Hancock Church Sermon – Rev. Paul Shupe – October 6, 2013 – Luke 17:1-6


“Forgiven and Forgiving”

       During the month of October here at Hancock United Church of Christ, the theme of our worship life together will be “community” which is an over-used, often abused word that can be used to describe many things or that sometimes seems to describe nothing at all.  But here, community means some definite things, and our understanding of all these things begins here, at the table that Jesus first shared with his disciples, and that he called them to share often, in memory of him.  When we gather here, and break bread, we do so remembering that he did the very same thing on that night long ago.  When we gather here and lift up the cup we do so remembering that he called it the cup of the new covenant, which was poured out for the forgiveness of sin.  And with those words Jesus defined the foundation of the community that will bear his name.

Jesus was big on forgiveness.  He taught about it often, and told his followers that they had to offer forgiveness, again and again, whenever the person who had harmed you was repentant, had turned away from the hurting behavior.  Forgiveness, he taught, was required because each of us is usually in need of it ourselves.  What we need to receive we cannot rightly withhold from others.  Those who need to eat cannot turn away from others who need to eat, and those who themselves need forgiveness cannot deny forgiveness to others.  “How often do we need to forgive?” his disciples asked.  And he told them that they needed to be prepared to forgive again and again.  In the community of Christ, forgiveness isn’t something that we do now and then; it is constituent of who we are.

This isn’t always an easy teaching, and often we can come up with all sorts of reasons why we cannot forgive.  “He’s not sorry!”  “She needs to be taught a lesson, not forgiven!”  “We’ll look like pushovers if we let this one go!”  When it comes to following the teachings of Jesus we are often masters of rationalizing, minimizing, and excusifying.  We can prove in a million ways that this particular teaching of Jesus doesn’t apply to us.  How easy it is to see clearly that we are justified in holding a grudge against the one who has hurt us, even as we ourselves are fully worthy of mercy whenever we’ve harmed another.  Was it C.S. Lewis who said that “Christianity has not be tried and been found wanting.  Christianity has been tried and found to be difficult.”

But the amazing thing about forgiveness is how good it feels when we have overcome the grudge and let go of the excuse-making we’ve been engaged in, and the righteous indignation that we’ve been nourishing.  I once had a friendship go sour.  Perhaps something like this has happened to you.  He’d reached out to me, at an awkward time for me to respond, and I’d misjudged how important his request was.  My lack of response angered him, but he didn’t really share the heat of his anger at me, opting instead for a cold shoulder that soon enough had both of us feeling as though the friendship was over without either of us understanding why, or how things had come to this turn.  We drifted apart, and when we thought of the other, it was mostly to wonder what was wrong with him.  Why had he acted like that?

And then one day that friend learned that I was in a tough spot, that grief had forced its way into my life as my father died.  Suddenly my friend was on the phone with me, apologizing for whatever he’d done or not done, and all so that he could join me in my grief.  As he asked for my forgiveness, that glacier of enmity that I’d been feeding melted away and I forgave him and asked if he could forgive me, too.  He could, and I had regained a friend, and he entered into my grief with me, and we remembered the great power of friendship, and as he joined me in commiserating my loss, we realized that we had regained each other, and it felt marvelous.

Forgiveness is that way, both for the one who offers it, and for the one who needs it, because forgiveness can only be given as a gift.  It can never be compelled.  No one can make you forgive; you can only choose to offer it.  Nothing you can do can compel another to forgive you; they will respond to your apology or not.  But the giving and receiving of gifts is a wonderful experience, bringing joy to the giver and to the receiver.  And there is no gift greater than the gift of forgiveness.  Which is why, I suppose, Jesus made this table of forgiveness the foundation of the community that remembers him and that bears his name.

And so on this Sunday as we begin to ponder the specific nature of our community here, let us remember the foundational experience of forgiveness, the giving and receiving of a fresh start, a new beginning, a willingness to let go of the grudge.  Here you are forgiven, this is Jesus’ promise to us.  Having been forgiven ourselves, how can we withhold forgiveness from others?  So we dare in this hour to break bread, to share the cup, to receive as a gift God’s forgiveness.  Let us resolve therefore to offer to others the gift we have ourselves received, strengthened for the task by the community of this table.  Sisters and brothers, you are forgiven.  Go now and give to others the gift you have received.  Amen.