Genesis 50:15-21, Psalm 103, Matthew 18:21-35
As I was getting caught up from vacation, I watched the worship service from August 30. Pastor Nancy commented about me leaving a hard text for her, the last one of our Unraveled series. I feel the same way today, as we come back to the lectionary.
Today, our Bible stories are about forgiveness. Sometimes it’s easy to forgive someone. When they bump into us on accident, or when playing a game.
It's a little harder when we meant to - we took their spot, were mean to them, etc. When we know we’re wrong, we say “I’m sorry” - and hopefully they say “ I forgive you.”
It's good to see when we made a mistake and hurt someone; to say we’re sorry & hear words of forgiveness.
It's even harder, though, to talk about forgiveness when someone hurts us very deeply. Our first story today is about Joseph and his brothers - they were really mean to Joseph and it wasn’t easy to ask for forgiveness or for Joseph to forgive them.
His Coat of many colors; and dreams - 12 stalks of wheat - bowing down to 1; the moon & 11 stars bowing down to the sun. This was an exciting dream! How do you feel when you have an exciting dream? You want to tell someone! God speaks to us through dreams today too. Joseph's brothers and father weren't to happy with Joseph about these dreams - that he, the youngest, would someone role over them!?
The brothers threw Joseph into a pit & then sold him to passing traders. They then lied to their father, saying Joseph had been killed by an animal. His brothers knew that they were wrong; eventually they probably missed him. And that lie to their dad - they had to keep that lie up for years!
Joseph kept on dreaming & helping other people understand their dreams. Helped the king (Pharaoh), too, & got a position where he helped save up food for the coming drought.
Them, his brothers showed up in Egypt! How would you feel if you were Joseph?
Joseph - he didn’t forgive them right away. He tested out their intentions when they first arrived in Egypt. He also wanted to find out if his dad was alive.
And we come to today’s Bible passage - after Joseph’s dad had died. His brothers worried that Joseph only forgave them because of their dad. Let’s hear what happens.
"How many times are we to forgive someone?" asks Peter. Seventy times seven - Really? We who have received abundant forgiveness, like the first servant in the gospel story - how can we withhold that gift from another? But what about when someone has done something really bad? Well, we have Jesus on the cross - “forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” That's a pretty strong call to forgive even in the face of great pain.
I want to share a powerful story of forgiveness. Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian woman who was imprisoned in the Ravensbruck concentration camp for hiding Jews in her home. She lost her beloved sister at the camp but after the war, she traveled around Europe, preaching the Christian gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation. She writes of an encounter with a former guard from Ravensbruck whom she recognized at a talk she gave at a German church in 1947. He came up to her afterwards, told her that he had become a Christian, that he knew God had forgiven him, but he wanted to ask for her forgiveness. He held out his hand but she felt nothing but anger for him.
"And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. "Jesus, help me!" I prayed silently. "I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You supply the feeling."
"And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
"I forgive you, brother!" I cried. "With all my heart!"
"For a long moment we grasped each other's hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God's love so intensely as I did then."
Forgiveness is hard, really hard. But the good news is that where God calls, God also equips. God gives us in Christ the gift of forgiveness and helps us to share that gift with others.
And in doing so, God opens doors that are shut. God opens a future that is shut. By forgiving those who have sinned against us, we do not allow the past to dictate our future. Forgiveness breaks the chains of anger and bitterness and frees us to live new lives.
Some folks who know this well are those in recovery from addiction. I turned to my Recovery Bible for this week’s text. Help reading scripture through the lens of mistakes, a need for forgiveness - of self and others, and hear how God will carry them forward, and, and the root of it all - they are loved. Devotions go along the 12 steps of recovery themes, and passages interpreted through a recovery lens. For today, I think reading steps 4-10 of the life recovery process are helpful - pg A13 - they are focused on taking an inventory of wrong you have done, confessing them to another person, believing & trusting in God's forgiveness, and then making amends to those you have hurt, unless it will bring them harm.
Forgiveness from God is complete and gives strength for what is to come
We are forgiven to forgive others. And to confess when we have hurt another.
Making amends, saying I’m sorry for hurting you, doesn’t mean they’ll hear “I forgive you.” That’s not the point. Honest confession, to live in God’s forgiveness and live into a more full future. Creating a new heart within us means confession.
Making amends may not lead to a relationship. Broken trust is hard to build up again. Broken trust is not restored in a snap of saying “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you.” That trust in the person may never return.
Looking to Joseph and his brothers - they had years together; and it took a lot of time to rebuild their relationship. And, all those years before they were reconciled - God was helping his brothers understand the wrong they did - living with the guilt of that. Joseph had years of working on himself as well; and seeing how God was working things for good, and creating a way Joseph could help feel the people of Egypt, and his own family. And still, after their father died, the brothers had to check in again. Really, we’re still good?
Maybe you have a situation in your family like this. Getting along for the sake of your parents, or grandparents, or children? A facade over pain. Hurt that is pushed under the rug, rather than confessed.
Forgiveness is at the core of our call to Christian discipleship. It is at the core of the Christian Gospel itself. The Gospel is not simply “God loves everyone.” The Gospel is “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” And “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:17, 19). The Gospel is “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:11-12).
Forgiveness is transformational. When we believe and trust that it is really true. God knows us completely. And forgives us completely.
“Forgiveness is not an emotion... Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.” Corrie
Forgive us as we forgive others. Living in God’s forgiveness shows in our actions in the world - towards ourselves and others, in the fruits of our lives - our words & actions reflect how much we trust God.
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. With our gospel story today, I’m reminded of the version that goes “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” I wonder whether those might be easier words for you to speak. “Your debts against me are forgiven.” The debt of care or love not given, pain inflicted, shame or guilt carried, they are released. When we don’t forgive, it eats up our brain space and emotional energy. If you are carrying anger at someone, where you haven’t been able to forgive, maybe saying “I forgive you” doesn’t work; try out “Your debts are forgiven.” That feels different to me. And it’s biblical. I’m passing on the compassion I’ve received and now turning with God to my future.
Too often, those who have been victims of trauma are told to forgive & forget; or are not believed. It is not “forgive and forget.” It’s “forgive and let God carry the work in that person’s life.” It’s “release the debts and trust God in your future steps.” Release the anger, fear, betrayal and hate; realize the brokenness in that person who hurt you. And that release and forgiveness may not come today, or tomorrow, but it will someday.
Hear the truth that God proclaims: Your sins are forgiven in the name of + Jesus Christ. Led by the Holy Spirit, live in freedom and newness to do God’s work in the world. Amen
Rev. Elizabeth Bier is the pastor of ONE in Christ Parish, a three-point parish in Greenwood, Longwood, and Withee. She is ordained with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and has served the ONE in Christ Parish since February of 2019.Profile
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