearly 20 years ago. My ex asked me for forgiveness and I wanted to give it. In fact, I felt like I had forgiven her already, but I couldn’t tell in a brief conversation over the phone whether anything had really changed. It felt like almost an empty gesture.

Months before, I had gone through a ritual that made forgiveness feel a lot more real and possible to me than a phone call.  A few months after Liz left, I gathered together some of my best friends, friends who had been at my wedding. One of them – Tim Thomson-Hohl, who is now pastor at Ardmore United Methodist Church down the way – had given us a plate as a wedding gift, a plate that was inscribed, “Grow Old with me – The Best is Yet to Be.” He said it was one of the best wedding gifts he had ever given somebody.
So he was pretty dismayed when I gathered people together for a ritual of divorce, a ritual of unmarrying. I took the plate that Tim had given us – it was a nice wedding gift – and I lifted it over my head and I smashed it. That was when I felt like I could let go and forgive – when I had ritually named the hurt, named the anger, and accepted the brokenness.  We all took pieces of the plate with us that day, as symbols of brokenness, just like I invite you to carry pieces of this vase with you through Lent as symbols of brokenness.
May the sharp edges on these broken pieces remind us of our sharp edges and our need for forgiveness. May the shards help us notice and accept the ways we live in a broken, Good Friday world. When we feel them in our pocket or notice them on a bedside table, let’s practice calling on the name of God. For as Paul says, “Everyone who calls ‘Help God’ gets help.”
2134 Forgive Us, Lord