Forgiveness, one bit at a time

Sermon based on 2 Corinthians 2:1-10 May 29, 2016

You can listen to it here.  (It always sounds different than it reads…trust me.) 😉

2 Corinthians 2:1-10

Narrator: So I decided that, for my own sake, I wouldn’t visit you again while I was upset. If I make you sad, who will be there to make me glad when you are sad because of me? That’s why I wrote this very thing to you, so that when I came I wouldn’t be made sad by the ones who ought to make me happy. I have confidence in you, that my happiness means your happiness.

ALL: I wrote to you in tears, with a very troubled and anxious heart. I didn’t write to make you sad but so you would know the overwhelming love that I have for you.

Narrator: But if someone has made anyone sad, that person hasn’t hurt me but all of you to some degree (not to exaggerate). The punishment handed out by the majority is enough for this person.

ALL: This is why you should try your best to forgive and to comfort this person now instead, so that this person isn’t overwhelmed by too much sorrow. So I encourage you to show your love for this person.

Narrator: This is another reason why I wrote you. I wanted to test you and see if you are obedient in everything. If you forgive anyone for anything, I do too. And whatever I’ve forgiven (if I’ve forgiven anything), I did it for you in the presence of Christ.

Narrator: Stay tuned for the continuing saga that is our story and God’s story.

Thanks be to God.

Have you ever been so upset with someone that you sat down and wrote them a letter – a scathing letter, perhaps. One where you said all the things you felt and maybe it even dredged up some stuff you didn’t even know you felt. And then what did you do? Did you tuck it away or perhaps write it in a journal? Did you rip it up or burn it? Or, did you put it in an envelope and slap a stamp on it and put it in the mail before you had time to even really think about it?

I may be referencing a bygone era. Because now maybe it’s an email sent in haste or a text message returned too quickly. I’ve been known to sit on my hands as I read an email where I have a snappy comment I know I’ll regret.

Apparently we are reading the ramifications of Paul not having a private journal with a lock on it. Paul did not sit on his hands. He had visited the church in Corinth and been mistreated by a member of that community and then wrote a letter that the church took as a harsh rebuke. This letter, called the letter of tears, is not in the Bible and is only referred to here. Wouldn’t that be a good read? It’s too bad it wasn’t included, but we do get to read the fallout. Apparently the community has turned on the person who mistreated Paul and so Paul writes to them to go easy on that person and to explain his previous letter of tears and to remind them that they all stand together in the presence of Christ.

Now there is an element of time in this exchange of letters between Paul and the church that is lost on us now. It would have taken weeks or even months for the exchange to happen. Think of the time Paul had to wish that letter unwritten and unsent. Think of the time that person who mistreated Paul had to regret or replay the exchange again and again, with a different outcome. Think of the time that person had to wonder what Paul was thinking.

But, there is a point to this letter. Not only is Paul trying to clarify his previous letter and his previous visit, he’s also encouraging the community to forgive the person who mistreated him. He’s been punished enough, says Paul. Go easy on him. Forgive him, he says.

Forgiveness. It’s hard, huh? When you’ve been stomped on, when your heart has been broken wide open. When your life has been disregarded. When your trust has taken a hit. When you feel slighted or put down. How do you let go? How do you ever move past it? How do you live without dragging this resentment around with you?

I listened to a podcast a month or so ago as I went for a run. And in it, a woman named Amanda talked about sitting at her husband’s bedside in the hospital. Sam was in a coma and soon texts began to flood his phone and it became clear to Amanda that her husband, now in a coma he’d never wake up from, had been having an affair. They never had an opportunity to argue or talk or anything about it. She also found out, after his death, that they were broke. Amanda was broken by grief and betrayal and talks about taking a few years off, joking that she was not suitable for public consumption.

At the end of the episode, Amanda talks about her process of forgiving her husband.  She had to get over her half baked desire to seek revenge on the woman who had the affair with her husband. Finally, she said, she took out a piece of paper and drew a 6-inch line and said “I’m going to give myself this line. But this is where I am right now. I am at a full 6-inches worth of anger. And as I start to let go of that I’m going to erase a little bit of the line. And when the whole line is gone, I don’t get to be angry about this anymore. And day by day, it just got shorter and shorter and shorter. And then one day it was gone, the line was erased. I don’t get to be angry about this anymore.”  She kept the piece of paper in her wallet and would take it out and unfold it and look at it and think about how angry she was. And she never re-drew the line. And sometimes she’d just unfold the paper and look at it and then re-fold it and put it back in her wallet without touching the line. She wouldn’t erase part of the line if she wasn’t really ready to let that little bit go.

Bit by bit. Day by day. And then, suddenly, the line was gone. She had forgiven.

Nowhere in her story does Amanda talk about having a life of faith, of believing in God. But what I can tell you, gathered here today for Christian worship, is that forgiveness is not a solitary act. Forgiveness is not dependent upon our strength.  Certainly, we must be engaged in it. We must be willing participants to some degree. But it is not by our own might that forgiveness happens. We’re not capable of it on our own.

I believe that it is in the bit by bit, day by day activity of our learning to forgive that God is alive and well. That we stand in the presence of Christ as we get out our pieces of paper and ask for the strength to erase another little bit of the line.

Each and every week, during worship, we practice forgiveness in a few different ways. We participate in confession and forgiveness. We say out loud the things we fail to do. There is silent time for us to confess things from our own hearts, our own broken lives. Then we confess out loud, together. And then I get to declare to you that you are forgiven, not by me, but through God’s mercy and faithfulness to us. And that forgiveness that is spoken is the real deal. The whole of you is forgiven. Even the part of you still not willing to erase that line against someone else. That forgiveness from God through Jesus is good right now. It’s the best part of my job, let me tell you. Because only Jesus Christ has the power to do that right now, done.

And then, if you are more of a tactile person, an experiential person, then you get another chance later on in the worship service. You get to put bread in your mouth, you get to drink a little wine and God uses these things to also tell you that you are forgiven and loved.

And if you’re lucky enough to be here on a Sunday when there is a baptism, you get to hear that you are claimed once and for all and that your sins are drowned with Christ in the waters of baptism. Baptism is about being claimed, full on sinner and saint. Baptism is about being forgiven, once and for all and again and again and again.

Maybe in your life you need that piece of paper and pencil and lots and lots of prayer.

Maybe in your life you need a journal to write out all your anger and resentment and things you need to just say but maybe only to yourself and God.

Maybe in your life you need to confess. Maybe you need to seek me out and to confess to me privately, which is actually a real thing in the Lutheran church. Then I get to declare to you that you are forgiven not by my power but through God’s power and mercy and ever-lasting love and faithfulness to you.

Paul says, “show your love for this person.”  Paul says to forgive because our common ground is always Christ. Paul says, “If you forgive anything of anyone, then I do too”.

Isn’t that something? What power in those words, to know that together, forgiveness can happen. To follow another’s lead in forgiving. Have you ever been forgiven by someone? Like they actually said the words to you? I know that when someone has said it to me, it takes me out at my knees. Because there is nothing I can really do to make up for the hurt I caused. Sometimes the forgiveness we need to offer is given to us by another and it’s miraculous. Maybe then it reminds you that you are already forgiven through Christ.

So then, the very least we can do, in our daily lives, is draw a line on a piece of paper and wait. And try. I mean what happens if we don’t even try, right?

It’s why we practice it here, week in and week out. Because it’s hard. Jesus goes first and shows us how to forgive. And then he repeats the action again and again, hoping we will follow and repeat his pattern in our own lives. Loving us no matter what.