Debts and Debtors
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Today is Trinity Sunday, and it is well timed by those councils who set, under God’s direction, the celebrations of the church season. It comes at a time where we have experienced God’s creative power in the coming of spring, God’s triumph over sin and death through Christ’s resurrection as we celebrated at Easter, and the offering of God’s active presence in the Holy Spirit as we celebrated last week on Pentecost.
Interestingly enough, the term “trinity” is not found in the Bible. It was developed almost three centuries after Christ’s resurrection, as Christianity emerged from persecution and became the religion of the Roman Empire. It was the result of two separate councils of Christian leaders from a wide variety of communities and traditions who were trying to come together and state what they believed was true and real about what God had done through Jesus Christ. Though it could be said that Christians are still struggling with that very same task, it can also be said that the Council of Nicaea got it right. And I believe that the words of the Lord’s prayer, as we find them in Matthew, reflect a knowledge of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of life.
I have to admit, this prayer is one that is so common that there have been times when I have simply said the words without thinking about what they really mean. It is also so severe that there have been times a word or phrase has convicted me to the point that I have fumbled one of the later and equally familiar phrases. I can remember going through confirmation as a youth and trying to pray this prayer by myself for the first time. It was like it didn’t make sense unless bunches of people were saying it at once. But as we look at Matthew’s gospel we find that the prayer that we can hardly understand apart from public worship was part of Jesus’ instructions for personal intimacy with God. “Go in a closet. Pray this way,” we are told. Even so, it is located as the central turning point in the Sermon on the Mount. All the blessings and woes and instructions to be salt and light lead up to one place, the instruction to give honor and glory to God alone, with forgiveness being the lynch pin to our success.
The writer of Matthew’s gospel knew that this section would be used as a guide to worship as well as instruction for personal discipleship. But what about us? What if we used the Lord’s Prayer for personal devotion? What if it became not just phrases of orthodoxy, but instead a conversation with God. I think it might look something like this…
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, in The Scarlet Letter:
“It is to the credit of human nature, that, except where its selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates. Hatred, by a gradual and quiet process, will even be transformed to love, unless the change be impeded by a continually new irritation of the original feeling of hostility.”
Sometimes we just can’t let it go. It’s sad how many times I have heard people say that they have family members or loved ones they have not spoken to in years. Often times no one even knows why. Some one got fed up about something, and they just could not let it go. Now, I realize that sometimes mental illnesses, deaths, and other factors may prohibit the reality of being reconciled, but forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness may open the path to reconciliation, but it does not guarantee it. Forgiveness is something we must do for ourselves before we can see its affects on our relationships.
Katherine M. Piderman, Ph.D. is a staff chaplain at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota. In an article posted on the Mayo Clinic’s website, she discusses forgiveness and how it can lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Dr. Piderman begins by defining forgiveness as “a decision to let go of resentments and thoughts of revenge. Forgiveness is the act of untying yourself from thoughts and feelings that bind you to the offense committed against you.” Forgiveness disconnects the power we give to other people and events, and puts it back in God’s hands, where it belongs. “For Thine is the power.”
Dr. Piderman goes on to talk about clinically proven health benefits and risks associated with the decision to forgive or withhold forgiveness. She discusses the barriers we place before forgiveness, signs that tell us we need to, and how it affects ongoing relationships and the potential for reconciliation. In summary I can tell you that she defines forgiveness as a process, not an action. Forgiveness is not in any way, shape, or form permission for offenses; nor is it easier to receive than permission. Forgiveness does not condone hurtful actions. That is because forgiveness does not affect the one who has hurt you. Forgiveness affects the one who has decided to forgive. Forgiveness does not mean that everything is O.K. It means that someone has decided to let go of the need to feel justified in hatred, anger, and negative actions because that person knows that he or she has already been justified in Jesus Christ!
Forgiveness is something that requires radical, fundamental, and ultimate trust in God as Provider, Redeemer, and Life Giving Force. For as we are instructed in scripture, our very lives depend upon it. “For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
And so today we come to this table, this memorial feast. Today we remember who we are and whose we are. Today we look deeply into the essentials of Reformed theology and the experience of being called together as God’s beloved, clothed in righteousness we do not deserve. For this is not about what we deserve. This is about the grace of God.
I wonder, how many of us have been thinking about the things we need to forgive? I don’t know that we’ve allowed for that so far in the service. I want to give you that space for just a moment. Consider one moment in your life in which you have felt wronged. Consider the person or the people involved in that situation. I want to invite you to make the decision to begin to let go of your feelings of responsibility for that pain. That’s what our anger and anxiety comes from, you know?
We cannot control the affections, the desires, and the actions of another person. When these actions go against our expectations and against the spoken or unspoken agreements we have with others it is hurtful. And guess what. We don’t like to hurt.
Now here’s the really tricky part. In trying to avoid being hurt, we end up struggling for power and hurting ourselves. That’s why everything hinges on forgiveness. Forgiveness is the very essence of God’s character, and it is the only means of putting ourselves into a place where God’s providence and power can offer us a life that is truly living. Forgiveness does not mean rolling over and accepting evil and abuse. In fact it is just the opposite. Forgiveness means seeing the humanity in someone else and the sin in our own souls. It is the way by which we put God in the driver seat so that our actions to restrain evil and alleviate suffering are in keeping with God’s instead of some form of retribution that we call justice.
This prayer that we say every Sunday is about who we are as a people. It is also about who we are as individuals. The funny thing is, you can’t really separate one from the other. For we are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. I often hear members of this congregation say, “I’m not really a Presbyterian.” Well, I’m sorry, but if you joined this church than yes you are. All of us are first and foremost followers of Jesus. And we have followed Jesus to this table. It is not a Presbyterian table, it is the Lord’s. It just happens to be in a Presbyterian church and the sacraments are rightly administered here.As a sacrament, Holy Communion has this effect; sacred making. Through receiving the bread and juice as Christ’s body and blood you are affirming the love God poured out for you in the sacrifice of His only son, Christ Jesus. More than that you are bound in common unity with all the saints, sinners, prostitutes, and disciples that have come before you and who sit with you and stand before you today. Being in community requires not good fences but the willingness to take down our own and to be vulnerable unto one another. So let us look deeply into the chalice of Christ and find the will to forgive the one most in need, that one being ourselves. And then let us watch as forgiveness spreads like a wildfire burning out our control, a fire that consumes but does not destroy, a fire that gives life, and gives it abundantly. And to God be the glory, for Hallowed be thy name!