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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Pentecost 13 – Year A

One evening a woman’s husband made a complete fool of himself at a dinner party. The next morning, feeling foolish and embarrassed because of his behavior, the husband begged his wife to forgive him. After talking it over for sometime the wife decided to let him off the hook. “I do honey,” she says, “I do forgive you, I promise.” But for the next several months after that whenever the wife was displeased with her husband she would always remind him of what a complete idiot he made of himself at the party. “I thought you forgave me for that?” the husband asked. “Darling, I did forgive you,” his wife replied. “I just don’t want you to forget that I forgave you. ”
Our lessons for today are all about forgiveness. And since I don’t believe in coincidence, (I believe only in grace) how grace filled is it that on the anniversary of 9-11 the lectionary assigns these particular lessons in churches all over the world. Lessons about forgiveness – interesting. I don’t think that’s an accident; it’s God’s grace. As Jesus would say – those who have hears to hear let them hear. Those who have eyes to see let them see.
Forgiveness is no easy thing. We all know that. How many times have we struggled to forgive someone who hurt our feelings, wronged us, or let us down. How many of us are still unable to forgive someone for something they id to us years ago? How much harder is it to even contemplate forgiveness when you think about the nearly 3000 people who perished on 9-11 – including 246 people on four airplanes, 411 emergency workers, nearly 2,200 civilians in the twin towers, and 125 people at the Pentagon. Even after 10 years there are many people who still wonder if it’s possible to talk about forgiveness. They question whether the horrible events of that day can ever be forgiven. It’s a good question. After all, as Will Willimon, the former long time chaplain at Duke reminds us, “The human animal is not supposed to be good at forgiveness. Forgiveness is not some innate natural human emotion. Vengeance, retribution, violence, these are natural human emotions.”
Be that as it may, forgiveness is central to the Christian faith. But the lingering question for me is this: are we called to forgive even the people who don’t want our forgiveness? Are we supposed to forgive people who don’t admit that they did us wrong? And every time I ask that question what God puts on my heart is the cross and Jesus’ words as he hung there – Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Because without forgiveness our faith makes no sense, the cross makes no sense. Without God’s forgiveness the cross is just a symbol of death like a hangman’s noose or an electric chair. But because of God’s forgiving love it becomes for us a symbol of salvation and new life. Human beings nailed Jesus to a cross. But God forgave us and redeemed us making the cross the sign of our redemption.
In our Gospel for today, Peter asks Jesus how often we should forgive. “Seven times?” he asks Jesus. Should we forgive another person seven times? Peter thought he was being extremely generous when he suggested seven. Three times was the religious standard of the day. You had to forgive your neighbor three times if he or she wronged you. Peter doubled that standard and then added one for good measure. Surely seven times would be the kind of forgiveness Jesus would ask of his disciples. But no, seven times doesn’t even come close. “Not seven times,” Jesus says, “but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” In other words, Jesus says there is no limit to forgiveness. As hard as that may sound, for those of us who want to pick up our crosses and follow Christ the spirit of forgiveness should so pervade our lives that we simply lose count of how may times we are required to forgive. For the Christian, forgiveness should be limit-less. Yes, – limitless.
In one of her books, Corrie Ten Boom tells of meeting the guard from the concentration camp where the Nazi’s had held her during the Second World War. She was speaking at a large church meeting and after the meeting the ex-guard came forward and extended his hand to her. She instinctively pulled back remembering the horrors that hand perpetrated on her. But then she testified that something came over her, she knew not what, and she reached out and grasped the guard’s hand and extended her forgiveness as tears rolled down the man’s cheeks.
In the very popular popular book Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, Louie Zamperini, who had been tortured and abused for years in a Japanese prison camp, finds forgiveness and peace after being touched by the Holy Spirit following a Billy Graham revival. “Resting in the shade and the stillness, Louie felt profound peace,” Hillenbrand writes. “In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away. That morning, he believed he was a new creation. Softly, he wept.” (p.376)
Forgiveness may not be innate to human beings, it may not be natural, but with God everything is possible. When we forgive it is evidence not of our own accomplishment but of God’s loving presence in our lives. It is the action of Christ through the Holy Spirit in our midst. For Corrie Ten Boom and Louie Zamperini forgiveness was almost incomprehensible after experiencing such abuse. When we think of the devastation and loss of 9-11 forgiveness seems almost unthinkable even after 10 years. Yet we are called to forgive because God forgives. Forgiveness doesn’t mean foregoing justice. Rather forgiveness frees us, heals us, from the burden of what someone else has done to us. Jesus forgave his executioners from the cross even when they did not ask for it, even when they did not deserve it. God forgives us and so we believe God can empower us to forgive even those we deem unforgivable, those who will never ask for it.
I can’t tell you how great it is to see everyone after what I hope has been a good summer. As we begin a new program year with the return of Sunday school, Bible studies, adult classes, choirs and the like it is important to remember why we are here, why this community exists in the first place. We have a lot of fun together around here. We laugh together, worship and sing together, party and feast together, care for one another during times of difficulty and loss, and celebrate with one another as we experience the joys of community. But make no mistake about it, we do not exist simply for or own edification. Everything we do, every class, Bible study, book club, prayer and song is intended to better prepare us to be the disciples of Jesus Christ in the world. After almost ten years of war when there is so much political rancor and unemployment our country is in need of healing and forgiveness. With so many issues of poverty and race our city is in need of healing and forgiveness. Christ calls us to pass along to other people the forgiveness that we have received from God – the forgiveness of the cross. We exist to be God’s agents in the world – agents of reconciliation. Where the world sees the human family divided between good and bad, conservative and liberal, orthodox and heretic, righteous and sinner – Jesus saw one human family. He saw all of us as equally in need of God’s mercy. And so we are. But those of us who have known God’s mercy, who proclaim it in worship every Sunday, we are to be the ones who share God’s mercy beyond these doors. That’s why we exist and that’s why this community matters.
God knows we need forgiveness. I need it. You need it. Forgiveness brings healing – with God, with others, and within ourselves. Look at the cross again and see the greatest sermon on love ever preached. Then remember – Jesus loves me. After that look around and before too long you will find someone who really needs your forgiving love. Then there is but on thing left to do – give it. Amen.

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