Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Hard Road to Forgiveness

When I was the pastor of a Church on Long Island I received a call from the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia.
It was to ask if we would be willing to have an intern at our congregation next year.
In order to have an intern a congregation needs about $25,000, to pay housing, medical, and a small stipend.
The seminary said that the student lived in the area and didn’t need housing, and had insurance from her husband’s job.
Could we come up with about $5,000 for the stipend?
My congregation was struggling financially.
We sometimes had trouble paying the phone bill.
But I agreed to meet with the person needing the internship.
I met the person and liked him so I decided to go on faith and recommend it to the council.
At the council meeting I could tell that some people were skeptical how we would come up with the money.
But I made the case that we could help this person and we had to go on faith sometimes.
I put myself out there to help this student and make this happen.
The candidate came to our next council meeting to meet everyone, and he came with his home pastor.
We all agreed on terms and conditions of him becoming our intern.
About a week later I got a call from him that he decided not to come to our congregation, instead do his internship with his pastor.
I asked, “Did you tell the seminary about your decision.”
“No, I just think it is best.”
I shared my feelings that this had put me in a very awkward position, and that this is not how the process works.
Later that day I received a call from this person’s pastor to try and explain what happened.
I told the pastor that this was not right and this is not how it works and the student should be told that she needed to fix this mess he created.
The pastor then said to me, “Well…we have to forgive.”

This bothers me maybe more than anything.
It bothers me when Christians use forgiveness for a quick and easy fix to everything.
During the sex abuse scandal the Roman Catholic Church said that one of the reasons it couldn’t hand over pedophile priests to the police was because we have to forgive.

This morning’s Gospel is one of the most well known, and it is beloved by many including myself.
Ralph Waldo Emerson called it, “The greatest story in the Bible.”
It is beloved because it offers us such a wonderful picture of God.
A God who stands out looking for us to come home, a God who runs to embrace us, a God who throws a party when we return.

But it is also a complicated picture of a family fight.
And we all know those can be the worst.
I once did a funeral where the sisters in the family where feuding all the time.
One of them was responsible.
She always did the right thing.
The other was irresponsible.
She had no real job; she couldn’t meet her financial commitments.
On several occasions she had lied to multiple members of her family to get them to give her money.
And she did this on multiple times to the older sister.
And the mother usually bailed her out.
The mother would tell the older sister that she had to help out her younger sister, because God always forgives.
The mother would use the story of the prodigal son as a test case.
At the funeral the older sister wanted to know if this was true.

The Prodigal son is such a good story because there are so many ways to understand it and read it.
You can see things through the lens of the father, the forgive son, or the older son.
The father in the story is ready and eager to forgive.
I like to think this is how God is with all of us.
That even if we squander the inheritance given to us that God cannot wait to welcome us back.
In the story I most easily identify with the prodigal son.
I am always thankful for God’s forgiveness of me.
But if God is eager and willing to forgive us, the relationship between the two sons is more complicated.

I have found that this is true.
That forgiveness between two people is more messy and harder to come by than the forgiveness offered by God.
The older son had the most to lose in this story.
When the younger son asks for his inheritance we are not talking about dad cashing in his 401k.
We are talking about the father selling family land in order to give to his son.
Think about how important land is the story of the Bible.
It is this land that God promised Abraham, and then Moses.
It is this land that brings wealth and comfort.
The father was going to die sooner than the older son and so selling the land for him was not as big a deal.
But the older son was hoping that land would continue to bring the family wealth and security for years to come.
And now they had to sell it for the little punk who wanted to go off and party.
He is not so willing to forgive.
Notice that the story ends on a cliff hanger.
Will the older son go inside to the party?
We have to draw our own conclusion.
Or it is left for us to decide what will we do when we are wronged?

I would like to think that the brothers eventually mended their ways.
However, it doesn’t happen just because that is what we are supposed to do.
I found it interesting that the father doesn’t say to the older son, “Look I forgive your brother and so should you.”
Perhaps God knows that the forgiveness that forged between us is always harder, and fought for more deeply.

I would like to believe that the younger brother does ask his older brother for forgiveness.
And then maybe the older brother thinks that maybe he will forgive him, but that he had to prove himself.
The younger brother had to prove that he was willing to work just as hard as he would.
That is the thing about our forgiveness with each other; it takes work, both from the person asking forgiveness and the person offering it.

I would have offered forgiveness to the seminary student, but he didn’t ask for it.
And it was beside the point, because I thought he needed to learn a lesson about the way that you communicate in the Church.
That you don’t make unilateral decisions, but you ask what other people think, that you go through proper channels.
That is a hard lesson to learn.
It is one that I constantly have to relearn myself.

There can be forgiveness to those priests who molested little children, but not from the hierarchy of the Church.
It has to come through the hard work of being in the room with the person you hurt, and let them tear at you.
And perhaps you have to go to jail first to understand just how bad your sin was.
It seems that sometimes we want to skip a step.
We want to skip the step that it is hardest.
And that is to examine why we did what we did, and to make a plan for change, to agree to earn back trust.
We can’t cut out the most important the step of actually asking for forgiveness.
In the story the father he doesn’t need any of that stuff.
He doesn’t care why or how his son is back, he is just happy to have him back.
And that is the beauty and mystery of God’s grace freely given to us.
But we are not God.
We need that other human stuff that happens.
In this way I am like the older brother.
You need to do the work with me if you want my forgiveness.
I would offer to you this morning that this is indeed a healthy and good thing for all of us.
It is spiritually healthy to actually have to say the words to someone else, “I need you to forgive me for this or that.”
I have noticed that most of us don’t do that.
We instead offer non apologies-apologies.
“I regret that my words/actions offended others….”
That is not the same things as saying, “I know I messed up and I need you to forgive me.”

In lent we think a lot about our relationship with God.
Our relationship with God is always good because God is running to offer us forgiveness and throw us a party.
But it is also a good time to think about our relationships with each other.
If we are the younger brother we should remember the important work of asking for forgiveness.
And if we are the older brother the hard work of forgiving.

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