+ A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany (Year C) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on February 24, 2019 +
Texts: Genesis 45:3-11,15; Luke 6:27-38
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Elizabeth Lesser grew up with three sisters.
Like many siblings, her relationship with them was a mix of love and friction, but mostly love.
But by the time they were in their 40s, a real rift emerged between Elizabeth and her younger sister, Maggie.
They would still talk on occasion, but Elizabeth felt like her sister had cut her out of her life.
Some years later, Maggie was struggling with a rare form of blood cancer and needed a bone marrow donor.
After genetic testing, the doctors discovered that Elizabeth was her perfect match.
The two sisters decided to use this necessary reunion as an opportunity to reconcile—to seek forgiveness from each other.
They entered counseling together. They explored how their pride and fears had gotten in the way of their relationship with each other.
Elizabeth said, “We looked at and released years of stories and assumptions about each other and blame and shame until all that was left was love.”
After years of separation and pain and anger, these two sisters sought each other’s forgiveness and were able to release themselves and one another from those weights that held them down and renew their relationship based in love.
This morning we heard another story of estranged siblings, of Joseph and his ten brothers.
Like Elizabeth and Maggie, these siblings had suffered a falling out—but in this case, it was a sense of jealousy of the brothers against Joseph.
Genesis tells us that Joseph’s brothers were so threatened by their younger brother that they plotted to kill him, but eventually settled on selling him into slavery in Egypt instead.
And now, decades later, during a famine the brothers go to a foreign land desperate for aid and eventually figure out that their long-lost brother, the one they left for dead, had somehow risen to become the second most powerful person in Egypt.
That he was the engineer of the country’s agricultural resilience in the face of drought and was in complete control of whether their families would survive the famine or even be allowed to live freely.
But rather than being bound by the wrongs they had done him in the past, rather than remaining in hate and returning evil for evil, Joseph makes the remarkable decision to forgive his brothers and to help them in their time of need.
He chooses to release himself of the burdens and wounds of their actions and seek healing and reconciliation.
And by doing so, he enables life for his family and for the people that would become the nation of Israel.
These stories may sound extraordinary to us, great examples of forgiveness.
And yet, as I was watching TV and reading articles this week, I was amazed with the number of times I found this same simple theme highlighted—forgiveness.
It becomes an important part of the stories we tell, of what we may aspire to.
But I think we have to keep telling these stories because they still seem so contrary to how our world works.
Our world steeped in the ways of retribution, revenge, and getting even.
A world obsessed with keeping score of who’s wronged who in order to settle that score later on.
A world where violence is met with violence, where wrongs are met with more wrongs, where an eye for an eye is the norm.
We see these stories of reconciliation as the exception, not the rule.
And so when we hear Jesus’ words today about loving our enemies, turning our cheek, and forgiving those who have wronged us, they may sound to our ears like a good story, a good ideal to aspire to, but so impossibly naïve and just too idealistic to make any real difference in our lives.
If I’m honest, I admit that these words just don’t always make sense to me.
They don’t make sense with how this world works.
When someone hurts me, I have a desire to hurt them back.
When someone offends me, I get mad and want to seek revenge.
When someone cuts me off on the highway, I admit that I often feel just a touch of road rage.
This is the world I know, the world that I’ve lived in my whole life.
When our country is attacked, we strike back.
When a criminal hurts someone, we seek the maximum punishment.
When a celebrity says the wrong thing or a politician thinks differently than we do, we hold it against them forever.
And even with all the stories in the media about forgiveness, there are plenty more about war and retribution and criminal justice and revenge.
And now, it sounds like Jesus wants me, wants us, to be weak.
It sounds like he wants us to be a doormat, here for others to walk all over, like he doesn’t want me to stand up for myself.
In fact, it’s important to remember how these words from Jesus have been abused for centuries.
How they were used to keep slaves submissive to their masters.
How they have been used to pressure women to stay in abusive marriages.
How they have been used to dismiss Jesus as a meek and passive idealist.
But really, that doesn’t sound much like the Jesus I know.
That doesn’t sound like the one who works with the downtrodden and stands with the victimized.
That doesn’t sound like the one whose mother defiantly sang of casting down the mighty and uplifting the lowly.
That doesn’t sound like the one who used his first sermon to boldly announce freedom to the oppressed and recovery of sight to the blind and release to the captives.
So perhaps this is something different.
Perhaps Jesus is inviting us into a different worldview – one where we don’t keep score and try to get even.
A world where we are not motivated by revenge, but by the good news Mary sang about and the love that Jesus has proclaimed.
Because I wonder if our drive for revenge, to make the other person pay for what they did, is really just a way of trying to preserve ourselves—or at least of making them feel the pain that we felt and bring them down to the level we feel that we’ve been reduced to.
Because when I get hurt, it can stick with me.
When I am dismissed or attacked by others, I may question my self worth.
When I suffer injustice, it can eat away at my very humanity.
And so we seek to make the person who hurt us feel our pain, to question their identity, as we hold onto that desire for revenge, that sense of injustice that burns like a coal in our hands.
So maybe Jesus is inviting us into a new way—a new way of standing up for ourselves—a new path for reclaiming our humanity.
One based in love instead of hurting someone else.
Because when we forgive, we let go of the wounds that were inflicted.
When we forgive, we shrug off the weights that have held us down.
When we forgive, we acknowledge our own self-worth.
When we forgive, we allow ourselves to heal.
Forgiveness does not mean we forget or pardon what was done, but we allow ourselves to move on.
We don’t let what happened define us anymore and move beyond the shame, self-pity, and anger.
We boldly assert our humanity and our identity as a beloved child of God.
Because at the core of who we are, is love.
And Jesus is inviting us to center our identity in this love, to allow God’s love to inspire our worldview and motivate our actions, to reject the ways of pain and scorekeeping and revenge and live only by love.
And if we live only by love, how can we not then love our enemies, do good to those who hurt us, and bless those who curse us?
How can we not do to others as we would want them to do to us?
How can we not live by mercy, generosity, and forgiveness?
I know this isn’t easy.
This is absolutely hard work.
And sometimes this may not seem possible.
There are wrongs that cannot be easily forgiven and pains so deep that they will take a long time to heal.
There are people in my life for whom I would much rather hold a grudge than offer my love and forgiveness.
And there may be few things more difficult than to recognize that the person who has done wrong is also a beloved child of God.
But even when it may feel like our relationship may never be fully restored, we deserve forgiveness.
We deserve to respond with a courageous and defiant love—a love worthy of the love with which God loves us.
A love that models for us forgiveness and new life.
A love that even was even shown on the cross as Jesus forgave those who were crucifying him.
A love that shone even more brightly as it triumphed over death.
And a love that we have experienced this morning in the forgiveness we heard earlier in this liturgy after we confessed our sins.
Because rather than dwelling in our past sins, we have a God who gives and gives a gift of grace, a gift of love, a gift of forgiveness.
We have received this gift of grace and now are able to give that grace to others.
In fact, that is what inspired another part of our liturgy—the passing of the peace.
Originally, it was an effort to seek and give forgiveness so among the congregation, to unburden ourselves of hard feelings and discord that may have happened in the community while enacting the same grace we have received so we can freely come to this feast of love we will celebrate at this table.
A chance to practice living into the love we have received as we prepare to share that same love with the world.
After the transplant, Maggie and Elizabeth were able to reconcile and despite the physical pain and suffering, Maggie said the next year the best of her life.
Elizabeth remembers how “[Maggie] said life never tasted as sweet and that because of the soul-baring and the truth telling [that she and Elizabeth had done,] she became more unapologetically herself with everyone. She said things she’d always needed to say. She did things she always wanted to do.”
When the cancer came back and there was nothing more the doctors could do, the sisters felt like they were forever connected.
That even though Maggie’s death was near, they were united by the love they shared for each other.
Here, this morning, every day, Jesus invites us to live into that grace, to live into that uniting love that is stronger than anything else in this world, and to spread that grace and love with the same level of abundance with which we have received.
To let go of anger and hate and pain and hold fast to love.
To dwell in the love that brings us together and sends us out into the world ready to spread it far and wide without limits until we are all united by the love we share.
May it be so.
For the full TED Radio Hour on forgiveness, follow this link.