Psalm 103

Last November, the people of Church of Peace identified five priorities that express the heart of our church’s mission. Well, we voted on the five and named Twenty Twenty the Year of Caring and Service, but the runners up matter too. For the past few weeks, we’ve been devoting a Sunday to each of the other four. Today our theme is forgiveness.

Imagine if we had named Twenty Twenty the Year of Forgiveness. Imagine if Church of Peace took on the work of forgiveness, not just as a spiritual practice to do in our own hearts on our own time, but as a public commitment. Imagine if this became our signature work in the world…

Before I go any further, let me acknowledge that you’re choosing to listen to a sermon on forgiveness. This takes no small amount of courage. For too long, the Church’s position on forgiveness has been: You better do it. If you have ever been made to hear preachers in pulpits proclaim: You better forgive, I am sorry.

Nobody can make themselves forgive. When churches say You better forgive, they’re making forgiveness into a guilt-inducing threat often thrown at someone who’s already enduring the worst moment of their life. I am not going to tell you, You had better forgive. I have no right to do this. It’s just…

In case nobody has warned you, somebody should. There might come a day when you find yourself overcome by forgiveness. The mercy of God might come pouring out of your own soul! This has happened to people before. As much as we cannot force our own hearts toward forgiveness, we also can’t stop the forgiveness of God. This is the power of God, and it could find its way to you, and when it does… imagine if you are ready.

In our world, when wrong has been done and someone is left reeling, they’re often presented with a choice that goes like this: Look, you can either pursue retribution or revenge —some kind of action to make them pay. Or, you can choose to let it go and get over it. The forces in the world make us believe that this is the choice, that it boils down to making them pay or doing nothing, when come on. We know there’s more to it.

In the old television show, The West Wing, there’s a scene in which White House Communications Director, Toby, is helping President Bartlett prepare for a debate. Toby sets up the question, something like: “President Bartlett, you’re against capital punishment. If your youngest daughter was raped and murdered, would you still oppose the death penalty?”

In the scene, the President struggles to come up with an answer (which is actually part of a prank they’re playing on Toby). But Toby fires back. The right answer is: Of course, you’d want her killer to be executed, and you’d want it to be cruel and unusual, but there’s a reason why we don’t let grieving fathers make the laws that govern this situation.1This is my paraphrase of the scene from Season Four, Episode Six “Game On” by Aaron Sorkin.

Toby is not wrong. Something our legal system attempts to do is shift the burden away from the victim and place it onto the state. Now it’s the state that gets harmed when a law is broken; the state will intervene and pursue action. And if you were the one who got victimized, don’t worry, we’ll take it from here. Our legal system is not designed to help a heartbroken grief-stricken father! That’s not it’s job. Our system does not help. Our popular notion of justice does not help when what it has to offer is either make them pay or do nothing.

If resigning ourselves to this choice is the first problem, the second problem is that often, forgiveness gets seated on the do nothing side of the room. Forgiveness gets treated like it’s some kind of cinnamon-glazed complacence. Some kind of sweet, Oh whatever!

When this is what the world imagines, it’s no wonder we hear ourselves saying: “Because I love you, I will never forgive them for what they did to you.” It’s as though strategically withholding our forgiveness is an act of caring for the person who got hurt. I mean, at least we’re not doing nothing!

I know we do this. In my own family, we have done this. I know compassionate, Christian people who do this —who refuse to forgive as an act of love. What I don’t know is where we learned this. Because we didn’t learn it from the Bible, and we didn’t learn it from God.

If we know anything about the Holy Spirit, and we do, we know God so loved the world that she came into the world to go with us through all of it. She puts her own body and her own baby on the line. Now when it’s your baby girl who’s sick, when it’s your son who is shot and killed, or your son who did the shooting, what I can tell you for sure is that God is not locked away in heaven doing God things. God is in the room with you. God’s own heart is breaking. She is losing her mind. You can’t even tell whether the tears on your shirt are yours or whether they’re the tears of the LORD.

So look, Toby was not wrong. I understand why we don’t want a heartbroken grief-stricken father making the laws of our land, but a heartbroken grief-stricken father is exactly who I worship. The Holy Spirit has poured out his power and his passion, and if you think the power of God is his wrath, you’re right. On the other side of the wrath of God is the mercy of God; they flow together, and there’s nothing sweet or complacent about it!

In case nobody has warned you, somebody should. The very power of God is how she loves the world, and that puts you at risk and me too. The forgiveness of God could find its way into your own heart. You might be overcome. You might fall down on your knees because what else can you do…

I’m pretty sure this is exactly what happened to whoever wrote Psalm One-O-Three. This psalm begins with an outpouring of praise: “Bless the LORD, O my soul! All that is within me, bless God’s holy name,” and you’ve got to wonder what happened that provoked such a soaring song!

Maybe the phone rang and it was the psalmist’s daughter who had stopped speaking to him for years. Until now. Maybe he just got a letter from his brother who was writing to him from rehab when all this time the psalmist had been thinking his brother was dead… We don’t know. All we know is that something made this song come pouring out of his being.

A few verses in, the psalmist extols the power of God which is an entirely normal thing for a psalm to do. All through the Psalms we hear that God’s power is creating the heavens and the earth; God’s power is rescuing us from the land of the dead; God’s power is reigning in Zion. All through the Psalms, we hear how God is powerful. But in the next video you’ll hear, in Psalm One-O-Three, there’s no mistaking what God’s power is here. It is his mercy; it’s her forgiveness.

Somehow this psalmist falls down on his knees because what else can he do. The forgiveness of the Holy Spirit has gone and gotten into his breath, and if it happened to him, who’s to say that it can’t happen to us.

Jacob thought Esau and his armies were coming to kill him. He fell down on the ground, he had never been so sorry. Once Esau saw him, he threw his arms around him in forgiveness, and Jacob looked at him and saw the face of God, and Bless the LORD O My soul!

Naomi changed her name to mean Bitterness because she was sure the LORD our God had turned away from her, and anyway, what hope is there for her? She’s too old for babies. Then Ruth came along and ruined her despair. By the end of the story, Naomi is holding her grandbaby in her arms, and you know when she looks at that baby, she sees the face of God. And you know she couldn’t even stop herself if she tried! She couldn’t stop herself from singing the blessing of God’s mercy.

Then there was the son who came home, you remember? He had blown all his inheritance, but he came back to his senses and back to life. He decided to go back and beg his own father for a job. Surely, if there’s any fairness in God, he’ll get an interview. But you and I know, God is not known for fairness.

As soon as his father saw him, he couldn’t stop himself. The father ran out to welcome him home, the forgiveness of God spilling out all over the place, and all I’m saying is, if it could happen to him, it could happen to you.

In case nobody has warned you, somebody should. You might hear the song come out of your own mouth:
Bless the LORD O you his angels, you mighty ones who do God’s work!
Bless the LORD all creation in all places of her dominion.
Bless the LORD O my soul.

Footnotes

↑ 1. This is my paraphrase of the scene from Season Four, Episode Six “Game On” by Aaron Sorkin.

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