September 17 2023 “We Are Part of Something Larger Than Ourselves”
We Are Part of Something Larger Than Ourselves
I grew up in San Diego, California, the oldest of two sisters. My sister is three years younger, and different in every possible way. If you took a glimpse at our family photo albums, you’d see these differences clearly. I look fairly conservative and clean cut. My clothing is tailored and my hair is always the same color. My sister has a different hairdo in every picture, not to mention a different hair color. Her clothing is fun and wild – at times exotic. I was the golden girl and my sister was the rebel, and for over thirty years we played out those roles. After college I lived on the East Coast and she on the West, and we didn’t have a lot of quality time together. Misunderstandings as well as things done and left undone piled up.
One day these misunderstandings and hurts came to a head and I wondered if there was a future to our relationship other than birthday and Christmas cards. My sister felt unloved and I felt misunderstood. We barely spoke to each other, and the breach was painful. I was overwhelmed by the brokenness of my relationship with my sister. This was my one sibling, my childhood playmate, the person with whom I lived and played and fought, and the only person who shared my childhood memories. The disjunct between what I wished our relationship to be, and what it actually was, weighed heavily on me.
And then my father invited the whole family to travel to Mexico for a vacation and both my sister and I agreed to go. I was nervous about seeing her in person again, let alone spending a week together. I wondered if this would be one of the worst weeks of my life. Not long before leaving I learned through my parents that my sister was pregnant. And about a week before leaving for Mexico, I learned that I was pregnant too. Our due dates were six weeks apart.
During this family trip, knowing that new life was imminent, and not wanting to bring two children into a sad and conflicted situation, we began to mend our relationship. What brought us together was something beyond ourselves, something greater than our anger and the hurts and wounds that built up over the years. Forgiveness came – not quickly, not easily – but because we were keenly aware of the new life in us. The hope and promise of something beyond ourselves provided the means for my sister and me to begin to forgive each other, to seek reconciliation and to live in a new way together.
Today’s gospel from Matthew talks about forgiveness, but in the context of relationships between church members. Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Peter seeks an exact number – does he have to forgive as many as seven times? That seems like a lot of times to him, overly generous. No, Jesus says, “not seven times, but seventy-seven times, which may in the Greek mean seven times seventy-seven or 490 times – an unfathomable amount of times.
Jesus then proceeds to tell a parable which focuses not on the quantity of forgiveness – Peter’s chief point of fixation – but on the quality of forgiveness.
In Matthew’s parable the king forgives an unpayable debt. Ten thousand talents is an astronomical sum, close to one billion dollars. For whatever reasons, the forgiven slave won’t forgive the lesser debt of a fellow slave. He demands repayment and is confronted by the king who asks a rhetorical question with an obvious answer, “should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave as I had mercy on you?”
Now, forgiveness is a tricky topic, let alone forgiveness between church members. There are so many ways in which humans hurt each other. In Divinity school I took a class called “Pastoral Counseling in a Violent World,” and in that class there was someone who lived in South Africa during apartheid, a Vietnam veteran, and someone who had been sexually abused. We spoke at length about how forgiveness might look different in different circumstances. And over the years as I thought about the violent conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Ukraine, or the shooting at Mother Emmanuel, I wondered if I would be able to forgive someone or a group of people who killed my family and destroyed my country and life. We could spend months on this topic.
As Christians one of the primary things we are called to do is to be Jesus’ ambassadors in our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, communities, and the places we volunteer. We are invited to participate in God’s work to bring healing, reconciliation, hope, and new life, especially in places and with people who are broken and hurting. However, we can’t do this on our own. We are only able to do this work by God’s grace and with God’s help. We humans want to be loving, but we run out of love. We have bad days. Sometimes we are moody, reactive, and our ego flares up. We want to forgive, but some hurts go too deep. We want to see all people as God’s beloved, but can have trouble seeing the humanity of those who have different values and priorities than us.
Our mission to radiate God’s light and life is important and urgent. The rates of depression, alienation, and despair, especially among younger generations, are high. The divides in our country and world are deep. Many people in the West feel hopeless and without roots and community. Our God is a God of hope, healing, and new beginnings. We are called to live beyond our individual identities and be part of something larger, the story and community of God and God’s people.
How can we possibly do this? How do we forgive those who’ve hurt us? How do we seek the forgiveness of those we’ve hurt? How do we serve as agents of God’s power to heal across racial, class, and political lines? How can we be, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “repairers of the breach, restorers of streets to live in”?
I believe we have to start with ourselves. Before we can be bearers of peace, healing, and new life, we have to begin with our lives. We need to acknowledge where we are broken. We need to have a relationship with the living God that grows and flourishes because we spend time with God each day, resting in God’s love and mercy, and listening to God in silence and through reading and meditating on scripture. We also need to find ways to make Jesus’ teachings and way of life, actionable. One Christian wondered about how to do this, and started by inviting a bunch of friends into a simple practice called Have2Share1. Over the course of a couple of months everyone in that group spent time going through their possessions, bank accounts, and calendars, discerning what God might be inviting them to share with others. The group shared their stuff with people who needed it. They shared some of their savings with people locally and across the world who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. They trimmed their calendars and shared the newfound time with God, family members, and neighbors, being more present than ever before. What might you and I be called to let go of so we have more bandwidth for God and others?
Jesus never said that discipleship, a life of being in relationship with and following him would be easy. Such a life demands everything – our minds, hearts, and our souls. But I truly believe that the way of Jesus is the way of life, and the way I am able to live into my God-given potential. Life in Jesus is a life of compassion, forgiveness, mercy, hospitality, service, reconciliation, simplicity, generosity, and gratitude. It’s hard, but I’ve never encountered a more meaningful or transformative path – and I wasn’t raised as a Christian.
In the silence that follows I invite you to take a few deep breaths and center yourself in God’s loving and compassionate presence, and then to contemplate the following questions:
What relationship or relationships in your life need to be repaired, and how might God’s faithfulness and unconditional love for you free you to participate in that important but difficult work?