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March 17, 2019

Second Sunday of Lent

Matthew 6:11-12  & Luke 13:1-9

“Forgive Us As We Forgive”

Today’s topic is forgiveness, and it’s a doozy.  Forgiveness deserves probably a month of Sundays, it’s so complicated and hard.  Asking for forgiveness; offering forgiveness, trying to figure out how to forgive.   And the Lord’s Prayer suggests it’s all intertwined:  Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  But, yikes - Will we only be forgiven if we’re able to forgive?  

I’m guessing you are probably like me - some days I’m not so great at forgiving. – Not other people.  Not myself.  Other days, I’m not so great at figuring out what I’ve done wrong.  Surely other people have hurt the world, hurt creation, hurt me, more than I have contributed to the pain in the world.  I think a lot of people struggle with this.  We look around, and we aren’t so bad.  And not only that - the more we’ve been hurt, the harder it is – To see our own wrongdoing, and the longer it can take us to forgive.  How can we forgive someone who’s hurt us?  And how is it fair – or reasonable – to suggest our willingness to forgive is tied up with our receiving forgiveness?

Which is why I found this passage from Luke 13:1-9 for today’s reading so helpful, as we sort through Lent, and sin, and debts, and forgiveness.  Listen for a word from God for us today, as I read from the Common English Bible translation:

Some who were present with Jesus told him about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices.  (Jesus) replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans?  (Because that is indeed what most people thought at that time – Just like some people think today – Tragedy strikes us proportional to our sinfulness, and Jesus suspected that’s what the disciples were getting at with raising this example from their own current events.  He answers?

No, I tell you. But unless you change your hearts and lives you will die just as they did.  What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them?  Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem?  No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives you will die just as they did.  

Jesus told this parable, “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard.  He came looking for fruit on it and found none.  He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any.  Cut it down!  Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?  

The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer.  Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.”

May God bless our hearing and our understanding of these words.

Current events then:  Galileans were killed by the Roman government as they worshipped.  The tower falls at Siloam, killing 18 people.  The people in Jesus’ time want to know what those people did wrong.  Because back then, people thought if something bad happened to you, it must somehow be your fault. 

Current events now:  Forty-nine people killed at a mosque in New Zealand.  A tornado killed 64 people in Alabama.  A 737 Max 8 plane crashed on its way to Nairobi, killed everyone on board.    Did those people all die because of something they did wrong?  Did they somehow deserve it?   Because we aren’t all that different from the people walking around with Jesus.  We’d like this all to make sense.  We’re waiting for Jesus’ answer, too.    

And what is Jesus’ response?  Pretty much he takes their question and turns it back on them:  He doesn’t say, “No, it’s not because of their sin;” and he doesn’t say, “Yes, it is because of their sin.”  Instead, he says,  “What?  You think you’re so great?”  It goes right along with what he says about the specks we see in others’ eyes while we’re blind to the log in our own eye.  And he suggests that there’s no time like the present to ask for, and to offer, forgiveness.  

Jesus doesn’t have much patience for those people who think they’ve got it all figured out, who think they’ve got it all together, who think they are doing this faith thing right – It’s those other people who are lost, Jesus.  Bad things won’t – or shouldn’t – happen to us, because we’re living by the rules; we’re good people. 

I can still remember telling someone who also knew my youth pastor that he had died unexpectedly and very young of a heart attack, and the response was, “Well, he was pretty overweight, wasn’t he?”   Ouch.  Things not to say.  But we want life to make sense, we want the scales to balance, we want to know we’re safe, we want to know that living a good life will protect us. 

And Jesus says, you’re so caught up in what other people are doing wrong, you’ve all missed the mark, lost your way, hurt others out of your own hurt.  It’s time to turn back to God.  You aren’t at all different from anyone else who’s been hurt in this life.  And you’ve contributed to the pain in the world yourself.  

And he tells the parable of the unproductive fig tree – Which  reinforces how hard all of this is, and how we all need help – This confessing, this forgiving, this being forgiven.  It’s hard, and it takes a long, long time before we might see any fruit.  Few of us are good at asking for and giving forgiveness.  We can’t do this without God.

In 1525, William Tyndale translated the Greek for “debts” in The Lord’s Prayer using a Greek word that shows up later in the Gospel, as “trespasses,” as in “forgive others their false steps.  Maybe this is how you learned this phrase in the Lord’s prayer.  But the actual word in the Lord’s Prayer is more accurately ranslated  “debts.”  And it reminds us – We are debtors, we owe God, for this very life we’ve been given.  And people owe us – It’s part of being a human being, of being in relationship with one another.  We are all indebted to each other, and to God.  

So it’s not that God is holding forgiveness over our heads:  Until you forgive everyone you’ve hurt, you aren’t getting any for yourself!   Until you pay back every debt you owe - You’re not getting a dime of mercy from me!  Sister Wendy Beckett does point out that when we pray these words ‘forgive us as we forgive’, we’re “Saying to God ‘Look at the way I treat other people, and treat me like that.’”  She goes on to point out, “It’s a very powerful incitement to being loving and forgiving.”  You know the Golden Rule and all that – But thankfully, Our Maker doesn’t do quid-pro-quo, tit for tat.  Or we’d all be sunk.  

So I wish the Lord’s Prayer went something more like this:  Forgive us our debts, as we are trying to forgive our debtors.  It’s part of the greatest commandment:  Love God, neighbor, and self.  Part of love is forgiveness – The more we recognize how much we need forgiving, the less impossible it seems to forgive someone who has hurt us. 

Jesus suggests it’s all intertwined – It’s not easy or simple to confess our own sin, and it’s not easy or simple to forgive those who have hurt us.  No one has a corner on the market of being the victim, and no one, even the worst person who has committed the worst atrocity we can think of, is just a hateful oppressor.  Even Friday’s shooters in Christchurch, New Zealand.  Even the person who has hurt you the most, let you down, betrayed you, even they are more than what they have done to you.  Even they are broken, and in need of compassion.  Every one of us, every person of faith, has to wrestle with both forgiving, and asking for forgiveness. 

But this prayer offers us a place to start, and a place to shelter, as we walk this rocky path:  Asking for, and receiving, and granting, forgiveness.  None of those steps are dependent on any other.  You can enter this circle of faith at any point:  You can receive God’s forgiveness without asking; you can grant forgiveness without being asked, and you can ask for forgiveness trusting God’s already forgiven you.  

It isn’t about waiting around on other people.  This is something you can start to do today.  And yeah, it will take a long time.  And it will be hard.  But you don’t have to wait on someone else’s apology before starting to try to forgive them.  They are broken.  I am broken.  You are broken.  We hurt each other.  We get hurt.  We all need forgiveness.  Lord, forgive us our debts, even as we are trying to forgive our debtors.  

I just heard a podcast where Norman Mineta told about being interned in the Japanese Camps in the States following Pearl Harbor.  He spent 10 years  getting the Civil Liberties Act passed, giving each survivor $20,000.  Anyone who questioned the amount he challenged – Would you give up four years for $20,000?  

But Mineta said that what was important to him was that “the country was willing to admit a wrong, and try to make redress for committing that gross violation of constitutional rights.”

And yet, I thought, if he had waited more than 40 years for his own government to acknowledge they had robbed him of four years of freedom when he was ten, well, he would have been robbed of 44 years.  As Nelson Mandela said after 27 years in jail, “I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”  Indeed, if he waited for justice, he’d be adding that many more years to his sentence.

And any place we enter this circle helps us, immerses us in forgiveness so that we can be freed.  Jesus’ point is this:  Don’t spend so much time checking out other people, and wondering about their sin, or waiting for them to realize they’ve hurt you, that you miss God’s invitation for you to come clean, and you miss how much forgiveness God has offered you.   Carrie Newcomer says, ““I held anger like a coal,

Burning hot but did not let go,

With the thought that I could throw it at someone.

Such a hard lesson to learn,

My own hand was what got burned… Let it go.”

And so we pray:  Lord, forgive us.  Lord, help us forgive one another.  Lord, forgive us for how hard it is to forgive.  Lord, forgive us for not wanting to forgive.  Lord, forgive us for hoarding our forgiveness until they’ve apologized.  Until they’ve paid for how they’ve hurt us.  Until they get it.  Lord, forgive us when we can’t let go.  Lord, forgive us for not seeing how hurt people, hurt people, and the people who have hurt us, are hurting.  And forgive us for not seeing how our own hurt and brokenness hurt others.  And we pray, again and again and again, Lord, forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.  Amen.