Pentecost 3 June 13, 2010

2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15                                          

Luke 7:36-8:3                                                                     

My grandfather lived in a little coalmining town in Pennsylvania. Across the street lived a couple who never spoke to one another. They communicated through a married daughter who lived down the block. They’d divided the house between them: she had the kitchen, the back porch and a little room where she slept. He had the living and dining rooms, the front porch, and upstairs. They ate all their meals sitting on opposite ends of a table placed in the doorway between the dining room and the kitchen, he on the dining room end, she on the kitchen end. They’d lived this way for years. My grandfather said they’d long ago forgotten what they’d fought about.

For most of us, most of the time, forgiveness when we think about it is probably just a little footnote in our lives, like saying please and thank you, excuse me, I beg your pardon. But for God and for Jesus, forgiveness is one of the center points of life. Think about the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father. Jesus didn’t give it to us as a set prayer, the way we say it, but as the outline, the matrix, of all prayer. This is how he taught us to pray. And in it we ask only three things for ourselves: our daily bread, to be given enough security for the day, not to spend our lives piling up more than we need; to be saved from temptation or trial, meaning not to be so overwhelmed by life that we lose our grounding, our connection with God; and third, to live lives of forgiveness, living out our forgiveness from God by forgiving others. These are the three essentials of a holy life, the three guides to happiness.

It’s that third essential, forgiveness, which the readings focus on today. And it’s not just a little footnote – excuse me, I beg your pardon – it’s a way of life. A few years ago, as we were finishing this new building, we got into a rough place in our parish life. Like that quarreling couple across the street from my grandfather’s, it’s hard to remember now just what was the cause of it all, but a handful of people were very unhappy with things.

Unhappiness in churches, like unhappiness in families or businesses or schools or towns or any other grouping, has a way of spreading if you don’t take care of it. And this unhappiness looked like it might bring this congregation down if we didn’t do something about it. So the wardens and I went to see Tim Rich, the Canon to the Ordinary, meaning the bishop’s chief assistant. Tim stepped in and helped us through, getting things back on track.

He gave the unhappy people a chance to talk about why they were unhappy. He gave the vestry and me a chance to explain some things that needed explaining and to apologize. He suggested some ways we could do things differently going forward. And he gave everyone a chance to forgive and move forward. From his experience in handling these conflict situations – and he was a family therapist before he was a priest – he told us that some of the unhappy people would probably leave, which they did, and others would stay and get happier again, which they did. The difference, he said, depended on who could forgive – I think maybe he said, get healthy, which is therapy talk for forgiveness. Tim also said that the whole forgiveness process would make us a stronger congregation and make those of us who could forgive stronger people. Which, I think, it has – certainly in my case.

Think about that couple at their dinner table in the doorway between the dining room and the kitchen, locked in their unforgiveness. If we can’t forgive we’re stuck in life, stuck in patterns of blaming other people and defending ourselves. I would bet that if that couple prayed, God had to listen night after night to them saying (from their separate parts of the house), “Lord, he/she is so wrong and I am so right. Vindicate my cause, Lord. Show him/her how wrong he/she is. Punish him/her for his/her sins. Reward me for my goodness.” Night after night. As my grandfather would say, talking about this couple, “Aye, aye, aye! What a waste of life.” Because inability to forgive not only locks up our lives with each other; it locks up our lives with God.

This Tuesday, Anne and I will have been married 45 years. Our marriage isn’t perfect, though at the beginning we thought it was. It’s lasted because we’ve learned that marriage, and life generally, isn’t about perfection. Perfection is unsustainable; perfect marriages are doomed to failure. Anne and I are still married because with a lot of hard work we learned to forgive – the other one for being imperfect and, even more important, ourselves for being imperfect. (And I should say that sometimes forgiveness in a marriage or other relationship means having to admit that it can’t go forward, that it needs to be amicably ended.) Of course it’s an ongoing work, forgiveness, after 45 years and forever. It’s a lifestyle. In our relationships with each other, and in our relationships with God.

Tim Rich is here this morning to meet with the vestry after the service. I’m not going to be there. They’re going to talk about the process for finding and calling a new priest after I retire, just one year from now. The vestry will fill you in on what they learn. Tim will guide you through that process. He’s a good guide. And I know that at the heart of that process, whether spoken or not, will be forgiveness. When I came down the steep stairs to the basement of the old church to be interviewed by the vestry for this job 14 years ago, I was a failed and wounded man. I’d been through a mess in my previous parish, where there was no Tim Rich and forgiveness had not had a chance to work. And little Holy Cross was a failed and wounded church. So we had to begin with forgiveness, with acknowledging our imperfections. Which was God’s gift to us, because look where we’ve come.

God isn’t through with us, my friends. Not through with me, not through with you. Life goes on, eternally, if we have the grace to live out forgiveness.

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