TEXT: Genesis 33:1-11

Last week we looked at a couple of the different commercials that the United Methodist Church is going to be showing all across the country on cable networks for the month of September, which is Open House month. The slogan on every one of them is, "Our hearts, our minds, our doors, are always open." Since that's the slogan on each of the commercials, I wanted to focus on them during these first three weeks in September, which means that this is "Open Hearts" week.

As I was thinking about the distinguishing marks for each of those three things, I came to think about Open Hearts week starting with the issue of forgiveness and our ability to be open to forgive as Esau was. When Esau came to meet Jacob, he had 400 men with him. He wasn't necessarily coming to forgive, but in the face of his brother's repentance, they embraced and they wept. Instead of a war there was forgiveness and reconciliation.

Then there is this incredibly disturbing passage that I read from Matthew about the parable of the servant who was forgiven and then refused to forgive others. Since that's a parable about the Kingdom of Heaven, we see how very much God wants us to be a people who forgive. Because God has already offered forgiveness to us, God wants us to extend that forgiveness to others, rather than keeping God's grace for ourselves.

In order to come at this today, what I'd like to do is simply to talk about issues of forgiveness, and to be open for questions that you might have surrounding the issue of forgiveness. It's a very common struggle for a lot of people. So rather than assuming what your questions would be, I wanted to hear some of your struggles and issues as you feel free to share them.

Someone brought me an article from "USA Today" this week that was talking about a study from Stamford University that had been done about forgiveness. It talked about the physiological benefits that come when we're able to let go of those grudges and forgive. It gave an interesting definition, which said, "To forgive means giving up the right to be aggravated and angry and the desire to strike back." I thought that was a pretty good definition, because sometimes people think that forgiving a person means saying that no harm was done, or saying that it was OK that it happened. I know I find myself saying that when people apologize for something. My response is, "It's OK." But it's not OK. If it was an accident that they didn't intend, that's one thing. But if an actual wrong has been done, that's not OK. The response is, if we're willing, "I forgive you," because the action itself was wrong. If it wasn't wrong, forgiveness wouldn't necessary to begin with. Forgiveness is a response to a hurt or a wrong. This is why people get angry when they're forgiven but they haven't repented, because forgiveness implies that they did something wrong, and they may not think they did anything wrong.

So when we forgive someone we're not saying that nothing bad happened. We're saying that something did happen. That's an important thing to realize.

Another common question is what to do if someone repeats the offense again and again after we've forgiven them. Jesus says to keep on forgiving. But remember that this just means that we're giving up the right to strike back. It doesn't mean that we have to keep putting ourselves in harm's way. Forgiveness should not be used to keep people in an abusive situation. We can give up the right to be angry without necessarily staying in that place where we can be hurt again. Forgiveness and reconciliation CAN go together, but they don't necessarily NEED to go together. The New Testament word for forgiveness can also mean "divorce" in terms of cutting something off and leaving it behind. Some of us marry our grudges, and they are an integral part of our day to day lives. Sometimes we need to divorce our grudges so that we can get on with our lives. An Old Testament meaning is to "take up and carry" as an armor-bearer would carry armor. In these passages, we're asking God to take this sin from us. In the New Testament meaning we're speaking from God's point of view, where God asks us to lay those things down and get on with our lives without them.

You notice in the article that part of the definition is "giving up the right to be aggravated or angry, or the desire to strike back." Being aggravated or angry when you are hurt is perfectly normal and healthy. It's one of our defense mechanisms so that we can know when we've been violated. A lot of times when people don't apologize, it's because they don't know we've been hurt. If we don't listen to our feelings and communicate that to them, they can never find out. The problem comes when that anger and resentment stays with us. When it loses its helpful function of causing us to do something about it, and we can't let go of it, it harms us physically.

Q: One of the questions that I often hear when I lecture on the death penalty is how to get beyond the need for vengeance when dealing with a murderer.

A: The people in Florida who I call my surrogate parents were the aunt and uncle of one of the women who were brutally murdered by the serial killer Danny Rowling. It was an awful thing. We were right in the middle of how you deal with this, how do you forgive. It's certainly not an easy thing. Part of the answer, I think, at least for people of faith, is in recognizing that God is a God of justice. Sometimes passages of scripture about God's wrath make us uncomfortable and nervous. But when we're in a situation like that, we need to hear the word that God does get angry about that kind of abuse and injustice, that there is a piece of God that is wrathful in the face of evil and cruelty. Although that might be hard to think about in terms of our own sin, do we really want a God who is going to be lenient about these things? When we recognize that there will be a day of judgment, it may be easier to leave the vengeance to God, knowing that there will be justice.

Q: I find that I can forgive others more easily than I can forgive myself.

A: I think that most of the issue of forgiving ourselves rests in two things -- developing a real spirit of humility and a knowledge of God's grace. The humility comes from recognizing that any of us, given the right circumstances, could break any commandment in the Bible. I think that a lot of the great falls of pastors and televangelists comes from thinking that as Christians we're somehow immune to certain kinds of sin, just by virtue of being Christians, and that's not true. Any one of us can fall. Recognizing that any of us could commit any sin helps us with forgiveness of others. And when we realize just how loving God is, even Danny Rowling, Timothy McVeigh, Hitler, anyone you could name, if they really repent before God -- not a last minute "I'm sorry" in the hopes of getting in, but a real heartfelt recognition of what they've done -- God looks at them and Christ's forgiveness on the cross is already accomplished for that. I think that often an inability to forgive ourselves is really a question of whether God COULD forgive. And if it's not, if a person says, "I know God forgives but I can't forgive," do they have a higher standard than God does? God really does forgive anything in the face of our repentance -- anything at all. When we really understand that we can pass it along, whether it's to ourselves or to somebody else who has harmed us.

The issues surrounding forgiveness are critical to the way we live in community. All of us do things we shouldn't do, and all of us need to be forgiven. Confession and repentance need to be a part of every relationship we have. I believe that what we are here for is to learn, by being in relationship with each other, how to be in relationship with God. We practice with one another, and as we practice confessing our sins to one another we practice confessing our sins to God. By practicing receiving the confession of another we practice receiving the grace and forgiveness that God is offering to us all the time. That's why it's so critical. We can't have love in our lives without it.

And that's what the table is about this morning. It's why, in the Methodist Church, we practice an open table. It means you don't have to be a member of this church or any church. If you want to come and receive from the Lord's table then you are welcome to do that. Because it's about forgiveness. It doesn't matter what anybody does. Christ died for every one of us. There is something needed on our part, and that is the confession of our sin, which we do as we receive the bread. We say, "Yes, I have sinned. This needed to happen not because of Jews a long time ago. This needed to happen because of me and my sin too. But God, I accept the forgiveness that you have extended to me, and God help me to extend that forgiveness to others.

That's who we should be -- a people who confess our sins. A people who really try to forgive one another as God has forgiven us.


(c) 2001, Anne Robertson

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