The Art of Letting Go:
Forgiveness as a Way of Being
Fifth Sunday in Lent • April 7, 2019
Readings: Matthew 18:15-17, 21-22
Pastor Jeff Wells
Forgiveness is our calling. That how I hear Jesus’ words in the lesson Scott just read. It is our calling not just once in a while, but every day. Jesus calls us to make forgiveness a way of being in the world. We find some version of this call repeated by Jesus throughout the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. To a woman caught in adultery, he extends mercy and defends her from an angry mob. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, he portrays a father who, joyfully and without hesitation, forgives his son who was lost, but now is found. Jesus taught his followers to “Forgive each other as God has forgiven you.” He offered them a model prayer that includes the phrase, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” And, we have Jesus’ demanding instruction in today’s lesson to forgive 77 times! Or, as it is sometimes translated, “seventy times seven times” – that’s 490 times! That’s a lot of repeated forgiveness. Regardless of the actual number, what Jesus was really asserting was: “Don’t stop forgiving! Keep forgiving – indefinitely.” As someone said to me in a recent conversation:
“When you forgive someone, you should do it with the expectation that you may have to do it again. Don’t be surprised when it happens again. We should expect people to be repeat offenders.”
Jesus taught us that we ought to strive to forgive the way God forgives: without limit. You see, our model for mercy and forgiveness is God’s mercy and forgiveness. Now that’s demanding! But Jesus did not ask us to do anything he couldn’t do. He modeled it for us in his own practice of self-giving love and forgiveness. Even when he was hanging on a cross, executed for advocating revolutionary love, didn’t he say, “Abba God, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.”
So, what does this mean for us as individuals, and also pointedly, for today’s message, what does forgiveness as a way of being mean for us in community with one another?
I think one of our first principles in this “way of living” needs to be: “Let go of the small stuff.” I like to think about our hurts, resentments, our desires for revenge and retribution, as rocks we carry around. The small stuff – those are just little pebbles and small rocks – the small offenses, hurts, and sins against us). For our own health and wellbeing, we have to leave those behind us. If we hold on to all of these small offenses, soon we will find ourselves carrying around a very heavy load. You could all list many examples from your own lives: a harsh word spoken, someone forgetting to do something they agreed to do, a friend or partner forgetting your birthday or an anniversary. And these can damage not just relationships, but community. I have witnessed so many times when a person who felt hurt simply left a congregation or group of friends, or another community without ever talking to the person who offended or hurt them. Or, they may remain, but continue sit in their resentment and anger, withdrawing from the relationship without ever addressing the source of the hurt. When you have a lot of people approaching life that way, then you end up with a whole stew of resentment that is absolutely destructive of community.
Jesus’ teaching in today’s lesson from the Gospel of Matthew provides us with guidance for our life together. Jesus was teaching about forgiveness as a way of being in the community as the church – the body of Christ. First, Jesus recommends we try to meet with the person who has offended or hurt you – one on one. Bring to that person’s attention the way you feel wronged or hurt. If that does not work, bring one or two other persons along to be an observer, mediate, or offer wise counsel. If you still cannot achieve reconciliation, bring it to the wider community. If even that fails, he said, “Treat that person like a Gentile or a tax collector.” Now that’s an interesting instruction because Jesus had a reputation for hanging out with Gentiles, tax collectors, undocumented immigrants, foreigners, people who practiced other religions, with the unclean, diseased, and all kinds of folks considered to be sinners. So, Jesus certainly couldn’t have meant, “Don’t have anything to do with that person any longer.” He didn’t mean, “Shun that person.” What I believe he meant here was, “Treat them just like anyone else who needs love and forgiveness.”
This way of approaching our life together is necessarily a mutual practice because there is not one of us who has not been both one hurt and the one doing the hurting. So, in addition to the method Jesus outlined, it is helpful to develop an attitude of love and grace and mercy and to remember, first, that we all hurt one another sometimes – often without realizing it. So, it’s good to put ourselves in the proverbial shoes of the other person. Have you ever encountered an especially unfriendly or grumpy store clerk or waiter? Your first thought might be, “Hey, what did I ever do to you?” But what if your second thought were this: “I wonder what’s making this person act that way?” Maybe they are struggling with something serious in their personal life. Perhaps they are grieving a loss. Or, maybe they are just having a bad day. Remember that we are flawed human persons, too. Things get to us. We get grumpy, too. Bad stuff happens to us or those we love. So, try to assume the best about the person whose behavior is offending you. There is good in everyone. Then, pray for that person that they will find relief from whatever is causing them to act this way. Pray for their wellbeing. You can also try to lift that person up. Say something complementary or encouraging or just ask if they are okay. If you’ve tried this, you know that the result can be surprising. Often, you won’t see an immediate change. But sometimes, you actually witness that person transform before your eyes. Suddenly, they have a different outlook on their day because you showed you noticed them and cared about them.
This does not work when more serious wrongs are involved. These require more effort on our part to let them go and to forgive. Forgiveness does not erase or condone the harm. But it does mean relinquishing our desire for pay back and letting go of our hurt and anger. That can take time when we are talking about more serious offenses. Forgiveness also does not mean there are no consequences. Even when we are able to forgive, the person who committed the offense may have to suffer the consequences of their action.
Forgiveness is absolutely necessary for your own healing and wellbeing our ability to thrive and move forward – regardless of whether the relationship is ever healed. Failure to forgive allows the person who wronged you and the offense itself to continue to hold power over you, to continue to harm you. You don’t hurt them by your unwillingness to forgive as much as you hurt yourself. Moreover, our failure to forgive or to seek forgiveness allows a wall of our own making to stand not only between us and the other person, but also between us and God.
If we are committed to living in community, we have to recognize that we will inevitably hurt, annoy, and anger one another. We will create resentments. And unless we are just going to walk away from each other or sit in distant pews from one another on Sundays and refuse to interact, we will need to learn how to forgive as a way of being together. Forgiveness as a way of being is a countercultural value of the kin-dom of God. It establishes, as a basic principle, that we let go of the need for payment of a debt and the desire for retribution. This is the only way the community of the church can thrive, and provide a paradigm or model for the larger community. It is something the world desperately needs.
Each time we can bring ourselves to forgive another person, the act of letting go leads us in the direction of deeper relationships and deeper community and also to deeper strength in forgiving in the future. I have always been impressed by the example of the Amish of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania who practice this way of being community, not just among themselves, but also toward outsiders. A primary source of strength of the Amish community is their deep belief in Jesus’ teaching to reject anger and vengeance and to seek peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness. They live that daily. It is ingrained in their spiritual practice, as they recite the Lord’s Prayer several times a day in communal and family gatherings and individually.
After a school shooting in October 2006, in which five Amish schoolgirls were killed and five others wounded, the Amish Community immediately reached out to the family of shooter, who had also shot himself. Within hours of the shooting, an Amish neighbor was their home comforting his wife and children. Amish community members also visited and comforted Roberts’ parents and in-laws. The Amish set up a charitable fund for the shooter’s family. Many members of the Amish community attended Roberts’ funeral. Donald Kraybill, a scholar of Amish life, wrote that, “Amish willingness to forgo vengeance does not undo the tragedy or pardon the wrong, but rather constitutes a first step toward a future that is more hopeful.” The Amish community demonstrates the potential for communities to practice forgiveness as a way of being. This requires a discipline and an intention to strive for forgiveness whenever possible, as soon as possible, and as often as necessary.
I am not at all saying that forgiveness is easy or simple. I continue to struggle plenty with this in my own life and relationships. There are still hurts that I have not yet fully forgiven. But I continue to strive to get to that place of forgiveness and let go of the resentments and anger. I believe that the more we can make forgiveness a way of being in our day to day interactions, the more we will learn the art of letting go.
Jesus believed that seeking forgiveness was so important he once said, “If you have traveled all the way from Galilee to Jerusalem to make your sacrifice in the temple and you realize that you need to seek forgiveness with someone you have wronged, then you should travel back to Galilee and get right with that person, then spend ten days walking back to Jerusalem to present you sacrifice on the altar of God.” Forgiveness is that important.
In a few minutes, we are going to gather around the table of grace for our ritual communion meal. This gathering reminds us that we the body of Christ, that we are a community of Jesus’ followers, and also that we are forgiven by God and are called to forgive one another. This is why we confess our wrongdoing every time we gather for communion. Remember that Jesus offered the bread and cup to Judas even though he knew Judas was going to betray him. He forgave him in advance and did not send him away from the table or excommunicate him from the community of disciples. Seek to forgive and to be forgiven, not once or occasionally, but daily – even 77 times. This is God’s call and challenge to us. May we learn to practice forgiveness as our way of life together.
Let us pray:
Holy God, we lift up the difficulty that we have with forgiving one another. We lift up to you, for your healing, and for your strength and wisdom, those things that we try to retain – our resentments, our angers, our sense that we’ve been wronged and our desire for retribution. We ask that you take these things from us. Lift these weights from our bodies, our minds, and our spirits. Help us to live, especially in this community, into this practice of forgiveness as a way of being, as a way of life. Help us to learn that this is the only way that we will thrive together. And that this is your desire for us. Holy God, we thank you for bringing us these teachings through the words and practices and the example of Jesus Christ. Help us be the body of Christ together and for the world and in the way of Jesus.
Copyright © 2019 by Jeff Wells
All rights reserved.