(I preached this sermon on Sunday, Sept 13, 2020 in response to the Gospel reading – Matthew 18:21-35 – where Jesus tells Peter to offer forgiveness 70 times 7 times. You can see the entire service or skip to the sermon by visiting www.ststephenlc.org)
Chris, a man in his 50’s, called his pastor. “My father is dying.” He said. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that Chris. What can I do for you?” “I don’t know. But I needed to call. I need to talk,” He said. “Ok. Then talk to me, I’ll listen” came back the response from the pastor.
Over the next several minutes what transpired was a confession of sorts. Chris started talking and the longer he went, the deeper it got. He shared many things about his father – things that had been stored up inside for a long time. Things that he was afraid to talk about before now. Things that had kept him in a sort of bondage of fear and anger. He was a person who liked to feel like he was in control. Yet, often, this was nothing more than an overcompensation for a part of his life that had never been in control.
“My father is an alcoholic” he said. He talked about what that it was like growing up with an alcoholic father – the fear that was always present. He talked about living above the bar that his father would go and drink at. And then come home drunk. Tears were flowing now.
The pastor sat and listened. And when Chris finished his confession, he stopped and asked this question – “What do I do? My father is dying, I can’t continue to hold onto all of this. It is too much of a burden. What do I do pastor?”
There was a moment of pause. A deep breath. “There is only thing to do. It’s time to forgive your father.”
“But pastor, how can I do that? You heard all the things he did, the way he acted. He doesn’t deserve my forgiveness.”
“You’re right, he doesn’t deserve it,” said the pastor. “And neither do you.”
Chris responded with shock, “What? What do you mean?”
The pastor explained, “Chris, forgiveness isn’t earned. If it was, none of us would deserve it. Forgiveness isn’t about excusing away wrongs. It’s about looking at those wrongs for what they are – hurtful beyond measure.
Forgiveness is about freeing us from the bondage someone holds over us, and from the feeling of revenge for something that has happened to us. Forgiveness flies in the face of it all. Forgiveness is about no longer allowing someone else to control how we are going to feel about ourselves, about them, or about anything else in life. Forgiveness is one directional – from the giver to the receiver. And it doesn’t matter if the other person wants it or not, and it really don’t matter if they deserve – because they probably don’t. At its core, forgiveness is about life, death, and resurrection. All of the things that are holding us in bondage die with forgiveness, so that new life can rise. New possibilities. New ways of being in relationship become possible. Even at the moment of death.”
Chris thought about this silently for a long moment. “That all makes sense Pastor, but…I don’t know. I’ve been hurt pretty bad. Scarred.”
The pastor responded, “It certainly sounds like it. This isn’t about saying what happened was ok or right. It wasn’t. It’s about you being released from holding onto any longer.”
“Do you remember worship on Sunday?” the pastor asked.
“Yes, kind of,” responded Chris. “Why do you ask? What does that have to do with this?”
“Well, Chris, let’s take a stroll through the service for a moment. Maybe it will help.”
“Ok” was his response.
“What happens at the beginning of the service?” asked the pastor.
“Well, let me think about that for a minute. You usually greet everyone, give some instructions and make some announcements and then the organist plays some music.”
“Yes, go on a little bit.” Said the pastor.
“Ok,” said Chris. “I don’t remember what happens next. It all kind of just flows together. There’s some prayers, readings, the sermon, songs, more prayers…”
“Do you mind if I walk you through it?” asked the pastor. “Sure” was the response.
“The first thing we come to when the service starts is the Confession. Remember that?”
“Yes,” said Chris.
“Good. So why do we do that Chris?” asked the pastor.
“Well, because we are all sinners I suppose.” Said Chris.
“Yes, very true. But it’s even more than that. Listen to the words we say together. ‘Faithful God, have mercy on us. We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We turn from your loving embrace and go our own ways. We pass judgment on one another before examining ourselves. We place our own needs before those of our neighbors. Make us humble, cast away our transgressions, and turn us again to life in you through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.”
“Do you hear those words Chris? What do they mean?” Asked the pastor.
There was a pause. Then Chris responded, “Well it certainly means that we are sinners, that we are broken. But when I hear these words now, they also tell me that I don’t deserve God’s forgiveness either. That I have done things that have hurt God because I’ve ignored what God wants me to do and how I’m supposed to treat other people.”
“Yeah,” said the pastor. “You’ve got it. That’s all of us. Not just your father, but you and I, and everyone else we care about too.”
“Sounds pretty hopeless doesn’t it?” asked the pastor. “Yeah, so much for the pick me up pastor,” Said Chris.
“Funny,” said the pastor. “But let’s not forget what happens after we make this confession. We hear words of forgiveness. Listen to the words Chris, ‘God hears the cries of all who call out in need, and through his death and resurrection, Christ has made us his own. Hear the truth that God proclaims: your sins are forgiven in the name of Jesus Christ. Led by the Holy Spirit, live in freedom and newness to do God’s work in the world.”
“Wow,” said Chris. “Those are powerful words. I have to admit, I never really paid all that much attention to this part of the service before. I always felt like it was filler until we got to sing and hear the readings. But hearing it now…it’s like I’m hearing it for the first time. I hear the release from bondage – bondage to sin, of course, but more than that. Bondage to fear, anger, hurt and so much more. Forgiveness is like someone coming up to you and cutting off a huge weight that you’ve been carrying – a weight that has been exhausting and painful.”
“Great image. You’ve got it Chris,” said the pastor. “and that’s just the beginning.”
“What do you mean?” asked Chris.
“Forgiveness runs through the entire service. We hear it over and over again.” Said the pastor.
“Really? Why” asked Chris.
“I suppose if everyone else is like me, because we need to hear it over and over again. We need to be reminded how badly we need it and how much we should be offering it. Because we aren’t going to hear it out in the world. We’ll even talk ourselves out of it.” Said the pastor.
“We hear it in the Kyrie – “Have mercy on us Christ, and wash away our sin. Pour out your grace and make us whole that new life may begin.”
“We hear it in the Prayer of the Day – ‘you are the inexhaustible fountain of forgiveness.”
“We hear it in the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers after they treated him terribly and sold him into slavery.”
“We hear it in the Psalm – Bless the Lord, o my soul, and forget not all God’s benefits – who forgives all your sins.”
“We hear it in Paul’s letter to the Romans about refraining from judging one another. That’s a message of forgiveness and releasing people from our own onerous expectations.”
“We hear it in the Gospel where Jesus tells a parable about forgiving debts that cannot be paid – what a release that is. Thank God that God’s standards for forgiveness are so much better than our human standards.”
“We hear it in the Hymn of the Day – “Let us forgive each other’s faults as we our own confess.”
“We hear it in the Apostles Creed – We believe in the forgiveness of sins.”
“We hear it in the prayers of the church – Teach us to forgive.”
“We hear it in the Eucharistic prayer – After supper, he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it for all to drink, saying: this cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and all people for the forgiveness of sin.”
“We hear it in the Lord’s prayer – Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
“We hear it in the Lamb of God – O lamb of God, you bear the sin of all the world away; you set us free from guilt and grave, have mercy now we pray.”
The pastor stopped. Chris took a long pause. “wow, that’s a lot of forgiveness. I’m grateful for it. Thank you pastor.”
“You can thank God, that’s where it comes from. So what are you going to do Chris?” asked the pastor.
“You forgot the ending pastor,” said Chris.
“oh, what’s that?” said the pastor.
“When you say the words that send us out into the world after we’ve heard everything in worship. The words send us out with a sort of marching orders. We hear what we need to hear so that we can go and live as followers of Jesus. I know what I have to do – I’m going to visit my father now. He doesn’t have much time. It’s time to let go of all of this. I’m going to forgive him. I’m going to release him. I want to be released too. I want to say goodbye free from anger and fear. I want to say goodbye in love. I want him to know that I love him.”
“What you are about to do is not easy, but you already know that. You’ll be in my prayers Chris.” Said the pastor.
“Thanks. I’ll take all the prayers I can get.”