It was a regular Sunday, like any other Sunday. The Scripture text assigned for the day included the words below:
“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” – Matthew 5:23-24 NRSV
I thought, “This is a good time to preach on forgiveness.” Now, I have preached many sermons on forgiveness. In fact, I would go so far to say that you really cannot proclaim the Gospel if you don’t bring up the topic of forgiveness.
And, besides, I thought, “Forgiveness is a safe topic.” Yes, I wasn’t in the mood to preach a controversial sermon that would stir up or even divide the congregation.
It was going nice and smooth. I brought up God’s love, our sinful nature, our need to be forgiven and the ultimate price God was willing to pay for us on the cross. It was nice and safe. People were smiling pleasantly and nodding their heads and I thought everything was going well.
And, then, I decided to apply this to our lives. Therefore, if you are estranged with someone you love or another member of the congregation, I want you to go home, call them up, and tell them that you forgive them.
The mood changed quickly. Smiles started to leave faces. I even saw a frown or two. People were squirming in their pews. I knew that I may have gone a step too far.
And then, when people were departing from the service, one person decided to linger behind. It was one of the frowners. She proceeded to tell me that she was wronged by another person whom she loved. Now, I am not talking about victimization, but it was more of the nature that words were said that hurt her feelings. I understand that feelings can get hurt; and, when they do, it isn’t pleasant.
But this person was very upset with me; because, in her words, her anger was “none of my business” and “how dare you” was used to question my message.
For years she has been nursing this grudge and now I challenged her to forgive the person who hurt her feelings. I was now the bad guy. It would have been good if I would have stopped my sermon at the cross of Christ and then proceeded with a pleasant hymn. But I had to throw in that pesky “however” and I discovered that, indeed, forgiveness is not a safe topic for some people.
When I challenged the congregation, I received the counter-challenge. When this occurs, it is easy to pull back and retreat. Lesson learned; don’t include the “however.” Keep it safe. Talk about forgiveness in generalities; but, do not, under any circumstances, make it specific or personal. Forgiveness is a safe topic when you talk about it in generalities, but not specifics. But when you get specific, it gets personal. People squirm, get angry, and even confront you.
But, wait, have I not been called to proclaim the Gospel? Have I not been called to distribute the sacraments which, at their core, are a means of grace? As a Lutheran, I include the confession and forgiveness in my service. None of my business? Forgiveness is my business.
I thought about the fact that I could have ended with the proclamation of God’s forgiveness, but this proclamation is not an ending; it is a new beginning.
And, as far as “keeping it safe,” we were never promised a safe journey. In fact, if anything, we were assured that living we find ourselves in danger every time we live out our faith. Safety was never promised. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is the promise.
Considering all of the obstacles we face within our places of worship that are related to the lack of forgiveness and forgiving, I double down on this message. I proclaim forgiveness and do it; if people squirm — good riddance. It is high time that we embrace the pastoral courage to leave the safety zone and challenge our people to forgive. I look back at that Sunday with no regrets. My only regret is that I didn’t learn this lesson sooner.
Pastor Gross is a pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, located at 959 SE 6 Ave., Deerfield Beach, FL 33441. For more information, call 954-421-3146 or visit www.zion-lutheran.org.