Saturday, September 13, 2014

Love and forgiveness

Genesis 50:15-21; Matthew 18:21–35

Forgiveness is not easy. If it were easy, why was Peter asking for a limit to the number of times he must forgive someone? No doubt, he didn’t like Jesus’ answer very much. Peter was looking for a way to tally his forgiveness, and Jesus gave him a response that made it nearly impossible to tally that high.
If someone offends us, it is easy for us to remember the number of times, the first few times. We can keep track of up to about seven. By the time we get to ten or twenty, it is already harder to remember if we are at 18 or 19. Jesus says to forgive 77 times.  Some texts say 7 times 70 – so 490 times.
Can we accurately keep track of the exact number of times we forgive someone their offense? Why would we want to be so precise? See, that’s the thing about sin and forgiveness. If we are keeping track of the number of times we have been offended, and the resulting number of times we have forgiven, where is our focus? … On ourselves, not on Jesus.
We spent a long time in our class on Monday talking about some situations in our lives that are a challenge for us right now. And, right now, while we are living through them, it is really hard for us to see the way to forgiveness. So we talked about the difficulty of forgiveness, and the physical and psychological effects of the lack of forgiveness.
When we hold onto the hurt feelings, years later our bodies react the same way they did the first time the offense happened. After a while, it is really hard to change that automatic response. Our blood pressure rises, adrenaline floods our bodies, and we want to punch someone. It’s hard to forgive someone when we still want to punch them in the nose!
Still, Jesus says we must forgive others if we want God to forgive us. We pray that every week! Forgive us our sins/ trespasses as we forgive those who sin/ trespass against us. So, since we have decided it’s time to forgive, how do we go about it?
First, forgiveness is for us. It has nothing to do with the person or entity (church, government, business, group of terrorists) that offended us, that sinned against us. It doesn’t matter if the other’s behavior changes or not. Forgiveness is about our own hearts being tired of remembering and reliving the pain of the original offense.
Second, forgiveness is a reflection of God’s love. The other person is as much a child of God as we are. We don’t know the pain of their hearts, the hurts that have caused their behaviors. So, as hard as it is, we must begin to visualize the other person as a child of God, as a sister or brother. We focus less on the effort to forgive and more to love, because Jesus loves. When we love someone, it’s easier to forgive them.
Third, to forgive many hurts, we need God’s help. It may take years of praying every day to be able to forgive, but eventually, it is possible.
Fourth, forgiveness is not about forgetting the event and pretending it never happened. Forgiving certainly involves learning from the event. The event changed us, made us more wary, more vulnerable. We never want a repeat of the event, so we need to learn from it, even as we work to love and forgive the one who hurt us.
Fifth, forgiveness is a choice we must make. We can choose to hold onto our hurt and anger and allow it to control our lives and make us ill with unhealthy chemicals like cortisol. Or, we can choose to seek to forgive and heal our hearts and minds and bodies.
Sixth, forgiveness is not about allowing ourselves to be mistreated. There have been a number of news stories lately about domestic violence. There is NO excuse for violence. Battered women are made to feel that the violence they experience is their fault. And because they love, they readily forgive, over and over again, putting their own lives at risk. While forgiveness is necessary, there is no place in our lives for intentional violence.
… Jesus is a great example of love and forgiveness. From the cross he cried out his forgiveness of those who put him there. But most of us don’t face martyrdom.
Most of us are more like Joseph, and face more ordinary family and other relationship issues. Joseph was raised as Daddy’s favorite child, the one who got special treatment and special clothing. He was hated by his brothers because of this favoritism. He even had dreams to prove his siblings would one day bow down to him.
One day, the brothers had an opportunity to get rid of him, and they sold him as a slave. He landed on his feet, and eventually ended up in a position of power in Pharaoh’s palace. Because of his God-given gift of interpreting dreams, he was able to ensure that there would be plenty of food throughout the region during the drought to come.
Because of this surplus of food, Joseph’s brothers found themselves in Egypt seeking food and forgiveness. Rather than hold a grudge, Joseph recognized that God had used the brothers’ evil plan for good. He readily forgave his brothers for their poor treatment of him.
It helps that Joseph had years and years to come to this point of forgiveness, but he could have just as easily stored all that old anger and hurt and thrown his brothers in an Egyptian prison or had them killed. But he chose to forgive them.
… Forgiveness is often hard to do. I don’t know about you, but it feels awkward to me when people who left the congregation with anger in their hearts show up at funerals. They treated me and this congregation badly, and it’s easy to stay angry about that.
It’s hard to forgive them, and yet, according to Jesus, we must. We must also learn from the past and learn to handle conflict better as a congregation. We must learn to love better and communicate better and accept differences better. We must be very good at forgiving, and not count how many times we forgive.
… Here’s your challenge for this week, and for as long as it takes. Who do you need to forgive? Why is it hard to forgive that person or persons? What happens inside your body when you think of that person? How would you feel if you were able to forgive them, if the pain and anger no longer were present in your life?
I invite you to identify someone who you need to forgive, and ask the Holy Spirit to help you find a way to forgive them. Think about the person, and what you have learned from this situation. Maybe you have learned to choose your friends more carefully. Maybe you have learned to take better care of the things you own. Maybe you have learned to be less impulsive.
Imagine surrounding the person with love, the love that comes from God, the love God gives to all God’s children. Imagine that the pain you have been feeling is made softer, less acute, by that love. Imagine letting go of your hurt, and filling the angry place in your heart with love and forgiveness. Imagine telling the person that even though you do not like what they did, you forgive them.

Please pray with me. Lord, you know how hard it is for us to forgive. You know how hard it is for us to let go of hurt and anger. Soften the hardness in our hearts and help us forgive, even as you forgive us. In Jesus name, Amen