Forgiveness – What it is and What it isn’t

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 9-17-17                                                                                   Sirach 27:30-28:7, Ps 103:1-12, Romans 14:7-9, Matthew 18: 21-35

We use the word “forgiveness” at every single Mass. Let’s spend a few minutes talking about what forgiveness is, and is not.

Let’s start with what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not forgetting, like Christians are a group of people with voluntary memory loss.  Forgiveness is not reconciliation.  To reconcile means to establish a friendship or shared understanding of something; to come to agreement.  Forgiveness is not condoning.  When we condone an act, we simply overlook it without protest.  Likewise, forgiveness is not dismissing.  When a court case is dismissed, the legal action is withdrawn and nothing else is done.  Forgiveness is not some vague sort of tolerance.  Tolerance is when we allow or respect something as permissible.  Finally, forgiveness is not pardoning.  When the governor pardons someone in jail, he releases them without further punishment, he excuses their crime.

Most of us, including myself, would have used one or more of these words to define “forgiveness.” But we would have been wrong.  Forgiveness is not about excuses or overlooking or tolerating or withdrawing.  One dictionary definition I like is “to renounce anger or resentment against.”  It is a decision to not carry negative emotion against something some one else did.  It is not a judgment but rather a decision about our own behavior.  It is not something we create, but something we learn from the Spirit of God. Our relationship with God shows us that we can be loved even when we are at our worst.  This discovery is so enormous that we want to pass it on to others.

For starters, forgiveness is gift from God; it is an act of faith.  Two very familiar scriptures might help.  First, is Matthew 18:22, when Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive a brother and, I suspect, tries to appear generous by suggesting 7 times.  Jesus responds, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”  Please understand that the number “7” is the number for complete or finished, or even perfect.  That’s why creation in Genesis is a “7” day event.  Peter thinks if he forgave seven times, it would be perfect.  Jesus tells him that he must multiply his answer by 10, and then add another 7 for even more perfect.  What?  It means infinite, limitless, endless. That must have taken the wind out of Peter’s sail, as it does mine.  Incidentally, that 77 is a direct quote, using the exact same Greek phrase, from Genesis 4: 24, and is referring to limits on revenge against Cain for the murder of his brother.  Jesus is talking about unlimited forgiveness- of a terrible crime. This is what brings peace to our families, our communities, and our world.

The other familiar scripture is the Our Father, Matthew 6: 14-15. “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”   It sends a chill up my spine every time I say it.  It’s very clear.  Can we say, “Of course we are forgiven; Christ’s death on the cross forgave my sins,” and still not forgive others?  There are many Bible verses that respond very clearly to that.  One is Colossians 3: 12-13, “Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy & beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,  bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must do also.”

Forgiveness is one of the most powerful actions a Christian can perform.  The only thing harder than forgiveness – is to not forgive.   To not forgive is like carrying a brick around with you, every day, always, everywhere.   To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and then find out that the prisoner is not someone else, but yourself.  And to not forgive tends to grow into something even more ugly.  If we are angry and hold a grudge against one person, we are likely to begin to generalize that anger to other people.  Ethnic hatred and racism, for example, are often based in anger against one individual or event.

We may say we will “try” to forgive people.  Here I need to quote a famous movie character, Yoda, in Star Wars.  Yoda said, “Try not! Do or do not! There is no try!”  When we try, we leave open an expectation of possible failure; better to decide to do.  Forgiveness is not wimpy; instead it tends to be an attribute of strength and confidence.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until we have something to forgive.”   It might be well to look at forgiveness as purposeful commitment or a jouney.  A therapist, when writing about forgiveness, suggested that forgiveness is a long-term plan, and may require a wait 10 or more years before the other party is willing to respond.   He urges people to continue to make regular contract for however long it takes.

The tragedy of the 2006 Amish schoolhouse shooting in Pennsylvania will always be with me. When a man entered a schoolhouse and killed 5 little girls, the Amish families not only offered forgiveness but also food, help and friendship to the shooter’s wife and children.  They did it because they knew the Gospel, not to look good.  They had a firm commitment to obey the Word of God, knowing that, despite the pain and trauma in their lives, it was the right thing to do, and it was that choice that would restore love and peace.  It was a powerful witness to the world.  We also have that choice available to us.

So we can boldly say, “I will show Christ’s love by forgiving those who do not even ask for forgiveness. I will leave fairness and justice in God’s hands.  I will forgive others just as the Lord forgave me.  Today I will give myself the gift of forgiveness. ”  Is there someone I need to forgive?

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When Differences Bring Understanding

Pentecost 6-4-17 Acts 2:1-11, Ps: 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7,12-13, John 20:19-23

When Differences Bring Understanding

St. John’s description of the gift of the Holy Spirit is very different from St. Luke’s. Luke waits 50 days after Easter, until the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which celebrated God’s gift of the Law at Mt. Sinai.  John, on the other hand, tells of the gift of the Spirit occurring on the evening of Easter day.  How do we know that?  Well, verse 18 of John, Chapter 20, was Mary Magdalene coming directly to the apostles from the empty tomb, announcing that she had seen…and talked with… the Risen Christ.  Our reading today starts with verse 19, the very next verse: “On the evening of that first day of the week ( Easter)..”

John used this same expression, “that day”, when Jesus, at the Last Supper, promised the disciples, “The Father will give you another Advocate…the Spirit of Truth…On that day you will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in You.”  John’s community understood that Easter was “that day”.

Consequently, John’s community was highly centered on the Eucharist, which almost immediately became the custom of the disciples on the first day of the week.  And here in our Gospel, is the risen Jesus himself, on the first day of the week, with his disciples, just as he is with us in our Eucharist and in the Spirit.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is seeing his disciples for the first time since they abandoned him at his arrest in Gethsemane.  They have a lot to answer for.  They deserved to be fired, have their reputations blackened for life. What does Jesus say?  “Peace to you.”  Then he reveals himself by showing his hands and his side.  He literally opens himself up to them.  It seems to be in part self-identification. We might call his wounds his “credentials” to minister to all who suffer.  Next, he repeats “Peace to you.”  Upon hearing him and seeing him, then the disciples rejoiced and believed He was risen from the dead.

“Peace to you” is a Hebrew phrase which meant that something sacred was about to be revealed.   It is not just, “Hey Guys, relax.”  No.  It is a declaration of peace, a proclamation, an announcement. The risen Jesus brings them peace, gives them peace.  (You know: Peace I leave you, my peace I give you.)  Having prepared them to open themselves to the Spirit, he breathed on them.  This takes us right back to Genesis 2, where God breathed into Adam the breath of life.  It is as if the Spirit “re-creates” the disciples.

Early on, the breath of Holy people was presumed to have supernatural and healing powers. In fact, an early Patriarch of Alexandria filled a skin bag, like a balloon, with his breath, and sent it off to Ethiopia to ordain a Bishop.  Here in John, this breath, a sign of creation, is linked with the power to forgive sin, becoming a sign of restoration and fullness of life.

The differences between Luke’s and John’s Gospels can’t be reconciled. We have no chronological historical documents which focus on the exact time line. Besides, much of our scripture was written not with the intent of keeping a play-by-play, but with a much more important goal – that is- to explain the revelations of God to the generations to come.

These revelations are given in a way to help us understand, they help us make sense of what happened, in ways that are not bound by the swing of a clock pendulum, but by the movement of the Spirit in the heart and soul. Our job is to attend carefully and embrace the mystery.

Perhaps the best way for us to really enter into the revelation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is to talk about it in ways that we have experienced and with issues that we face. The Holy Spirit has been called “the love that God and Jesus have for each other”.  The Spirit brings closeness.  Think about the image found in Luke’s Pentecost of everyone in Jerusalem hearing the Good News in their own language.  We view that as being able to draw close and talk with someone we had never been able to communicate with before.  The barrier of language is removed, and we can share with a “foreigner” the truths we base our lives on.  We can listen intently to them, hearing them speak from their innermost self.  We are then drawn to love the very human-ness of each other, without stumbling over the clutter of culture or social customs.

What if this Spirit who is Love gave us the ability to listen to people we dislike, those people who drive us nuts, and the people we can’t talk to without getting into an argument. What if suddenly, with the Spirit, we could hear what they were saying, really saying, and suddenly realize that is so very much like what we, too, are really trying to say.  What if we wanted to share our time with them, what if our faith suddenly felt big enough to embrace someone else’s understanding?

This week, Trinity Episcopal Church in Pawtuxet, Rhode Island, offered the use of their chapel to a Jewish congregation who had lost their synagogue, saying, “Let’s loose the keys to the church to the community.”  Wouldn’t that be the sense of Pentecost?

In John’s Gospel, immediate after saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus brings up forgiveness. Without the Holy Spirit, the “power” to forgive sins – or not forgive – seems enticing.  But with the Holy Spirit, suddenly the thought comes – “When I offer forgiveness, the sin is gone, forgiven.  What if all the pain and hurt between me and that sibling I haven’t spoken to in years is gone?  What if my estranged friend and I could once again enjoy each other’s company?

What if then, we shed some of our defenses, let some perceived insult or meanness be forgotten, what if we felt the person who formerly had annoyed us was, in fact, really of great value. Wouldn’t that be the gift of the Holy Spirit?

Let me end by quoting Pope Francis. “Let us ask ourselves today: Are we open to ‘God’s Surprises’?  Or are we closed and fearful before the newness of the Holy Spirit?  Do we have the courage to strike out along the new paths which God’s newness set before us?”

 

Value the Valuable

8th Sunday Ordinary time, year A, 2-16-17, Isaiah 49:14-15, Ps 62:2-3, 6-7, 8-93,  1 Corinthians 4:1-5, Matthew 6:24-34, 2-16-17

Most people recognize this gospel passage about the “flowers of the field.” We can connect to it.  We still treasure flowers, so many years later.  We give them to people to speak of our love, when we beg forgiveness, when we try to console people for their losses.  We wear flowers when we dance, and when we marry.  We print flowers on our clothing, on our wall paper, on our stationery, and on gift wrap.  We grow flowers in our home gardens, in public parks, and as part of the landscaping around shopping malls.   Our lasting fondness for flowers is not just the result of a well-planned media effort by the Florists Association.  Even the harder hearts among us, deep down, recognize flowers as one of those gifts of the earth, a fragile miracle of creation.

Jesus, as always, got the message exactly right, when he used flowers as the memory token of God’s love. I can imagine Jesus as a toddler, running to Mary in that funny little way toddlers run, with a dandelion or some weedy-flower clutched in his little cubby fist, gurgling with joy as he presented it to his mother.  Jesus, of all people, knew intimately what it takes to make a beautiful field of “wild” flowers.  I suspect he spend long hot hours in the family garden as a child,  hoeing with a stick, hauling water from a stream or well, making sure every precious plant in that garden grew to feed his family.

We so glibly repeat the doctrine of Jesus as “fully God and fully human.” Do we remember that for many years, we have no records of Jesus living anything other than the ordinary life of a young Jewish boy? Yet the story of Jesus in the temple with the teachers brings us to believe that his understanding was deeper than even his parents expected.  He must have considered the perfect timing of our world. The breeze, blowing the fragile seeds of the flowers, needed divine help in finding the perfect meadow, the spot of rich soil, the moisture so precious in the dry Middle East, and the clouds parting for the sun – all coming together to bring about a brief and fleeting beauty of the flowers in the fields.

Many of Jesus’ stories and parables use homely, earthy images that everyone listening to him could relate to. But anyone who has tried to craft a few paragraphs that possibly might hold the attention of an audience knows, that to write reasonable well, much less create a lasting image that could withstand thousands of years, that would be copied and translated and minutely studied by scholars ready and able to dissect them, is another matter.

How do you tell children that an invisible God loves them intimately? Why not tell them about the flowers.  Even the youngest child knew what a treasure those flowers were – to bring to Mother, to weave necklaces out of, to run and roll in their sweet scent.  All the children listening to Jesus had gathered the dead flowers along with the cut grass, to be thrown into the fire.  They understood such beauty had value, and the idea that God would lavish such joy on a weed that would last a few days, was proof enough that God would lavish love on them too.

How do you convince poor, needy, over-burdened adults that they are valuable to God? Why not point to the birds.  Many birds have a very short life span, and yet are seen soaring in the sky in joy, lazily drifting on the wind currents. They get their sustenance free, found as seeds in the flowers or on the ground, or as leftovers in the food trough of other animals.  Their homes are made of the leaves and sticks and mud that wait for them.  Everything seems to be provided by God, lavishly given at no cost.   Their life seems so simple.  Then why do we worry, why are we anxious, why do we search out the Coach purse at $500, the newest styles, the hot labels?  Science has proven that constant stress and worry shortens life.  Why do we whine to God that we can’t take the stress- the stress we have brought upon ourselves by valueing what is not valuable?  The birds and the flowers are the model God provides for us to learn to enjoy what is simple and free, like the love which rains down on us.

How do you persuade the sick and forgotten, those who have made a mess of their lives and have been shamed again and again, that God finds them beautiful? Jesus offers them new direction, a new path.  Seek God.  Watch how God loves – with the goodness of creation and the abundance provided for us by the earth.  Yes, when life has not gone well for a while, don’t allow the past to pile up on you and smother you.  The rain will fall on you, good or bad.  Spring always comes back to the world, regardless of the hard winter the warmth of the sun always returns.  Each morning is a new day.  When Isaiah spoke with the people of Israel who had disobeyed God, who had broken their relationship with God and been held in captivity for years, Isaiah spoke of the certainty of a mother’s love.  Even should the unthinkable happen and the mother should forget her child, God will never forget.  God will never abandon.  God will never be without tenderness.

This is the image we need as we face the beginning of Lent, a time to consider our response to God’s love, the tenderness and forgiveness offered to each and every one of the entire family of humanity. It is a message which does not scold and upbraid us for our faults, our turning from God, our refusal to love each other, much less God.  It is more like the doorbell ringing, and the people who have offended us and abused us coming to us, repentant, offering remorse and apologies and, yes, a bouquet of beautiful flowers, hoping to repair our relationship.  Or perhaps we are on the other side of the door, ready to say that we were wrong and intolerant, greedy or thoughtless.  It is a time to sow seeds of peace, of love, of compassion, or of forgiveness, that we may truly be ready for the blossoming of the flowers of hope and joy.