Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The God of Second Chances

When we were kids and were playing a game where we were asked to perform a certain task, if we messed up and didn't do it right, we would often ask for a "do-over".  That meant that what we meant to do did not work out and we wanted another chance to get it right.  Do-overs are something that all of us want in life because none of us is perfect and we often make mistakes.  Do-overs fit right in with the Gospel message of forgiveness and renewal because Jesus taught that God is the God of second chances.

Most of us remember the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  We remember that story about a younger son who asked his father for his inheritance and then he went to a far country where he wasted his inheritance "in riotous living".  I love that phrase from the King James Version of the Bible because it describes perfectly what some people get involved in during their lives.  Riotous living is the act of living with little care for tomorrow or its responsibilities.  So, after the son had wasted all of his money, his friends were all gone (because all they wanted was a good time at his expense and once his money was gone so was their friendship) and he had to work to avoid starving so he hired himself out to a Gentile pig farmer where the corn pods he fed to the pigs actually started to look delicious to him.

This younger son finally came to his senses and decided to go home and face his father, asking to be treated as a servant because he knew he was not worthy to be called his son again.  Can you picture that young man walking slowly toward the place where he grew up, totally ashamed of his actions and himself, thinking that his father would scold him and put him to hard labor to make him pay for his sinful actions?  Can you picture him also, when he looked into the distance and saw his father running, not walking, toward him with his arms extended widely and a huge smile on his face?  Can you see the young man gaze in amazement at his father, who now embraced him tightly and held him to himself?  What a wonderful scene of reunion and joy!

The father was so excited to see his son, whom he had assumed had died, that he proclaimed a feast and dressed the boy in fine clothing.  The only person who was not excited about all the festivities was the older son who resented the attention given to his younger brother.  He refused to go into the feast but stayed outside and pouted.

When I was in seminary, we would examine stories such as this using the question: with whom do you identify in the story?  Have you ever felt like the Prodigal Son, needing forgiveness and redemption?  If we are honest, I think we all have had experiences where we felt that way.  That is the human condition, after all, to fail and need to begin again.  Have you ever felt like the Older Son, resenting others who needed a second chance, often being critical of them instead of extending mercy to them?  I think we have all had that experience also, again because we are human beings and often judge others instead of thinking mercifully about them.  The big question in the parable, though, is have you ever identified with the father in the story, having mercy on someone who offended you and forgiving them even if you thought they did not deserve to be forgiven?  We sometimes find it easy to overlook faults when we can identify with the misgivings of others.

Jesus told many stories about God being the God of second chances, about God's mercy being given to ones who did not deserve to receive it, by human standards.  Jesus even defended those in society whom others passed judgment upon.  You may remember the story found in the King James Version of the Bible where a woman has been accused of committing adultery and the men of the town were gathered around to stone her as was commanded in the Hebrew law.  When Jesus was asked what he thought should be done to her because of her sin, Jesus responded, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."  When Jesus looked up to see only he and the woman remaining, he told her, "Go, and sin no more."  Despite what the law said about what the woman had done, Jesus extended mercy to her and saved her life.  Jesus cared more about individuals than about the letter of the law.  He knew that God was the God of second chances.

As we live among each other, do we also believe in giving others "second chances"?  Do we offer others the chance to begin again, to find renewal and new life even when we think they may not deserve it?  Do our lives reflect the spirit of Christ that extended mercy rather than award justice?  Do we offer others the "benefit of the doubt" rather than "jumping to conclusions" about the kind of person they must be based upon our assumptions we have formed?

If God is truly the God of mercy and forgiveness, then God is the God of second chances for everyone, including ourselves.  God gives us mercy every day that we live.  God overlooks our faults and failures, even when we deserve punishment if we were to take literally the words we find in the Bible.  God's love is greater than our sin and God's steadfast mercy is never ending.  If God loves us so much as to forgive us, then how much more does God expect us to forgive others and to extend to them second chances also.

We live fragile lives in a very fragile world.  We often hurt each other and cause pain for others.  We are worthy people, not based upon our standards, but based upon God's mercy and forgiveness.  We are all sinners, saved by grace, if we have believed in Jesus Christ as our savior.  We are all in the same boat of life, needing a savior to help us when the storms swamp our boat.  We all need mercy and God expects us to also give mercy, especially when it is not deserved.  

Monday, July 6, 2015

Do I Have to Forgive?

Humans hurt each other.  That is a fact of life.  We say hurtful things or we write them or we cause distress for each other as we live our lives together.  We hurt each other on different levels.  The hurt may cause us emotional scares for years to come, wounds that do not easily mend.  So, if we truly are striving to be Christians, to be followers of the one who was hurt by humans even to the point of death, we are commanded to forgive one another.

The chief teaching of Jesus regarding forgiveness, although there are many places where he says the same thing, is in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.  After he taught his followers the prayer that we call The Lord's Prayer, he expanded on it by saying, "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (Matthew 6: 14-15).  So, Jesus connected our own forgiveness for the wrong we have done with the forgiveness we must offer others.  We must forgive if we want God to forgive us.

Jesus taught about forgiveness in the Parable of the Prodigal Son when he told the story of the younger son who took all his inheritance and spent it in wicked living.  He showed how merciful God is toward us in the person of the Father who not only forgave this son for his irresponsibility but waiting on the road eagerly looking for the prodigal to come home and ran to meet him to hug him and put a new clean robe on him.  The wandering son was not worthy of the Father's forgiveness but that is exactly why the Father gave it to him.  He represents God and God's merciful grace toward us all.

Forgiveness is not always easy to achieve.  Sometimes when we have been hurt we want revenge or judgment upon the one who hurt us.  It often takes time before we can forgive another who has wounded us.  That does not permit us not to forgive though, even if it is hard or the memory of the hurt stays in our brains.  We still must forgive if we want to be forgiven.

Peter once asked Jesus how many times he had to forgive.  He thought he was being generous by saying he could forgive 7 times for an action against him.  Jesus adjusted the numbers for Peter though and said he had to forgive 7 times 70 or 490 times.  That number represents grace because forgiveness is supposed to endure forever.  We have to forgive, regardless of how many times we have been hurt or the depth of the woundedness.....if we want God to forgive us of our own sins.

Humans hurt each other.  That is a fact.  Each day we read it in the newspaper or hear about it on television.  Someone murdered another person or stole from them or committed a heinous act against society.  Even in the face of terrible injustice, forgiveness is not a is a necessity...for our own sakes...and our own forgiveness.