** a word of note: we had a renewal of vows for a 60th wedding anniversary on this day**
60 years is a big deal. No…it’s a huge deal. A lot of couples don’t make it this far. In a world where people are getting married later in life and the divorce rate being as high as it is, to make it 60 years is an accomplishment worth celebrating and I am so glad that Bob and Marlene have given us this opportunity today to help them celebrate. In those many years together, do you have any idea how often you have apologized to one another? Or do you have any idea how often you have asked for forgiveness? I am sure all of you have heard one of (if not both of) these phrases before “never go to bed angry” and “being in love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I have learned that both of those phrases are a little silly, a bit useless, and may tread on being harmful.
Last week I talked about approaching someone directly if there is an issue. The hope is that whatever the issue may be, that both parties can reconcile and move on. Have you ever thought to keep track of the times that you say “I’m sorry?” I have expressed my frustration with the English language before that it doesn’t always capture what we want to say. When I say “I’m sorry” to someone for accidentally stepping on their feet, it doesn’t quite mean the same as when I say “I’m sorry” to Chris for something I’ve done. Likewise, those of you that have children or that are around children enough have probably said “say you’re sorry” only to be echoed with a less than enthusiastic “I’m sorry.”
In today’s reading Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive someone who sins against him. And for us, it might sound a bit naive of Peter to ask this. We might even wonder what in the world kind of question is this anyway? Who keeps track of how many times they have forgiven someone? Do any of you, by a show of hands, keep a tally at home of how many times you have forgiven someone? Go ahead, raise them high. Talking about it like this may make us realize what an interesting and strange question Peter is asking.
I struggle with forgiveness. I may have mentioned this before. I am not proud of this fact. My pride, my ego, and ultimately, my own self-created sin gets in my way all the time. If you have hurt me or the people I love, I am slow to forgive. It’s not a trait I love about myself. I am trying to forgive a little easier than I used to. It’s an ongoing process. The strange thing is, when I am to be on the receiving end of forgiveness, I almost crave it. I am anxious to receive it. When someone finally does forgive me for something I’ve done, it feels like a drink of cool water in a hot, dry, desert. I know I haven’t been on this Earth long enough to make broad, sweeping generalizations like the one I’m about to make right now, but I am willing to say it nonetheless: I believe that granting and receiving forgiveness is one of the most difficult things we humans must and should do on a daily basis.
Forgiveness is at the core of who we are as humans because forgiveness only comes about when there is sin. We don’t usually throw around the words “I’m sorry” just because. It is either because we have sinned against someone or someone has sinned against us. And as much as we may fight against it, forgiveness means that someone has recognized sin in us. Someone has recognized our flaws, our faults, our weaknesses, our shortcomings, and ultimately, someone has recognized our “ugly.”
As Lutherans we believe that we are simul justus et peccator: simultaneously saint AND sinner. There is a reason I have that tattooed on me. We are firmly rooted in the fact that we are not, we cannot be, and never will be 100% saint or 100% sinner. We need forgiveness in our lives. Forgiving someone means freedom. It means that you are free from the anger you have for someone or it may mean that you are free from the guilt you have from someone. It is good if I take a quick pause right here to put on my pastor hat (even more) to say that there are some situations that cannot be “fixed” with forgiveness. I have met people who forgive their abusers, only to end up suffering at the hands of their abusers time and time again. Forgiveness is about love. And sometimes the best way to love someone is to no longer enable or tolerate their behavior. If you or someone you know is in a situation that is not healthy, not life giving, and certainly not forgiving, please know that you are not alone and I am always here to help you.
So how many times should we forgive someone? Peter wants to know and perhaps, so do we on some level. Jesus responds: not seven times, but 77 times. And this seems absurd because it is. What Jesus really is saying is this: don’t keep track. In a society that tells us to keep score so we know whether or not we’re doing better than the next guy, just don’t. Don’t keep score. Don’t keep track. God desires to be in a relationship with us and God desires for us to be in relationship with one another. If you are willing to take the risk to love someone (and it is usually worth the risk) then you need to be willing to take the risk that at some point in time you will need to forgive and be forgiven. It is not easy work, friends. I know this for a fact.
Forgiveness is a very deliberate decision to change your past, present, and future. It is more powerful than any weapon or any amount of money. Forgiveness looks like a cross. Forgiveness tastes like bread and wine. Forgiveness feels like water. Forgiveness is a God that constantly forgives. We heard in the Roman’s reading today this amazing promise “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” Do you hear that promise? There is nothing we can do that is going to make God keep track of the number of times we have been forgiven. God’s mercy and grace will always be stronger and more powerful than our sin. You are people of God: fed, forgiven, and freed. We ARE the Lord’s. We belong to God and there is nothing that will ever change that. Forgiveness is a gift, brothers and sisters. It is a gift whether we receive it or give it. Forgiveness gives us freedom to love and to be loved in return.