Sunday, July 24, 2016

Year C, Proper 12, Luke 11:1-13, "As We Forgive"

Grace and Peace to  you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
There are two phrases in the Bible that make me feel quite uncomfortable, because they seem to set the bar so high that I can never achieve it.
The first is from the Lord’s Prayer.
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
 Really, Jesus, is this what I’m to pray for?
That God would forgive me, as I forgive?

The problem is, I’m not always very good at forgiveness.  I have too good of a memory.  I tend to harbor hurts far too long.  It’s hard to let them go.
There have been times in my life that I have been deeply hurt by people who were close to me.  Deeply hurt.
When I was an adolescent boy, for example, I developed a relationship, a friendship, with my band director.  Tony was just out of college, and single, and living alone in the small town in South Dakota where I lived.  I was a socially awkward young boy who longed for friendship, and I found it with Tony.
There was much about that relationship that was good.  From Tony I received some of the most positive affirmation that I have ever received.  He helped to build up my self esteem that was very fragile during this period of my life.
The summer prior to his arrival in our town, I had been picked up and arrested for shoplifting.  My mom and dad came down particularly hard on me.  Dad was a pastor.  Not only did I get the message that what I had done was wrong, but that in doing that, I had shamed the entire family.  My mom’s reaction after picking me up from the police station was to declare that we would have to move, that my actions would make it impossible for my dad to continue being the pastor there.
My dad’s lecture I still remember to this day.  “How long would it take me to drive a nail into the top of my desk?”  he asked.  “And how long would it take to repair the damage done by that?”  He was clear that once the damage had been done, it would never be the same again.  His point was that I had done irreparable damage to myself.  In committing that crime, I had become a criminal, and would always carry that criminal record with me.
I was devasted.
That is, until Tony laughed it off.
In his laughter I found forgiveness, and that formed the basis for a friendship that would last for years.
I would spend time at his home, watching “Laugh In”.
He’d feed me.
We’d go to Sioux Falls.
He took me to movies, R-rated movies.
He bought me Playboys.
I thought I had the best friend an adolescent boy could ever have.
Years later, when I had children of my own, I came to realize that there was much about that relationship that was in fact, abusive.  The worst of it was some inappropriate touch that took place.  I realized that if someone did to my children what he did to me, I would react violently toward them.  So deep was the hurt.
Yes, there was love and affection in our friendship, but it was abused. 
And I was not prone to forgive.
Forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
No, Jesus,
I pray that God’s forgiveness is far superior to the forgiveness I’m able to offer.  I have a hard time forgiving.  And I never, it seems, forget.

The second verse in the Bible that makes me very uncomfortable comes from John 8: verse 11.
This is the story of the woman caught in adultery.  After Jesus hears the accusations against her, he invites whoever who is without sin to cast the first stone.  All of her accusers leave.
“Woman, where are they?  Has no one condemned you?” 
“No one, sir.”
“Neither do I condemn you.  Go and sin no more.”
Go, and sin no more.
I struggle with those words, because they seem so impossible.

I have shared with some of you that I am a recovering alcoholic.  I was using alcohol to self medicate.
It’s not good medicine.
Part of the recovery process, outlined in the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is to do a thorough moral inventory, the fourth step, and then to share that work with someone else in the fifth step.
It asks that we document all of the resentments that we harbor within ourselves, and what we ourselves did in those situations that caused us to be so resentful. 
It recognizes that we often hold within ourselves anger toward others, but the real anger is toward ourselves.  That’s why we drink.
Getting over that involves two things.  Forgiving others, and forgiving ourselves.
And I might add, “going and sinning no more.”
I’m fortunate, in one regard, that my experience of the “rock bottom”, and the treatment that I have received for my alcoholism, has enabled me to be sober since October 15th, 2012.  1,379 days.  But who’s counting.
In that regard, I might be able to say that I’ve “gone, and sinned no more.”
Except for those resentments. 
They are a constant battle.  They continue to creep up.  It’s still hard to forgive.  And I find myself wondering if I’ve ever truly and fully forgiven anyone. 
Which brings us back to the Lord’s Prayer, and the petition “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Oh my, I do so hope that God is better at this forgiveness business, than I am.
The very fact that my experiences with Tony remain so deeply seared into my memory, shows that I have not fully forgiven him.
For that matter, the fact that I can still feel the pain that I felt as a result of my father’s lecture at that time, is a good indicator that I’ve still got work to do.
And I have come to realize, as most alcoholics do, that we must continually do our 4th and 5th step work, because the resentments and failures never stop, and we must deal with them, lest they destroy us.

Forgive us as we forgive.
Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.

Tough stuff.

Thankfully, as I’ve struggle with these verses, God has not left me there.
As I’ve come to experience the grace of the Gospel, I’ve come to understand them in a new way.
In Psalm 103:12 & 13, it is written:
“As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.”

When I hear that verse, “go and sin no more”, I hear it in a new way.
“Neither do I condemn you, go, your sins are no more.
This you see is the nature of God’s forgiveness.  As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.
They are no more. 
That is complete and unconditional forgiveness.
And I do not pray that God will forgive me, as I forgive others,
                But rather I pray that I might forgive others,
                As I have been forgiven. 
One of the things that has helped me come to fully appreciate the nature of God’s forgiveness, is to become a father, myself.
As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
You see, it is easier for me to resent my father, and that lecture he gave so many years ago, but it’s different with my children.  I can’t hold anything against them.
And, as I have come to know that about my relationship with my children, I have also come to realize that my father loves me unconditionally as well.
When my dad looks at me today, the farthest thing from his mind is that I’m a criminal. 
Likewise, when God looks at us, he does not see us as sinners, but as his beloved children.
That’s the promise of baptism.
One of my favorite verses from all of scripture comes from the baptism of Jesus, where God speaks to Jesus and says: “You are my  Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
These are the Words that I believe God speaks to each and every one of us in our baptisms.
You are my child.
I love you.
And with you I am well pleased.
Your sins are no more.
I do not condemn you.
And as I have forgiven you, so also will you be able to forgive others.

And I continue to pray, that I might live into those promises.


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