One of the interesting aspects of living in a small town (or at least a city with a small town feel) is that one begins to associate people with their stuff. I have, for instance, gotten to the point where I can determine who is at an event based on which cars are parked in the parking lot. I can quickly evaluate who is at church based on which coats are hanging on the coat rack. And this extends beyond possessions. At several restaurants in town, I am known not by my name or by my role as an Episcopal priest, but rather by what I order every time I walk through the door. In a small town, one is able to identify a person on the basis of the things that they use on a regular basis. There is a corollary to this rule: small town living also enables one to associate people with what they give away. When I walk around Heavenly Rest’s Thrift House, our secondhand store on the north side of Abilene, I can generally identify which member of our parish donated a particular jacket or piece of crockery, because I had associated the item with that person. In a small town, we are known not only by what we have, but also by what we have given away, by what we have let go of, by what we have abandoned.
Yesterday, we reflected on the intensity of Jesus’ instructions about sin in the Sermon on the Mount. We would be remiss if we did not now consider one of the most important prayers that deals with sin in the Christian tradition. Just after Jesus gives us a new understanding of the Law, he teaches us how to pray with words that have become known as the Lord’s Prayer. One of the clauses in this prayer petitions God for forgiveness: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Though “debts” is the literal translation of what needs to be forgiven, the alternate versions [trespasses, sins] are equally appropriate, especially since Matthew uses debt as an illustration for sin a few chapters later). Notice that asking God for forgiveness is contingent on forgiving those who have wronged us. Just as God has forgiven us through Jesus Christ, we are called to forgive one another.
A few weeks ago, I led a discussion in confirmation class about forgiveness. After my extensive presentation about the importance of forgiveness, someone asked, “What exactly does forgiveness mean?” I’m a little ashamed to admit that I had trouble answering the question. What is it that we affirm God does for us and what is it that God calls us to do for other people? The word that most versions of the Bible translate as “forgive” can also mean “abandon,” “release,” “pardon,” “cancel,” and “let go.” In other words, we could potentially translate the Lord’s Prayer “Let go of our debts, as we let go of those debts we hold from others.” What strikes me about this is that the “letting go” is entirely our initiative. There doesn’t seem to be any room for us to expect a penitent response from the person we are forgiving. God is calling us to let go of our grudges, to let go of our anger, and sometimes, to let go of something that has caused us deep pain without expecting anyone to apologize. As Christians, we are called to be known by what we have forgiven, by what we have let go of and abandoned. This is enormously challenging, and leaves us with some unanswered questions. While I will address some of those tomorrow, we must remember that God calls us to consider how we can let go of those things that have driven a wedge between us and others. We are called to abandon those things that have separated us from God’s reconciling love.