To Forgive is Human, To Redeem is Divine

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 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 subordinate, you never knew when his wrath would become focused on you. When it did, you rarely knew why you were being berated. Over time, my colleagues and I began sharing 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 working on the sixth step, the one where you make amends with those whom you have 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, I lived in Syracuse, he was now retired and living someplace else. Our lives would never cross again. And so, a few weeks later I wrote him back, I explained that I was not ready to forgive him. I told him how devastating his behavior had been for others and me. I also asked him not to make contact with me again. Two years later I wrote to 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 we experience. The renewal of trust, however, is part of reconciliation. Fr. Battle says 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, a young man shared his experience of growing up in foster care. He discussed how after years of going from one foster home to another, it took him eight years of living with his adopted family before he could trust 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. Honestly, 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 powerful and transforming repentance can be 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 the son hit bottom, by literally eating and sleeping with pigs, animals considered too unclean for Jewish consumption, that he came to realize what he had forfeited in his arrogance. It was only after he approached his father with full humility that the son was allowed back into the household. 
But the question of how the father knew or trusted that his child was truly repentant . . .had experienced conversion . . .wanted to lead a new life, 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. The truth is, 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 whom God knows we are, 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 these youths as fire setters or gang members, or parents who were drug dependent or violent as their records described. Instead, I was able to get to know them and connect with the good in them. 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 to see, who, even they, were too scared to become. 
Lutheran Pastor, Heidi Neumar in her memoir, Breathing Space chronicles the renewal of the Lutheran Church of the Transfiguration in the Bronx during the 80’s and 90’s and how God transformed the neighborhood. In the beginning, she describes how the Bronx was the forgotten neighborhood of New York City. During the 70’s and 80’s, the city literally dumped its garbage, both the refuse of Manhattan and the people deemed to be the refuse of society in the Bronx. From the Cross Bronx Expressway fake apartment houses 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 fieldwork as they dreamed of being ordained to work in the more comfortable parishes of Upper Manhattan and the area suburbs.  
 Heidi recounts how depressed and without hope the people of Transfiguration were. 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, prostitutes and drug addicts connected with the Gospels as they learned how God included people like them in the lineage of Christ. Lives were transformed as opportunities for mentoring, advocacy and meaningful work were offered through the church. At the end, she details how the neighborhood was transfigured because divine grace and divine forgiveness was taught, lived out and fought for through the churches.  
When Heidi left the Bronx in 2003, she described a once forgotten and maligned neighborhood as transformed into a place where decent low cost housing was now available to those who worked, where children could attend leadership academies and now could look forward to attending college. She shared how a neighborhood, once shrouded in darkness and despair, is now a place of light and hope . . .all because the power 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, for God, forgiveness and reconciliation comes easily if we approach God with humility and open ourselves to being transformed as the Prodigal Son is through his Father’s love. 
Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and sins are put away.

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