08/20/2017 - Forgiving is not for Sissies

Sermon by Pastor Dan Woodman


Genesis 45:1-15


The story of Joseph has something for everyone.  It pretty much runs the full gamut of human emotion.  And, it has adventure.  It has intrigue.  It has suspense.  It has comic relief.  It has all the elements of a great musical play.  Come to think of it, I guess there was one of those.  But more than anything else it has what seems like nothing less than super-human forgiveness.  How is it possible that Joseph who had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, then became such a powerful person under the pharaoh in Egypt, and then, when he saw his brothers again, embraced them, and forgave them?  How is it that when we are wayward, when we drift from our true self, when we commit sins of both commission and omission, that we are embraced and forgiven by God?  And, if God is so willing to forgive us, why can’t we find it in our hearts to forgive each other?  And, even more tough, why can’t we find it in our hearts to forgive ourselves?  I think that that forgiveness is the toughest of them all.  The story of Joseph is a pretty important story in a pretty important book in the bible.  It is so important that it takes up about one quarter of the entire book of Genesis.  Joseph was the son of Jacob, who was the son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham.  That’s pretty significant genealogy.  If you haven’t read his story in a while it’s worth another look.  It goes from chapter 37 to the end of the book at chapter 50.  And, it’s pretty easy reading, almost like a novel. The story has such prominence in the bible because it says how much who we are, warts and all.  And, it says so much about God, and who God is, forgiveness and all.  So I want to talk about forgiveness.  I want to talk about it in increasing degrees of difficulty.  We’ll start easy and end up hard, even provocative, but I think it’s important to think about. 

You’re talking with someone and you don’t hear a word quite clearly.  “I’m sorry?” you say.  You’re at the grocery store and your cart bumps into someone else’s.  “Oh, I’m sorry!”  You need to share something honestly with someone who might be offended.  “Forgive me for saying this, but…”  You were turning left at an intersection and didn’t look right.  The car with the right of way hits you.  “I’m so sorry.  I didn’t see you!  It’s all my fault.”  Here’s a driving one from a different angle.  Forgiveness works two ways.  You are not the perpetrator this time. You are driving around the rotary when someone comes blazing into it forcing you to slam on your brakes.  You toot your horn and they make an unpleasant gesture at you with their hand.  Can you forgive them? (That happened to me recently).  You just settled in for a nap.  The phone rings.  It’s Tammy who has a great deal for you at a resort.  Can you forgive her?  Another driving one, these are just so many!  Traffic is heavy on the interstate.  The exit ramp is backed up for two miles.  You patiently are waiting to get off.  You are finally at the exit when someone comes flying by you on your left, cuts you off, and exits.  Can you forgive them?  It’s human nature to get irritated, to get mad, to even wish for revenge of some kind.  Is it human nature to forgive?  No, I think it’s the survival instinct in human nature that crops up when we are wronged.  Sometimes it’s just pig headedness that holds us back.  But, it’s Christian nature to forgive.

Self-disclosure time: Rod and I became friends in 9th grade.  I had just transferred to Burdick Junior High School.  Rod and I became best friend throughout high school, college, our careers.  We were in each other’s weddings, and did things as couples all the time, even though we lived in different states.  We each had two children at about the same time.  It was when his oldest was in college, and his younger son was in high school that he met someone on the internet.  He told his wife he no longer wished to be married, and filed for divorce, and moved to Oklahoma.  His wife had to sell the house, move to a condo, and struggled to do what she needed to do for her sons.  He called me to tell me what he was doing, and why.  I wanted none of it.  I felt that what he had done was unforgivable.  After that conversation I did not speak to him for probably fifteen years.  He divorced the woman in Oklahoma, and married and divorced another woman.  His first wife who we were still very close to, remarried to a very loving and caring man.  It wasn’t until about five years ago.  I had been in seminary for a couple of years.  It suddenly came to me.  “What am I doing?  Who do I think I am?  What is the purpose of holding a grudge?  Whose interest is best served?”  I came to the conclusion that I was not being honest with myself, and I was not being honest with God.  I felt like some of those stiff-necked Israelites who were always in trouble with God.  Now I felt that not only should I reach out to Rod, but I needed to forgive myself too, for being such an idiot.  And, I’m still working on that.  Like I said in the beginning, forgiving yourself is hardest.  Did I forgive Rod for what he did? No.  Did I forgive Rod for who he was: a sinner with human frailty just like me?  Yes.  I called him and we talked for quite awhile.  He was grateful for my reaching out.  Will it ever be like before? No, but I feel that a bridge was crossed, and it feels right.

I mentioned provocative before and here it is.  This comes from one of the Stillspeaking devotionals that I get in my email every day.  It was written by Matt Fitzgerald and posted on July 22.  It’s called, “The Killer Said ‘Grace’.”

He said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners." - Mark 2:17

The killer brutally murdered a teenage girl. Twenty-one years later he was still awaiting execution.

The killer sat on a gray plastic chair beneath fluorescent lights. Death row didn't look like a dungeon. It looked like the DMV.

The killer looked younger than his age. His skin was smooth. His face was framed by a pair of thick, heavy glasses. His hands and feet were chained together. His voice was gentle.  

The killer said "grace" over and over and over again. "Unmerited grace. Freely given grace. Undeserved grace."

I flinched. That's when things got disturbing. 

"Listen, I'll never forget my crime. It is always deeply, deeply disturbing to me. But there has to come a point where you receive forgiveness and then forgive yourself —not to justify your actions, but to let God be God."

He kicked his legs and waved his hands. His shackles rattled as he spoke. "I'm not letting myself be restricted. I'm a person, and I'm a person who is loved and forgiven by God."

Grace is easy to preach. But it can strike you like lightning strikes a tree. Christ burned my understanding of justice and decency to the ground. Sometimes their embers still rise up. But I know that if what I believe about God is true, that killer is beloved. 

I walked onto death row expecting monsters. Instead the most unnerving thing I encountered was the grace of God.

So, that’s pretty hard.  Is forgiveness to this degree just for God, or is it for us, too?  That is not a question I can answer for you.  Only you can do that.  I wrote this sermon three weeks ago, before leaving for vacation.  Since then we have been exposed to Charlottesville, to Barcelona.  These events are more relatable for us than the prisoner on death row.  We can easily see ourselves or those we love as victims to this kind of evil.  Where is our forgiveness there?  Where is our Christian response to this?  I can only speak for myself, but it’s freaking hard.

But, as I said before there is, believe it or not, an even harder kind of forgiving.  It is the forgiving of ourselves.  We are tougher on ourselves than we are with anyone else, even God.  We judge our past actions, we dwell on our mistakes and our faults.  We are our own toughest critics.  We can be brutally merciless on who we are because we simply can’t live up to the impossible expectations we create for ourselves.  It’s a battle we can never win because it is a standard that is not humanly possible.  Here is the Christian response to that.  And, this is maybe the most important part of our faith.  By not letting go and forgiving ourselves, loving ourselves, we are doing a disservice to the One who already took on all of that baggage for us.  Jesus took on the sins of the world in order that we might have life.  We are loved more than we can ever know.  If God loves us enough to do that for us, don’t we owe it to God to respond in kind?  I know it is far easier said than done, but for us to be able to really forgive anyone else, we need to start with ourselves.  We deserve to love who we are because we are made in the image of God.  God knows us inside and out.  And, God accepts us, even the parts we don’t like very much.

There was another Stillspeaking devotional a few days after the one I just read.  It’s by Tyler Connoley and he talks about a Buddhist meditation practice called the Loving-Kindness Meditation.  It’s something he has practiced regularly, and I have done it too.  It fits well with our theme of forgiveness.  It goes:  Begin by directing loving-kindness toward yourself. Then toward people you love. Then toward people who are neutral (like the person to your left in a group, or your mail carrier if you're meditating alone). Then direct your loving-kindness toward your enemies. Finally, direct it toward "all living beings." By beginning with yourself, and moving through the cycle, it becomes easier to think of your enemy as just another being who needs compassion.'  You use words something like: “May I be happy.  May I be well. May I be safe.  May I be peaceful and at ease.” Then you expand it to people you love, people who are neutral, people who are your enemies, etc.  Tyler modified this to give it a Christian understanding, and I love it!  This is it.  You might try this as words to meditate on yourself as you work on forgiving others and forgiving you.

Let us pray:

God, grant me love. Grant me joy. Grant me peace. And grant me life abundant.
God, grant my family love. Grant my family joy. Grant my family peace. And grant my family life abundant.
God, grant my enemy love. Grant my enemy joy. Grant my enemy peace. And grant my enemy life abundant.
God, grant all your children love. Grant all your children joy. Grant all your children peace. And grant all your children life abundant.