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The Tree of Forgiveness

August 14, 2022

The Tree of Forgiveness

Passage: Psalm 32
Service Type:

Pope Francis came to Canada last month to apologize. He stayed a full week, at age 83, moving around in a wheelchair. He came here to North America to engage in an ancient practice: confession and forgiveness. He came to apologize for the role of the Catholic Church in taking children of Native Indians from their parents and communities and placing them in schools where they were pulled into European languages, traditions, and religion. He was doing what our Lord Jesus taught us to do: confess our sins and seek forgiveness even as we forgive those who have wronged us.

 

I.

 

A striking thing about the Letter to the Philippians is the absence of one basic behavior of believing people—forgiveness! In that letter there is a great deal of joy and love, hospitality and generosity, hope and help. There is a consistent focus on Jesus, especially his suffering, death, and resurrection, even his return. But there is no mention of forgiveness: not of our forgiveness of each other, nor of God’s forgiveness of us.
Unless—unless forgiveness is buried in that statement at the beginning of the letter: “Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with joy.” What do we know about the prayer life of the great apostle Paul?  Not much, and we do not know if he prayed any version of what we call the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, the Prayer of Jesus.
Nothing is certain, and we acknowledge that Paul the Jewish convert to the Way of Jesus Christ rarely mentions anything in the life and ministry of Jesus. But it is possible that he also prayed as Jesus taught us to pray. If so, he would have lifted up his voice as we did in unison this morning and voiced these words: “Father, forgive us our sins, and we forgive those who sin against us.”
This neglect (in the letter) of forgiveness—surely one of the significant elements of being human, living in community, following Jesus—is one reason we must read widely in Holy Scripture, one reason why we turn from the letter of the apostle to the Psalms, to this psalm, number 32.
“What joy for those who sin is forgiven!” –the opening words of this song. And in verse 5, this testimony: “I said to myself: ‘I will confess my sin to the Lord. And you forgave me.” It is this quality of forgiveness that is on my heart and mind today.

 

II.

 

Some forgiveness is public. There is an old rule regarding these things: public sins and public crimes require public apologies and public forgiveness. This was on display in South Africa after the fall of the apartheid regime. The country sponsored what they called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was a public airing of testimonies and confessions of all the evil that was done during White Rule in South Africa.
About 25 years ago the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for their complicity in slavery and segregation. That Convention, like others, was formed in the years leading up to the Civil War in order to perpetuate slavery. Eventually, and reluctantly, Southern Baptists were pushed to confess and seek forgiveness and reconciliation.
Our own denominational home, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, was formed in a dispute over the role of women in church. Once again, Southern Baptists insisted on keeping women quiet in church and away from power. We rejected the inferior status of women. We empowered them to lead, teach, and preach. One day, some day, Southern Baptists and others will be forced into a public confession and apology about their subjugation of women.
Here is another example. The worldwide Anglican communion just concluded their once-a-decade gathering called Lambeth 2022. They will not meet again until 2032. The big issue with them was the status of our gay brothers and sisters. Many Methodists from the third world reject communion with their gay bishops from our part of the world. United Methodists are right now imploding as a denomination. On May 1 of this year, some among them launched a competitive version of Methodism, call the Global Methodist Church. the issue?—LGBTQ!  One day, there will be a day of reckoning, a repenting, a confessing, a forgiving as those who are drawing the circle tight will need to stand in some public assembly and repeat the words uttered by Simon Peter the great apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to the account in Acts of the Apostles (chapter 10): “I perceive that God is no respecter of persons!”
Some forgiveness is public, but other forgiveness is a private matter. Jesus gave us the prayer we prayed this morning which forms us as confessing and forgiving people. Forgiving one another is a basic practice of Christian living. It is more important that attending worship, signing a confession, or giving millions of dollars to the poor. Jesus said, on the last day of his life, “Father, forgive them. They don’t understand what they are doing.”
We have reason to be irritated. People are hard to live with, hard to worship with, hard to collaborate with.  People—including you and me—do things, think things, and say things that are wrong and ugly. We are selfish people. We are ruled by ego and insecurity. Even Paul the great apostle confessed that the good he wanted to do he could not do, and the evil he wanted to avoid he did not. I feel like that, don’t you? I have regrets about things I have said and done. For some of these I have sought forgiveness.
Some years ago while a pastor in Kentucky, I received an anonymous letter postmarked in South Bend Indiana. It read: “Many years ago, I found a dime in an envelope in a Sunday School room and spent it. Bro Sam P Martin was pastor and Mrs. Givens was Sunday School teacher.” That placed the event in the 1920s. The writer of this letter must have been more than 80 years old when I received the letter. For decades this small infraction had weighed on their soul. Late in life, it was time for confession and amends.  The letter was written on a lined, half sheet torn from the kind of writing pad you might buy at a Walgreens or Walmart. It continued: “Didn’t want to miss heaven for a dime.  God bless.” At the bottom of the page was taped a dime. There was no return address, or I would have written back this message: “You are forgiven. You were forgiven when it happened. Rest in peace.”
Some forgiveness is private, not public and not interpersonal. It is just between you and God. Public sins and interpersonal sins also have a divine component, of course. Psalm 51 is King David’s confession to God for something he did to a soldier and his wife. Murder and adultery both have social and public consequences and demand confession in those realms. But David needed to get things right with God also. This psalm is a record of that divine dealing. “Have mercy on me, O God, because of your unfailing love.” That’s the way his song or confession and forgiveness begins. “Because of your great compassion, blot out the stain of my sins…. Cleanse me from my sins and I will be clean. Wash me and I will be whiter than snow.”

 

III.

 

God is a God of mercy and forgiveness. We worship Jesus who reveals in more powerful ways the grace and mercy of God. God allowed his one and only son to die a criminal’s death, a godforsaken death, for us and with us. God did this because he loves us and forgives us. The Epistle to the Philippians opens and closes with the notice of the grace of God: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” This quality of God did not begin at the cross. From the very beginning, God has been merciful.
Remember the story of Moses on the mountain? Exodus chapter 34 contains that narrative. Moses came down from the mountain with the ten commandments written on a tablet of stone. He found his people worshipping idols. He got mad and threw the stone tables to the ground, busting them to pieces. God sends him back up the mountain. Alone. Not even animals accompanied him.  The text says this:
“Th Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out, ‘Yahweh! The Lord! The God of compassion and mercy. I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness. I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations. I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.’”
God’s experience of forgiveness toward us is part of God’s character. It is not triggered by our confession, our remorse, our conversion. It did not begin with the birth, life, or death of Jesus. God is not waiting on us to be a forgiving God. God’s forgiveness is not dependent upon our confession. More than once in my ministry, I have received cards or letters apologizing for something said to me or about me or done to me. Always I have forgotten the supposed offence. I had already forgiven and forgotten. We do that routinely with those we love and cherish. “Oh, of course, it is alright” we say.
Yes, confession is good for the soul—our soul. But forgiveness is grounded in the soul of God.  God has already forgiven you for your anger, your meanness, your selfishness. Yes, you need to repent, confess, and reestablish connection with the people you mistreated.  But often these people, like God, will have already forgiven you.
Isn’t this the whole point of the story Jesus told about the man who demanded his inheritance and took off for a far country?  He wasted his life and his wealth, broke every rule of health and happiness, and ended up eating with the pigs. He came to himself, the text reads, and said, “I will go home. My folks will hire me. I will at least have something decent to eat.” But remember what the text says, “While he was still a long way off, the father saw him coming. His father and his mother were looking for him, waiting for him, praying for him, loving him, forgiving him. Long before that man came to his senses, his parents back home had forgiven him. They were in a mood to welcome him and throw the party that the story of Jesus describes
If you and I can do that for the people we love, isn’t it more likely that God is doing that for all of us? For you and for me? Even for the people we think deserve a beating or a punishment? Our psalm today reads, “What joy for those who disobedience is forgiven, whose sin is put out of sight! Rejoice in the Lord and be glad. Shout for joy, all you whose hearts are pure!”
Amen.

 

 

 

*This sermon title is taken from a song written by John Prine and recorded on his 2018 album The Tree of Forgiveness. In the song “When I Get to Heaven,” Prine sings: “When I get to heaven I gonna get a cocktail, vodka and ginger ale. I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long…. I’m gonna open up a nightclub called ‘The Tree of Forgiveness’ and forgive everybody ever done me any harm.”

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