by Ellen Sims
Texts: Romans 14: 1-12 and Matthew 18:21-22
On third Sundays of each month, Open Table offers a contemplative service in which we experience prayer in wide-ranging ways. Yesterday’s service included a pastoral reflection woven into our Epistle and Gospel readings and concluded with an opportunity for the congregation to participate in prayer at four different prayer stations. See below a slice of yesterday’s contemplative service:
EPISTLE LECTION: Romans 14: 1-12
These are words that Paul wrote to the church at Rome about thirty years after the death of Jesus. The context is that some were starting to set up boundary lines around the church. Some had started to claim that to be a true follower of Jesus you have to do this or that or refrain from doing this or that. As a new church, even a welcoming one like ours, we want to take care not to define ourselves in opposition to what others think and do.
1Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.
So vegetarianism isn’t new! Before our vegan and vegetarian friends take offense, know that Paul named the vegetarians as “weak” (not wrong) because they were the ones in this instance who were saying that a spiritual practice or ethic they’d adopted should be a boundary line to exclude others from the church. They were adding special religious observances that signaled who was in the group and who was out. Paul continued:
7We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.
Our lives are bound up together. Here’s why:
8If 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.
We already are “the Lord’s,” said Paul. Our unity is based on the premise that the Cosmic Christ holds all creation together. What happens to you happens to me. What harms me, or a hummingbird, harms you. We’re all bound up together in Christ, who holds us even in death. And Paul concluded this lesson on relationships in the church this way:
9For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? . . . 12Each of us will be accountable to God.
Our individuality is not erased in our union through Christ. We each are responsible for our unique roles as we impact God’s world. But mutual relatedness is how we move in this world and create Church. And because we are fallible agents of movement and choice and consequences, we unfortunately will do harm at times.
Now hear what Jesus said about the times when we do mess up:
GOSPEL LECTION Matthew 18: 21-22
21Then Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
EXTENDING FORGIVENESS TO GOD: A MEDITATION
Is it harder for you to forgive yourself or another person? Some of us are really hard on ourselves when we mess up. We may have trouble forgiving OURSELVES long after someone else has offered us forgiveness. Forgiveness also gets complicated when one group has offended another and when there is a history of hurt on both sides. We want to be careful not to “blame the victim,” but we also want to be aware that situations are complicated and human relationships are messy.
But there’s another dynamic to the forgiveness project we’re always engaged in: the forgiveness of God. I’m not talking about forgiveness FROM God. I mean there may come a time when you need to forgive God.
You may not have thought of this spiritual challenge in quite these terms, but beneath some of our unofficial, unexamined personal theology lies a burden some of us place on God to control our circumstances so that no harm comes to us. Which makes us feel, at least subconsciously, that God is responsible for the bad things that happen to us—especially when the event doesn’t have a clear human agent who’s at fault.
As recent events remind us, hurricanes notoriously spawn really bad theology. Although probably no one here believes that God recently flung Harvey and Irma into the Atlantic in order to punish the evil inhabitants of Houston or Caribbean islands and Florida, most of us wonder why bad things happen to good people, which is just another facet of that theology. If you have not begun examining that conundrum, please don’t wait until the love of your life dies a terrible death to consider if the God you have constructed is going to be held responsible for an unforgiveable tragedy in your life.
Listen, dear friends: it is healthy at times to be angry or disappointed with God. Some of the Bible’s best have done so—from King David to Jesus who hung on the cross feeling forsaken by God. When life has betrayed us, we might work through that unbearable pain by blaming God. Which is okay in the sense that God can take that. But please also consider, consider right now, that another option is that you may have created in your mind a God you might not be able to make up with later. And that loss will compound your grief. God won’t need your forgiveness. But you may need God. You will need a God who is not a superhero who rescues everyone from every harm. You will need a God that is the force of love in this world. You will need Christ Jesus who is the face of love. You will need the Spirit from which flows pure love. In this triune picture of interrelatedness you will be able to forgive the world.
Here’s how Richard Rohr touched on this topic recently in his online daily devotional:
“Our first forgiveness is not toward a particular sin or offense. Our first forgiveness is toward reality itself: to forgive it for being so broken, a mixture of good and bad. First that paradox has to be overcome inside of us. Then, when we allow God to hold together the opposites within us, it becomes possible to do it over there in our neighbor and even our enemy. Finally, our worldview and politics change. We can no longer project our evil onto another country, religion, minority group, race, or political party.”
When one person harms another, the path to forgiveness may not be easy. But the steps are pretty clear: Apologizing. Making amends. Forgiving. Reconciling. But when reality itself hurts . . . when the hurricane hits. . . or when we’re all mixed up in the relationship that proved hurtful—how do we forgive ourselves, too, and even the way of the world?
I think a starting place is to have a questioning faith, an adult-sized theology, and deepening spiritual practices so we can hold the complexity of this world in our hearts. None of this is easy. All of this requires fellow sojourners we find in Christ’s church.
GRANTING FORGIVENESS TO OTHERS
As Anne LaMott says, when you start working on being more forgiving, you don’t want to start with the Nazis. Let’s start right now with a manageable baby step. Call to mind someone this past week who hurt your feelings or disappointed you or made your life more difficult. Now in your heart wish them well.
SONG OF FORGIVENESS “O Brother Jesus” p. 67 in songbook
ASKING FORGIVENESS FOR OURSELVES
Maybe, as our words for reflection speculate, sometimes “the only prayer we can say is to ask to want to forgive. In the beginning it may be too much for us even to pray for the person who hurt us. Perhaps all we can do is to pray for ourselves—to pray that for our own sake we may begin the process of forgiveness.”
SONG OF CONFESSION “O Lamb of God” p. 69 in songbook
ASSURANCE OF FORGIVENESS
Jesus forgave even his executioners. Even as they were torturing him on a cross. God’s forgiveness is great and inexhaustible. By God’s grace we are forgiven.
We take time now to move to one or more of the prayer stations set up around the chapel:
PRAYER STATION 1
Complete this sentence on slips of paper provided: Forgiveness is
_______________. Let this statement express your understanding of forgiveness. No need to sign your name. The pastor will read these aloud at the end of the worship service.
PRAYER STATION 2
Using the water colors and markers provided, you are invited to work forgivingly on the paper provided on the easel. Paint together a piece of art that holds together light and dark, that allows others to alter the vision you wanted to express, that forces you to accept and see and be shaped by what someone else has contributed. Let this be an expression of a forgiving community. (The image posted is a picture of Sunday’s painting.)
PRAYER STATION 3
Ancient cultures practiced the “laying down” of weapons before coming together at a meal. The Church has seen the Lord’s Table as a place of reconciliation with our sisters and brothers and before God. Traditionally it offers us each week a time to reflect on our relationships with one another before sharing in this sacred meal of unity and peace. The lyrics to “These I Lay Down” by John Bell are displayed on the altar and will be sung to help you consider things you wish to “lay down” before you pick up the bread of life and the cup of forgiveness. May this be a prayer that transforms our hearts.
PRAYER STATION 4
Giving generously is connected to forgiving generously. We are generous of heart when we can do either. By giving to your church we are able to bring people together as we work for reconciliation in our community and in our world. As you share from your personal resources, do so knowing you’re joining with others trying to create opportunity for more forgiveness in this world. Remember that forgiving someone who has done terrible harm to you does not deny that harm or release them from responsibility. It denies them control over you and allows you to move forward.