Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and sins are put away.
For several years, I had a manager that was, for all intense and purposes, the definition of the manager from hell. He was one of these people that you never knew what to expect from one day to the next. There were those days when he would come to work in a good mood, positively interact and be jovial with staff. Then there were those days when he was just the opposite, short tempered and ready to bite your head off at the slightest provocation. In fact, one day he got so angry he actually threw a phone across the office. As a supervisor, you never knew when his wrath would become focused on you, and when it did, you rarely knew why you were being berated. Over time, my colleagues and I began sharing our war stories and came to find out he did not just berate you to your face, he also trashed us to each other and to some degree sabotaged our work.
Several years after I left the organization, I received a letter from this person. In it, he explained how he now realized he had a problem with alcohol and was working his way towards recovery though AA. He stated he was now on sixth step and in the process of making amends with those whom he had hurt and was asking for my forgiveness.
I can’t begin to tell you how angry that letter made me. After being away for so long, and having tucked away all the anger and other feelings from that experience, this letter did nothing more than bring back memories I had wished to forget. After much soul searching and prayer, I realized, I was not ready to forgive him or to let go of the pain his abuse had caused. Besides, what did it matter anyway, I now live in Syracuse, he is now retired and living someplace else, our lives will never cross again. And so, a few weeks later I wrote him back, I explained that I was not ready to forgive him, and informed him how devastating his behavior had been for me and others. I also asked him not to make contact with me again. Two years later I wrote my former manager and let him know that I had finally worked through the anger and was ready to forgive.
As Christians, a major part of our life and ministry is forgiveness. The ability to forgive allows us the opportunity to grow spiritually. Forgiving, however, doesn’t always lead to reconciliation or renewed trust. The Reverend Michael Battle argues that forgiveness is the letting go of the anger and hurt incurred upon us, but the renewal of trust is part of reconciliation, and reconciliation may only be possible through an act of the divine. Often times a spouse will forgive a partner’s infidelity, but never trust the partner in the same way again. In time, I was able to forgive my former manager, but I have yet to trust that an ongoing relationship with him would in anyway be beneficial.
As an example of how hard it is to regain trust after it has been broken, I remember a young man sharing his experience of growing up in foster care. He discussed how after years of going from one foster home to another, it took him over eight years of being with his adopted parents before he trusted deep down that he was there to stay.
Because I know how hard it is to forgive and find trust again I struggle with this morning’s parable of the Prodigal Son. I think my frustration with this parable is that everything is just too easy. I am not sure I would be to ready to let Kayleigh or Chelsea back into my house after they had demanded half of my estate and then spent it on drugs and fast living. In fact, I know of too many families who have done this and the resulting devastation is horrifying.
The good news is, this parable is not about us, but about our relationship with God and how powerfully transforming repentance is when met with forgiveness. In this morning’s parable, the younger son leaves his family as an arrogant and entitled young man, convinced life is better and easier somewhere else. It was not until after the son had hit bottom, by literally eating and sleeping with pigs, animals considered too unclean for Jewish consumption, that he realized what he had forfeited in his arrogance. And, it was only after he approached his father with full humility that the son was taken back into the household.
But the question of how the father knew or trusted that his child was truly repentant. . had experienced conversion. . or was truly reborn. . remains unanswered. As human parents, we can never know this for sure. But God can, as only God knows what is in our hearts. All we can do, as Paul instructs us, is to trust that through Christ all of creation is made new and believe through Christ everyone can be transformed. In essence, reconciliation can only happen when we are willing to look at the world and each other through the eyes of God. To see creation as God originally made it and desires for it to become again. How different life would be and how easy it would be to forgive if we believed in the good in everyone. I believe God is able to forgive and embrace us so easily because God sees who God knows who we are and who we can become and when asked. . God can shed the rest. Yes, God does see us at our worst, but chooses to respond to us as if we are at our best.
Early on in my years working in children’s protection, my supervisor pointed out that every time I was asked to describe someone I always started by describing how wonderful they were. Somehow, I did not automatically see youths who were fire setters or gang members, or parents who were drug dependent or violent as their records described. Instead, I was able to really get to know them and connect with the good in them. Because, unlike my supervisor who only knew my clients through their case records, I had the advantage of knowing the whole person and was given the opportunity of seeing, who, even they, were too scared to become.
Recently, I finished reading Breathing Space, by Heidi Neumar. The book is her memoir of being the pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Transfiguration in the Bronx during the 80’s and 90’s. It is also the story of how God transformed a neighborhood. In her book, she tells of how the Bronx was the forgotten neighborhood of New York City. During this time,the city literally dumped its garbage, both the refuse of Manhattan and the people deemed to be the refuse of society. From the Cross Bronx Expressway fake windows and landscapes hid the burnt out, drug infested buildings that made up most of the Bronx in 1986. The Church of the Transfiguration was the church where many Lutheran Pastors did their field work as they dreamed of being ordained to work in the more comfortable parishes of Upper Manhattan and the area suburbs.
In her memoir, Heidi recalls how depressed and without hope the people of Transfiguration were as the few who attended mostly lived outside of the neighborhood. But soon things changed. As Heidi opened the doors of Transfiguration to the neighborhood, hearts became open to God, as prostitutes and drug addicts began to learn how God included people like them in the lineage of Christ. And lives were transformed as opportunities for mentoring, advocacy and meaningful work were offered through the church. At the end, she describes how a neighborhood was transfigured because divine grace and divine forgiveness was taught, lived out and fought for through the churches of the Bronx. When Heidi left the Bronx in 2003, she described how a once forgotten and maligned neighborhood was transformed into a place where decent low cost housing was now available to those who work, where children could attend leadership academies and actually look forward to attending college. Of how a neighborhood, once shrouded in darkness and despair, is now a place of light and hope. . all because the hope of divine forgiveness was offered and religious leaders saw what God saw. . .a new creation through the love of Christ.
Forgiving others is hard for us who live as mere mortals and the re-building of trust. . . even harder. The good news is, however, for God, forgiveness and reconciliation comes easily when we approach God with humility and open ourselves to being transformed as the Prodigal Son was with his Father.
Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and sins are put away.
The very Reverend Craig R. Swan