To access the sermon slides and the 9 reflection questions, please download from here.
Lent is a season of reflection, repentance, and thinking about our relationship with God.
My first time experiencing Ash Wednesday, when my pastor marked my forehead with ash and said “remember you are dust, and to dust you return,” I was left with a solemn feeling. We usually go through life trying to feel alive, and it is unusual that we want to be reminded of death, of our mortality.
It is when we face the reality of our mortality – that life is transient – that we begin to discern what is important in our lives, and what is not important.
Many people practice giving up something for Lent – giving up meat, giving up our indulgences, giving up facebook, social media. Some people take something on – Fr James Martin suggested on Ash Wednesday, instead of giving up something, take on something – “Be Kind.”
I want to invite you as you begin this Lenten season to begin reflecting about your life, and your relationship with God.
We often see Lent as a solemn season, without seeing that it is also a season of hope. But like the words from the prayer of St Francis of Assisi, it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Lent is to prepare us for Easter, for resurrection.
Today, for the first Sunday of Lent, I want to invite you to think about something quite central to the Christian faith – forgiveness.
What do you understand about forgiveness?
From the Lord’s prayer – “And forgive us our sins / trespasses, as we forgive them that sin / trespass against us”
Matthew 18: 20-23 “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22Jesus answered, “I tell you, not just seven times, but seventy-seven times !
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
There are literally dozens of passages about forgiveness, yet it is something we struggle with.
I have come across the saying attributed to Marianne Williamson, ”Unforgiveness is like drinking poison yourself and waiting for the other person to die.”
Forgiveness helps us let go of what is causing us bitterness and resentment. It doesn’t mean the other person isn’t in the wrong, and it doesn’t require the other person to apologise or seek forgiveness.
Sometimes when the other person apologies in an insincere way, it makes us even more angry and even more unforgiving. Even if we intend to help the other person grow or learn from their mistake, the first step is actually to forgive.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean we allow the other person to continue the same behaviours or actions that hurt us. Forgiveness doesn’t even mean that reconciliation has happened. It is the first step towards reconciliation.
Isn’t that what God does? We are not expected to grow or learn from our mistakes before we are forgiven. We are first forgiven. Then the reconciliation happens.
When we think about the parable of the prodigal – a story in the Gospel that many of us are familiar with – when was the prodigal child forgiven by the parent, and when did reconciliation happen? Was the child forgiven when the parent heard that the child was coming home? Or was it earlier? And when did reconciliation happen? Did it happen when the parent embraced the child and asked the servants to fetch the child a fine robe, a ring, and sandals, and slaughter the “fattened calf” to celebrate?
A lot of times, the practices in Church gives us the impression that it is the other way around. We first ask for forgiveness before we partake of the communion. We go through many requirements and classes before we are baptised. But the really – we are first forgiven. The requirements, the things we are to do are the paths towards reconciliation. The prodigal child can and is forgiven, but cannot be reconciled with the parent if the child did not repent AND return back home.
During the leadership retreat last year, during one of the exercises, instead of the hypothetical scenarios, Gary stepped forward to really live into what we were trying to do – have honest, authentic and vulnerable conversations with each other. He told me that he was hurt and felt belittled when I left him out of the planning meetings that Pauline and I had. The three of us used to meet to plan sermon series almost every other week. When I returned from my 2 month sabbatical, I had left him out. I left him out because I thought that he was busy and the two of us would be able to settle it. Gary said he spoke to Pauline and Pauline did explain to him that I didn’t do it because I thought any less of him. Gary had forgiven me (even though I was unaware that I have caused him hurt) – but it was only when he brought it up that we could reconcile. I didn’t have any idea of the pain I have caused him through my actions.
When I asked Gary for permission to share about this, he said “the interesting part of that experience for me was that while forgiveness had been given, i was only able to heal properly when there was awareness. but that takes courage from the one who was hurt to bring it up to the one who caused the hurt – and that is trauma that most people don’t want to revisit. but ironically not revisiting it prevents wholeness.”
That is the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.
It is not an either or – but both and. We are forgiven because of God’s amazing grace– no ifs and no buts. But reconciliation is what happens after we are forgiven – how do we rebuild our relationships after being forgiven?
“And forgive us our sins / trespasses, as we forgive them that sin / trespass against us”
Let us take some time here to reflect:
Is there something that you need to ask God for forgiveness?
In what way is God prompting you to repent?
What are the ways you can find you path back to God?
Is there someone that has hurt you and you are struggling to forgive?
What is preventing you from forgiving that person?
What do you think God is prompting you to do now?
There is one person that is the most difficult to forgive. Ourselves.
And just like in other situations, we cannot be reconciled with ourselves if we don’t forgive ourselves.
We can be resentful of ourselves, our failures. We can be disappointed in ourselves, about our mistakes, what we have done, and what we have left undone.
This is the greatest hurdle.
In many situations I have come across, this inability to forgive ourselves prevents us from forgiving other people, and make us bitter inside, and feel ashamed of ourselves. And that shame leads us to hide our authentic selves.
This doesn’t mean we don’t hold ourselves accountable. The interesting part is very often when we cannot forgive ourselves, we have yet to even admit that we have done something wrong. Somehow, we are very good at deceiving ourselves that we have not done something wrong. But deep inside we know.
This is the part where the spiritual aspect of confessing our sins actually help us hold ourselves accountable, admit when we have sinned, what mistakes we have made, and to make amends – whether it is to apologise to people we have hurt or let down, or to restore what we have damaged or broken.
Is there something you have done, or left undone that you need to forgive yourself?
What is preventing you from forgiving yourself?
What do you think God is saying to you about this?
While the season of Lent gives us the opportunity to reflect, repent and confess, this is something we should put in practice throughout the year, so we grow deeper in our relationship with God, with ourselves and with each other.
At the end of the day, I believe reconciliation with God, reconciliation with each other, reconciliation with all things is the Shalom, the state that God desires. But to get there, we need to begin with forgiveness.