The Power of Forgiveness

March 12, 2017 — Rev. Lamar Robinson
Readings: Matthew 18:21-22, Luke 23:32-34, Matthew 6:12


This message will not be lengthy – I will try to stop talking just before you stop listening – sometimes it works…but then again…

It is always an honor and a privileges to lead worship at Union Church, in the absence of Nancy and earlier, Jan.  I don’t take it lightly.  I think Elaine would agree with that!  To be honest with you, I am glad not to be doing this every week anymore – I enjoy sitting in the pews with you, listening and learning, and I appreciate what this church is and does.

Lent is a special season to me.  It somehow seems absolutely necessary to bring a message that is important – something really substantial for a season that has such a profound meaning.  We may not reach such exalted heights – but we have to try!

So, we begin a serious subject with a not-so-serious anecdote.  A five year old lad (or was it a lass) fashioned the bedtime prayer after what he thought he had heard in church.  One night, he put on his pajamas, climbed into the middle of his bed, and prayed, “Forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.”

Now, it is ok to chuckle about that, but this young person may have stumbled onto something.  Often, people have put trash in our baskets.  We have been hurt, used, and abused in many ways.  When this happens, we often feel angry, resentful, and our natural impulse is to want to put trash in their baskets.  And so it is that people go around angrily stuffing trash in each other’s baskets, until the load gets pretty heavy for almost everyone.

What is it the schoolteacher who discovers two children fighting hears first?  They both say, “He hit me first”, and thus try to explain and defend their getting back at each other.  Adults, of course, find much more sophisticated and subtle ways of doing the same thing.

Perhaps you have heard the story of the methodical Swiss watchmaker who decided to calculate the way his time was spent over the period of an eighty-year lifetime.  He discovered he had spent 26 years in bed, 21 years at work, and six years eating.  His study even extended to emotional states, and he discovered he had spent six years being angry.  That is a lot of anger.  We can be pretty sure it was more hurtful to him than to those to whom it was directed.  I’m not saying it is never all right to be angry.  But – it is not all right to stay that way.  There is a point up to which anger may be acceptable and helpful and is healthy – but beyond that point it very quickly becomes unhealthy and counterproductive, and not a contributor to happiness nor a mark of Christian character.

A lot of anger and other negative emotions and acts happen because we have not learned to give and to receive forgiveness.  In one of the Scriptures we read earlier, Peter asked Jesus “If my brother sins against me, how many times do I have to forgive him – seven times?”  Peter thought he was being quite generous.  And Jesus told him not seven times but seven times seventy – of course a figure of speech, meaning “Don’t keep score, that’s not the way!”

There are many moving and dramatic stories about the power of forgiveness.  When I was beginning to prepare these remarks several weeks ago, there was the story on the evening news about the death of a New York police officer who, many years earlier, had become paralyzed and wheel-chair bound as the result of a shooting in Central Park.  He had found a way to forgiveness for the perpetrator of this senseless act of violence which had cost him so dearly, and he had been able to live a productive and meaningful life of many years because of his attitude, not of resentment or bitterness, but of forgiveness.

One more forgiveness story:  Years ago I was participating in a continuing education conference for clergy.  One evening several of us decided it was time for a changes of pace following the evening session, so we took off together on foot downtown, walking along talking, telling jokes, stories, etc.  Then things turned a bit more serious, and one of our group told his story.  He had been a pilot in W W II, in the Pacific theater.  His airplane had been shot down over the sea, and his life raft drifted back to the Japanese island his plane had just bombed.  (I was reminded of his story in reading the prisoner of war biography of Louis Zamperini in Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken”.)

He was held as a prisoner for a long time, treated horribly, but managed to survive the incredible ordeal.  He told us that, back home after the end of the war, he had been eaten alive by his bitter hatred of all Japanese people.  He could not break away from it, could not let it go.  It totally consumed his life.  After a long time he found release.  He said it happened through his coming to accept that God loved the Japanese people too, just as God loved all people.  It was the power of forgiveness.  At length he returned to Japan as a Christian missionary, and found peace and fulfillment.  (Nothing at that conference made a greater impression on me than his story).

I hope none of us are ever called upon to engage the power of forgiveness as dramatically, but even in more ordinary day-to-day life, the experience of forgiveness can be powerful.

I think we all recognize that to forgive another can be important, even life-changing.  But what about those instances when we are the ones who need to be forgiven?  When we have offended others, made mistakes, done something or not done something that has eroded relationships, hurt other people, put trash in their baskets  (in the words of that four year old?)

Strangely, sometimes it is easier to give forgiveness than to receive it!  Haven’t you ever experienced that?  Could be!

And, maybe the hardest of all is to forgive ourselves, to receive our own forgiveness of ourselves.  Something happened, or didn’t happen, maybe in the recent past or maybe a long time ago.  Memories linger, and won’t go away.  It’s like having ghosts living in your attic.  These ghosts can only be exorcised by accepting God’s forgiveness, the forgiveness of others, and then forgiving ourselves.  Grace – we can call it grace – a good word but an even better experience.

Forgiveness – we can even dare to celebrate it, and to affirm its power with much gratitude!

Perhaps enough!  So, let’s pull things together near the end of this message:  it is Lent, the season when we try especially hard to hear and embrace the massage from and about the Cross.  And one of these centers on the power of forgiveness.

Let us, through the spirit of Christ who lives in us and in everyone, say “yes” to forgiveness:  from God, to others, from others.  And then we can say “yes” and forgives ourselves.

The power and spirit of forgiveness – let us embrace it, because it will then embrace us.  And there is one more thing to consider – but you must decide whether you think it is true – the other name of forgiveness is love!  Amen and amen!