I want to tell you a story about something I learned early on in my journey of faith, and I have told some of you this story before….I had found the Episcopal church after searching for a church to belong to. I loved the Eucharist and other sacraments. It felt like home to me in ways that other places did not. At the time this particular story took place, I hadn’t been in the church very long. It was a difficult time of personal growth, and the church played a large part in it. I was in church one day with other members of the young adult ministry that I was part of. We were all quietly at prayer during one of our worship services. Personally, I was struggling. I was having a hard time trying to recover from parts of my past. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say, I was having a really hard time with forgiveness. At the time, my parents were both deceased and I was really trying to rescue parts of my past, but was having a really hard time forgiving them for things that had happened in our life together.
So, there I am, sitting in the church, and I’m having an internal conversation with Jesus. I say something to the effect that I am really having a hard time with this forgiveness stuff, and I am fearful that I will not be forgiven by God if I can’t also forgive others. “How”, I said, “Can I expect you to forgive me, if I can’t forgive them?” After a few minutes of silence, I heard my answer as if Jesus were sitting there next to me. “Because”, he said, “My forgiveness comes first.”
So much for wondering if God ever answers us in prayer… I can tell you that sometimes the answer is crystal clear. This moment in the sanctuary of the church was perhaps one of the most powerful experiences of prayer I have ever had, and in many ways, one of the most important, that I continue to learn from all these years later.
We spend a lot of time on the concept of forgiveness in the church, especially in the season of Lent. This is the time when we put aside our usual busy lives and try to concentrate on offering penance and on forgiving. Forgiving others is a difficult task but one which is central to the spiritual life. Let me say here, that forgiving another is something that we do for ourselves and our own well being. Forgiving another involves me and my emotions and my actions. It may or may not influence the other person. Also, I want to be clear that the old saying of “Forgive and forget” can be quite harmful. Forgetting doesn’t necessarily go along with forgiving. It is also crucial to remember that just because we forgive someone, it does NOT mean that they necessarily get a pass or that we are somehow unbalanced because forgetting isn’t easy. There are some grave and terrible things that have been done to people… and to force someone to forget or force them to offer some false sense of forgiving only victimizes them again. Much spiritual violence has been done by people in the church who force victims to forgive in ways that are unhealthy.
What I learned that day as I sat in the sanctuary was that in the life God lived in Jesus, I was given something I couldn’t give to myself. To know that our sins are forgiven us is truly an amazing gift. But the forgiveness that we are given by God goes even further… we are not merely forgiven, as wonderful as that is, but we are also brought back into right and loving relationship with God. Unlike us, God doesn’t forgive because God needs to; but rather, because we need to be forgiven and we need to make our relationship right with God.
This is so wonderfully illustrated in our Gospel today. The parable of the Prodigal Son is one we know deep in our hearts. It is a story that tells us not just about our own tendencies to be spiritually and perhaps even physically wasteful, but it tells us just how merciful God is.
One of the things that I love about this story is that the father allows his younger son to make his own mistakes. He gives the younger son what he wants, probably well aware of what will happen. Even the son, when he returns, knows that he doesn’t deserve to be treated well. He is willing to give up his place as a son; what he has done has pretty much guaranteed he has lost all rights to sonship…He basically wished his father dead by asking for his inheritance, and now, it is the son who should be dead to the father… but his father doesn’t really care about what is good and proper. The love that he has for his son far outweighs any mistake the son has made. The father’s joy at the return of his son is absolute; his son, in a very concrete way, has given up his rights as son… but the father does not care about convention; he cares deeply for the relationship he thought was lost to him. He not only accepts the son’s return, he celebrates it in grand, extravagant style.
God’s love is much the same for you and for me. You and I know that there are times when we don’t live our lives quite the way we should; we all have those places of darkness where we haven’t lived up to being our true selves. We have hurt others and acted in OUR best interests… as fragile, sinful humans, it is what we do, and we have been doing it since the beginning of time. It’s those periods of darkness that put a barrier up between us and God; it is in those times when we feel like God is absent. It’s important to remember that the barriers are what WE perceive as real, they are not what God has created. We are the ones that distance ourselves from God…and, God loves us enough to give us the freedom we think we desire. What we often find is that in that freedom we aren’t really free. We become enslaved to our desires and to false gods…not just gods of wealth or power, but gods of behavior and emotion that offer us false security and give us empty excuses for behaving badly toward others and possibly even ourselves. We sometimes enter a vicious cycle where we just get further and further away from God without knowing what to do.
But God is waiting, hoping, and loving, even longing for our return. Even when we think we have done the unforgivable…God’s extravagant, over the top mercy and love is ours…it seems that like the son in our story, the turning point is our desire for relationship. The son is desperate, and he knows that his father is a fair and just man; then the father goes beyond the limits of human fairness and justice. God’s willingness to forgive us knows no limits; it is there for us no matter what, but it seems that in order for us to appreciate it, we have to at least begin to turn ourselves around. God will rejoice and make it possible for our relationship with God to be reconciled.
That day in the sanctuary taught me that I couldn’t make God not love me; I realized that no matter what I was struggling with, God’s love and presence would always be there to help guide me… I also became aware that even if I thought I was unable to offer forgiveness to another, that God would do what I could not, because the other person was already forgiven. What I have experienced in my own life, is that forgiveness tends to be a process and not an event. It can take a while. Allowing myself to at least be willing to forgive preserves the closeness to God that I long for while I do the deep soul work necessary to forgive the other.
God’s mercy and forgiveness come first. They far exceed what you and I are able to do with one another; they far exceed what you and I might deserve; but they are the gifts we are offered by a gracious, generous, crazy, over the top God who loves us more than we can ever imagine. Living as those who are loved that much isn’t always easy; but if we believe in Jesus, who is God’s love made human, everything about us changes… our relationships to one another change because we begin to see each other as God sees us… once that happens our lives become heralds of the kingdom. The father in the story sees his son, not as the sinful, wasteful child that the older brother sees, but rather the father sees his beloved son who is restored to his place by his father’s side. He is forgiven; completely and without desire for retribution by his father. It is so for us as well; we who are loved so much that our relationship to God is of more importance than anything we could ever do to destroy it. If we matter that much to God, if God longs for us that much, then perhaps we should matter that much to each other.
The work of forgiving is very hard. But it is necessary for our emotional and spiritual well being, and it is only through forgiving another that life giving reconciliation is possible. I pray that each of us live into the absolute reality of being forgiven by God, so that we might be willing to do the hard work of forgiving another.