Faith Practices for Spiritual Resilience: Forgiveness

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Twefth Sunday after Pentecost.

Psalm 32

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
    and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
    and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah

Therefore let all who are faithful
    offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
    shall not reach them.
You are a hiding place for me;
    you preserve me from trouble;
    you surround me with glad cries of deliverance. Selah

I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
    whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
    else it will not stay near you.

Many are the torments of the wicked,
    but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous,
    and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.

***

It is a dangerous thing to preach on forgiveness. 

Some of the sermons I remember most vividly from childhood were about forgiveness. Not because they were so extraordinary, but because I can remember my mom fairly vibrating in the pew next to me. Each of these sermons seemingly landed right when someone in her life had been particularly awful to her. Each of them felt like it was preached directly ‘at’ her. And she was not happy about it. My mother is not a resentful or grudging or petty person. But ill-timed advice about forgiveness can hurt.

Which is to say, I’m sure someone in the congregation today is in the midst of some particular interpersonal awfulness. So I’m saying up front: I’m sorry if it feels like this sermon is “at” you. I hope you’ll forgive my timing, even if you’re not ready to forgive anything else.

Christians talk about forgiveness all the time. It is at the heart of our most sacred story—the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s death and resurrection. It is part of our weekly liturgy—the confession of sins and assurance of forgiveness. It is part of our most common prayer—forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. We are supposed to be—commanded to be—forgiving people. 

But it is not easy. 

Forgiving is work. Spiritual work, but work nonetheless. It requires an exhausting, complicated combination of mental and emotional and even physical effort. I don’t have to belabor this point; every last one of us here has struggled at some point to forgive someone, and known the toil it takes on us. 

Like I said, some of you may be in that very fight right now. 

As I was considering spiritual practices for us to lift up during this pandemic, forgiveness did not immediately spring to mind. After all, you can’t forgive a virus; it does not mean to wrong us, or harm us, even though it does. But the virus is not the only thing we are struggling with in these months; in fact, for most of us, what has hurt the worst has not been the virus at all, but its ramifications, all the ways our society has had to bend and sometimes break to protect the most vulnerable among us. 

And whenever we are bent out of shape, a good dose of grace is always in order. 

Psychologists have been warning us since March about the effects of quarantine on our mental, emotional, and relational health. Being stuck at home with nowhere to dump out our usual frustrations, no way to escape our living partner’s worst habits, and the anxieties of the news still pouring into our systems through screens and newspapers is a recipe for high tension. Lawyers have been warned, only barely tongue and cheek, to prepare for an onslaught of divorces. 

And so I find myself preaching on forgiveness.

Forgiving is work, and it’s not one size fits all. The amount of work it takes to forgive is usually commensurate with the amount of harm that’s been done. The big hurts take time to forgive, but not passive time, active time, time when we are wrestling with how we feel, how the situation could be resolved, how God is active in it all. 

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us we must forgive not once or twice but seven times seventy times. When I was younger, I thought that was excessive. Now, I realize it’s precisely how forgiveness works. We don’t just forgive once. Even for the same hurt, the same rupture, we forgive over and over, whenever the wound starts to rub raw again. There are people in my life I expect to be forgiving for the rest of my life. 

And, to be honest, there are some people I haven’t forgiven. Either because I haven’t yet had the fortitude to put in the work, or because the hurts come as fast as I can forgive, or because the harm was bigger than what I can handle on my own. 

In those cases, when I can’t yet forgive, is when I am most grateful for the God of mercy whom I love.

I know I should forgive, but when I can’t, I pray to God that God would forgive them. That God would hold my place for a while, while I run as fast as I can to catch up. Oddly enough, knowing that someone has forgiven them often helps me do the same, eventually. It also gives me permission to take the time that I need. 

The work of forgiveness cannot be finished until the person who is hurting you stops hurting you. I firmly believe that. Either because they have seen and understood what they are doing, and are taking steps to amend their life, or because the relationship is ended and you are far away from them. Forgiving someone is not permission for abuse to continue. It must free you from harm as much as it frees them from shame. 

We Christians often rush others to forgiveness because we want to be able to ignore a painful situation. Forgiveness, from the outside, ties everything together with a pretty bow. But from the inside, forgiveness can hurt like the dickens. To demand forgiveness is in itself a kind of spiritual abuse. Forgiveness cannot be coerced, only freely given, and then only when the one who has been harmed has what they need to move forward, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. 

After all, forgiveness is not even easy for God. The Hebrew scriptures attest to God’s frustration, anger, hesitancy, how God is pushed again and again to the brink of walking away, before God chooses forgiveness. When Jesus forgave, it came in the midst of the agony on the cross, after thirty-some years of the challenge and hypocrisy of human living. God always forgives, but that does not mean God finds it easy. Why should it be easier for us? To forgive is to struggle with the limits of our own power, to say that we cannot go back and make things right in the past, but also to reach out and grasp the very heights of God’s power, to say that there may be a way to move forward rightly into the future. 

To be a forgiving person, you have to practice. And I mean practice, the way you’d practice piano or throwing a football or a new language. I recommend starting small. If you are listening to this sermon and thinking you need to forgive your worst enemy, that’s commendable, but I’d actually recommend you begin with someone more manageable. The process by which each of us forgives is as unique as our fingerprint. Read all the books you like, but ultimately, you have to learning how you forgive—what it takes, what it feels like, where your stumbling blocks are. Ask yourself, in the household where you were raised, did you family practice forgiveness? Or did hurts pile up unaddressed? Was that forgiveness verbal, or expressed through other means? Does that kind of forgiveness work for you, or do you need something else? 

Forgiving is spiritual work. Forgiveness is a form of spiritual rest. Forgiveness looks at the wounded heart and the troubled mind and says enough. Be still. So if we cannot forgive, then that suggests there is still work to be done, in the relationship, in our understanding of the situation, in our own souls. Don’t be afraid of the work, and don’t add guilt that it takes time. Because it simply does. But there is rest at the end. 

Poet Maya Angelou wrote, “You can’t forgive without loving. And I don’t mean sentimentality. I don’t mean mush. I mean having enough courage to stand up and say, ‘I forgive. I’m finished with it.’”

I have not yet in this sermon touched much on our scripture for this morning. It is a psalm about the joy of being forgiven. “Happy,” it begins, “happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” I have not talked much about being on the receiving end of forgiveness yet, but it is a blessed thing. The Greek word for forgiveness means to “set free,” or “unbind” or even “unchain.” To be forgiven is to be freed, to breathe a little easier, to love a little more deeply, to understand where you went wrong and to not have to keep puzzling over what it could have been. 

Because to know you have messed up and to know that you cannot fix it is a rotten feeling.  The psalmist writes, 

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. 

Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
    and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
    and you forgave the guilt of my sin. 

This can be true in our human relationships. We acknowledge what we have done wrong—even if we cannot fully name it—and we ask for forgiveness. But it is always true in our relationship with God—each week we come to the prayer of confession, and admit in preprinted words or in the silence where we have messed up, and God forgives. Not because its easy. But because God loves us enough to want us to be free. 

Forgiving is work. Forgiveness is rest. And in this pandemic, amidst the chaos and uncertainty and anxiety, we could all use a little more rest. So I urge you this week, to think about where the old hurts are in your life, and whether you have the strength right now to do the work of forgiving, so that you can find rest.

Especially if the person you need to forgive is yourself. 

For the gift of forgiveness, challenging and liberating, I give thanks. Amen.  

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