“FORGIVEN AND FORGIVING”
Tom Sawyer’s Sermon Notes For Grace United, Lloydminster, September 11, 2011
Ten years ago today we were in a state of shock as we saw the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York come crashing down, taking lives, poisoning rescuers, and increasing fear and hatred in the western world. My son was in the air, returning to Canada from work in Japan to attend a friend’s wedding. Once landed his plane sat for hours on the tarmac at Vancouver. When it finally pulled into the terminal, they found out what happened while they had crossed the Pacific, and he learned that all flights were now cancelled. He was grounded in Vancouver, safe -- but wondering how he could get to the wedding and when he could return to his job in Japan.
Although Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban represent only a very tiny minority of people of the Islamic faith, there was a backlash against all Muslims that is still being felt today. George W. Bush’s war against Iraq had more to do with what he perceived as his earthly father’s unfinished business than the work of our heavenly father that is addressed in today’s epistle and gospel lessons. When we have hatred in our heart, we cannot follow the Christ.
South Africa, much to the world’s surprise in 1994, was able to gain self-rule for the masses of its people without the bloodshed that most had predicted because leaders like Mandela and Tutu -- rather than seeking justice and revenge -- sought and emphasized truth and reconciliation. When families or congregations have had great dissention, they will never find peace until they learn to accept and forgive. In Christ we know that we all stand in need of forgiveness. When we realize that we, ourselves, are accepted – even with our weaknesses and shortcomings – we are much more open to be forgiving of others -- even those who may have done us harm in the past.
Peter, in today’s gospel lesson thought he was being generous with forgiveness when he asked:
‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18: 21b-22)
When we bear the name of Christ, we are called to act as people forgiven by God, and therefore to be forgiving of others. As we heard Paul’s words in this morning’s epistle reading:
10 Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God. (Romans 14:10)
Paul acknowledged that people could have very different interpretations of what is right in light of their experience of the Christ. The specific dispute Paul refers to is the controversy over the eating of meat. This has nothing to do with vegetarianism, but rather to the fact that the only meat available for purchase was meat that was slaughtered in a pagan temple with a blood offering to a pagan god. Some thought it was wrong to eat something offered to a different god, but others thought that – for those who know the one true God – the pagan gods were simply created by human imagination, and therefore not real. To meat eaters it made no different what kind of untrue worship was involved in the slaughter of animals for food.
I have seen the hurt caused when people are unforgiving. I had an aunt who lived almost ninety years, but for the last fifty years of her life had cut herself off from her only son who lived half an hour away. She also shut herself off from her sisters all because she perceived that they were not as open to her as she thought they should be. She died a very lonely woman.
When the United Church General Council meeting in 1988 refused to adopt a proposal that would ban gays and lesbians from ministry in the church, a third of the board of my congregation at the time resigned within a few days. As a congregation we let them know that we respected their concerns, but could not agree with their position. We reminded them they would be welcome to continue active life within the congregation while holding a dissenting view. After a time, many did return, realizing the old United Church slogan, “our unity in Christ is stronger than our differences”. Within a couple of years that congregation was able to plan, fund and build a church facility so they could move out of the school they used to worship in. Within five years it had the largest Sunday School and Youth group among United Churches in Edmonton.
When a congregation experiences trouble, it is natural that people on different sides of issues tend to think of the others side being at fault. When families, or long-time friends have a falling a falling out, it is hurtful. As followers of the Christ, as children of God, we are called to remember to be forgiving to others, as we ourselves have been forgiven, not just once, not just seven, but limitless times. As the old spiritual says,
“It’s a me, it’s a me, it’s a me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. Not my brother, nor my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”
We don’t have to prove we are always right. In fact, we realize we are often wrong, but we are still accepted and empowered to be God’s people working together. In our nation on this anniversary of 9:11 in our communities, our congregations, our families and in our personal lives, let us accept God’s love and forgiveness and pass it on.