Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Rock of Forgiveness: Binding and Loosing

Matthew 16:13-20

"I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven."
I have always heard this piece of Matthew as being about forgiveness.  Indeed, while a vast majority of those who follow Jesus would say that the 'rock' that Jesus promises to build his church on was actually Peter, or that it is Peter's confession which all the rest is built in, as for me, I can't help but wonder if that foundation is actually forgiveness.

And taken that way, this is a little disconcerting to think about, isn't it?  That you and I who hear these words as also meant for us are given a gift to give away which has such eternal consequences? That our ability or willingness to forgive and yes, perhaps, to be forgiven, so shapes us that this shaping is indefinite in time and scope?  Oh yes, taken this way we understand that as God's people, this forgiveness is central to who we understand ourselves to be.  It holds a power little else does.  And it is ours.  Ours to receive.  Ours to give away. Or not.

Now I have to say that in some ways my sense is that you and I best recognize the power of forgiveness when it is absent.

I think, for instance, of the young woman who recently sat in my office. She and her fiancee look forward to their wedding day in the near future.  They are ready for this next step in their lives.  But the bride-to-be could not stop weeping for her younger sister refuses to forgive her.  She is afraid of how this will play out on her wedding day.  She is more afraid of the consequences for her future relationship with her only sister.

Or I think of the old man who claimed the podium at a funeral I officiated at a few years ago.  I did not know the family and so I did not see it coming.  As soon as I had spoken the final blessing, he stood up and said, 'Pastor, may I have a word.'  It wasn't really a question.  I stepped back.  He stepped forward. Next he demanded that his wife's brother and nephew come and join him before the crowd of those gathered.  He proceeded to announce to the room full of family and friends and neighbors that until her dying day his wife had fervently prayed that the two of them would forgive each other. She died with that yearning unanswered.  Then the old man turned to his brother-in-law and nephew and demanded that they forgive each other then and there.

I don't know if that forgiveness 'took.' I can't imagine it does when we are so publicly shamed into it. And yet I couldn't help but wonder at the parallel.  He was asking them to forgive each other for the sake of his wife who loved them both. We are asked to forgive, if for no other reason than for the sake of Jesus who loves us all.  Who tells us now that this gift we've been given to give and to receive is the foundation for all the rest. 

In these past years there has been a whole lot of research on the power and the importance of forgiveness.  Or the power of not forgiving. Just take a moment and 'google' forgiveness research: the headings alone will capture the gist of what has been learned.  Those who forgive live longer. They have healthier hearts.  Other ailments heal more quickly.  And these are just the physical effects of forgiving.  We already know our ability to forgive has profound effects on our emotional lives and on our relationships with one another. And this does not begin to address how old wounds un-forgiven play out in communities or between nations.

Now I am no expert at this.  While I do not experience deep ongoing brokenness between and among those most important to me in my life, I certainly have my share of long held resentments which I have never let go.

I think, for instance, of my seventh grade tormentor. Today we are certainly not friends in real life nor are we 'friends' on Facebook. We lost track of each other sometime not long after 8th grade graduation.  However, her name and profile picture will show up from time to time on social media for we have mutual friends.  Once not long ago I went to her page and was able to see there the shape of her life: husband and children and grandchildren.  Her profile picture has her riding a motorcycle.  She likes country music.  From what I can tell she doesn't live too far away, but I haven't laid eyes on her in more than 35 years.  And yet the sound of her name, her smiling for an unseen photographer still stirs me up.  I have not forgiven.

Or I think of a congregational anniversary dinner I attended a while back. The church I grew up in was celebrating 50 years. In my formative years the congregation was rife with conflict.  We left there when I was still young when those resentments and hurts were still raw.  I discovered at this dinner that they still are --- for when the pastor who was at the center of the conflict stood to speak, I found myself tensing up.  I did all I could to avoid bumping into him or his wife in that banquet hall.  I expect they did the same in turn, for it turned out there was no need for an awkward exchange.  I drove home knowing that I have not forgiven.

Now neither of these examples would seem to impact my day to day life.  I could go the rest of my life and not see any of these people ever again. Even so?  The fact that I have not forgiven does not seem to be an issue for them.  It is for me though.  They have not let me go because I have not let go.  And I wonder now if my inability to 'forgive' an old bully shapes how I face bullies still.  If I just avoid them instead of going after them.  And I wonder if my unwillingness to forgive an old pastor shapes how I pastor now.  If those old hurts impact my ministry in ways less than helpful in the congregation I now am called to serve. 

Lately, I can't get this song out of my head.  Titled simply, "Forgive," it is sung by Sara Renner. (You can get it on ITunes.)  I heard it first this last spring at a conference.  The repeating refrain is, "If you wanna live, forgive."  This week I sent a note to Sara telling her I hadn't been able to track down the sheet music online and wondering if it was available.  She immediately sent me the lead sheet.  I wrote back to thank her and to ask about copyright.  She said they were working on that, but in the meantime to use it, sing it, spread the word. The world needs it.

Indeed, the world needs it.  I need it.  You need it.  And according to today's Gospel lesson, my wholeheartedly embracing it and living it has eternal consequences.  Consequences which begin in the very next moment of our life together.

Even as I know and believe this, I am deeply aware of how far I fall short. And so for now I'm hoping that my tendency to not forgive is outmatched by Jesus' willingness to forgive. As I know and trust it certainly is. For as Peter proclaims so clearly in those moments before he is given this awesome gift and responsibility: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God."  This being so, perhaps what I do or do not do is not so central.  And yet even at that, this power of binding and loosing is still given to us. Even at that, this binding and loosing we are given to do has profound consequences. 

And so I am given pause today to realize once more how much it matters now:  this matter of forgiveness.  It is central to all that we are and hope to be.  It is the very foundation on which we are built, the rock on which we stand.  And so this much I know for sure: no matter what happens in heaven, it certainly matters now.
  • What 'camp' do you find yourself in?  Do you hear the 'rock' as being Peter, Peter's Confession, or the Power of Binding and Loosing which has been granted us?
  • What does it mean to you to 'bind or to loose?'  What does it mean that this may have eternal consequences?
  • If to 'bind or to loose' is actually about forgiveness --- as I believe it is --- how have you experienced it in your life and ministry?  How is life itself tied to forgiveness even now?