Recently, we celebrated being together again as our church year begins. We focused on some of our church's basic beliefs and Revelation 21, the scriptural foundation of the existence of the New Church coming down out of heaven from God, the Lord's church universal that has no temple for worship; rather, worship in its truest sense is happening right now in our hearts and minds, in the hearts and minds of all people who love the Lord and love their neighbor as themselves.
It seems an excellent season now to focus on what I believe is a central Christian value and practice as we live in the coming of the New Church; forgiveness. Forgiveness is a subject that can be approached an infinite number of times and somehow each time feels new and vulnerable and highly relevant at any point in our spiritual development.
Forgiving, and allowing others to forgive us when we have done harm, opens to us the experience of heaven. When we forgive or allow ourselves to be forgiven, Divinity moves in and softens the hard places in our hearts that would rather ignore or deny the problem, blame the other person and build resentments, or undercut the importance of what happened. I believe that when we practice forgiveness, the Lord is given a special key to our hearts so that He can move in and work with us on our deepest levels, levels that touch directly and efficiently on streams of providence that deal with our ruling love and ultimate salvation.
In Exodus 14, the Israelites lose faith in God's ability to save them. Pharaoh has gathered his army and pursued the former slaves to the bank of the Sea of Reeds. The Israelites regret their escape from Egypt, "for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness," they say. God forgives this lack of faith and enables them to cross the Sea of Reeds while Pharaoh's advancing armies are drowned. Rescued and liberated, the Israelites again believe in God's saving presence.
We are like the Israelites. They teach us about our own faith journeys: the ups and downs, the lack of faith in God's presence when times look grim and the lack of faith in God's forgiveness when we realize we've gone astray. Sometimes we are so preoccupied with our problems that we forget to acknowledge and celebrate God's presence in our lives during all seasons of change and transformation.
In Exodus 15 (one of the oldest pieces of Scripture in the Bible) Miriam sings, dances and plays her tambourine as she leads the Hebrew women in a joyous celebration of their deliverance from the Egyptians. With overflowing hearts, the Israelites respond in awe and praise to all that God had done for them: "Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously..."
In Matthew 18 Jesus tells Peter a story about forgiveness. We read that a ruler finds an immense amount of money has been embezzled. He orders that the man responsible be sold into slavery - a common punishment for what was seen as an extreme offense. Douglas Hare, in the Interpretation Bible Commentary, explains that the servant was like a provincial governor who had embezzled an amount equal to a day's wages for one million laborers - and restitution was impossible. He also explains that the embezzler's innocent wife and children would have been sold into slavery with him. In those circumstances, the wife would have faced sexual exploitation and abuse.
The embezzler pleads for mercy and, as we read, the ruler forgives him. However, the embezzler later refuses to extend the same generosity to a man who owes him a much smaller amount. Now we can sit here in church and listen to this story and say with a certain amount of confidence that we would not be so closed and uncaring as the unforgiving servant, and that we would forgive the debt owed to us. But life presents situations to us that are just like this story, yet perhaps less obvious. We have all be the lenient ruler and - it may have been difficult to forgive but we do learn that it is worth it and that it actually feels wonderful to forgive. We have all been the grateful servant receiving pardon for our wrongdoing and we are relieved and grateful for the gift. We have all been the ungrateful, stingy servant who did not return in kind a pardon for a debt much less serious and the consequences may or may not have caught up to us. And perhaps we have all been the person who did not receive pardon for a debt owed, and we know how awful it feels not to be forgiven when we are sorry for what we have done and the consequent prison we live in called guilt, shame and low self-worth.
As a parable about God's realm, Matthew 18 speaks of the Lord's generosity and reminds us that as we are forgiven and loved, we too must be forgiving. So, following the Lord's example in the Lord's Prayer, we ask God to forgive us in the same measure that we are willing to forgive others. Do we really mean this when we say this every week? Or are we just basking in the unreal comfort of the illusion that because we speak the Lord's prayer with our mouths, we are therefore magically capable of claiming the Lord's precious quality of forgiveness? Do we really mean it when we say every week, "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors"?
When someone at church acts insensitively toward another person - let's say he/she harshly criticizes another for being different or having a different point of view - how do we as a recipient or as a bystander and member of the community respond to the situation? Do we "let the train run over us and say nothing"? Do we say to ourselves that it is none of our business? Do we pull away so that we live with an increasing amount of distrust and guarded behavior so that the Lord's innocence is felt less and less as time passes? Or do we somehow offer support, honest feedback and/or suggestions for conflict resolution?
How can we be a forgiving people while ensuring that justice is done? How might we be helpful in all situations, all conflicts and how might we help people who are somehow hurt or even abused as they struggle to heal and re-establish loving relationships in their lives? How can we be a forgiving people while ensuring that justice is done?
Today's passages remind us that the Lord loves us no matter what obstacles block us from loving in return. They remind us that the Lord is with us at all times; when we are crossing the Sea of Reeds, so to speak, and our trust is weary and the terrain uncrossable, when our tongues are sharp and we leave in our paths crushed spirits low in self-worth, and even when we act wretchedly from self-righteousness and we dare not to forgive as we are yet continually in the blessedness of our Lord's forgiveness and mercy.
Forgiveness is one of the most difficult spiritual practices and one of the most important Christian concepts to grasp and live. The Lord forgives us every time we trespass on what is loving and true - that's a given - but unless we practice forgiving in our lives according to specific relationships and situations, we cannot really know, with contentment, of that Divine love, and we will not grow to love it and make it our own. And sadly, then, we cannot pass this particular aspect of Divine love on to others. The Lord needs us to be channels of Divine forgiveness. Forgiveness does not live, if we do not value it and practice it ourselves.
"You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder': and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire...
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,' But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile...
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?
Matthew 5:21-22, 38-41, 43-47
Reading from Swedenborg:
The Lord teaches the good of love in many places in the Word. He teaches it in Matthew (5:23-26) by what He says about reconciliation with the neighbor...To be "reconciled to one's brother," is to shun enmity, hatred, and revenge; that it is to shun them as sin is evident. The Lord also teaches in Matthe2: "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them; for this is the Law and the Prophets" (7:12); thus that we should not do evil...The Lord also teaches that to be angry with one's brother or sister or the neighbor rashly, and to hold someone as an enemy, is also to commit murder.
Doctrine of Life #73
...they who are in the faith of charity observe what is good, and if they see anything evil and false, they excuse it, and if they can, try to amend it in the person...Where there is no charity, there is the love of self, and therefore hatred against all who do not favor self. Consequently such persons see in the neighbor only what is evil, and if they see anything good, they either perceive it as nothing, or put a bad interpretation upon it. It is just the other way with those who are in charity. By this difference, these two kinds of persons are distinguished from one another, especially when they come into the other life; for then with those who are in no charity, the feeling of hatred shines forth from every single thing; they desire to examine every one, and even to judge; nor do they desire anything more than to find out what is evil, constantly cherishing the disposition to condemn, punish, and torment. But they who are in charity scarcely see the evil of another, but observe all the other's goods and truths, and put a good interpretation on what is evil and false. Such are all the angels, which they have from the Lord, who bends all evil into good.
Arcana Coelestia (Heavenly Secrets) #1079