Forgiving Doesn’t Require Forgetting

A tough week of worries, a difficult day when we remember 9/11, and challenging readings focused on forgiveness. Scripture is full of references to forgiveness but today, today many want to forget, not forgive. Many want to grieve and not grant grace. Many want revenge and not reconciliation. The obvious link to the events of 10 years ago almost doesn’t need to be spoken, but the need for forgiveness, grace and reconciliation also extends to our relationships with family, friends and neighbors.

In the gospel Peter wants Jesus to explain more about what the expectations of discipleship really are. So Jesus addresses the team of disciples directly with an intensity and bold images that are meant for the ears of believers. He re-emphasizes the call to forgiveness and in case they missed it, tells them,                                                                           

God’s given your filthy slate of sins the ultimate cleaning, even the stuff you haven’t messed up yet. The least you can do is to go easy on those who let you down once in a while, and even those others who mess-up big time.”

The point is that there is no way that the servant in Jesus’ parable, the disciples wondering about Jesus’ expectations, and believers like you and me will ever be able to repay the master, the creator, the God of all.

  • God forgives and expects that we will as well.         
  • God eliminates the guilt and pain of everything that we create in anger and the evil within each of us.                                                                     
  • God expects us to do the same, and we expect our neighbor to forgive us, but we are reluctant to forgive.

God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, but you and I, are not God. We are quick to anger and abounding in vengeful violence. So what is forgiveness, what does it look like for people like you and me?

  • Forgiveness is what is expected by people in relationship with God.
  • Forgiveness is holy work, because it is God who forgives us.
  • Forgiveness is possible because we are forgiven and God makes it possible for us to forgive one another.
  • Forgiveness is ongoing because we are all sinners and need to be forgiven all the time.

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The parable Jesus tells bogs many of us down. We tend to focus on the details, the harshness, the numbers. None of it matters as much as the message of forgiveness. A message Martin Luther reminded us of, that forgiveness is God’s command. But the Matthew text distracts us with the numbers. Many Greek scholars believe that Jesus said to forgive seventy-seven times and not seventy times seven, but neither number is really important. Jesus’ point was not to count while we forgive, but to forgive. The point to the disciples and you and me is that Christian forgiveness is not quantitative, but qualitative. As Christians in relationship with God and one another, we are forgiven to forgive, without keeping score.

Forgiveness is easier said than done. At our noon Bible study this week we had a discussion about forgiveness, some said it was easier than staying mad and miserable, while others said it is hard and at time impossible to forgive. Forgiveness is what we a called to. But while it is called for, we can’t force, guilt, or pressure another to forgive. It can be hard to understand why some of those who have had horrible evil things happen to them or their loved ones can forgive, while others who haven’t suffered a significant loss struggle to forgive much smaller sins against them.

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The thing we all at one time or another need to wrestle with is this… now that I have experienced this… disgrace, evil, pain, sin, tragedy, violence, wrong… against me, what now, what with god’s help and acting in my life will I or we do? What is the response? Unfortunately forgiveness does not come easily for most of us if we are honest with ourselves. And sadly for some of us, holding onto grieving grudges, raging resentments, and anguishing anger is a way of life.

Writer Anne Lamott says:

I went around saying for a long time that I am not one of those Christians who is heavily into forgiveness—that I am one of the other kind. But even though it was funny, and actually true, it started to be too painful to stay this way.”                                                          

The forgiveness we Christians are called to is tough.

We may and usually never can forget, but God forgives us, we are forgiven always so that we can, if we are able, to forgive others. We are forgiven and God opens the door so that we can, if and when we are able, forgive. Thankfully, regardless of our human ability to forgive others God never forgets to forgive us. This hard work of forgiveness is not about what we do, or even our forgiving. It is about what God does.

God forgives us, so we can forgive. When we stomp our feet, fold our arms and retreat from one another, refusing to forgive, God responds to us. God does not turn a cold shoulder, give us the quiet treatment, or punish us. Rather God wraps arms around us, lavishes us in love… through water that washes, bread and wine that fills our aches and emptiness, and grace that abounds beyond our understanding.

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In the book Ashes Transformed: Healing from Trauma, Tilda Norberg tells 43 different stories of faith from 9/11 survivors and their families. My favorite example of forgiveness happened as the towers were falling inNew York City…                                                                                      

An Islamic Arab fromPalestine was running for his life in the surging crowd when he stumbled and fell. Paralyzed with fear and unable to get up, he was trampled within seconds by hundreds of feet rushing past him. Then the man felt an arm on his shoulder and a voice speaking to him. “Get up, brother! We have to get out of here.” Unable to stand because of his injuries, he felt himself being picked up. Again he heard the voice: “Brother, we have to get out of here.” Half dragged, half carried down many stories, the man finally emerged from the building leaning heavily on his rescuer. As the injured Palestinian turned to thank the person who had carried him to safety, his eyes widened, for the person who had called him “brother,” the man who had saved his life, was a Hasidic Jew. He had risked his life for an enemy. Who would do such a foolish thing?                    

Thankfully, we live in a state of forgiven-ness. A state created by our loving creator who after pursuing God’s people for generations, chose forgiveness over punishment, love over hate, and goodness over evil more than 2,000 years ago. After we ignored the prophets and even our pursuing God,  God sent love in human form, forgiveness in the form of a Messiah, a king to lead the people not into battle, or temptation, but to deliver us from evil.

Evil seen through the eyes of an itinerant preacher born out of wedlock to a peasant girl was met with forgiveness for us, for our broken behavior and sinful selfishness. Our hurtful actions and hate-filled words   were met with acceptance, forgiveness and love. Jesus the Christ did not judge us or sentence us to what we deserved, rather he taught us new math.

The math of an eye for an eye, was replaced with infinite forgiveness. The answers we thought were correct were recalculated in ways that no equation or computer program could ever calculate, let alone comprehend. God granted forgiveness, sending God’s only Son, instead of figuring out vengeance. Through Jesus, God made all future answers marked by mercy instead of judgment.

  • Our answers of uncertainty, met with certain trust.
  • Our test anxiety and despair,  met with faith and hope.
  • Our worrying about scarcity, met with calm abundance.
  • Our tendency for a violent response, met with peace and healing.
  • Our fear of failure and death, met by second chances and new life.

We live in a state of forgiven-ness, and thankfully, forgiveness changes everything.