Easterling: Forgiveness is hard, requiring courage


Column by Mary Lee Talbot

“The Lord’s prayer is not limited to those who claim Christ. It is addressed to God, the Father, the Mother, the Holy One, the Great I Am who provides unity beyond our demarcations of tribe, country or land,” said Bishop Latrelle Miller Easterling at the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday morning worship service in the Amphitheater.

Her sermon title was “I Am a Friend of God: As I Have Been Forgiven.” The scripture reading was Matthew 6:7-15, the Lord’s Prayer.

Easterling called this a “roadside tutorial” on prayer, conducted by Jesus. She said it was the only public lesson he gave on how to pray. Jesus told people not to make prayer a public display, to not give alms with public fanfare. 

“‘Don’t use lots of fancy words, because God already knows what matters. Pray in private to the only one who can answer.’ Then Jesus demonstrated the form and content of prayer,” she said. 

Jesus, she said, expects us to live holy lives, to love Jesus and follow him. If we are living to serve and please God, the blessings will follow. “As Anne of Green Gables said, ‘there is a difference between saying our prayers and praying,’” Easterling said. 

The Lord’s Prayer begins by addressing God as father, abba, and places the focus of the prayer on God alone.

“God is a force larger than ourselves, and in this prayer we confess our connection to the rest of creation. There is no us or them; God blesses all creation,” she said.

No matter what flag we live under, Easterling told the congregation, “all are equal at the foot of the cross. I want God to bless America, but I want God to bless the world. I love this country, but I also want God to bless people everywhere. The world’s crises are our struggles. There is no border once we pray this prayer.”

She reminded the congregation that “God is not a cosmic bellhop, there to meet our demands. We order our lives to God’s will. This is the already and the not-yet, to be in this world and the world to come. When we are unwilling to submit to God’s will, we have apocalyptic politics, wage war, and manipulate to get our own way.”

The phrase “give us our daily bread” illustrates the “already-here and the not-yet” sense in the prayer. She told the congregation that they were invited to the feast today and the messianic banquet in the kingdom of heaven.

God’s provision is for all creation, she said. 

“There is no scarcity; therefore there is no competition, no hoarding, no haves and have-nots,” she said. 

In moving to the “crux of the matter,” Easterling said scholars believe two-thirds of Jesus’ teaching is related to forgiveness. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” she said.

Easterling told the congregation, as you stand forgiven, surely you will forgive those who are in debt to you and not throw them in prison. 

“If you rely on the favor God has given you, you will not hold debts against others,” she said.

Forgiveness is hard. Easterling said people had stopped her on the brick walk and shared their trepidation about the subject of the day’s sermon. 

Forgiveness is hard. When people stumble, it is unfathomable that they cannot be forgiven, she said. 

“Our cancel culture says one misstep and you are out. You harmed someone and you are canceled. I don’t want to be remembered for all eternity for one misstep. We are the recipients of prevenient grace. We can’t earn it; it is not a meritocracy,” Easterling said. 

Forgiveness is not instantaneous and it is not cheap. She told the congregation that a lot of soul searching is needed to be ready to let go and become the shape and form we need to be in order to be called disciples and friends of God. 

“Not forgiving makes people bitter. It robs them of peace and joy, prevents healing, increases blood pressure, heart problems and diabetes. Anger destroys the host,” Easterling said.

She continued, “If our spiritual hearts are not right, it is hard to forget anything else. Give me a clean heart, Lord. Fix my heart so I can be used by thee. Give me a clean heart and I will follow thee.”

Easterling told the congregation if they ask for a clean heart, God will circumcise their hearts. Forgiveness is the key, and it is sacred work.

“Jesus on the cross did this sacred work when he said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ After the resurrection, Jesus did this work with Peter, asking him, ‘Do you love me more than these? Then feed my sheep,’ ” she said.

Forgiveness requires strength and courage. Easterling recalled Pope John Paul II going to the prison where his would-be assassin was incarcerated in order to forgive him; Nelson Mandela, who forgave his jailers then forgave Harvard for not divesting in South Africa; and the relatives of the people who were killed at Mother Emanuel AME Church forgiving the gunman.

“That faith was not weakness, but shows the utmost faith and courage in God,” she said. “We are not doormats. If we are silent, we empower the bullies of the world.”

Easterling said the church had lost the liturgical and biblical practice of lament. “In naming our pain and living with the hard-hearted, let’s cry out to God so we are not left with just thoughts and prayers when we are in deepest grief.”

She continued, “God can handle our cries. We are living in a vitriolic time and we don’t have to act like it is OK. It is OK to ask ‘How long, Lord?’ I hate that we have sanitized our worship when we should lament and wail.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said there was no future without forgiveness, and there is nothing that cannot be forgiven. 

“As friends of God, we need to recite and become this prayer. Each of us should become a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, that all sinners are saved by amazing grace. This is my testimony — I am a sinner saved by grace,” she said.

Easterling closed her sermon by singing the spiritual “He Looked Beyond My Fault”:

“Amazing grace shall always be my song of praise / For it was grace that brought my Liberty / I’ll never know just why he came to love me so / He looked beyond my faults and saw all my needs. / I shall forever lift my eyes to Calvary / To view the cross where Jesus died for me / And how marvelous the grace that caught my falling soul / He looked beyond my faults and saw all my needs. / I shall forever lift my eyes to Calvary / To view the cross where Jesus died for me / And how marvelous the grace that caught my falling soul / He looked beyond my faults and saw all my needs.”

The Rev. George Wirth, an associate in the Department of Religion at Chautauqua, presided. Melissa Spas, vice president for religion at Chautauqua Institution, read the scripture. The prelude was “Partita on Detroit” by David Hurd, played by Nicholas Stigall, organ scholar. The anthem was “O Lord my God (King Solomon’s prayer)” by Samuel Sebastian Wesley, sung by the Chautauqua Motet Choir. The choir was conducted by Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, and accompanied by Stigall. The postlude, played by Stafford, was “Allegro moderato e serioso” from Sonata No. 1 by Felix Mendelssohn. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the J. Everett Hall Memorial Chaplaincy and the Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree, Jr. Chaplaincy Fund.


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.