As we heard, both our Old Testament and our New Testament readings from the lectionary today for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, speak to the theme of forgiveness. That Old Testament reading from Genesis that Stan just read for us – most of usare familiar with the story of Joseph and his brothers, because you've seen the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. And you know from this story, Joseph's brothers are so jealous of him, that they actually sell him into slavery.
We hear in today's story that after Joseph is freed, he forgives his brothers! Totally forgives them! Treats them with love and kindness.
And then, in our New Testament reading this morning, which I just read for you, the apostle Peter says to Jesus, “How often do I have to forgive somebody who hurt me – seven times? And Jesus says, No, not seven, seventy times seven.
And Jesus, his whole point is that we have to keep forgiving people over and over again. It's not a one and done deal. It's a process.
Jesus spoke of forgiveness more than most topics in the Bible. So over and over again, he said things like, Love your enemy. Bless those who persecute you. Turn the other cheek. Forgive seventy times seven times. And even on the cross, after Jesus had been
stripped and spat upon and whipped and nailed to a cross, he still said, “Father, forgive them, because they know not what they do.”
Jesus understood that forgiveness is a key to the spiritual life. If we hold on to anger and hate, we will never experience that peace that we sang about this morning. That peace that surpasses all understanding. That's the road to freedom. Yet it's so difficult for us, isn't it?
So many of us, as Jack spoke about this morning, have experienced so much hurt in our lives, people who have done very cruel and hurtful things to us. So many of us are still holding on to anger and hate and resentments. We just can't seem to let it go. Even if someone said something to us decades ago, we still play that tape in our head. We can't seem to let go of it.
The contemporary Christian author Anne Lamott said, holding on to anger is like drinking rat poison and expecting the rat to die. And you may have heard the quote that holding on to anger is like taking a hot coal to throw it at someone. But you're the one that ends up getting burned.
Now one of my favorite stories about forgiveness comes from a book by a Buddhist teacher whose name is Jack Kornfield. Some of you, I'm sure are familiar with his work. It comes from a book of his called The Art of Forgiveness. And if you're someone who's really struggling with forgiveness, I highly recommend this book.
In his book, Jack Kornfield tells the story of a tribe in Africa, which is called the Babemba tribe. In this tribe, when someone in the tribe does something wrong – they stole something, they did something to hurt someone – hey take that person, the accused, and put them in the center of a circle. Everyone in the village comes and forms a circle around the accused person, the person who has caused harm. And one by one, they go around the circle and tell that person something wonderful about themselves. They tell the accused a story about a time when that person did something wonderful for them. They describe the accused’s good qualities, the positive things about themselves, the times that they made them laugh. And sometimes this can take days, but when they get around to the last person, then the circle is broken and the accused person is welcomed back into the tribe, both symbolically and literally.
And isn't that so beautiful? They're surrounding the person with love. They're letting the person know that who they are is not based on that mistake, on that one thing that they did wrong. They're letting the person know that they are loved. And so they're taking that act of hate and surrounding it with love. And that love has the power to transform that person.
Another story of forgiveness that some of you may remember happened here in this country, in Pennsylvania back in 2006. In the Amish community, a gunman went into a one-room, Amish schoolhouse, and shot 10 little girls, five of whom died, and then the gunman turned the gun on himself. Well, immediately, the Amish community forgave the killer. The parents of the little girls who were killed actually went to the killer's funeral. And there they hugged his widow, and embraced his children. And they took a portion of the money that had poured in from all over the world for the victim's families. And they gave that money to the killer's family to support them. Such a powerful story of forgiveness!
And that's really hard for us to hear, because we think, “I could never do that. If someone did that harm to my little child, I would never be able to forgive them!” But that is what we're talking about here. Now, again, as we heard, in our Words of Integration and Guidance this morning, I want to be clear, forgiving someone is not condoning their bad behavior. If people have done something wrong, they need to face their consequences. But when we do so, we're not doing so out of a sense of revenge. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” And Jesus said, “You've heard it said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, if someone strikes you on one cheek, turn and offer them the other cheek. And if someone steals your coat, give them your shirt too.” That's what Jesus said. Now, again, this is something hard for us to put into practice. And I think that's why Jesus talked about forgiveness so many times, because it's a lesson that we need to learn.
In Colossians 3, it says, “Forgive as the Lord has forgiven you. All of us have done things that have been hurtful to others. But God has forgiven us.” So we heard in our Call to Worship this morning from Psalm 103. And Jesus, in the one prayer that he taught us the Lord's Prayer, you all know the line, we say it every Sunday, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Some translations say Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Now, our Gospel story this morning is known as the parable of the unforgiving servant. And as we just heard, the servant is forgiven his debts by his Lord. But then that very same servant won't forgive the debt that's owed to him. If we are to be forgiven, then we must forgive.
Now, if you're someone who's really struggling with this right now, first, I want to tell you, please be gentle with yourself. As I mentioned, forgiveness is not a one-and-done thing. It is a process and it's very much like grief. You don't get over grief immediately. It takes a very long time. And so if you're struggling with this one, be gentle with yourself. Turn it over to God. surrender it to God.
Let go of it. When we do that, we are experiencing that transformative power of love that heals both us and them, for as we forgive, so are we forgiven.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration and Guidance
by Rosemary Fillmore Rhea
As we look at our conflicted world, we might agree that the one most needed ingredient to bring forth universal peace and harmony is the attribute of forgiveness. Across the centuries, there have been religious feuds, ethnic feuds, family feuds—feuds that continue from generation to generation. The memories of past injustices roll down through the ages, and few people seem willing to forgive or forget. So, to heal our world, we must learn the art of forgiveness. The healing process must begin with us. How can we do it? How can we learn to forgive when the world teaches us that those who have caused us pain and sorrow must be punished? The answer lies within us—in that part of us which knows it is only through forgiveness that we can find freedom and wholeness. If someone has hurt us deeply, this might seem an almost impossible assignment, but Jesus knew we must forgive if we are to have peace and harmony. That's not to say that we must accept bad behavior or that we should stay in abusive relationships. On the contrary, to do this is to not respect ourselves and certainly not to help the abuser. However, it is not our responsibility to try to change others. It is our responsibility to release them to God. We can do this through the power of love. The greatest gift we can give others is our faith that God's healing love is at work within them, bringing forth peace and harmony into their souls as well as into ours. When we let go and let God, we free both of us. As we forgive, so we are forgiven.
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