Sunday, 17 September 2017

Learning to forgive. On the occasion of a wedding blessing for Lev and Vasilisa Buinov


This is a great passage for building a relationship.

It was important for Alison and myself, though probably for the wrong reason!
I was single, and had started work as a curate, an assistant pastor, in Ipswich. I visited, on my rounds, one of the local schools where I saw this rather attractive teacher. Her class were due to take an assembly and she asked me if I would help – she must have been desperate. The assembly was about this story and so we worked together on it. And the rest, as they say, was very good news for Peter, John and Andrew!

And for you Lev and Vasilisa, I hope that this story that Jesus tells will be special for you. Both because it is the set reading for our communion service today, but also because it is about grace and forgiveness – and that is what a marriage, or for that matter, any relationship, is built on.

I’d like to suggest three key words for marriage and relationships

1.      Communication:
It is absolutely key. There will always be issues and problems, things we expect and things we don’t expect. But if we are talking together, if we are being real with each other, we can usually overcome most problems.
But for that to happen we need to learn to share: the everyday stuff, the daily gossip, our thoughts and feelings, and deeper still. That is why it is good to have one or two people with whom we can learn to share our soul.
So we do need to speak, especially when we are hurting. That is the time we can go into ourselves and cut out the other person. Many of us – and this can be particularly a man thing - are like vacuum cleaners which are never emptied. We take the rubbish in, but because we do not speak, or at least we do not speak about real stuff, we fill up and we clog up. And we stop working.
And it is not just about speaking. We also need to learn to listen to each other. To listen to what is said and to listen to what is not said. There are some people who are so good at speaking that they find it very difficult to listen.

2.      Compromise:
This is important for every relationship.
Forgive me for saying this, but it is not all about you.
Former head of our childrens school in BSE. His PA, Deborah, would constantly remind him, “Geoff it is not all about you”. He said, at his leaving do, “Today Deborah it gives me great pleasure to say that today this is all about me!”
But life is not all about me. And we need to be willing to yield, to do what the other person wants. That is as true for work, for a church council, for a bible study group or for a marriage.
Several years ago, in the UK they interviewed on TV a couple who had reached their 80th wedding anniversary. It was a record. They asked the husband what the secret of their marriage was. He replied: “The secret of our marriage can be summed up in two words, ‘Yes Dear’.” But he is right. Not just him to her, but also her to him.

3.      Forgiveness:
That is what our passage is about.

It is a story about a huge debt. A servant owes 1000 times the annual revenue of Galilee, Judea, Samaria and Idumea put together. We don’t know how he came to be so seriously in debt (maybe he had been gambling on the money markets or stock exchange and it had gone disastrously wrong) but it was there and it was unpayable.
It is a story about an astonishing act of compassion.
The servant cries out for mercy and the king cancels the debt. It may have meant that he had to sell off some of his personal assets or that he almost bankrupted himself. But in forgiving the servant, the king himself took the hit.
It is a story about the difference between the king and the unforgiving servant
The king saw the servant before he saw the debt. He saw the servant’s distress. He realised what it would mean for him, for his wife and children. And he had compassion.
But that servant, when he had been forgiven, did not see his fellow servant, but only the debt.
Perhaps he had dwelt on what was owed to him. He had allowed resentment to grow. It had got to him. It had eaten him up. Money can do that.

I remember many years ago when I lent a colleague £50. He said he would repay, but he never did. I think he genuinely forgot, and I resolved to just let it go. But I found it so hard. It kept coming back. And in our story the unforgiving servant, even though he has been forgiven so much, cannot get beyond the debt. He cannot see the person.

Jesus tells that story because he wants us to know that

1.      You are known
God knows us. He knows our deepest desires, our loves, the frustrated ambitions, the greatest regrets, the missed opportunities, the achievements of which we are so proud. He knows our fears; he knows the times when we have been badly hurt; he knows our longings and our joys.
It is a bit scary because he also knows our dark desires, our ungratitude, our selfishness and self-centredness. He sees the people who we have hurt – unintentionally or intentionally. He knows our greed, our lies, our lack of mercy, generousity and graciousness, our  resentment and unforgiveness. He looks and he sees our cold hard hearts.
And he sees the debt that we owe. The debt that we owe to him, and the debt that we owe to each other. And it is overwhelming.
And he looks at our rather sad attempts to deny the debt, and at our pathetic attempts to pay it off: “I’ll give money to the church; I’ll mortify myself; I’ll follow the strictest teachings of the church; I’ll be really good”.
Do you think you can pay off the debt by doing that? What a joke!
We might be able to deceive ourselves. We might be able to deceive other people – even those most close to us. But we cannot deceive God. He knows us.

2.      You are beloved
God knows us and yet – and this is amazing – he still loves us. He sees through the muck, through the debt, through our attempts to justify ourselves and he sees us. He sees the person desperate for love, for significance, for fulfilment and meaning. He sees the lost soul inside us.
And when we cry out to him, when we ask him to have mercy on us, he forgives.
And his love is overwhelming, and it is costly. He took our debt onto, into himself. That is why we have the symbol of Christ on the cross here. It is THE symbol of the love of God.
This is how much he loves you

3.      You are forgiven
Of course, we need to acknowledge our need for forgiveness and we need to be prepared to receive this forgiveness.
That is hard. It is often harder to receive forgiveness than to give forgiveness.
If we give forgiveness we are in control.
If we receive forgiveness we have recognised that we need forgiveness, we lose power and we put ourselves in the other persons debt.

That is why the good news of the Christian faith is both so humbling and so liberating.
It is humbling because Jesus gave everything for me, and there is nothing that I can do to repay him. I am completely in his debt.
But it is liberating because I have been forgiven. I have been forgiven an astonishing overwhelming debt. It has gone. It has been paid.

The gates of heaven, that were so firmly closed, have been blown open

And because we are forgiven we can forgive.

Someone hurts us.
Often, we are most hurt by the people who we are most close to.
I guess we could hold onto the offence, and allow the resentment to grow.
One person said, “In our relationship we don’t have rows. Instead we collect niggles and grudges. We stockpile them, like nuclear warheads, in preparation for the domestic Armageddon”.
Or there was Dennis who told me about his father. His father never spoke to his brother. They had fallen out many years earlier. Dennis asked his father why they had fallen out. His father replied that it was so long ago that he could not remember what the issue was, but he was still not going to speak to his brother.

Yes, we will be hurt. Sometimes very badly hurt.
But as believers we do not need to hold onto resentment. We can be different.

I can look at the other person and see somebody who is just like me. They may have hurt me, but I also have hurt many people.
And I have been forgiven so much, so who am I not to forgive someone else.

So can I suggest, if you are struggling with forgiveness, that we ask God to help us to really see the person who has sinned against us, to see them as someone created and beloved by God, to see them as people who are mucked up by sin, and to see them as someone who is just like me. Because when we do see them as God sees them, as the king saw his servant, then we will have compassion on them.


Lev and Vasilisa, forgive me for speaking about forgiveness today. I guess I have been married long enough to know that there are times when we need to forgive each other. It is how we grow together and how we grow to become more like Jesus Christ.

But we do congratulate you on your wedding, and Lev, we forgive you for stealing our administrator!
But we pray that your love for each other will grow and deepen.
We pray that you will take time to be with each other, to speak with each other, to listen to each other.
We pray that you will learn to say ‘Yes dear’ – especially when you would prefer to say ‘No’.

And as people who are known by God, who are beloved of God and forgiven by God, we pray that you, and each one of us will grow in the knowledge of how much we have been forgiven, and as forgiven sinners, learn to forgive.  

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