Many years ago, a little boy knelt at an altar rail in church. He was about seven. Kneeling there, he heard a voice. It said, “You are forgiven.”
He then went to coffee hour expecting everything to be different but no one else seemed to have noticed the voice. He did not know who to tell. He did not know what to do about it. Did no one else hear it? Was he the only one? What was God trying to tell him? He had no doubt that the voice was God.
What does it mean when God says, “You are forgiven?”
This little boys name was Allen. Allen LeMontagne. And he would grow up to be a priest, someone who tries to show the whole world that we are forgiven. He is on our staff now and I am so grateful he is with us.
What does it mean to forgive?
Remember how I once told you that we were made for Eden? All of humanity was originally designed to live in paradise, that’s how God created us. And because we were designed for Eden, when someone hurts us or wrongs us, chaos enters our hearts and minds. We don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to cope, how to manage all the feelings that arise-the anger, the sadness, the depression, the rage, the self-loathing. All of these feelings swirl around us creating a storm and it is possible for us to drown, for our whole lives to be derailed.
In the book of Exodus, we hear the story of how Moses parted the sea so that the Hebrew slaves could move through the waters to freedom. Moses takes the staff and does what God tells him and the waters are parted. The people walk through the waters on dry land. They literally move through chaos and danger and into freedom. And then the waters close in behind them drowning Pharoah’s army and charioteers.
Forgiveness is like that--the parting of a sea. It is something that leads us from slavery into freedom. It is a release. True forgiveness is a gift from God. We part the waters of resentment and anger and sadness and regret, we cast them aside and we ask God to grant us forgiveness and by the grace of God, we are able to move through the chaos to freedom.
Forgiveness is a process of letting go. It is the only way forward into freedom and joy. To not forgive is to become enslaved by your circumstances. It is to become mired in the muck in the middle of the sea and let the waters overcome you.
Think about Hurricane Irma with me. At first came the storm, the chaos, the destruction. And we had to just sit still and let it pass. Then came the clean-up. Days and days of clean-up. Some of us were hit harder than others. Power lost, houses flooded. All of us had to begin to clean up the mess. And clean and clean and clean. Until, this city is restored.
Jesus tells us that we must forgive over and over and over again. That does not mean that we are to allow the same person to wrong us over and over again. In another passage, Jesus is clear that if someone wrongs you, you are to bring it to the attention of the church and there is a process, and in the worst possible scenario, if the person does not stop, you end the relationship, symbolized by shaking the dust off your feet. But just because the relationship ends does not mean that you are not called to forgive. Forgiveness has nothing to do with the one who has wronged you. It is about you and your relationship with God.
Forgiveness has to happen many times because it takes a lot of repetition to clean up the mess of violence and hurtful words and wrong doing. We may need to forgive the same person for the same deed seventy-seven times! You need to forgive, clear the way, and then another memory surfaces or something else crashes down and you need to forgive again. Forgiveness is a process. It has to be accomplished over and over and over again until, one day, by the grace of God, it is complete and you are free.
I like to compare forgiveness to cleaning a window. You have to get out your tools and clean, and then more dirt will come along and cling to the glass. You have to be ready to keep on wiping off the grunge. That is why we confess our sins every week in church. We need to forgive ourselves and others on a regular basis to keep our souls free to come to God. Forgiveness happens again and again so that you can see clearly. If you don’t forgive, all you will end up looking at is your own resentment.
As I get older, I realize what a mess I am. I make so many mistakes. I have hurt my family, my husband, I have made mistakes with my staff, my parishioners, my friends. Sometimes the hardest person to forgive is yourself. As I get older, I notice that I make the same stupid mistakes over and over and over again. I am impatient, selfish, nagging. It is a strange thing to actually be sick of yourself, but it happens. And that is the hardest kind of forgiveness-the forgiveness of yourself. The balance is to keep on trying to be the best person you can be but at the same time to remember that voice that little Allen heard when he was seven. You are forgiven. And if you are forgiven, you must forgive others. You must part the waters of hatred, resentment, memories gone bad, mistakes made- all the what ifs and if only’s- you must let them all go and look ahead to the path that God has made for you through the midst of the storm, a path to freedom and your true self.
Forigiveness is for YOU, for your salvation, your health, your freedom. God does not ask this of you, God demands it. For how can you be set free by God if you are still clinging to you resentments and anger? God cannot set a person free if that person embraces their chains.
We are forgiven. And we are told by Jesus that we must forgive. Must. It is not an option. If we want to come to know God’s forgiveness, we must learn to forgive those who wrong us. The two are inextricably linked. God’s forgiveness is all wrapped up in our capacity to forgive others and even our ability to forgive ourselves.
Kneel at the altar rail and hear the voice.
You are forgiven.