This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached today, Reformation Sunday. The texts I preached on were Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 8:31-36. It was also the occasion of Confirmation for two of our young people. I’m calling them John and Paul here. (I’m in a Beatles mood, I guess.)
John and Paul. It has been a pleasure and an honor to teach you, and learn with you, and to get to know you over the past few years. If there were an award for “quietest confirmation class ever,” you two would be in the running for it, but behind the quiet exterior, both of you have been paying attention, learning, thinking, and growing over the last two years. And if I needed proof of that, it was at the council meeting a few weeks ago when you and the members of council asked each other “Faith Questions,” questions like “Where do you see God?” and “What difference does the Holy Spirit make in your life?” I heard great answers from both of you. Paul, I loved when you said that your favorite part of scripture is in Genesis, where God speaks one sentence, and everything comes to life! And John, I loved when you said that to follow Jesus means believing in him, but not always knowing the right answer. Those answers, and so many others that you gave, were so filled with faith and depth. But what struck me most about your answers that night was one word: FORGIVENESS. That was a theme throughout many of your answers. Somehow over the last two years, you’ve gotten it in your head that God is all about forgiveness. And you know what? I think you’re right.
But it’s all over now! As Jeremiah wrote in today’s first reading, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with my people. I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. No longer shall they teach one another. No longer will they have to come to confirmation class, or take sermon notes, or serve as an acolyte, for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest.”
Today is the day, for you two, when Jeremiah’s message comes true. There is no more left to learn! You understand it all! You are set for life. You are done, graduated, perfectly faithful followers of Jesus.
Of course not. Today is a very special milestone in your life, a milestone you’ve worked hard to earn. But today is not the end of your learning. It’s not the end of your faith journeys. You don’t understand it all. None of us do. Jeremiah ends his message like this: “For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
Through Jeremiah, God promises that we will all know and understand God completely, because God will forgive us everything. And you two know that as well as Jeremiah did.
And it’s good news. Because forgiveness is a huge part of being a teenager, and a huge part of being an adult. And forgiving people is not always an easy thing to do.
Because forgiving people means letting go of the anger, letting go of the hurt, letting go of the desire and urge to revenge. Sometimes it’s easy. Somebody is in a hurry in the hallway at school, bumps into you, and knocks your books down. She stops, says, “I’m so sorry,” and helps you pick up your books. It’s pretty easy to forgive that person.
But what if someone trips you in the hallway, and your books go flying, and then he laughs as you pick them up. He never apologizes, because he’s not sorry. It’s still important to forgive that person. Why? He doesn’t deserve it! Maybe not, but you do. If you stay angry at that bully for the rest of the day, for the rest of the week, for the rest of the year, do you know who gets hurt? It’s not the bully. It’s you. And you don’t deserve that. Someone once said that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you’re okay with what that person did. It means that you will not allow that person to continue to hurt you internally. It’s not as easy to forgive in that case. But it is live-giving to do so.
And sometimes forgiving does not mean forgetting. If you’re in an abusive marriage, where your spouse hurts you and your children, the most important thing to do is get out of that relationship. Depending on the situation, it may be wise to contact the police or other authorities. It may be that the abuser spends time in prison. But whatever happens to the abuser, it is also important that over time, you work on forgiving that person. Again, not because the abuser deserves your forgiveness. But because you do. Forgiving doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences. Forgiving doesn’t mean that you go back to them. Forgiving means that you don’t spend your days in anger and hurt, you don’t allow them to control you. Forgiveness in a case like that takes a very long time, often years. And it may involve counseling and other help. But it is so important.
And you may also find, John and Paul, that sometimes the hardest person to forgive is yourself. Sometimes we feel like we have done something so horrible that we can never be forgiven. But even if someone else refuses to forgive us, God forgives us every single time we ask. Every single time. Yet we sometimes hold onto that guilt. We sometimes punish ourselves over and over again because we just can’t seem to let go. It is God’s wish that we forgive each other, and forgive ourselves. And it is God’s gift of forgiveness that enables us to do it.
In today’s gospel, Jesus said, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” Jesus is talking about the Son of God, himself, and he made us free through his death and resurrection. And through that, we are indeed made free. The forgiveness he gave us sets us free from everything that stops us from forgiving others and ourselves. That freedom doesn’t always make forgiveness easy, but it makes it possible. It gives us hope, hope in the darkest situation, and sometimes hope is the greatest gift there is.
You can do this, Paul and John. Every time you are faced with the need to forgive, you can do it. But often, you will need help. That’s where we come in. A few weeks ago, I said that the whole reason we gather for worship was to give praise and thanks to God. There is truth in that – in fact, in the future Jeremiah promised, when we will all know God inside and out, that is the only reason we will worship.
But for now, we do have another reason to gather here. We also gather here to remind one another that God forgives you. To remind one another that you can forgive each other. You can forgive yourself. God desires that. God gives us what we need to do it. And here in this place, we get to hear that over and over again. Because most of us need to hear it over and over again.
And so, John and Paul, congratulations on this achievement we celebrate today. We are very proud of you. And we look forward to a lifetime of faith and growth with you, as we remind you, and you remind us, that God is all about forgiveness. You two already know that. Help us all remember. And we promise to help you if you ever forget.