Practicing Forgiveness

September 14, 2014

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA

Proper 19 – RCL Year A
Exodus 14:19-31; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

The other day I was driving by a park and noticed a young girl practicing softball with an older boy. This momentary glance took me back to a time many years ago when I played church-league softball. I was making the transition from T-ball to full-pitch softball, and it wasn’t going very smoothly. I quickly learned that hitting the ball as it moved toward me was harder than I thought.

In practice one day I kept missing the ball, and I was getting pretty frustrated. My older brother, Jimmy, was there. I don’t know if he was “officially” helping out, or whether he was just biding his time, while his sisters had softball practice. In any case, he offered to help me learn how to hit the ball. He had played little league baseball, and in my eyes, was good at anything he did, so why not?

So there I was, standing at the plate, bat in hand, barrel cocked-back over my shoulder as I’d seen all the baseball players do – I was ready for the pitch. Jimmy stood several paces away and gently tossed the softball toward me. I swung… and missed. After doing that a few more times, the result didn’t change, and Jimmy could tell I was about to give up. So, he decided to use a different approach.

614129580_iFqRh-M-1He told me to hold the bat out in front of me, across the plate, and just touch the ball when it came toward me – not to swing at all – just reach the bat out and touch the ball wherever it was as it came across the plate. He then came a little closer and tossed balls toward me. I tapped each one, and got a sense of what it felt like for the bat to make simple contact with the ball. He had taken the swinging-action out of the equation, and gave me something I could actually accomplish. It was encouraging!

Then, after a little more of that, Jimmy told me to take the bat back just a little bit and swing to touch the ball… not really hit it hard, just make contact. We kept building in gradual steps, and by the end of practice, I was able to hit a softball… not always, and not always hard, but it was a start.

It’s called starting with the fundamentals.

He was only a couple of years older than me, but he knew how they worked. He may not have called it that, but that’s what it is. Taking it one step at a time, from the most basic place, a fundamental step, gain confidence in it, and then build from there.

I’d venture-to-say that we have fundamentals in our faith tradition, too. Take The Lord’s Prayer, for instance. What’s more fundamental than that?

We learn it when we are very young and it’s, I’d guess, the most universal of Christian prayers. We got a taste of that last week, as we stood right here. Just before sharing the bread and wine of the ONE COMMUNITY of Christ Church, we held hands and said the Lord’s Prayer, some in English, some in Spanish, and perhaps even other languages were spoken, who knows. It was a wonderful garble of prayer that God fully understood.

This prayer was given to us early in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus was warning against practicing piety and making grand gestures in order to be noticed by others. Instead, Jesus encouraged his followers to be discreet when they pray and fast, so that the focus is only on glorifying God, not on ourselves. Then Jesus says:

‘Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you;but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Mt. 6:9-15)

It’s worded a little differently in our prayer book, and you’ll notice that this version uses the terms debt and debtor. When we consider the context of Matthew’s gospel, forgiving one’s debts in Jesus’ day was more than just telling someone they didn’t have to pay back the $50 bucks you lent them last week. In early times, debts often equated to servitude. When one owed a debt, they had to work it off. They and their whole family became indentured slaves to the one they owed, until the debt was cleared through sweat-equity. So, to forgive a debt was to set someone free; to give them their life back.

So, when we look at The Lord’s Prayer, this fundamental prayer of our faith, it’s important to know that it’s about relying on God and striving for God’s will to be done; trusting that God is there for us, not only in heaven, but here on earth.

The daily bread of which it speaks is a reference to the manna in the desert provided to the Israelites. If you remember the story, this manna wasn’t something they could store overnight, so, they had to trust that God would provide it EACH DAY, and God did. So, “Give us this day our daily bread” conveys a full awareness that it is God who gives us all that we have; all that sustains us; all of this is God’s gift to us. This is God’s stewardship toward us.

The gift of forgiveness is also God’s to give. Yet, in this prayer, we ask that God’s forgiveness be given in direct proportion to our willingness to forgive others. [I don’t know who thought THAT was a good idea!] We are giving to others a gift that God gives to us – forgiveness – LETTING GO of the things that offend us; that hurt us.

The act of forgiving is central in The Lord’s Prayer, and it’s through the lens of The Lord’s Prayer, that I’d like to explore today’s gospel reading.

It starts with Peter asking “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” and Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”  Now, some Bible translations say seventy times seven, and during our staff meeting this week, when reflecting on this lesson, Napoleon reminded us that this isn’t meant to be an actual number. It’s a Biblical way of saying “Perfection”

– seven is a Holy number, so seventy times seven is a numerical expression for perfection.

So, here we have Jesus upping the ante on how we are to live. It isn’t about keeping track of how many times we’ve forgiven someone, but about endless forgiving – fully letting go, and not keeping track.

Now, to be clear, although we are called to forgive again and again, it doesn’t mean we are supposed to repeatedly subject our self to unhealthy or punitive people or situations. Just as God has given us the gift of forgiveness, God has also given us the gift of discernment, reason and choice. If we repeatedly find our self in circumstances of offense and injury, we are empowered, even expected, to remove ourselves from those people or situations. Yet, even in separating ourselves, the act of forgiveness allows us to let go fully, with God’s help, to move on in a healthy, life-giving way. So, when we forgive others, we are letting go of what is in the past.

Jesus then tells a parable that’s meant to illustrate the point, but, I think it actually illustrates the portion of the Lord’s Prayer about God forgiving us as we forgive others.

The parable begins with a king who wants to settle his accounts with those indebted to him. He went to a slave that owed him ten thousand talents, and when he learned that he couldn’t pay him, the king was going to sell the slave and his family to pay the debt. The slave pleads for the king to be patient and assures him that he’ll repay the debt in time. Then, taking pity, the king is not only patient, he forgives the entire debt, releasing the slave; freeing him!

Yet, when this same slave went to a fellow slave, one who owed him one hundred denarii (much less than the debt to the king), he took the fellow slave by the throat, and demanded to be repaid! The fellow slave begged for patience but he refused and had the slave put in prison until the debt was repaid.

When the generous king found out, he was furious. This man who was given his freedom, FORGIVEN fully, didn’t do the same toward another. So, the king called him out and handed him over to be tortured until he would pay the entire debt.

Matthew’s parables are more violent than I like.

It ends by saying: “Somy heavenly Father will also do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” This idea of a God that tortures us is tough to swallow. What happened to my loving God?

Letting Go Photo by Jody Greenwood

Letting Go
Photo by Jody Greenwood

Yet, our loving God knows that when we hold on to these unforgiven things, we bring a kind of torture into our lives. Not in a physical sense, perhaps, but when we continue to wallow in anger, hurt, frustration, you name it, we aren’t able to free up our hearts to a place of love and grace. So, forgiveness is not only a gift to the other person, but I believe that it’s also a gift to our self. Letting go frees us from the bondage of unhelpful thoughts and feelings.

I’m not saying it’s easy.

And, if we’ve been holding onto something for a long time, it can be tough to let go of. In some ways, those things we hold onto can become a part of us, and we wouldn’t know how to be without holding on to that resentment or injury. But isn’t it worth a try?

Even so, forgiveness is a learned skill, and it has to be practiced. It doesn’t come anymore naturally to us than hitting a softball. We have to work at it. We have to be willing to hold the bat out to just touch the ball – start with basic steps.

The prayer of St. Francis invites us to be instruments of God’s peace. One element of the familiar prayer is that “where there is injury, let me sow pardon.” I believe this is the most basic first step – to simply pray for the ability to pardon. If you’re not sure you’re ready to forgive, take a step back and pray to want to be ready to forgive.

images (1)And remember, God forgives us continually. We miss the mark again and again, and God keeps giving us forgiveness. So, we too are called to this same act of generosity toward others. As we get better at it, we can add movement, and begin to forgive more freely. Before long, we’ll be swinging for the fences!

You see, the more we PRACTICE forgiveness, the more natural it becomes. And who knows, if we keep it up, forgiving others may become as instinctual as saying The Lord’s Prayer. And the earlier we start learning, the better.

I hear children saying The Lord’s Prayer at the youngest of ages. And, in contrast, as I sat at our beloved friend, Nancy Grant’s bedside a couple of weeks ago, her daughter Barb and I prayed aloud with her. When we got to the Lord’s Prayer, even in her weakened physical state, Nancy began to mouth the words along with us. It was a powerful moment.

And, the next day, her daughter and a close friend sat by Nancy’s side, and once again said The Lord’s Prayer together, and in that moment, invited Nancy to let go of this earthly life. So, with the words of the Lord’s Prayer on her lips and in her heart, she did just that. It serves as a testament that the fundamentals of our faith run deep in those who practice them.

So, today and every day, I ask that you practice forgiveness at whatever level you are able. And, with God’s help, strive for God’s seventy times seven goal of perfection.

Photo by Jody

Photo by Jody

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