forgiving, forgiven (six)

We are nearing the end of these seven conversations about forgiveness. If it wasn't clear before, it is becoming very clear now that forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity. Learning the language of reconciliation - spoken and embodied - is not optional in Christian community. Yet, in my experience, we are often distracted from this core curriculum by other temptations which seem more manageable and less risky. In the process the church is often left with little in the way of a new way of life to offer in households, neighbourhoods and nations rife with division. I am not at all sure what part this brief seven week conversation in our small congregation has in God's reconciling work but I dare to imagine that it is not without importance.

Here is this week's worksheet ...

"The Language of Reconciliation"

* II Corinthians 5:16-21. What does it mean that “from now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view”? Paul says that God “has given us the ministry of reconciliation”, naming us “ambassadors for Christ”. How is the church - how are we - to live out this role in God’s forgiving work?

* How do you respond to Anne Lamott’s testimony in “Plan B - Further Thoughts on Faith” about her struggle to forgive her mother after her mother’s death?

“So I left her in the closet for two years to stew in her own ashes, and I refused to be nice to her, and didn’t forgive her for being a terrified, furious, clinging, sucking maw of need and arrogance. I suppose that sounds harsh. I assumed Jesus wanted me to forgive her, but I also know he loves honesty and transparency. I don’t think he was rolling his eyes impatiently at me while she was in the closet. I don’t think much surprises him: this is how we make important changes - barely, poorly, slowly. And still, he raises his fist in triumph.” (p. 46)

“Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. You’re done. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to have lunch with the person. If you keep hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare - which is the tiny problem with our Israeli and Palestinian friends. And I guess I wasn’t done.” (pp. 47-48).

“Grace means you’re in a different universe from where you had been stuck, when you had absolutely no way to get there on your own.” (p. 55)

* In “The End of Words - The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence” Richard Lischer claims that the purpose of all Christian preaching is to spread the message of God’s reconciling love. He says that every sermon is to be, in some way, about forgiveness. What do you make of Lischer’s claim?

“But I am seeking the true end of words, which is the ultimate purpose of the act of preaching. I am looking for the animating principle, the life of the thing itself, but also the larger thing in which all our little speeches fit. I find it in the thesis sentence of the New Testament, 2 Corinthians 5:19: ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and has entrusted to us the message of reconciliation’.” (pp. 132-133)

“The Greek word for forgive, apheimi, means to ‘send away’, not the way we send away our laundry only to have it returned a shade or two brighter than before, but the way we send away our trash into cyberspace, never to see it again. God’s work of reconciliation is acknowledged when each person accepts God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ and embraces the fullness of his or her humanity.” (pp. 136-137)

“Reconciliation is not a theological option, a specialized ministry, or the subject of an occasional sermon. Every congregation is a reconciling congregation.” (p. 139)

“All this is to say that the preacher must not be too glib with the words ‘forgiveness’ and ‘reconciliation’ lest the sermon give the impression that grace comes cheap or that it is easy ... How to resolve the dilemma of free versus cheap grace? When God moved freely toward the world in grace, I believe the church was included in the gift both as the instrument of peace and as the laboratory in which God’s people try it out. You might say God’s free grace comes with a kit for experimenting with it. The kit includes worship, the sacraments, and pastoral care. The community is larger than the sum of our individual failures to practice grace. Even when the preacher gets the gospel wrong, the liturgy gets it right. Even when the words of forgiveness stick in our throats, the liturgy speaks them through us. When I am angry with my neighbor, sure enough, when I spin around in my pew to share the Peace of the Lord, who is it but that very neighbor to whom I must extend a hand or, God forbid, an embrace. Even when I don’t feel forgiven, the liturgy says, “In Christ you are forgiven.” When I don’t feel like forgiving, there are others around me saying it on my behalf until it is possible for me to join them. In the combustion of word and touch, miniature “new creations” are exploding around the sanctuary. Perhaps they are insignificant when compared to the problems of ethnic cleansing or apartheid, but these ritualized practices establish a pattern for distinctively Christian behavior in the world.” (p. 151).

“In the seventeenth-century classic The Country Parson, George Herbert warns his readers that ‘sermons are dangerous things; that none goes out of church as he came in.’ .... What if every sermon exposed its listeners to this danger, that of being fundamentally changed by the message of reconciliation?” (p. 165)

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