Today we are going to continue our preaching series focusing on forgiveness. This all important aspect of our lives that lead us to incredible freedom or never ending bondage. Throughout this series we will look at forgiveness as it plays out in various situations and relationships always focusing on forgiveness through its two dimensions; our willingness to ask for it and how we receive it; and our willingness to extend forgiveness to others. Last week we came together and looked at the forgiveness we seek from God and the forgiveness that God offers us. Today we are going to talk about the forgiveness that we must ask for and offer to everyone else.
As we begin today I would like us to acknowledge up front that the withholding of forgiveness has negative consequences on almost every aspect of our life. So if you are unwilling to extend forgiveness, if you don't know to do this or you do not do it well, then if affects your spiritual relationship with God. Jesus tells us that we are to ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He is saying that our inability to forgive will inhibit our relationship with God. We know that it inhibits our relationships with other people, not only the people that we are at odds with, but everyone else as well.
It inhibits us through the created tension. If affects our physical well being through the resulting anger, hurt, and bitterness. It increases stress levels by increasing the chemicals released into the body by our brain. This results in higher blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, and muscular tension, to name a few. It can also manifest within us by causing depression, anxiety, and physical consequences. All of this from an inability to forgive. It is so detrimental that it has been compared to drinking a bottle of poison and hoping it hurts the other person.
Last Week We Learned...
Last week we learned that there are a number of Hebrew and Greek words used in Scripture that we translate into the English word sin. But the one most commonly used in the Old Testament means, to stray from the path, and in the New Testament the word means, to miss the mark. In both cases the implication is that there is a way we are to live as human beings.
A path that helps us understand how we are to treat others. We are to seek justice for one another, love each other, do unto others as we would do unto ourselves, and love our neighbor. Now we are human and we will stray. We talked about watching our criks and not letting turn into gulfs where we cannot even see the other side. When that happens, then we find ourselves separated from God and walls being built between us and others.
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff
So how do we deal with others so those walls are not built and destroy our relationships? Let us begin by talking about the small stuff. Now in dealing with others and the small acts that we commit, I want you to imagine that when someone else strays from the path it usually is a minor deviation and they usually come back. But the problem often comes with our reaction. We often overreact and while their stray was small, we have strayed much farther and we create this huge division between us and the other person.
Often because our pride feels wounded, we do not understand why they did what they did, but whatever the reason, we find that we are the ones that have created this huge division because we have taken things too personally. We have created the gulf and we have sinned, we have strayed from the path, because part of the path is to show mercy when it comes to the small stuff.
I think this is the kind of stuff Peter was talking about when he asked Jesus a question in Matthew chapter 18. “Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Now remember, back then how big was the church? It was Jesus and twelve apostles, so Peter was talking about another apostle. “Jesus answered, 'I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times'” Some translations say seven times seventy. Jesus is not saying forgive 77 times and you are released. Jesus is saying you forgive as many times as it takes. Our lives are not to be characterized by rigid numbers and rules, but rather by grace. After all, how many sins, especially these small ones, have we committed against God everyday? Either by thought, word, or deed? Through things we have done or worse yet, though things we have left undone? If God wanted to hold all of those things against us, we any of us be able to stand?
Think about it in the form of rocks. Imagine that we all have a backpack, a backpack of forgiveness if you will. We each carry these backpacks and this is where we store those things we do to others and that others do to us. When we wrong another person through these small acts, snide comment, gossip, thoughtlessness, a rock is put in our backpack. Also, we when are wronged by another person, and do not forgive, a small rock is put in our backpack. The call we have as people of faith is to let go of these small things. To not sweat the small stuff.
But the reality is we hang on to these rocks. Let us say that in a given day, five instances happen to us, we are wronged five times in one day. What is that times 30 days? Times 364 days? If we hold on to these rocks how much gravel are we carrying around in our soul over a lifetime? Somewhere we have got to find the capacity to let go. To say to ourselves, that it is not just that big of a deal.
But how? How do we do that? How do we live by that kind of grace? Rev. Adam Hamilton offers us an acronym to help us in this endeavor. The acronym is RAP. The “R” stands for remember. When you feel wronged by another person I encourage you to stop and remember how many times you may have done the exact same thing to another person. Rev. Hamilton even suggests that you write down five things that you do that consistently annoy other people. You see it is hard to stay mad at other people when we remind ourselves of our own shortcomings. The “A” stands for assume. We are to assume the best of other people. We think about what hardships they might be enduring and that this act against us is probably out of character for them. And the “P” stands for pray. Jesus tells us to pray for others. We ask God to bless them, to encourage them, and to help us let go of whatever animosity we have against this person. Then an amazing thing happens, we begin to let it go, we begin to find that grace we are seeking. Now I am not going to stand here and tell you that this is easy or that you can make this adjustment in your life overnight. We have to work at it, be transformed by it, trust God through it. But Jesus called us to seek it out, to find, to own, and extend the grace of God to others. You see forgiveness is not about showing others the folly of their way it is about redemption. It is about extending the grace of God, the redemption of God to others so that we may all be together, working together for God.
But What About the Bigger Stuff?
But what about the bigger stuff? Things like adultery or betrayal. Those things that dramatically alter our lives and our relationships. What then?
Our first Scripture lesson from this morning gives us some help. Jesus tells us that, “If your brother or sister (best translated as fellow disciple, fellow believer) sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. You notice how this says just between the two of you. It does not say do it in your Sunday School class, or at Sunday lunch, or with a group. But just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. You see how this is about redemption. At this point they will react one of two ways. There will either say I am so sorry, I had no idea, please forgive me. Or they will say, you know what, I don't care how you feel. I was right, you were wrong. Deal with it.
If that happens, Jesus then tells us, “But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’” This way there are more people, that you both trust, that listen and give objective advice. Maybe you are the one in the wrong and this process can help both sides see it more clearly.
But if this person is in the wrong and still doesn't care about what they have done to you, Jesus continues, “If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” The idea was if you had a member of your church actively hurting other people, back in the day they were excommunicated. They were put out so as not to destroy the church. But I want you to notice how Jesus said we are to treat them, as a pagan or a tax collector. Who did Jesus spend most of his time with? Pagans and tax collectors. We are not called to kick them out and forget them. We are called to treat them as people that need redemption. We still love them, we just love them differently. We do not place ourselves in positions to continue to be hurt by them.
But If I Do...
Now I hear your reservations. Because they are my reservations too. Some of you might be asking yourselves, if I forgive this act, am I not condoning it? No. When you forgive you are letting go of any right you have for repayment or retribution. You are not condoning that what they did as permissible. You are laying aside those stones that will build up in your life and you will not hold it against them in the future.
Others of you might ask, if I forgive this act, am I dismissing the consequences of what they did? Again, no. The consequence is important for redemption. To learn from the consequence is to better understand the proper way to go, to remain on the path. Now sometimes we can forgo the consequence. If we see someone has already paid a certain price and for us to allow them or force them to endure more consequences might border more on revenge rather than on redemption then we can forgo the consequence and extend to them our love.
And some others of you might ask, should I forgive this act, where no forgiveness has been asked for? Sometimes people do not ask for forgiveness because they are not aware that they have done anything wrong. Sometimes, people have not done anything wrong, we are just hurt by the actions. If there was a decision that had to be made, it was the right decision to be made, and we are not wronged, but we are still hurt by it, then forgiveness is not in order, rather understanding and acceptance. However, there are those instances where someone does hurt us, knows they hurt us, and for whatever reason do not ask for forgiveness.
Here we are still called to extend mercy, because repayment is not the goal, the goal is redemption. Listen to what Paul says in Romans 12:17-21, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Today is the the tenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001. That day where America was attacked by people seeking to bring us harm, seeking to cause fear and panic in our lives. All of us were affected by those actions in some way. Some of us had loved ones caught and killed in the buildings that were damaged and destroyed. Some of us had family members or knew people, that were killed trying to offer aid and assistance to others. All of us were horrified, as we watched this unfold on TV. Right after this happened, we as Americans responded. Military enlistments went up, the number of flags flying outside home and on automobiles increased, church attendance rose dramatically. But so did the hate. So did the feelings of revenge against those that did this to us.
Today, I want us to remember those who lost their lives, whose lives were forever altered, and those who have been lost to hate in all forms. I want us to forgive those involved through prayer. I want us to give all of those feelings that are keeping us in bondage, over to God, because we do not want them anymore. Because we do not want these acts to have any power over us any longer.
We have all been hurt and wronged. We have all felt that gulf between us and other people and the abandonment and separation that goes along with it. Sometimes those acts are small stones, and we need to turn to God and ask for the courage to let them go. Sometimes those acts are larger stones that if left alone, can be debilitating.
In all of this our goal is to find redemption. Now redemption will not come at once, but if we pray, then bit by bit, degree by degree, if you keep chipping away at those rocks in your life, with God's help you will find yourself free.