February 20, 2011
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
2 The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.
3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.
5 They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.
6 The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.
8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.
9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim;
10 They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion;
when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west.
11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.
Hosea is book of heartbreak.
Throughout the first ten chapters, we’re given a picture of God’s relationship to Israel through prophetic metaphor. You probably remember that Israel does not have much of a record of fidelity to God. The Hebrew scriptures are strewn with stories of broken promises. God can’t trust the chosen people to keep covenant. And yet God continues to keep God’s covenants, to pursue them with love, to bring them home, and to forgive them.
The primary metaphor in the first part of Hosea is that of marriage. Hosea has taken a wife, Gomer, whom he loves. And in spite of her husband’s great love for Gomer, she is utterly faithless. Hosea can’t trust her for a moment. Every chance she gets, she hauls out her red velvet miniskirt and the false eyelashes, pulls on some platform boots, and goes downtown to pick up men in the tavern.
Hosea seeks her, finds her, forgives her, brings her back. Still, she won’t stay, no matter how much he pleads with her. They have children who are named “God sows” “Not pitied,” and “Not my people.” Heartbreaking.
It’s a cycle we see throughout the Old Testament – God makes covenant. The people are unfaithful. God remains faithful, finds them, calls them home, forgives them. They stay for a while, and then something shiny catches their eye, some new trend, some attractive new god, some gold or jewels, or some pretty women, and off they go, chasing off like Gomer, drenched with cheap perfume, looking for love in all the wrong places.
For ten chapters, Hosea rehearses this heartbreak. And then in chapter 11, the metaphor shifts. Now we hear this loving, tender call to the runaway child. Now we hear the anguish of the loving father. Now we hear the agony of the mother’s breaking heart. “How can I hand you over, O Israel?” There is anger, but in the end, God cannot give the people up for lost, any more than Hosea can give up on his faithless wife.
When I was eight or nine years old, I started to read the paper. I read the front page, the comics, Dear Abby, and the personal notices in the classifieds. Not the ones you see now, that say “I am stunning, rich and athletic and seek the same for friendship, possible long-term relationship.” (I guess back then, stunning, rich, athletic people didn’t have to advertise.) No, I’m talking about the ads that said something like “Julia, we love you. All is forgiven. Please come home.”
I would read those ads and wonder about the people who wrote them and the people they sought. I would imagine what had happened. I wondered: Had there been an argument?
Had someone committed a wrong so deep, so hurtful, that complete cutoff had seemed the only possible course of action? And what had prompted the one who placed the ad to now seek to reconcile the wrong? All is forgiven. Please, come home.
I’ve always wondered whether the person in question actually did come home, and what happened after that. In this text in Hosea, the heartbroken parent offers unconditional forgiveness, just like those personal ads: All is forgiven. Please, come home. So our God, broken hearted, seeks us out, to embrace us, to forgive us and return us to our home. This parent, who is “God and no mortal”, this parent, “the Holy One in our midst” says, “I will not execute my fierce anger.”
Later in the book of Hosea, in chapter 14, God promises Israel, and God promises us:
“I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them.”
God does not give us what we deserve. God reaches out to us, like a mother holding an infant to her cheek, like a father who knows that we are still being formed. No matter what you were thinking, no matter what you have done, God was, and is, thinking of you with tender love.
This is the model of forgiveness to which the Lord’s Prayer calls us: unconditional, without dredging up old arguments or attempting to exact a promise of change. A simple personal notice: All is forgiven. Please, come home. But we are so stubborn! It is so hard for us to accept that forgiveness, and even harder to offer it to others who have hurt us.
The Jewish celebration of High Holy Days, begins with Rosh Hashanah, the start of the new year, and ends on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. During that ten days, people work to amend their records of good and bad actions, seeking God’s forgiveness. Then God seals the book of life for another year.
During the middle ages, a ritual developed to symbolize this effort. The ritual is called Tashlich. It means, literally "casting off." In Tashlich, the people seek forgiveness from God by symbolically casting off the sins of the previous year. They toss pieces of bread or small stones into a lake or river. Just as the water carries away the bits of bread, so too are sins symbolically carried away.
Tashlich was inspired by the prophet Micah: God will take us back in love; God will cover up our iniquities, You [God] will hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:19)
As we consider the depth and riches of that phrase of the Lord’s prayer, I want to invite you to experience this ritual of Tashlich. When you received your bulletin today, you also received some small pieces of tissue paper. And in each pew are some markers. Use that marker to write on the tissue paper a word or two about a sin for which you need forgiveness, or a sin which you need to forgive.
Every one of us has something for which we need forgiveness, and every one of us struggles with a sin against us which we need to forgive. Use the marker – not a pen or pencil - to write on the tissue paper. In a few minutes, I’ll invite you to come to the front and cast that away, here in this water. No one will read it; no one will know what you wrote, other than you and God.
Take a minute to write that now, and pass along the marker when you are finished.
Forgiven and Forgiving
Luke 17: 3-4
Our second scripture reading for the day comes from Luke 17: 3-4. These two little verses come in the middle of a warning from Jesus. He has been telling stories to the disciples, and now he interrupts himself. He first cautions the disciples not to become stumbling blocks for others. He wants them to be certain that their lives or words do not create an occasion for another, weaker believer to sin. If we do this, he says, “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”
Then, in verses 3 and 4, our reading for today, Jesus continues:
4 And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”
When we pray, “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” we are essentially promising that we will do this, that we will extend forgiveness in the same manner in which we receive it.
Lewis B. Smedes, a great theologian in the Reformed Tradition, wrote a book on forgiveness titled Forgive and Forget. In it he outlined the importance of forgiveness. Here are Smedes’ five things everyone should know about forgiving:
1. Forgiving is the only way to be fair to yourself after someone hurts you unfairly. The first person to get the benefits of forgiving is the person who does the forgiving. (Or, as they put it in AA, “Having a resentment is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die.”)
2. Forgivers are not doormats; they do not have to tolerate the bad things that they forgive. Forgive those who wrong you, but do not tolerate their wrong doing. Forgive them and tell them what Jesus told people he forgave: You are forgiven for what you did, but stop it, don’t do it again.
3. Forgivers are not fools; they forgive and heal themselves, but they do not have to go back for more abuse.
Smedes continues: Suppose he was your husband once, and that he beat you or betrayed you until you just could not put up with it anymore and you left him. Now to heal yourself, you are ready to forgive him, ready to clean the garbage of spite and resentment out of your life. But suppose he has given you reason to believe that if you went back to him, he would soon be back at his old abuse again. Don’t go back to him. Forgive him and pray that he will be changed. But don’t go back. Remember: You may be a forgiver, but forgivers do not have to be fools.
4. We don’t have to wait until the other person repents before we forgive him or her and heal ourselves.
Here’s where Smedes differs from Jesus. He says don’t even wait for repentance: “Why put your happiness in the hands of the person who made you unhappy in the first place? Forgive and let the other person do what he wants. Heal yourself.”
5. Forgiving is a journey. For us, it takes time, so be patient and don’t get discouraged if you backslide have to do it over again.
Maybe that’s what Jesus was talking about, with that seven times a day business.
Smedes says: “Nobody but God is a real pro at forgiving. We are amateur and bunglers. We cannot usually finish it the first time. So be patient with yourself. Make the first step. It will get you going and once on the way, you will never want to go back. And remember this: The first person who gets the benefit of forgiving is always the person who does the forgiving. When you forgive a person who wronged you, you set a prisoner free, and then you discover that the prisoner you set free is you. When you forgive, you walk hand in hand with the very God who forgives you everything for the sake of his Son. When you forgive, you heal the hurts you never should have felt in the first place.”
Maybe you have a secret, something for which you need assurance of forgiveness; maybe you have harbored a resentment against someone for years, something which you need to forgive, to let go of, to cast away. Maybe it is both.
Whichever it is, I invite you to bring that paper on which you have written.
Bring it to the water and cast it away.
Our third scripture today is from Matthew 6: 9-15
Jesus has been instructing the disciples about prayer, and now he gives them this model, with yet another warning:
9 "Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you;
15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Friends, the one who offers us forgiveness walks alongside us, to save us from the time of trial, to deliver us from evil. The God of the ages, creator, covenant maker, protector, the loving mother who shelters us under her wings, the forgiving father who takes us in his arms and lifts us up to his cheek, forgives us, and forgives us, and forgives us, and will not let us go.
Look at the water where we have brought our resentments, where we have cast away our sins. See how the waters of creation, of baptism, of cleansing, have carried away what we thought to be unforgiven, or unforgivable. Hear what the prophet Isaiah calls out to all God’s people: Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. (Isaiah 1: 16-18)
Thanks be to God for forgiveness, both given and received!
Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us!
This is the truth which we pray.
This is the truth which we live.
This is the truth we now sing.
Will you stand and join me as we sing?