Saturday, September 13, 2008

18 Pentecost

September 14, 2008

Matthew 18.21-35

Last week, in our Gospel reading, we heard Jesus giving the power to bind and loose to his followers—and to us. The gist of this power that we, as Christians and as the Church, received—the fact that what we bind on earth will be bound in heaven and what we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven—reminds us profoundly that what do and say matters. God does care what we do and say.

In today’s Gospel reading, we find just one more extension of that message. Today we find Jesus laying it very clearly on the line. Peter has asked how many times he should forgive. “Seven times?” he wonders. But Jesus says, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

In other words, we must forgive those who wrong us, again and again. It took me a long time to learn the power of this radical kind of forgiveness. Shortly after I was ordained a priest, I read a wonderful book—Reconciliation by Martin L. Smith of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. The book was an incredible explanation of the sacrament of reconciliation as we find it in the Book of Common Prayer. Two quotes in particular stayed with me for some time after I finished the book.

The first was this one; Martin writes, “…the New Testament teaches that the sin of each person affects and implicates the whole Christian community, and that this community has the power of forgiveness entrusted to it.”

This was a sobering thought to me. My sin affects all of us as Christians. The wrongs I do to others and to myself implicates all of us as Christians. What I do matters to God and to each other.

The other quote that I appreciated from the book was a question Martin poses to all of us: “Do you believe in Christ as a living person with whom you are intimately involved, who has a deep desire for your complete conversion and the power to bring about again and again the transformation we call repentance and forgiveness?”

If we can answer that we do believe in “Christ as a living person with whom” we are “intimately involved,” then what we do really does matter—and not just here in this world, but in Christ’s world which continues to break through in our lives.

These two quotes forced me to take a long, hard look at my life and the things I did in that life. And I saw that, for years, even after I was ordained, I did and said things when I had been wronged that were downright petty. I retained the wrongs that I felt had been done to me and I could not sometimes get around what had been done to me. I am not proud to admit any of this—to myself or to anyone else. But, I am a fallible human being, like everyone else here this morning.

All this led me to another sobering thought. Many of us often claim to be pacifists. In our Baptismal Covenant we promise, with God’s help, to “strive for justice and peace among all people.” Most of us, in these decades after the 1960s when the Peace Movement flourished, have taken that calling to be a political one. Many of us are very quick to speak out and protest wars and invasions. We have no problem standing up and saying “no” to wars that happen “over there.”

But to be a true pacifist, to be a true seeker after peace, we must cultivate peace in our midst. When we say that we will “strive for justice and peace among all people,” that means us individually as well. We must be peaceful in what we do and say. And peace begins with respect for others. Peace begins with responding to Jesus’ commandment to love others as we love ourselves. Or, as our Baptismal Covenant asks of us, we strive to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Peace begins with loving ourselves, with making peace with ourselves. And that is the first step. Few of us would admit it, but we are often at war with ourselves. And that war often overflows into our relationships and the world around us. If we are truly going to be seekers after peace, we must start by making peace with ourselves. Then we must make peace with those relationships in our own lives.

And this is the area where I failed miserably in my own growth. In the past, when others have wronged me, when others have hurt me, when others have been unfair and downright cruel to me, my first reaction, always was self-defense. A wall came up. An unconscious self-protection mechanism set in. In other words, I isolated myself. Then I went on the offensive. Because my pride, my sense of self, my ego, was slandered, I needed to protect and defend my self. I needed to lash back. I needed to make every effort to make that person who hurt me hurt as bad I was. And this is where everything went wrong. Although I did it more times than I care to admit, although I kept on doing it even after I first recognized that what I was doing wrong, I continued to do it.

It was at that moment, as I look back at each situation, that everything went wrong for me. It was when I opened my mouth in anger against others, when I lashed back in a vain effort to protect myself, that everything began crumbling. It was when I refused, in my selfish anger, to forgive, that the situation got worse. It was when peace left me and the dark stormy clouds of war settled in my heart that my world came undone. In my anger, my frustration, my hurt that I said and did things I later regretted.

One day, not all that long ago, as I was raging over some slight wrong done to me, did I finally catch myself. As a Christian, I realized this was horrendous behavior. As a Christian, I have been called to seek the Church’s forgiveness for myself and for others. Certainly I had done so in a general sense in church on Sundays and at other times without a second thought. But oftentimes when I had done so, I had carried within my heart the cold stones of unforgiveness. And all of it only made me a hypocrite.

So, slowly, agonizingly, I began to find a way out of that self-destructive cycle. I began by saying to myself: “until you can truly forgive, you cannot claim to be a pacifist.”

“Until you can forgive, you can no longer claim to be a seeker after peace, because you are lying to God and to yourself every time you say it.” And slowly those stones of unforgiveness that lay inside my soul began to lighten and dissolve within me. When I let peace come in—that unconditional peace that we strive after in the Covenant, a peace that allows one to forgive someone seventy-seven times—did I finally move on.

I did so in very practical ways. One of the things I did was I made a list. It wasn’t a detailed list. It was simply a list of names of people that, for whatever reasons, I felt had hurt me in whatever ways over the years. It was an “enemies’ list” so to speak. When I put it together, I was amazed by how short it was. There were maybe five names on it.

I then used that list. Every day, especially at Morning and Evening Prayer, I prayed for every person on that list. Now, I know that might sound like some noble thing. Trust me. It wasn’t. It was actually a terribly painful thing to have to do. To say those names, to be reminded of what the wrongs they had done to me every time I prayed, to have to confront those people every day, was extremely difficult. Now mind you, I still had not forgiven any of them, obviously. It was only after I had prayed for them for sometimes a very long time was I able to finally forgive them. And forgiving them became as simple as saying their name and then saying “I forgive you.” Sometimes it took several times of saying it. But eventually I came to the point in which I was able to cross names off the list. And as I crossed them off, I realized I held nothing in my heart against them. I had forgiven them. I had moved on. I had let them go.

In seeking and serving Christ in all people, in loving our neighbors as our selves, we must forgive. In striving for justice and peace among all people, in respecting the dignity of every human being, we cannot retain the sins done against us, but must work to forgive them. As Christians we must actually grant forgiveness to those who have wronged us in whatever way. That is what all of us, as baptized Christians, are called to do.

In a practical way, we can just simply their name and say, “I forgive you in the name of Christ.” Sometimes, if we are fortunate, we may be able to forgive some of these people to their face. More often than not, we never get that chance. On very rare occasions, those people will come to us in repentance asking for forgiveness. But more often than not, they will never ask for our forgiveness. Whether they ask for it or not, we all must forgive, at all times.

And when we do it—when we forgive them—they are forgiven. It is just that powerful. When we forgive, those wrongs done against us are forgiven. What we loose of earth—what we let go of, what we forgive on earth—is truly loosed in heaven. And when we realize that, we then must move on.

We must allow true peace—that peace that we, as baptized Christians, strive for—we must allow that peace to settle into our hearts and uproot any lingering anger or frustration that still exists there. We must allow that peace to finish the job of absolving. This is what it means to forgive. This is what it means to forgive again and again—even seventy-seven times, or a hundred and seventy-seven times, or seven hundred and seventy-seven times.

And there is one other aspect of forgiveness that we don’t often hear about. That is the forgiveness of ourselves. We sometimes have to forgive ourselves of the wrongs we have committed against ourselves and others.

When I talked earlier about allowing the anger and the pettiness in my life can control my life, in those moments, I was wronging my own self. I failed myself in those moments. And often, when we fail ourselves, we wallow in that failure. We beat ourselves up. We torture ourselves unduly. Let me tell you, I have done it on many occasions. But in those moments, there is no peace in my heart either. I am allowing the war against myself to rage unabated within me. Only when I am able to finally forgive myself, will be able to allow true peace to come into my life. And while I have forgiven others many times, the only one I have ever had to forgive seventy times and much, much more is myself. And again, it is as easy as I saying to myself, “Jamie, I forgive you, in the Name of Christ” and to allow that absolution to do its job of absolving—of taking away the wrongs I have done.

So, forgive. Forgive others. Forgive yourself. And in doing so, let the peace of Christ, with whom you are intimately involved, settle into your hearts and your life. And let that peace transform you into the person Christ desires you to be.

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