"Forgiveness is a Necessity" - Sermon, September 17, 2017

Community UMC, Quincy
“Forgiveness is a Necessity”
Pastor Andrew Davis
September 17, 2017
Genesis 50: 15-21
Matthew 18: 21-35

Forgiveness is such a challenging, sometimes heavy, yet always necessary word that we hear on a regular basis around the church.  Each week during the prayers of the people when we pray together “The Lord’s Prayer” that Jesus taught us, we say the line “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” or when we prepare to take Holy Communion, we seek forgiveness from God for the ways we have fallen short.  Or when we say our individual prayers at whatever time of day we pray, whether it is morning or night, we ask God to forgive us for any shortcomings and any harm we have done to others.  Forgiveness is a necessity, whether we like it or not and no matter how easy or hard it is to forgive others, as God always offers us forgiveness.
            Back in the fourth grade 27 years ago, my teacher, Mrs. Bingham was another teacher who was formational in my life, who I recently had a good conversation with her after getting back in touch on social media.  One of the things I remember most from fourth grade is that whenever we did something to upset one of our classmates or her, Mrs. Bingham would have us say “I’m sorry; will you please forgive me?” Asking for forgiveness was not an option in her class.  Kind of hearkens back to last week’s lesson about listening to and working things out between each other whenever a conflict would arise.  Mrs. Bingham’s faith played a big role in how she taught our class and looking back, she definitely followed the example that Jesus taught the disciples in our lesson last week and this week, where if someone does you wrong, you take them aside and work it out, and if it doesn’t work, take it higher up the chain.  Then you offer them forgiveness.  Come to think, I don’t really recall anyone being sent to the principal’s office very often, nor do I recall our class having too many disciplinary problems. 
Nevertheless, the elementary, middle school, and high school years were often challenging for me as they were or are for many of us, and in retrospect, will also force me to think about what forgiveness means in forgiving the people who did not treat me very well.  While I did endure my share of teasing and some bullying, in retrospect, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been based on hearing or reading stories from others who had it much worse in their school years.  Unfortunately, I was an easy target because I was overweight (well, I still am), socially awkward, shy, and reserved, in which I was oftentimes easy prey.  Yet, as we get older, sometimes we would learn to see things in another light. 
Later in high school, one person I had an occasionally adversarial relationship with from 7th – 10th grade ended up becoming a good friend later in high school and still is someone I consider a good friend today, and through conversations online many years later, I feel like we forgave each other by talking things out and sharing our perspectives.  A few others who gave me trouble in elementary, junior high, and high school have also become good friends through the years because we have forgiven each other and learned to see each other in a different light, even though it took awhile for me to let that guard down.  It makes me reflect back to the end of the story of Joseph that we just heard Marty read a few minutes ago, as Joseph endured some pretty crappy treatment by his brothers early on before being sold by them, then over time, became an important figure in Potiphar’s court.  Amidst the horrible treatment he received from his brothers, Joseph is able to reconcile with and forgive his brothers in the end.  Except it took time, as forgiveness does not necessarily happen overnight.  
Now, there are some instances where I have questioned whether forgiveness is necessary or not, as holding grudges felt much easier than forgiving, or I have struggled with forgiveness because of being hurt or taken advantage of, as there have been times I wasn't always sure if I would have been able to forgive like Joseph forgave his brothers after they had thrown him to a pit and sold him.  However, there are times when I find it hard to say “I’m sorry” and ask for forgiveness; some of it is probably out my own stubbornness and perhaps,  pride.  Except I know if I don’t forgive at some point, it will come back to haunt me or continue to haunt me, which results in me having to swallow my pride.  Plus, here’s something to think on when we allow pride to get in our way; pride is the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, or as C.S. Lewis calls it in his book, Mere Christianty, “The Great Sin.”[i] So why is forgiveness oftentimes such a challenge, even though it is a necessity?  Why is forgiveness something we wrestle with so much? 
            Even today, whenever we say something to someone else, post something on social media that ticks someone or a group of people off, or even if we have accidentally or intentionally hurt someone, our Gospel lesson this morning says that we need to ask for forgiveness in addition to saying I’m sorry, challenging as it may be, but also extend our forgiveness as well.  However, Jesus doing what he does best, likes to take things a little bit further when it comes to forgiveness.  In a dialogue between Jesus and Peter, Peter thinks that forgiving someone seven times is sufficient, yet Jesus says “seventy times seven” (Matt. 18: 22, NRSV).  Although there is a little comic I saw that comes to mind here; not only does Peter have to learn to forgive seventy times seven, he also has to do math as well.  Perhaps that’s why forgiveness is so challenging, as it is like having to do math sometimes.
  In his book, Unconditional: The Call of Jesus to Radical forgiveness, scholar and author Brian Zahnd explains that when it comes to forgiving seventy times seven,
it should be clear that seventy times seven is related to atonement, forgiveness, and the establishment of everlasting righteousness.  Seventy times seven becomes an equation connected with how humanity moves beyond transgression and retribution into the new world of forgiveness and restoration.[ii]

Instead of retribution like we see in some of the laws in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Jesus is taking a whole new way over the Law of Moses which often called for retribution such as ‘an eye for an eye.’  Instead, Jesus commands the crowds back in the “Sermon on the Mount” earlier on in Matthew towards ‘turning the other cheek’ and forgiving someone seventy times seven instead of getting even.[iii] At the same time, we also know the idea of ‘turning the other cheek’ is still a challenge all these years later. Brian Zahnd further explains that
turning the other cheek, though perhaps heard as a cliché today, is still a very difficult demand that forces us to push the boundaries on the possibilities of forgiveness.  But the Christ follower does not have the option to choose Moses’s reciprocal response over Jesus’s radical forgiveness.  Jesus calls his disciples to a different way, a better way, a higher way, and ultimately, a necessary way.[iv]

            As I have said before, I always hope that whenever any of us find ourselves in the midst of conflict with one another here in the church, in our workplaces, our schools, or our households, whether the conflict stems from a simple disagreement or much more, to take the higher road and not get down to petty name calling, insults, and the like.  The same goes for how we as a people of faith conduct ourselves in society too, as we need to take a higher way, a better way, and a different way than the rest of society wants us to take at times because we in the church are the ones who should be setting the example.  Yet, despite our best efforts, we will still screw up, we will still fall short at times.  And, we will still need to ask for forgiveness and extend our forgiveness to others too.  In looking at the original Greek, forgiveness stems from the words apolyō and aphiēmi, which essentially means to “send away” or “let go.”[v] We send away the bad feelings we harbor towards those who harmed us and let the feeelings go and even let the people who harmed us go. 
            On the other hand, do we want to be like the unforgiving servant that Jesus uses as the example of unforgiveness?  It seems like a double standard that here, this servant gets his debt forgiven by his manager only to go and accost the servants who owed him money, refusing to forgive the other servants their debts to him.  Well, his manager was not too happy and quickly rescinded that forgiveness and had him endure torture until his debt was paid to the manager.  We don’t want to think that it’ll be torture if we ourselves don’t forgive, but what happens when we don’t forgive?  As Jesus does points out rather bluntly, “so my heavenly father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18: 35).  This is Jesus using the convention called hyperbole, when he uses exaggerated statements to make his point clear, as Jesus equates not forgiving to being tortured, which it does feel like when we don't let go.  The bad feelings and resentment towards the person who harmed us and vice versa can swirl around for a long time, which is not all that healthy either because it brings us down and controls our minds if we let it.  On the other hand, Forgiveness doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to join their hands together and sing “Kum ba Yah” either.
          As I asked on Facebook this week about what forgiveness means and looks like, one answer is that forgiveness helps us cleanse our heart and mind, as ‘hate and anger take up too much space’ and can ‘prevent our souls from growing.’ Likewise, forgiveness is letting go of that hate and anger, even though forgiveness doesn’t mean you’ll ever forget or necessarily condone another’s actions.  Like one meme I saw not too long ago on Facebook and Instagram, forgiveness is the equivalent of not allowing someone or something to live rent-free in your head.  Furthermore, in God’s kingdom, our God is a forgiving God, even when we constantly mess up in life.  As Brian Blount puts it inhe commentary True to Our Native Land, we need to remember that “it is not enough that God has forgiven us; we must live and act out of that forgiveness in ways that make it meaningful,” not like the servant who was forgiven by his manager, yet failed to forgive the others around him.[vi]
Forgiveness is another instance where it often feels easier said than done, especially if we have been hurt really badly by someone else, whether it was verbal or physical.  Hence why forgiveness is such a heavy topic and not always very comfortable topic to talk about because some of the things that the mere mention of forgiveness can bring to the surface, or the flashbacks it could cause.  Even though I sometimes wrestle with his writings a little bit, C.S. Lewis explains in Mere Christianity that “every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had to deal with during the war.  And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger.  It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible.”[vii] C.S. Lewis lived through both World Wars, fought and was injured in WWI, and had such perspectives that are found in his many writings, as forgiveness was a very touchy area in the days, years, and even decades following both wars and even in some of the present conflicts we are in today.  As this time of year rolls around, many of us and myself still struggle 16 years after the atrocities of September 11, 2001 and repercussions that followed, which Brian Zahnd asks in the first chapter of Unconditional, “is there a limit to forgiveness?”[viii] Something we can wrestle with here. On the other hand, C.S. Lewis states that “it is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive, we shall not be forgiven.  There are no two ways about it,” which also leaves us wrestling because I know in the past when I've been hurt or in an act of war, I would much rather obliterate the you-know-what out of the person who hurt me or the enemy.  Nevertheless, there are times when we will wrestle with the notion of forgiveness, even though it is a necessity towards creating a brighter future.  But, it does take time too.
There is so much that can be said about forgiveness, so much more than just one sermon can adequately address.  Yet, forgiveness is a necessity especially in light of conflict that has happened in our lives or in the world around us and in light of conflict that will inevitably happen.  I’m still on the journey too and I still have people to forgive in my own life and am making my way towards being able to forgive and hope they have forgiven me for things I may have done to them.  And there are things I need to forgive myself for too. It’s an ongoing journey, and a journey that will make us think, or a journey that will sometimes leave us feeling very uncomfortable at times.  It may make us more upset when we think of who we need to forgive, but can also lead us to a feeling of greater freedom and liberation and wholeness when we do forgive.  And, forgiveness can restore relationships or lead to some unlikely friendships. 
Earlier this week, one of my colleagues shared a devotion with several of us and would like to close with:
"And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against      anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses" (Mark 11:25, ESV).
Many relationships can get stuck in a downward spiral. Every step forward is quickly followed by two steps back. Bad times and lonely times overwhelmingly outnumber the times of true joy. It can feel like no matter how hard you try, the pain of past conflict is just too close to the surface for anything good to grow. It’s hard to feel hopeful when your mind is filled with vivid reminders of hurt and failure.
What can help you turn the corner in severed or strained relationships? What can break the cycle of neglect, confrontation, injury, and withdrawal? What can heal the past and start forward momentum?
One thing: forgiveness.
There are no enduring relationships without forgiveness. We humans hurt each other. Deeply. If you want to make it to your golden wedding anniversary, it will require several major forgivenesses and a truckload of minor ones. If you want to nurture close friendships that extend over decades, if you want your family to thrive—you will have to learn to dole out and thrive in forgiveness. You can forgive, and God wants to help you. Never are we more like Christ than when we choose to forgive.
Forgiveness is much easier to talk about than to do, yet it is a God-given mandate that brings incredible healing. Our Lord has commanded us to stay busy in this matter of forgiveness: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
Jesus didn’t simply talk about forgiveness. He modeled it in His everyday life. From the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11) to His final words on the cross—“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)—forgiveness is what Jesus was and is all about.
How about you? If you profess to be a follower of Jesus Christ, are you all about forgiveness? No doubt there are countless people who have injured you, said false things about you, betrayed you, or wounded you with their actions and reactions. The offender might be a co-worker, a neighbor or trusted friend, a parent or sibling, a spouse or child. So much of the strife in our relationships is rooted in our unwillingness to forgive.
Forgiveness is a decision to release a person from the obligation that resulted when he [or she] injured you. Once you forgive, you release [them] from what [they] owe you. You let go of getting even. You don’t want to see [them] suffer to repay you. You set [them] free.
Through forgiveness you also release healing into your own life—healing of your soul, followed by the potential for healing in your relationships.
It all starts with one simple yet difficult choice: to forgive.
·         Whom do you need to forgive? Who has the Holy Spirit brought to mind as you read about forgiveness?
·         From what specific obligation do you need to release him or her?
[Creator] God, please reveal those I need to forgive. Shine the bright light of Your truth into the dark corners of my heart, where I hide unforgiveness. I choose today to forgive. Because it’s something You commanded me, I know it’s possible. And because it’s something that pleases You, I beg You to help me. Please help me to forgive, deeply, from my heart, as You have forgiven me. Wherever possible, and as much as it depends on me, please heal my relationships. In the name of Jesus, who paid the highest price for my forgiveness, amen.[ix]

[i] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1952), 121. 
[ii] Brian Zahnd, Unconditional: The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2010), 25. 
[iii] Ibid., 28
[iv] Ibid. 28-29

[v] "Genesis 1:1 (KJV)". 2017. Blue Letter Bible. Accessed September 14 2017. https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?t=kjv&strongs=g863.

[vi] Briak K. Blount, True to Our Native Land (Minneapolis: Fortress Pres, 2007), 109.
[vii] C.S. Lewis, 115. 
[viii] Zahnd, 2

[ix] 2017. Jamesmacdonald.Com. Accessed September 14 2017. https://jamesmacdonald.com/teaching/devotionals/2014-08-27/.


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