[A sermon for the 5th Sunday of Lent at Prestbury Methodist Church, 2 April 2017]
This is the fifth and last in the Heartlines’ series ‘What’s Your Story?’ which we have been following during Lent.
The first week was called ‘The Power of Storytelling’, and Collin introduced us to the Heartlines’ framework for sharing stories: Ask. Listen. Tell. Then he explained the Heartlines’ method for telling our story called ‘The River of Life’. I wonder if you have written your ‘river of life’ story, yet.
On the next three Sundays, we looked at Love and the new commandment of Jesus to love one another, Understanding and how understanding comes from experiencing the world as others experience it and Acceptance and Respect, where Delme reminded us that we were all outside of God’s family, until the love of Christ brought us near.
Today, the subject is Forgiveness.
There are two aspects of forgiveness we are going to look at today. The first is being forgiven and the second is forgiving others.
I am not talking here about being forgiven by God.
We are forgiven. We know that.
The cross is God’s forgiveness splashed onto the big screen. God, in his loving kindness, taking all the sin in our lives that destroys relationships – our relationships with God, with each other and with ourselves – Jesus taking all of that and dealing with it through his own death. Jesus opening the door into the Kingdom of God for each one of us.
We are forgiven.
That famous verse in John 3:16: ‘For God loved the world (you and me) so much, that he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him shall not die but shall have eternal life.’
Paul says in Romans 6:23, ‘The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.’
And in chapter 5:8 ‘But God has shown us how much he loves us—it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us! ‘
And in verse 10, ‘We were God’s enemies, but he made us his friends through the death of his Son.’
We are forgiven by God. That forgiveness is the foundation for everything else. We are forgiven, therefore we reach out to others.
So, today it’s not about being forgiven by God. What we are talking about is how we need to be forgiven by others, by those we have hurt and are still hurting. Now that’s much more difficult. It is difficult not just because of the humiliation of having to say you’re sorry and to ask for forgiveness. That is hard. But it is difficult because we don’t always recognise just how we have hurt others and do hurt them.
I’d like to focus on just one way we hurt others without thinking and, sometimes, without even knowing. I want us to think about our language – what we say and how we say it.
You know, the biggest problem with communication (and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a formal presentation or a quick word as we pass in the street), the biggest problem is in the ‘decoding’ process. When we have something to say and, whether it’s a presentation to the board or a word to the children, our brains work out what we want to say. We take our thoughts and translate them into words or pictures, which we then convey to the person. And we might do that through a PowerPoint presentation, a WhatsApp message or by talking to them.
Now comes the tricky part. The message has reached the other person or group. And that person has to understand it, has to decode it, interpret it and make sense of what you are saying. And it is tricky, because that person, or that group, uses their entire history to interpret your words. Everything they have ever heard, seen or experienced goes into the interpretation process – including your relationship with that person. Or rheir relationship with people they think are like you.
Let me be controversial for a moment to make it more real. There has been a lot of talk recently about the use of the word ‘monkey’ in talking about people. And I know that a lot of white people have grown up using ‘monkey’ as a term of endearment. ‘Hey, you little monkey.’ But it is a term that, in this country, comes with a whole lot of painful and hurtful baggage.
Now we can say, as I have heard a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, please. They are so oversensitive.’ But until we have experienced the pain of that word (or any other) being used against us to oppress and to hurt, we dare not call other people oversensitive. We have to hear their pain.
‘But, I didn’t mean anything by it,’ we often say. What we mean by something is not important. We are trying to get a message across that we want others to receive, understand and respond to. If they don’t get the right message, we have a problem. It’s like advertising. If people are getting the wrong message, you have to change your advert. It’s no good wringing your hands and telling everyone, ‘That’s not what I meant.’
Jen grew up with the term ‘silly sausage’ being just about the worst thing her father would say about (for example) a taxi driver who swerved in front of him. I grew up with ‘silly sausage’ being a term of endearment my mother would use. Can you imagine the first time I called my wife a silly sausage!
So, when we talk about being forgiven, it is not enough to confess to God and ask for his forgiveness. We, as Christians, need to be humble enough to recognise that we contribute to the pain that others experience. And while that includes people of different race or gender, of religion or culture, it also includes our children and parents, our spouses and our friends our domestic workers or work colleagues.
We need to find ways to listen more, to listen to the stories of others that will help us understand what our words and actions might mean to others.
Forgiveness is not just about being forgiven by God; it is about recognising that we need to be forgiven by others day by day and about seeking out their forgiveness.
The second aspect of forgiveness I want us to consider today is forgiving others.
Of course, we know that we have to forgive others. We are reminded every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’
Jesus said, ‘If you do not forgive the sins of others, neither will you be forgiven.’ We can’t horde forgiveness. If we are not passing it on, we can’t receive it.
So, we know we have to forgive others. But how do we get that right?
One of the ways I have approached it is to remind myself by repeating that word throughout the day: ‘Forgive.’ A kind of mantra for every situation:
- When something goes wrong – forgive.
- The neighbour revs his motorbike – forgive!
- The kids are annoying – forgive!
- My wife is late – forgive!
- Yes, even when the taxi swerves in front of you – forgive.’
But as I thought about it this week, I realised that there is a comforting little message that is perhaps getting through to us. Well, to me, anyway. You are probably much more loving than I am. You see, if I’m really angry, and I say ‘Forgive!’ I am not letting go of my negative thoughts; I’m not changing my attitude towards the person.
What I am often saying is, ‘He’s an idiot, but I forgive him.’
‘She’s irresponsible, but I forgive her.’
‘They are disgraceful, but I forgive!’
You see what we are doing here. Well, not you, of course. It’s probably just me.
I am saying, ‘They are terrible, but I am a good Christian.’ The focus is on how bad others are and how good I am.
I mean, why do I have to forgive people? It’s because they are bad; they have done something wrong. So, when I focus on forgiving others, there is a danger that I may be encouraging myself to think how wonderful I am compared with them.
But Jen read an article to me last week (Witness, Sat, 25 March 2017) about three-year-old Prince George of Great Britain going to school. And what struck us is that the school’s website says that its most important rule is ‘be kind’.
Now, think about that for a moment. What if ‘be kind’ became our most important rule. What if, instead of talking about love, we started to act out our love by being kind. So, ‘be kind’ becomes our mantra, something we say to ourselves throughout the day. Think how that would begin to transform our relationships. And isn’t transforming relationships what our faith is all about?
Now don’t try to second guess this being kind. Don’t start saying to yourself, ‘Well, the kind thing to do here would be to discipline him, to make her face the consequences, to….’ Just be kind.
‘Well, if they are going to benefit from this kindness thing, then I need to explain to them….’ Just be kind; be kind.
Picture the scene. There I am behind some scary taxi driver or some idiot driving erratically – probably on their cell phone! – and I grip the wheel and say to myself, ‘Forgive! Forgive!!’
I haven’t learned anything; I haven’t changed anything.
But, what if I relax my grip a little and start saying, ‘Be kind; be kind.’ What if I look for ways to be kind. What if I start saying ‘be kind’ before I respond to my child, my parents, my spouse, the teller, my employees?
What will happen is that we will begin to let go of the failures of others and focus on what we can do to make a difference in the world, to listen to stories, to create relationships, to encourage rather than tear down.
Just for today, let go of the negative, and speak words of encouragement.
Prayer: click here