Last week we heard God’s words tell us that we should seek to bind ourselves to each other. To strive to restore the lost to the community even when we’d rather not. To be persistent in the work of repentance, reconciliation and forgiveness. Today we go deeper and struggle with the notion of just how far forgiveness really goes. After all, surely there are limits! It can’t really be right that we keep forgiving someone who perpetually harms others, or that we forgive when the harm is something really big. But we hear otherwise. We see Joseph weep and struggle with his brothers, and we hear Jesus tell Peter straight. There is no sugar coating it. We’re called to forgive. What if I can’t just forgive? What does that say about our faithfulness as Christians?
I have a confession. I don’t often speak about my life, but I can’t really call you to the journey of forgiveness without sharing my own struggle with it. I’ve been working on forgiveness over something for nineteen years. We went to the hospital for the birth of our first daughter. I was the model expectant mother- no caffeine, no alcohol, not even TUMS for endless heartburn or Tylenol for the sinus headache that lasted the first three months. I took my vitamins, went to the doctor, and planned every detail of the nursery. I read all the “what to expect” books, attended the childbirth classes and was as prepared as anyone could be. Prepared for everything except- what to do when it all goes wrong and you find yourself in the OR, your baby is blue, with two dislocated hips and possible brain injury because the doctor didn’t pay attention. Nothing prepared me for that. The blur of orthopedic visits, evaluations, and the shock that doors that might be closed, her life compromised by profound negligence. She wasn’t expected to live. By the grace of God she did, and we’ve navigated the consequences. She has overcome limitations in amazing ways that have taught me much. But for a long time I was hurt and frustrated-with no real effective consequence or place to go with my bitterness. In fact, I am not sure that even when I entered Seminary I could have preached this sermon. How do we live on the other side of traumatic things?
Our culture doesn’t really provide the tools for that- for the weight of the pain and gnawing awareness it can’t be erased. Hearing the words, “just forgive” when it sounds like a switch we can turn on and off, is a myth. Today many of us are recalling the shock of a large scale trauma in our nation, where the enormous task of forgiveness has a global perspective. While we are focused upon commemorating the people and events of that day, I’d like to suggest that we not overlook the other watershed moments in our daily lives where forgiveness is just as elusive: the loss of a job, the breakup of a relationship, the face of cancer. When a loved one is in jail, or our home is gone. There are lots of places where we struggle with blame and anger, estrangement and grief. Times when not only do we wonder how to make sense, we might wonder what it means if we can’t just flip that forgiveness switch. Am I a faithful Christian if I can’t just do that?
John Patton, wrote a book entitled, Is Human Forgiveness Possible? and says, "Forgiveness is not something we do; it is something we discover. I am able to forgive when I discover that I am in no position to forgive.” It’s where one pastor friend of mine speaks about being aware of the cross, but banging off of it again and again and not quite getting there. This meaning of the cross in the world and in my life, reminds me of this internal battle between my head and heart- between what I know I should be able to do, but what I can’t commit my emotions to doing easily. We can put a man on the moon but the distance from our head to our heart is somehow the longest and most difficult. And while we are called to continue to work at the work of forgiveness, it is OK to accept that it is a journey where we discover forgiving along the way.
We are not called to forget or condone, but to allow God to transform us in this process. I haven’t forgotten what happened, but somehow I got to the point where the real bitterness left, and to a point where I could consider forgiveness. But that’s just one event in my life. We all have lots of moments where we wrestle with offering forgiveness or longing for it. Which is part of why Jesus tells us there is essentially no limit to the number of times we have to face forgiving, over and over again. To the Jewish audience he addressed, the number seven times seventy isn’t just math.
It’s intended to represent the perfect and extravagant ability to forgive. This is what God shows us. Ironically, I also wonder if maybe it takes me trying to say “I forgive” about that many times to make the journey. Even then I know I will not have written God’s law of love permanently on my heart. The journey toward forgiveness is one where we can see that it is only with God and by God’s grace that we can travel toward that place where we might discover “grace fluttering into our hearts.” God’s desire for us to reach this place is both a desire for the person who has wronged us, and a desire that we reach the place where we are liberated from the pain and weight of sin as well. This is God’s desire for our own personal hurts and those of our larger world.
Even bigger than asking “what does it mean to live on the other side of pain,” is “what does it mean to live this side of the cross?” The cross reminds us of both our need and God’s work. The cross is where we begin in worship, with confession and hearing God’s forgiveness. The cross is where we end-our future lies in the work of Christ on the cross for the salvation of the world. And in all the moments in between, the cross is the place where we join together to remember who God is for us and what we need. God could easily be saying to each of us, “how many times do I have to forgive you?” But instead stays with us as we keep banging into that cross. While we try to limit and restrict the scope of forgiveness and our role in it, God’s love expressed in the cross really is astoundingly scandalous and extravagant. Today we have to opportunity to be marked with the sign of that cross for healing and forgiveness, as a tangible reminder of this love, where God meets us at all our places of need and pain and says, “I know that about you, and I still love and forgive.” Sisters and brothers- let us never tire of meeting in this place of hope and healing and then proclaiming it to the world.
Let us pray- Lord, we give thanks that you meet us at the cross. Forgive us for our inability to forgive as you do. Help us in our journey to give and accept forgiveness. By your cross, may we all be healed. Amen.