Matthew 6:9 – 15
9 Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you;
15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
“Mom has told me that she’s forgiven me. I understand if you’re not ready to.”
Carefully, and without looking at my Dad, I said, “I can’t say that I have forgiven you. I’m not sure what that means. I hope I can.”
It was a Saturday. The day Jesus spent in the grave. My father was preparing a public confession.
A few nights before I was sitting with my parents in the parsonage – the parsonage is where the preacher lives with his or her family — in our living room. The church phone rang. My dad got up to answer it. My mom and I stayed in the LR. There were these long silences in the conversation. Mom and I, as was very typical in our family, tried to guess what was going on on the other end of the phone: who was sick? who’d gone into labor? who’d died?
Mom said, “Rebecca, this is just like your play.”
I was 23 and living with my parents. After college, I had moved back in. In the spring, I’d completed my undergraduate thesis. I wrote a play about growing up evangelical. A play called WE COME HOME. I explained to an extremely secular audience what it was like to grow up in the church. One of my professors called it a love song to my upbringing. My audience there – when people found out how I was raised, they treated me like I’d just gotten out of prison camp. “Oh my god! Are you…okay? Can you talk about it?” People wanted the dirt.
But I said, “There weren’t skeletons in the closet!” This is just a story about how surprisingly good and pleasant it was to grow up in the evangelical church in America. Not complicated.
And then a few months later, that phone call.
My dad hung up the phone and disappeared. He went into the basement, to do laundry or something. My mother and I continued to wonder and guess what was going on.
What was going on was this. Over the next few days, the news came out that my father had been having an affair with a woman who worked in the church, a woman who was a well-known leader in the church. This came out gradually, over the course of several days, until on Friday, my mom was sitting in her garden crying with her best friend also from the church and the parking lot was filling up with deacons’ cars in the middle of the workday and there were meetings and phone calls.
And then on Sunday morning, we were waiting in my house – as though for a funeral. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves – waiting for this thing to begin. Aimless. Trying to figure out what you’re supposed to wear to this thing. I played the piano for a while. My best friend showed up.
Suddenly, in the other room, I heard my mother, for the first and only time in her life, say, “Oh my god.”
My brother had come, unannounced. And he looked ridiculous. He looked like he was trying to get the last airlift out of Saigon. He had flip flops and army pants that had the fly held shut with a safety pin, and wrap around sunglasses. Bags slung over both shoulders bandolier style with things strapped to them. He showed up in the parking lot like an apparition, like he’d been dropped from the sky. We ushered him into the house and we waited.
Church started and we made our way across the driveway and into the office that was at the back of the church. Where we stood, sat, and waited. The people were singing and finally it was time for us to go in. We opened the office door and single file walked up the long side aisle while the people sang – full voice – Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. Do you know that song? Beautiful, lilting…so lilting. And the lyrics?
O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness like a fetter [like a fetter!] bind my wandering heart to thee
Prone to wander Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love
Who chose that hymn?
We came up the side of the church and into the front pew. After we sang, we sat. We sat. My father put his hand on my back and rose to approach the pulpit. My mother went with him. Stood beside him. After 12 years of pastor-ing in that church, 18 years of being a pastor, he said, “Beloved, I stand before you today for the last time as your pastor. I have broken my marriage vows.” He said he had lied.
In that confession and resignation, I lost my church, my pastor of 23 years, my father as I had known him, my family as I had understood it, the home I had grown up in, my hometown, my belief that I perceived the world around me properly. My father had been my closest…my foundation, my true thing. I had nowhere to sing songs I loved with people I knew. I didn’t have a place to celebrate Christian high holidays.
My father turned away the pulpit. His face crumpled. He turned back and apologized again. Then, in our line, we walked out the front doors of the church. I leaned against my brother as we headed out into bright sunlight, into whatever was coming next.
There are a lot of lies about forgiveness out there. A lot of misinterpretations and sentimental garbage. A lot of things that are true but are very difficult to swallow.
It’s ok, I forgive you.
Forgive and forget
There are some things that are unforgiveable.
If we confess our sins, the One who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
How often should I forgive? Jesus said to him, Not seven times, but seventy
Turn the other cheek.
If I forgive him, it’s like condoning what he did.
Tell you sister you’re sorry. Look her in the eyes and tell her you’re sorry.
Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.
You must’ve heard the story a few yrs ago about the Amish community in Nickel Mines where a gunman burst into a school room and shot 10 children — and 5 of them died — and the Amish community forgave this man. They said the day afterward they forgave him. They went to his funeral. They cared for his widow. They greeted his family and people were caught up in this story because:
How is that possible?
That can’t be healthy.
They said it too quickly; they don’t know what it means!
How could they ever forgive something like that?
There’s a book about this, called Amish Grace, and they talk about it – they talk about not only the fact that they did indeed forgive this man but that they also at the same time have a great deal of difficulty forgiving, for example, a neighbor who refuses to mend his fences, year in and year out.
But they said sometimes one enormous tragedy is easier to forgive than the ongoing daily struggles of living together in community.
They said too that they forgave because they had been practicing to forgive. They practice forgiveness as part of the culture, the community. When they pray the Lord’s prayer – and it turns out that when this Amish community prays they pray almost exclusively the Lord’s prayer – when they pray that — “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” — they pray it in that way that makes us uncomfortable. Did you hear verses 14 and 15? It’s not the way we normally like to think about forgiveness. Normally we think “God forgave us so we should forgive others” but verses 14 and 15 say “If you forgive one another, then God will forgive you and if you don’t…God won’t!”
We like that Colossians version a lot better that we proclaimed to one another earlier. Both are true, but we definitely cling to that Colossians version: “because you have been forgiven, so you ought to forgive one another” but the Amish embrace those verses 14 and 15: we have to forgive. We DO have to forgive. As Christians, we do have to forgive.
My mother says that she forgave my dad because she had to, as a Christian. That doesn’t mean that she stayed with him because it was the Christian thing to do. For many Christians, the Christian thing to do would’ve been to forgive and get out. That was her choice, and her situation. Their particular relationship and their needs and history and love and repentance. But in some circumstances, there is no possibility for a mutual kind of reconciliation. Sometimes forgiveness looks like you forgiving and never seeing that person again. Sometimes the other person is dead. Or is dangerous to you – dangerous emotionally or physically. But we are called to forgive.
That doesn’t mean we don’t experience anger or bitterness but we are not consumed by it. We have to forgive because we are Christians, because we are forgiven. Because if and when we are truly forgiven and we know that we are, it’s like we won’t be able to help forgiving others.
Do you remember the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil? It’s a pretty strong image so my guess is that you might remember at least part of the story.
He’s having dinner at a Pharisee’s house and she comes in and anoints his feet with oil and dries his feet with her hair? And the Pharisee says “WHAT is she doing? How can you let her do that? She’s a sinner!”
That image is the part that sort of sticks with us.
Then Jesus turns to this guy, his host, and says, “Lemme tell you a little story. Suppose that there are two people that owe money and one owes a LOT and one owes a little. And both of their debts are forgiven. ‘You don’t owe me anything.’ Which one will be more grateful?”
And the Pharisee says, “well, I mean, obviously, the one who owed more.”
And Jesus said, “Her sins were many. She has been forgiven much. And you can tell by the love that pours out of her! She couldn’t help it!”
When we know that we are forgiven, it’s like we won’t be able to help ourselves. It’ll pour out of us, like oil.
So we have to forgive but it doesn’t mean that it’s simply or painlessly done. It takes a lot out of us. In part because it’s not really a human thing to do. I mean, it comes more naturally to some of us than others, based on our personalities and our histories but it’s not, like, the regular thing to do. It’s counter-intuitive. It can seem weak or pathetic. But, friends, we serve a pathetic Gd. We serve a Gd who came to us and was broken and beaten and stripped and like a fool from the cross said, “Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” That is the God we serve. Forgiving one another is pathetic. And it is only possible because of God’s forgiveness for us. Forgiveness costs a great deal. It’s akin to the dying and raising of Christ. To life after death. And it is impossible and it is unreasonable and it’s not fair to expect it. It’s not fair to expect it any more than to expect that Jesus would come out of the grave. It is impossible.
10, 11, almost 12 yrs later, my parents are together. My father’s ordination was reinstated. They’re pastor-ing 2 small churches that are growing. They’ve been through loads of therapy. Loads. My dad’s birthday was last week and my mom made him a cherry pie like she does every year. My mom has forgiven my dad.
Forgiveness is a habit and a practice. Something we try and try and try to do. My mom made a practice of forgiveness in her life. When she said she forgave my dad, she was committing to the practice of forgiving him, of working at it.
Forgiveness can happen differently. It can happen retrospectively. Where you realize, “my goodness, I guess — I guess I have forgiven him.” And that’s been more my experience with my dad. I guess I’ve forgiven him. It can take a long time either way. The way my Mom did it, the way it happened for me. It can take 30 years! It can take longer than that. Prayer and practice and recommitting to forgive.
Forgiveness begins with the truth, it begins with naming those things that were lost or broken or betrayed. It is with naming the loss, the breech, and then through the fog of grief and confusion and anger that is a long Saturday spent in the grave, it is walking out of the tomb that is impossibly and unbelievably empty.
There’s so much more to it than this. More to my story about my family. More to the story of forgiveness. More than any sermon could cover. The small daily things like those un-mended fences that are really hard to forgive. Things in my own family that I haven’t forgiven. There’s a lot more to it: what forgiveness is, what it is not, what it means about who we are as Christians, what it means about how we lives our lives. What it means for you, and your relationships, your families and friendships:
So who are you thinking of? What are the names that are in your head right now? Situations?
*Maybe something you haven’t forgiven yourself for. Maybe something you again and again. I tend to back out on friends in important situations — at the last minute. I don’t do it often but when I do it, boy, I really do it. Backing out on dear friends. Maybe you didn’t stand by someone when you pretty clearly should have.
*Maybe there’s something that can never be made right. Parents who were not what they should’ve been to you. Or a one-time thing: what your mother said to you that one Thanksgiving. And it was only once but you know it was representative of the whole dynamic and who says something like that to their kid?
*A relationship that is permanently severed. By death or break-up.
*Maybe you’re thinking of something that is too serious to forgive. Something you’re still mad about that doesn’t make sense to you. Someone who ended a relationship that – you just think they were wrong.
What are those names and stories that you’re thinking of right now?
Forgiveness may come more naturally to some than to others but it is possible for all of us. It is necessary. It’s necessary for reconciliation with one another and with God. God’s got us covered. I mean, it’s done. It’s finished. There is grace and forgiveness for you. And when you really, really know that, it will pour out of you.
So what are you thinking of? Thinking of those names, that situation:
Can you say, “I am forgiven”? Just for practice. “I am forgiven. I am forgiven.”
Thinking of that person, can you say, “She is forgiven.” “He is forgiven.” “They are forgiven.”
Can you say as a body, “we are forgiven”? “We are forgiven. We are forgiven.”
Thanks be to God.