Forgive Often
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

May 7, 2017
Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:42-47
Matthew 18:21-35

[For my sermon readers who are not part of First Congregational Church, the topics of the series of sermons I have been doing since Easter have come from the banner that the church hangs both outside and in the sanctuary (and at events we go to), called “Be The Church.”]

Be the Church

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

The Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers, are often seen as a frugal group. It was only recently that I learned how their thrifty practices were rooted in their spirituality. They practice intentional listening for the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of their listening is to seek to follow the calling of God wherever it may lead them. And if a person has debts, then they have obligations that can stop them from following the leading of God. If God calls for someone to go live among another population, that is hard to do with a mortgage and credit card debt and loans to pay off.

The purpose then of being debt free is not simply better spending power, but the ability to follow the leadings of God as freely and as fully as one can manage.

Yesterday, at the wedding of a young couple, as we said the Lord’s Prayer, I might have surprised some church members. As I led it, I said, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The reason is theological, but perhaps not that obvious. It was an act of hospitality. When a group from all sorts of backgrounds comes together, some will say debts and some will say trespasses. And “as we forgive those who trespass against us” is a lot longer than “as we forgive our debtors.” The goal was not to run roughshod over those who pray with the word trespasses.

But why in the world do some say trespasses while others say debts? We have a couple of reasons for this. The first is that Matthew and Luke, the two Gospels where the roots of the Lord’s Prayer appear, differ. One says forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. The other says, forgive us our sins as we forgive those indebted to us.

And sin and debt have similar roots in the Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke. Debts as “something owed to someone but not paid” becomes gets used as a metaphor for what is owed to God but not done. The Hebrew word for sin was originally an archery term meaning “to miss the target.” Two metaphors to help us get to the idea of sin.

But instead of getting tangled up in the metaphors, let us look at what is supposed to be done about sin.

Forgive us God, as we forgive those around us. Forgive us where we have failed, messed up, gotten it wrong, or hurt ourselves or someone else, as we forgive those who we feel have failed us, have messed up our stuff, have gotten it wrong and hurt us or those we love.

That little word “as” can get us in all sorts of trouble. It can mean “at the same time,” and it can mean “to the extent that.” Oof!

  • Forgive us at the same time that we forgive others…
  • Forgive us to the extent that we forgive others…

There is a lot of pressure in that little word. Not pressure on God, but on us. God forgives, loves, restores and makes whole. Not because we deserve it, but simply because that is who we know God to be in Jesus. The prayer we say every Sunday says that we are able to receive as much forgiveness as we can give. We admit that we can only get as much as we give.

That is the story of the servant in today’s parable. We have an indentured servant, one who is trying to work off his debt. And his master demands payment, but he pleads and begs that he be given more time. And the master not only says yes, but forgives the debt and sets him free.

But having been forgiven, having been set free, the former servant goes to those who owe him money, and when they ask for mercy and forgiveness, he doesn’t do it. He throws them in debtors prison.

This parable is supposed to get our attention. How can we claim to know God’s forgiveness if we cannot forgive others? How can we claim to be living lives of grace if we are ungracious?

And just like our example among the Quakers, emotional debts can hold us back from fulfilling who we are called to be and what we are called to do as much or more than financial debts.

And here are some practical ways of thinking about forgiveness, drawn from a variety of sources.

  • God’s love forgives. That is the key to the whole thing. It is like we are trying to get water to drink. The water is already in the pipes, we just need to figure out how to turn on the tap so it comes out the faucet.
  • Forgiveness is not easy, so please forgive yourself if you have trouble forgiving.
  • Forgiveness is rarely a once and done kind of thing. Forgiveness is a process, and we all need help at one time or another.
  • Forgiveness does not mean that whatever happened, whatever caused the hurt, or created the problem, is okay. Forgiveness does not whitewash what happened. Forgiveness is not achieved by telling someone (or ourselves) to “get over it.”
  • Some people will never express regret, ask for forgiveness, or even concede that anything that they have done is wrong.
  • Some things are really hard, if not impossible, to forgive. That is okay. Like Jesus says about salvation, with humans, not so much. Only with God are all things possible.
  • Our job with forgiveness is not about changing others, or making them express, ask, or concede anything. Our job with forgiveness is to make it so that the rest of our lives are not determined by what has happened.
  • Forgiveness is about our own healing, our own wholeness, our own lives, whether or not other people change.
  • Forgiveness is about becoming free again to follow God’s calling to do and to be what God wants us to do and to be.

Lord, how often should I forgive them? Up to seven times?

No, we can hear Jesus saying, because human beings will go for eight or nine or ten mistakes. So plan on forgiving way more than anyone can mess up. Open the faucet as wide as you can and let that love splash onto everything. Because the love of God is the source of our forgiveness. And forgiving others frees us to let the love of God be our way of living, and our goal.