First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
September 29, 2019
“Be the Church: Forgive Often”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Matthew 5:23-24 (NRSV)
23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
Colossians 3:12-14 (NRSV)
12As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
“If you are offering your gift at the altar and remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother or sister. Then, come back and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
It was used as the invitation before the offering almost every week at my home church. I think I knew it before I knew the Lord’s Prayer. I never really gave it much thought until years later when I wondered if everybody took this seriously and literally, the church could be in a world of hurt financially because there’s a whole lot of reconciliation within and without of the church that just hasn’t happened. There are hurts, old as well as new. Jealousies. Misunderstandings. Insults – intentional and not; The thing that was said or not said; The challenge to leadership, integrity, faith, how finances should and should not be handled. What to do about the unruly youth or gossiping elders. And that’s just the stuff about the pastor. Take that and multiply it into all the church membership and it’s no wonder “forgive often” is an important part of the Be The Church campaign.
We tend to think that forgiveness is all about going to someone who has wronged us and, face-to-face, forgiving them, giving in, saying “it’s okay,” and forgetting that anything bad ever happened. It’s some of that, but not all of it. And, it’s more than that. Before anything can be done on the outside, there’s usually a whole lot of inside stuff that goes on before forgiveness can make an outward appearance. Forgiveness is something that we’re told we should do – not just from our contemporaries but from scripture. Forgive your enemies. Forgive those who sin against you. Forgive seventy times seven. We know that people do forgive and we are inspired by them.
Remember back in 2006, in an Amish community east of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when a man stormed into the schoolhouse, shot 10 children, killing five of them, and then took his own life? As the shooter’s family was burying him in what was to be a private ceremony, members of the Amish community, including those who had just buried their own children came in love and support. They hugged the shooter’s widow and other members of his family. They told his mother that they didn’t want her to move away from the area, which was her first impulse. She continues to spend time with one of the survivors of the shooting every week. Such profound acts of forgiveness are inspiring but they are rare. We must realize that those who were involved in that horrific incident and its aftermath are still dealing with the internal challenges of forgiveness.
Hopefully, we may never face a trauma like this amazing community has. But we still experience harm as the result of someone else’s actions. It’s part of life. It’s part of being human. And, because we have the gift of memory and deep emotions, we have a tendency to carry that harm with us, long after any physical signs have faded. Property is restored but there’s still the trauma of feeling violated. Bodies heal but carry scars. We move on in life but pack the hurts with us wherever we go. Forgiveness, we’re told, will help us move forward more freely. Forgiveness, we’re told, will release us from our past hurts. Forgiveness, we’re told, is a good thing. And it is because it’s a gift of grace. Something we don’t necessarily earn but is given. It comes out of a desire to for wholeness. It’s an aspect of faith. A profound aspect of faith. It’s something God grants us and simply asks that we do likewise… for ourselves and for others.
Forgiveness is ultimately ceasing to feel resentment towards someone in response to wrongs done by them. Sometimes that inward work leads to outward expressions, such as forgiving the person directly. Sometimes it’s deeply internal, especially in the case where you can’t come face to face with someone who has wronged you. It’s basically about coming to the realization that someone else’s actions or inactions have harmed you and you find ways to be released from that burden. Some think of it in terms of breaking the chains. Some think of it in terms of the healing of the soul or the spirit. Some think of it as new birth. However you think of this internal forgiveness, it’s a release from the damaging experiences of the past. It’s forward thinking. It’s a practice of hope. It’s an exercise of resilience.
Which means it takes practice. The gospels remind us that Jesus once told Peter to forgive 70 times 7… which just means to do it enough until it sticks. Some eastern religions see forgiveness as a spiritual practice. And I like that idea. What might the world look like if the church took the central part of the Lord’s prayer seriously and we all practiced daily forgiveness? Think about what might happen if even just the small bunch of us here today took the time to think about where and how we are hurting because of the actions of others and spent time working on how to be released from that hurt through prayer and meditation. My guess is we’d all start to feel some release from those burdens but I also suspect it would eventually lead to some of us turning the forgiveness outward towards those who have hurt us.
Because forgiveness is a big part of Amish spiritual life, I can’t help but think that that’s how they were able to so quickly and effectively move their forgiveness beyond their community. It had become part of who they are, how they live each day. Not that they are fully healed from that trauma – they most likely never will be. But they have said to the world, we will not let that terror define us. We will be known some other way.
But a couple of important things to remember about forgiveness. First, it’s not about saying “it’s okay.” It’s never about forgetting. It’s never about relinquishing the perpetrator from the responsibility of owning up to the consequences of their actions or inactions. Forgiveness isn’t about saying “it’s okay.” It’s about saying I don’t want the wrong that someone else did to keep me in chains anymore.
Second, you can’t dictate someone else’s forgiveness. How many times have we encountered someone who is carrying the baggage of past hurts and we so want to tell them that they just need to forgive and move on. That should be left to the individual and trained counselors. We never know what another is going through and how they might be already processing their hurts. The best we can do is give them space and time with them in love and support. However, it doesn’t hurt to lead by example from time to time as well. Whenever I think back to the story of the Amish community after that tragedy, I can’t help but hope that someday, someday, I’ll have the grace within me to be like them.
Forgive…. Often. It’s important to remember the “often” part of that statement. I think it’s what Jesus was getting at when he told Peter to forgive as many times as it takes to stick. When we forgive often, we get good at it so that we can keep doing it. It’s how we “be the church” not only here but in the world. May the forgiveness God shares with us be multiplied within us.