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As we gather this morning, I know that we are all especially mindful of those needing God’s presence and care—those recovering from Hurricane Harvey and those even now being affected by Hurricane Irma. They are in our spoken prayer and in the prayer of our hearts. We have already seen and read of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, but we will keep praying that God would strengthen the weak, protect the helpless, and make miracles wherever possible.
Though storms of this magnitude take our breath away and shake even old-time stormwatchers, I’ve been thinking this week about the observation of one of my favorite Southern writers, Walker Percy. Though Percy was a devout Roman Catholic, but his fictional characters often had a kind of world-weariness, fighting against what Percy called “the malaise”—except for when there was a hurricane. Percy felt that some people were actually happier during a hurricane because the crisis not only brought adrenaline; it also brought focus, and clarity, and purpose. Heroes and saints are made during a hurricane. Priorities readjust, conversations are had, and I would add that often during a crisis—whether a hurricane or a sickness or something else—there are sometimes amazing opportunities of forgiveness.
Today’s Gospel talks about forgiveness as a powerful thing, as a force of nature, almost. Not forgiving is a kind of bondage—both for the one who might forgive and the one who could be forgiven. To offer forgiveness is to unbind, to free, and to loosen.
The Greek work meaning “to loose,” or “to loosen, or unbind” is a word that appears a number of times in scripture. And in several of these appearances, the word changes everything.
When Jesus sees a woman who is bent over from a disease, he heals her, and power is released. (Luke 13:16) He helps her to break loose from her sickness, from her deformity, from her embarrassment, from her isolation, from all that is limiting her and holding her back.
When Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus has died, he goes to see Martha and Mary. Jesus gets to the tomb. The entrance is cleared and Jesus prays to God. Then he says with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus comes. He gets up, he walks out, and then Jesus says, “Unbind him, (loose him) and let him go.” Lazarus will die again, on another day, but for now, Jesus has shown the power of setting loose. He has foreshadowed his power of freeing us even from the bonds of death.
A couple of weeks ago we read of Saint Peter’s encounter with Jesus in which he is named as a rock on whom Jesus will build the church. Jesus gives Peter what he calls the “keys of the kingdom of heaven,” and then goes on to explain what these “keys” really are. “Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven,” Jesus says. “And whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” In other words, this power of binding and loosing, is the power of having keys, of being able to keeps something locked up, or to unlock it and let it be loose, free and fully alive.
This power to bind and to loose is not just kept by Peter. He hands this power on to the early church community.
What developed was the tradition of the victim confronting the person who has offended or done wrong. If that doesn’t work, then take a couple of others with you. If the person still does not address the wrong she or he has done, then you tell the whole church, and if the person still doesn’t repent, she or he is put out of the church. We recall this tradition of repentance and reintegration into the full life of the church every Ash Wednesday, as we begin the season of Lent.
The Prayer Book reminds us that Lent is a time for preparing new converts for Holy Baptism, but also, when those who, “because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church” (BCP 265).
It is in that context, the context of owning the power of forgiveness that Matthew’s Christian community remembers the words Jesus spoke to his disciples, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
The power to loose, to set another person free from guilt, from worry, from fear—this power clearly does good for the person who is separated or feels cut off or left out. We have all probably had times when we felt like the prodigal son or daughter, first who feels like a stranger and an outcast, but eventually (inexplicably) we are welcomed home. The power of forgives works wonders on the person forgiven, but it also sets loose the one who is able to forgive, or accept, or welcome.
Those who study connections between mind, body, and spirit are telling us how anger and resentment affect the body. Not only do they contribute to the obvious problems of high blood pressure and heart problems, but anger “bound up” seems to contribute to depression, addiction, and some studies are showing a connections with other conditions such as arthritis and even some allergies. To forgive, or to move a little in the direction of forgiveness, begins to loose some of this anger, resentment, or whatever it is that has built up deep inside. The release of anger and resentment (through meditation, through prayer, through mindful exercise) helps us to live healthy and holy lives.
As the Church, we are stewards of this power to loosen and to heal. The Church gives us prayer, We have the saints to teach us and show us how to forgive. We have the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which many call simply “confession.” We confess and are unburdened and freed, but a part of what we can confess includes the anger and resentment and the other ways in which we keep people bound up in us, with us, to us.
And we have the Holy Eucharist—this meal of forgiveness, in which we drink new wine and eat new bread, symbols of our being re-made into new bodies of Christ to extend the message “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47).
In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Shylock demands a pound of flesh from Antonio, who owes him three thousand ducats and can’t pay. Lady Portia, posing as a lawyer, tries to talk Shylock out of his vengeance. A part of her argument is subtle, but powerful (because it points to truth.) She says that Shylock should show mercy. Shylock asks, “On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.” Portia replies simply, “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes” [Merchant of Venice, 4.1.175-176].
Mercy is not “strained.” It’s not forced, it’s not going to be demanded of you. You don’t have to do it. But if you do, if you can— the one who shows mercy, who forgives, who unloosens and unbinds… that one sets loose also a double blessing. And we don’t have to wait until a crisis or a dangerous storm in order to offer it.
I don’t know which is more powerful or more healing: to say with conviction and faith and hope and love, “I forgive.” Or to say with all belief in a God who loves us beyond our wildest imagining, “I am forgiven.” But through prayer, through the liturgies of the church, through the quiet wrestlings of our consciences, our Risen Lord whispers those words into our ear, and prays that we might hear them, live them, and carry them in our heart. The Good News of Jesus Christ is that we are forgiven, and we have the grace and power to forgive. Thanks be to God.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.