Let go of the Rope
Our scriptures this morning focused on forgiveness.In his message Pete Stevenson pointed out Old and New Testament examples of God wanting to see us forgiving other humans before we ask Him for forgiveness.We are still expected to forgive others, even if justice for the offense doesn’t happen.Justice is really about getting well, not getting even.Holocaust survivor Corrie Ten Boom had written that forgiving is like letting go of the rope of a ringing church bell….eventually the momentum stops and so does the ringing
This week’s Gospel reading is the second occasion that talks about the role and the need for forgiveness. The lectionary is taken from the New Revised Standard Version and, doing a quick search, is the only version which puts in the word ‘church’ (...if another member of the church sins against me...). Other versions have Peter asking Jesus how many times shall I forgive my brother. For those of us who grew up with siblings, it might feel like we passed 70x7 by the age of ten!
As a link to the Gospel reading, the Old Testament passage is about Joseph being asked to forgive his brothers. I have a wry smile at the way the brothers invoke their dead father, Jacob, saying he wanted Joseph to forgive his brothers for throwing him down a well to die, then seeing a quick buck to be made, sold him into Egyptian slavery. Was Joseph taken in by this ...our father instructed us before he died...? I don’t think so, you get to be the viceroy of a world power without seeing when someone is pulling the wool over your eyes. Does Joseph challenge it? No. Instead, he sees genuine regret, remorse and repentance and utters the oft quoted words ‘Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good,’ In just 14 words, Joseph doesn’t overlook that wrong has been done but sees a much bigger picture that will emerge, but only if there is forgiveness.
Last week we had the Exodus story of the 1st Passover supper, today we leap backwards to Joseph and his brothers being alive. There is about a 400 year gap between these events, during which time, the Israelite race had been forced into slavery. With wonderful hindsight we might challenge the phrase ‘God intended it for good.’, wouldn’t it have been better if God had prevented the famine which forced Joseph’s family into Egypt in the first place? Or, what if He created Joseph to be a less annoying spoilt teenager who got up everyone’s nose? Of course, these questions are futile, it’s the same as any of us saying ‘If only...’.
History is history and there are times we need to make amends, and when we do, it’s good to commit the words of today’s Psalm to memory, He forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities; He redeems your life from the grave and crowns you with mercy and loving-kindness. We might think of our infirmities as just our physical ailments, but miracles of healing are about body, mind and spirit.
The link between the Old Testament and the Epistle readings may be a little tenuous but I think it’s possible to follow a theme of grace and forgiveness. In Romans 14 we read, Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. The early church was mainly made up from Jews who brought with them their Jewish traditions, feasts and customs. After all Jesus was a Jew, he would have observed these traditions too. I am not always a fan of Paul but I am enormously grateful that he challenged these ways, so when he subsequently goes on to describe those who insist on certain foods, strict observance of certain days; he is calling those who think they have higher level of understanding to be gentle. Welcome them, but not just so you can have an argument and convince them you are right! In Galatians 3 Paul says ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ What’s been called a Cosmopolitan ideal.
Paul is saying be gentle and welcoming. We need to listen to the stories each of us have to tell. And if ever we think ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’, be prepared to discover the other person may be right and you have been wrong! In exploring our differences we stand to learn more from those who disagree with us more than from those who agree with us rather too readily. But only if it’s done in the spirit of conversation, wanting to understand each other.
1 Cor 10 says, ‘So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! A Biblical version of pride comes before a fall.
And then the Gospel reading, where Jesus tells Peter he must forgive 70x7 and the parable of someone who has been forgiven much but is not willing to forgive at all. It all connects with what we say week by week in The Lord’s Prayer, a moment so important we say it in English and French. ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’. In Matthew 6, Jesus follows this up with ‘For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.’
Some of this might be interpreted as going soft on justice. Some things happen that cannot be ignored with a ‘Let’s forget it’ shrug of the shoulders and justice needs to emerge. But, peacemaker Kay Pranis says ‘A justice that is not about getting even, but about getting well. A justice that seeks to transform broken lives, relationships and communities, rather than shatter them further. A justice that seeks reconciliation, rather than a deepening of conflict.
It all sounds so logical and straight forward doesn’t it? Sometimes there is no apology or justice of any sort. But we are still expected to forgive. Paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton, It’s not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it’s been tried and found to be jolly difficult! Fortunately, we have some inspiring examples to help us. Jesus on the cross, ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’ and very similar words uttered by the first Christian martyr Stephen. In more recent history, in 1987 a remembrance day ceremony was bombed in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, 11 were killed, 63 injured, among the injured was Gordon Wilson who, buried in the rubble, held his daughter Marie as she died in his arms. I remember clearly him speaking on the news a few days after. I was driving to work trying to keep a steady course on the road when what I really wanted to do was burst into tears. Gordon Wilson, a man with a deep Christian faith found it in his heart to forgive, he lived just another 8 years and devoted himself to the peacemaking process.
Here are a couple links on stories of forgiveness; I must admit to having 2nd thoughts on the first; the film The Railwayman, with Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Jeremy Irvine, based on a true story about Eric Lomax who returns to Japan to exact revenge from his POW torturer but ends as a story about forgiveness. What the film leaves out from the book is that Lomax also had a Christian faith. It’s rated 15 and I hesitate because it doesn’t shy away from the most shocking acts of war. Take a look at the trailer and judge for yourself. It’s not suitable for children. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=px04904hm88.
My other recommendation is a lot safer territory! The novel Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kruger, a story about a 40 year old reflecting on a summer when he was just 13, a summer when a series of deaths hit his small community. At one level it’s a whodunit, but by about 2/3 the way through, I really wasn’t too worried about finding out whodunit, I just wanted to know how this family and community were going to come to terms with what happened. The father and minister of the church who had to be the voice of calm but carried his own trauma, the mother who didn’t do God but had to find someone God-like to rail against, the idiot who was thoughtless, another with no religious leanings but showed considerable saintliness. To quote its prologue; (It’s) About the terrible price of wisdom. The awful grace of God. If these seem strange phrases to use about wisdom and grace...read the book, all is explained. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15803059-ordinary-grace.
Corrie ten Boom, who survived the Nazi Ravensbruk concentration camp and earned the right to speak about forgiveness, likened forgiveness to letting go of a bell rope. ‘Once a bell begins to ring, you merely maintain the momentum to keep it ringing. As long as you keep tugging, the bell keeps ringing’.
‘Forgiveness is letting go of the rope. It’s that simple, but when you do so, the bell keeps ringing. Momentum is still at work. However, if you keep your hands off the rope, the bell will begin to slow and eventually... stop.’
‘You get past the bitterness by refusing to hang onto it. Let go of the rope.’
I want to end with a quote from Rabbi Jonathon Sachs to take us back to where we started, the story of Joseph. He observes that Joseph forgiving his brothers is the first instance in the Bible where forgiveness is mentioned, the second is in the next book, Exodus, where God forgives the Israelites. He writes, ‘God did not forgive human beings until human beings learned to forgive. It took Joseph to bring forgiveness into the world. That is what God was waiting for. Had God forgiven first, He would have made the human situation worse, not better. People would have said, ‘Why shouldn’t I harm others? After all, God forgives.’ We have to forgive others before God can forgive us.
‘So...take time to apologise to others you may have offended. Forgive others who have offended you. Resentment is a heavy load to bear. Let go of it and you will travel more lightly.’(Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathon Sachs, Thoughts for Yom Kippur, Sept 2014)