On the front cover of your bulletin are the exact words that are on the “Be the Church” banner that hangs on the front of the church. This banner will continue to be the focus of our worship services throughout the summer months. The “Be the Church” banner gives us some very concrete ways to live out our faith.
When we began looking at the banner, we took a look at the over-arching question “What does it mean to ‘be the church’?” We discussed how being part of a church means being part of a community- we are not alone on our journey and we have a responsibility to walk with others in the community. The following week, we focused on fighting for the powerless. We unpacked the notion of powerlessness as well as different ways of fighting or standing up for people who are powerless. Then, my friend and colleague, Rev. Megan Snell, talked with you all about ways to enjoy life. And last week we looked at embracing diversity. We talked about who or what would make us a more diverse community and how can we authentically embrace diversity.
These phrases on the “Be the Church” banner challenge us and they empower us, they challenge us to live out our faith and they empower us to find ways to do just that.
Today’s phrase from the banner is no different; when we hear the words “forgive often” a lot of emotional baggage can come up for us. Forgiveness is a difficult concept to wrestle with and, unfortunately, it is a word that is thrown around sort of cavalierly in faith communities. I want to make sure that you take note of the fact that the banner says “forgive often” not forgive always or you must forgive- these are very different notions of forgiveness.
Think for a moment about the different times you have heard forgive or forgiveness in the Bible. What are some of the quotes or instances that come to your mind?
-Jesus saying on the cross, “God, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
-Jesus teaching to turn the other cheek is often thought of as a forgiveness lesson
Psalm 130 states: But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared. (This is the only instance in the Hebrew Scripture that the word forgiveness is used.)
Actually, “The word “Forgiveness” is mentioned in the NIV bible exactly 14 times. Once in the Old Testament and thirteen times in the New Testament.
Forgiveness, as a concept, is mentioned more frequently. For example the word “Forgive” appears 42 times in the Old Testament and 33 times in the New Testament. The word “Forgiven” appears 17 times in the Old Testament and 28 times in the New Testament. And the word “Forgiving” appears 6 times in the Old Testament and 1 time in the New” (http://garyeugenehowell.com/hearinggodsvoice/how-many-times-is-forgiveness-mentioned-in-the-bible/).
In the scriptures we have this morning, we hear the psalmist praising God and blessing God for forgiving us. This psalm lists out the various ways God forgives us: God forgives all your iniquity, heals all your diseases, redeems your life from the Pit, crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, satisfies you with good as long as you live, God works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. This is clearly joyous and good news!
I wonder if we can relate to the feelings expressed in this psalm. Do we think about the fact that God forgives us when we sin? Do we think about the missteps we make in life as needing forgiveness?
This is tough stuff and it is a concept that has been tweaked and interpreted so many different ways throughout the history of Christianity that we have lost sight of what we need to be forgiven for. The word sin, hamartia in Greek, actually means “to miss the mark”. So, when we are in relationship with God and neighbor and we make a choice that turns us away from being in right relationship with God or neighbor- that misstep is something we need to correct, something we need forgiveness for.
Each communion Sunday and throughout the season of Lent, we say a prayer of confession that asks God to help us get back into a good relationship with our neighbor, our self and our God- this is asking God to forgive our missteps, to forgive our sins, the times when we miss the mark of what God wants for us. Most of us do not like saying a prayer of confession because we do not like to admit we have done wrong, but it is healthy for our Spirits/our souls to check in every once and a while and see how our relationships are going.
But what work do we have to do concerning forgiveness?
Each and every week we pray to God as Jesus taught us to saying, “forgive us our sins”, “debts” or “trespasses” “as we forgive those who sin against us”, “as we forgive our debtors”, or “as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Then what? Is praying this enough? Is praying a prayer of confession once a month enough?
According to the letter Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, praying these prayers do not scratch the surface of the work we need to do on forgiveness. He writes:
let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors
Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger
Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
This work is hard work. It challenges us to shift our own hearts towards those who we may need to forgive. Forgiveness is more about a realization on our part and a letting go in our heart of the sin/debt/transgression that needs to be forgiven.
This work is also empowering work. Work that frees us from carrying burdens and holding grudges.
Let us pray…