Forgive and Remember


Sermon preached by Sarah Byrne-Martelli, DMin, BCC on Sunday, March 17, 2024

Today is Forgiveness Sunday. We have passed through the Sundays of Zacchaeus, the Publican and the Pharisee, and the Last Judgment, and today we commemorate the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. Today, we will participate in the tradition of Forgiveness Vespers – here at 6 pm today! – where we ask each other's forgiveness. Great Lent is a period of grace given to us to demonstrate forgiveness in concrete actions and words. We ask the Lord to forgive our sins; forgiveness is granted as we forgive one another. As the Gospel reminds us: “The Lord said, ‘If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’”

This year during Antiochian Women’s Month we have been exploring themes of the Christian life: repentance, pride, humility, and now forgiveness. Forgiveness is a core value of the Christian life. Forgiveness is about letting go, of airing out the dusty closets in our hearts, sweeping out what we don’t need anymore.

What do we need to let go of? Resentment? Thoughts of payback or blame, of hurt or wrongdoing? Let’s be honest: holding a grudge is one of the most human things we do. Holding a grudge means you were hurt by somebody you love; it produces anger, sadness, and distance. When we let go of a grudge, we stop defining our lives by who hurt us and begin the healing process. True forgiveness opens our hearts and minds to empathy and compassion for those who offend us. Forgiving our neighbors means that our lives are never only about ourselves but about living as one Body.

We are called to seek forgiveness and communion within ourselves – as beloved human beings created in the image and likeness of God. What do you need to forgive within yourself?

We are called to seek forgiveness and communion with others in healing relationships with friends, neighbors, and family. Who do you need to forgive?

We are called to seek forgiveness and communion with God, the source of all, the source of Love. Are we carrying judgments against God? Are we blaming God, or doubting God’s love for us? Can we let God love us today?

All of life’s experiences –the most joyful, the most sorrowful – should be honored in community, in a physical space that brings us together. From birth to death to every single moment in between, the Church calls us to lean on each other, lift up one another, and most importantly, be imperfect together.

During tonight’s Forgiveness Vespers, we will transition to our Lenten prayers, fasting practices, different colored vestments and musical tones. We will bow before each person present, saying, “Forgive me, my brother or sister, a sinner,” and we will reply with “God forgives!” This demonstrates that forgiveness is both personal and interpersonal, both totally specific and totally universal. We see that the practice of mercy is not done privately within our thoughts. It connects to the life of the Church most broadly. Forgiveness Vespers reminds us that we should bring our deepest struggles right here, carrying them in our minds and hearts to lift them to God.

We all have relationships that are truly suffering or broken or causing distress. We may have hurt someone, gossiped about them, judged harshly, or acted uncharitably. But with Vespers, we have an incredible opportunity to “reset” our relationships with people. It is a chance to ask forgiveness in a great cloud of witnesses.

When I first attended this service almost 25 years ago, in this very parish in fact, it felt surprising – and even odd – that one would prostrate before every member of the Church, asking forgiveness from the priest, a child, an elderly grandmother, and everyone in between. Some of these people are strangers, or people we know well and love deeply, or people who are just acquaintances. Why must I ask forgiveness from this random person I have never met? Or ask forgiveness for a private matter, in a public space?

The wondrously expansive nature of Forgiveness Vespers forces us to go beyond this limited human understanding of right and wrong, judgment and mercy, public and private. Instead, we confess that we may have sinned against the people around us, whether “in word or in deed, in knowledge or in ignorance.” We may not be aware of our hurtful choices or the ways we fail to see Christ’s presence in others.

When we sin against our neighbor, we sin against God and God’s Kingdom. When we bow before our neighbor, we bow before Christ Himself and recognize Him as the source of all love and all life. Therefore, the act of forgiveness has the mysterious effect of forgiving and healing all creation. We participate not just because we feel like it, but because our Tradition shows us how to practice radical love and mercy. It shows us how to bring our whole selves, sinful we may be, into the life of the Church.

I’ve worked as a Palliative Care and Hospice chaplain for 20 years. I once cared for a Hospice patient who had a challenging family life filled with broken relationships and astonishingly unkind, tricky family members who made her feel crazy. I’ll never forget how after each visit, after the family chaos died down, she’d look at me, and wink, and say, “Jesus, take the wheel!” She loved that country song by Carrie Underwood, and she’d belt it out with her gravelly, chain-smoking voice with a Southern drawl, “I'm letting go, so give me one more chance, save me from this road I'm on.”

Does forgiveness mean we condone someone’s hurtful actions or let them off the hook? It might feel like it. But I’d prefer to think of forgiveness as a way of saying to God, “God, could you please deal with this, because it is beyond me!” It acknowledges our painfully limited human resources and forces us to turn to God.

Saint Tikhon has said, “Do we refuse to forgive? God, too, will refuse to forgive us. As we treat our neighbors, so also does God treat us. The forgiveness or unforgiveness of your sins, then, and hence also your salvation or destruction, depend on you yourself. For without forgiveness of sins there is no salvation.” Or to put it only slightly less elegantly than St. Tikhon, it’s time to collectively say, “Jesus take the wheel.”

You may have heard the phrase “forgive and forget.” But I’d suggest we try to forgive and remember. Not to remember the hurt, but to remember what’s involved in the process of healing. To remember how far we’ve come. To remember that we can do the hard work. To remember the power of forgiveness keeps us centered in our faith. Forgiveness is a life-long process; it requires trying and trying again, it comes and goes and it’s messy. When we forgive and are forgiven, we clearly see what is wrong…and we are not bound by it. Let’s forgive and remember. Let’s forgive to remember who we are: Christians who find our personhood in Christ. Amen.