September 12, 2014


Sermon for Year A, Proper 19
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
September 14, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

Jesus says we that know God is in the house
 When we feel deep down that we have been forgiven --
   All that forgiveness, just raining down.
It’s simply that we come to know what was already true before we even knew it!
The fact that went before us now announces itself.
The grace of God floods the house, and we are forgiven, and we know it.
Our hearts brim over.
Heaven has been tugged down to earth.
Saints and angels sing among us.
The God of peace has returned.

You know what it’s like, right? Sort of?
That feeling that you have received forgiveness from God?
What about from someone else?
For some crazy thing you did? or didn’t do?
Man, it’s like being released from jail!

It’s a two-edged sword, though, isn’t it?
Because it can be so hard to forgive others.
Even when someone has just up and canceled every last penny of our own debt.
And I wonder about that. Why in the world it’s so hard.

Take Jesus’ story about this.
Here’s a guy who owes his king a bundle of money.
When you do the math, he owes the king about 53,000,000 days’ worth of back pay!
Now I ask you, how is he ever going to pay that back? He can’t! That’s the point.
Yet it’s all canceled! Gone -- pfft! -- like it never happened, in an instant.
And all because, the story says, the king had pity on him.

So when this enormous, unpayable debt is canceled,
 And he puts his hands in his pockets and goes off whistling down the street,
 And then he sees his compadre, who owes him a hundred days’ back pay --
   That is, this second man’s debt is equal to one-ten-thousandth of one percent of of his own --
 Why is it that when the first man meets the second man out on the street --
 Why can’t he extend one little pittance of the amazing and enormous charity
   He has just received, to another fellow human being?
This man who just a second ago was the recipient of the greatest act of compassion --
 Why in the world does he fail so miserably at returning the favor?

We could speculate about that.
We could speculate about his greed and his failure and his low nature.
Just as we could speculate about the love and grace and goodness of the king.
The fact is, he fails. Badly.
He fails to forgive even one-ten-thousandth of one percent
 Of the debt that was just written off for him.
He can’t do it; his immediate reaction is to be selfish and harsh and unforgiving.

This doesn’t seem like a long-ago-and-far-away story to me.
It feels like something that’s happening all the time. In people and in institutions.
We receive, mercy upon mercy, yet we are too often selfish in giving mercies back.
Clearly, that’s the pattern and the economy intended here:
 Receive mercy, give mercy; receive grace, give grace.

I’ve been reading this book called Owl Sight, by Russell Crabtree.
He talks about this church where some research revealed
 That there were “unusually high levels of conflict.”
He says that the priest there, a guy named Bill, changed the Passing of the Peace.
Instead of saying, “Peace be with you,” the first person would say,
 “I was wrong. Would you please forgive me?”
And then instead of responding “And also with you,” the second person would say,
 “Yes, I forgive you.”

“I was wrong. Would you please forgive me?”
“Yes, I forgive you.”
And then they’d do it the other way round, too.
“I was wrong. Would you please forgive me?”
“Yes, I forgive you.”

The response was immediate and electric.
I suppose in part because it wasn’t just some intellectual exercise.
I can imagine that there were some very specific histories being passed between people
 In this very general way.
Old hurts and conflicts.
Places where people had withdrawn to lick their wounds.
Thought the past was over done, yet here it was,
 A living history of strife and contention, just under the surface, still there, simmering away.
Who knew?

Between any two people who have known each other for any good length of time,
 Probably -- no, I’m going to say definitely -- there is something there between them
 That actually requires some apology. Or are we not human?

Would you try this with me, please, right now?
First person says, “I was wrong. Would you please forgive me?”
Second person says, “Yes, I forgive you.”
Then switch ....
Do this with a couple of different people at least.
Go ahead.

... How was it? ...

Jesus said, “If you are offering your gift at the altar,
 And there remember that your brother has something against you,
 Leave your gift there before the altar and go;
   First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Even if you’re the type who tries to live a life of total integrity,
 Offenses requiring the forgiveness of other people will have slipped past your radar.
Things done or left undone. Things said or left unsaid.
You’ll say or do something thoughtless, but it will be too late.

Conflict is impossible to avoid. We surely mess up all the time.
Put away the childish standard of perfection.
But when our life has a constant pattern of giving and receiving forgiveness,
 Then we have gained a hallmark of spiritual maturity in Christian community.

“I was wrong. Would you please forgive me?”
“Yes, I forgive you.”
Both equally important halves of the same discipline.
Forgiveness is for everyone.

Even just who you are, on the outside -- surface characteristics that can’t be changed.

Just so.
In our house, we have a cat named Oliver.
(He came to us as a stray;
 We didn’t know where from, so we named him after the world’s most famous orphan.)
For the first five years we had him, every time I went to pet Oliver,
 He would turn away from me, slink away.
I raised my hand, he ducked; memories of hurt flashed across his eyes.
The veterinarian said that Oliver had probably been knocked around by a man,
 And every time I raised my hand it was a signal to him to run away. Poor kitty!

It took about five years for him to unlearn that;
 Now he sits on the stairs and demands that I pet him whenever he sees me.
The point is, I couldn’t help who I was; and I had never been a cruel pet owner.
But Oliver saw me, and he saw a man, and that was, as they say, a trigger warning.
All I could do was keep offering a hand of kindness. For half a decade.
It was my own bumbling way of saying,
 “Oliver, I apologize on behalf of all men. We were wrong. Would you please forgive me?”
And Oliver crept closer, and one day he finally let me pet him,
 And he said, “Yes, I forgive you.”

See, you never know -- even with a perfect stranger -- just what it is about you
 That might turn someone’s memory or gut or heart into a blazing fury of chaos.
(If you don’t believe me, let me lend you some priestly clothes for an afternoon.)
But if you stand and ask for forgiveness anyway -- “Would you please forgive me?” --
 Whether or not that forgiveness is even given you by the other person, ...
 If it is sincere,
   You make the world better.
In the same way, ... if you forgive,
 You can sweep away, with one kind word, the damage of years.
“Yes, I forgive you.”

So it’s on us. It’s up to us.

Or is forgiveness only God’s business?
No, I can’t think so.
Not when we live in a world where we are taught to be ready to hurt each other
 If that’s what it means to get ahead or survive,
 And to hell with the consequences.
Forgiveness is recognizing that there are consequences for each and every one of my actions
 And the actions of my fellow human beings.

And how do we know when it’s working?
How do we know that we really are forgiving someone?
Lewis Smedes said that “You will know that forgiveness has begun
 When you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.”
The Power To Wish Them Well. That seems as good a yardstick as any.

And so we continually ask God to forgive us our sins,
 And then we turn to one another and ask for it and offer it.
And I ask you, Will you forgive me?
For all I’ve done or not done? said or not said?
For all the things for which I know and am sorry,
 And for the equal amount about which I am unaware or too cold of heart to be moved.

I think, somehow, the key to our life together is bound up in this simple discipline.
Even though it is an often difficult business, ... well, it’s how we learned Christ.

And for this, we give thanks.

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