Nov 23, 2014
Rev. George N. Miller
It was a busy day. With so much to do I was heading to the café to work on my sermon when the phone rang.
The conversation was a social one and started pleasant enough but somewhere along the line I began to get a bit edgy: I really had to start work on that week’s message.
So the New Yorker in me came out and I became short and curt.
Didn’t the person on the end of the line know that I had a lot to do? Apparently not, because they continued to talk and talk.
Finally, I felt I had no choice but to cut the conversation off, say my goodbyes and go back to work. Which is what I did.
I went inside, ordered my cup of coffee, and sat down to my sermon writing work.
…Except I couldn’t.
I wasn’t able to focus on the words in the book or the work at hand. I was blocked.
I felt ashamed about my behavior. I was rude on the phone and I was wrong.
The consequence was a restless spirit and no matter how hard I tried to read and write my notes, I just couldn’t do.
The afternoon had been shot.
I knew what I needed to do: call the person back and apologize for my behavior.
I stepped outside of the café and made the call, nervous about what I had to say. The phone picked up. “Hi: this is George.”
“Oh, hello again.”
“I’m calling to apologize.”
“Apologize? For what?”
“I realized I was very rude to you on the phone and I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry.”
“I didn’t notice that you were rude.”
“I know that I was and I am sorry for that.”
“That is OK. You didn’t need to apologize. I forgive you even though I wasn’t aware you did anything wrong.”
…“I forgive you.”
With those three words I smiled and felt as if a weight was lifted off me.
We finished the conversation and I returned to my cup of coffee, my books, able to now focus and get my work done.
That was the day when I learned about the power of forgiveness and the newness it can create...
As Christians, forgiveness is perhaps the trickiest and most difficult of Christ’s teachings to embrace.
Feed the poor? Visit the sick? Love God and love your neighbor? Those all make sense and are something we can do.
But to forgive someone? Seventy times seven? Now that’s hard. What if the person has done the unthinkable? What if they intentionally brought us great harm? Hurt us, hurt one of our own?
Forgive them? That’s a hard lesson to accept.
But yet, isn’t forgiveness something Jesus himself was able to demonstrate again and again, in his stories, in his actions, even in his final hours when he hung on the cross?
Forgiveness is something we ask from God when we pray the “Our Father”. Forgiveness is what we receive every Sunday during the Words of Assurance.
Forgiveness is part of what we are singing about when sing “Amazing Grace.”
And yet, when we have Bible Studies and group discussions, forgiveness becomes the one theme people seem to wrestle with the most.
Perhaps its because we confuse forgiveness with forgetting. Perhaps because we forget that we can be forgiven although there may still be natural and legal consequences.
I also think we forget that often times we forgive more so for our sake: so that we can move on, let go and be transformed...
...More and more psychologists and pastors are learning about just how important forgiveness is.
As humans it is part of our nature to make mistakes; to hurt one another. We can’t help it. Every day we say or do something that brings harm to another person, a part of the planet or to ourselves.
Most of the time we’re not aware when we’ve trespassed against someone, but there are times we know we have hurt someone and we know when we have been hurt.
There is a response when that happens.
When we are hurt we can feel threatened, angry, and out-of-sorts. When we are the ones who have done the hurting we can feel shame, anger, and disappointment in ourselves.
None of those are good feelings to carry around.
And if we do not find a way to properly deal with those emotions, what happens? They simmer and stew, working their way into our soul and begin to manifest themselves in unhealthy ways.
Being silent of pretending it never happened doesn’t do a thing. Instead our anger turns into rage. Shame turns into harsh criticism of others. Disappointment turns into isolation.
The inability to forgive and to receive forgiveness destroys friendship and rips families apart as those unvoiced feelings take on the forms of addiction, passive aggressiveness, abusive behavior or spending the rest of one’s life as a walking doormat.
Christ asks us to forgive and seek forgiveness because when we don’t, relationships breakdown and life feels stymied and crippled.
But do not be fooled: forgiveness is not easy, nor is it a one stop deal. It’s a process, it takes time, and it involves seeing through the eyes of faith.
Today’s scripture is a perfect example of that.
After 20 years Joseph comes face to face with the brothers who once sold him into slavery. During those years Joseph has been a servant, falsely accused of rape, thrown into a prison, and then upon receiving his freedom has risen to the second most powerful position in the land.
But when a famine rips across the earth, his brothers come begging to him for food. All those years of unresolved anger come to a head: what they did to him, what they put him through, so Joseph toys with them a little. He makes them squirm, like a cat with a mouse.
He’s in the position where he can get full retribution for what they did. If he wants payback he can lock them up, turn them into slaves, have them each executed.
But what good would that do? And how much more would that tear apart and destroy his already broken family.
And his brothers? Life for them has not been easy. They have lived a life of emotional and spiritual hell, carrying with them the secret of what they have done, leading their father to believe Joseph is dead, then watching and listening to him grieve every night and day.
So here the brothers stand. The ones who hurt Joseph 20 years ago, and Joseph who has all the power.
Where will the story go? Will Joseph use his might to bring about retribution, or will he find a way to bring about healing?
His brother Judah speaks. He tells Joseph about the heartbreak his family has endured, the hard times they have faced, their father’s grief.
And to make things right, Judah offers himself up to be a slave. Time may not have changed his sin, but time has clearly changed Judah the man.
And with those words, Joseph is moved. He weeps so loudly that everyone can hear. He reveals to his brothers the truth of who he is.
And then he issues them an invite: “come closer to me”. Joseph may not have said the words “I forgive you” but it is clear that he does.
It is an amazing scene of reconciliation in which Joseph could have sentenced them to death, but instead he shared with them the gift of life.
He could have sent them away starving, but instead he invites them to step closer.
He could have told them to go home and never cross his path again, instead he invites them to come and live with him.
The entire Joseph story is a powerful tale of reconciliation and the power of forgiveness in which the victim finds a way to become a magnificent survivor and those who have sinned are redeemed.
But how is Joseph able to move beyond what they did? First, he had time. Over 20 years to process what had happened. 20 years to think about what they had done.
Second, he is able to honestly confront them with what happened. He acknowledges all the bad that has happened, he doesn’t not sugar coat it. He tells them point blank “You sold me into slavery.”
He has said what they all need to hear and admit. They heart of the issue has been confronted.
Speaking the sin has it made it real. Speaking the sin has now also taken away its power.
Third, Joseph found a way to see his experience and his life through the eyes of faith. He makes the claim that God was able to find some good in the situation.
In saying this Joseph is better able to come to terms with what he has endured, and in the process he helps his brothers to release their own feelings of anger and distress.
In seeing how the power of God has been able to work through all their mess, Joseph created a newness for he and his family that has negated the pain of the past, redefined the present and has opened the future to new possibilities.
Life, not bitter anger, has won the day. Joseph freed the brothers from their captivity to their sin and shame. And Joseph has moved from being defined by what they did into having what they did just become a part of his story.
So today, we are here to celebrate and embrace the gift of forgiveness. Forgiveness we can give to one another, forgiveness we can give to ourselves.
It is a wonderful gift to share, but remember that forgiveness is rarely a one step deal, it is usually a process. Nor does forgiveness mean that you are going to forget: it means that you are not going to let it have power over you.
Christ asks us to forgive so that life, not death, is given a chance to grow and we can create and re-create. For example, once forgiven, I was able to go write my sermon. Once he forgave Joseph had his whole family back.
So today, the Sunday before Advent begins, let us begin the process of forgiveness.
As your pastor I stand before you asking that you forgive me for all the wrong I have done over the past 12 months.
For the times the New Yorker came out in me and I was rude, for the times I was curt. For the Sundays and busy weekdays I barreled through like a bull in a china-shop, I apologize.
If there was a sermon I gave or a message I shared that caused you any kind of harm, I am sorry.
For the things I said I would do that I have not done, forgive me. For dreams I have stepped on or unwanted dreams I have shoved upon you, I am sorry.
For anything I have done that may have brought shame or dishonor, I apologize.
I ask for your forgiveness and another chance to become a better man, a better pastor and a better child of God…
...And now, it is time for us to participate in a symbolic ritual of forgiveness.
In your bulletin are little slips of paper saying “please forgive me for” and “I forgive.”
Write down the words that you need to say. Think of who you have been hurt by and who you have hurt.
Then come forward, place your prayer slip in the pewter bowl, offering it up to God as the beginning step of the healing process.
After service, we will set them on fire, using the light from the Christ candle, allowing the flames to symbolically carry our forgiving prayers up into the compassionate arms of God.
We forgive and ask for forgiveness as much for our sake as for theirs. It allows us to move beyond our traumas, and it allows us to become survivors in Christ
This doesn’t mean there won’t be times we won’t still feel angry or mourn what has happened, but it does mean we have begun the process of letting go, and letting God.
Hopefully you’ll feel a bit lighter, a bit more free. You may feel a greater sense of peace and be able to say “it is well with my soul.”
Joseph found a way to forgive his brothers and brought forth new life. Jesus spent his whole career and even died speaking words of forgiveness.
May forgiveness be in our hearts today.
Thanks be to God who forgives us again and again, to the Son who healed with his forgiving touch and the Spirit that speaks newness into our lives and into our relationships.
Amen and amen.