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A sermon preached at the Easter Sunrise Service in Niles Town Plaza,
hosted by Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 16, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  John 21:1-17 and Psalm 103:1-14
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It’s been a quiet week in Mount William, New Hampshire, my home town.  Howard Friend, the minister at the Mount William Congregational Church, was busy, as most pastors are during Holy Week.  At the beginning of the week, he visited Eloise Meaney in the hospital in Concord.  Howard always smirks a bit when he says her full name because it is so inaccurate.  Eloise has been one of the friendliest, supportive people in his church, and she seems to be the same way in the rest of her life.  Hardly a meanie.

Howard wondered if he was remembering accurately as he stood at her hospital room door.  Could it actually be that Eloise was in the same room her husband had been in all those years ago?  Howard had been at the Congregational Church only a few weeks when Joe was rushed to the hospital by members of the volunteer fire department.  Joe’s cardiac issues were critical and Joe sensed that he won’t be on the earth all that much longer.

Howard[1] was still a wet behind the ears minister and he wanted to talk about the weather, town gossip, politics, even the pending baseball season – just not what Joe wanted to talk about.  Joe wanted to talk about his memorial service.

Finally, Howard asked Joe, “Joe, doesn’t it bother you?  Aren’t you frightened?”

Joe smiled and said, “Preacher, I know I’m not going to be around much longer, but I’m not afraid.  I’ve taken a peek at the back of the book.”

“What do you mean?” Howard asked.

Joe said, “About 10 years before you came to Mount Willian, I had my first heart attack.  They called it cardiac arrest.  I can remember the medical team thinking I was dead.  I can also remember the tremendous feeling of being surrounded by God’s love.  I was revived by the doctors, but ever since that day I have been unafraid to die.  I’ve been there and it doesn’t frighten me.  I know that sooner rather than later I am going to die, but that won’t be the end.  I will, once again, be surrounded by God’s love.”

Howard has held on to that description, that hope, ever since.  And every time he is with someone who is dying, he imagines them being surrounded by God’s love.  And every time he works on an Easter sermon, he thinks about that conversation with Joe Meaney.

And I guess I agree with him – that Joe’s experience of what comes next is a way of making sense of the resurrection of Jesus – but I can’t help but wonder if Heidi Neumark[2] has a better understanding, or at least an understanding that impacts our living, not just our dying.

It’s been seven years since the washcloth incident, but Heidi’s regret is still fresh.  Her mother, Phyllis, moved in with them – Heidi, her husband Bill, and their son Jim – when Phyllis’s Parkinson’s disease had made it impossible for her to live alone.  They wanted Phyllis to stay with them as long as possible, so they managed to juggle their schedules with the needs of an aging parent, and when Phyllis’s health went downhill, they were able to pay for help, thanks to the sale of Phyllis’s house.  Phyllis knew who Heidi, Bill, and Jim were right up until her final night, and there was some comfort in that.  But for Heidi, on the other hand, there are still things that keep comfort illusive.  A big one is that she can’t forget that washcloth.

It was several months before Phyllis’s death, and the day had not begun well.  Heidi made the mistake of checking her e-mail before praying and thus began the morning with an angry message from someone whose nose was out of joint because they had been excluded from some e-mail discussion.  And instead of drinking coffee, she was cleaning up spilled urine that would not have spilled if she had just emptied the commode the previous night instead of letting it wait until the morning when the liquid sloshed over the top.  So, she dealt with all that and then, finally, Heidi went to take a shower up on the third floor where her bedroom is.

At last she was refreshed and ready to start the day over.  She was clean; the floor was clean; and the e-mail was sort of cleaned.  But her mother was not.  Phyllis asked Heidi for a washcloth, which was back up on the third floor.  Some people have to struggle to get an elderly parent to wash, and here was Phyllis asking for what she needed to be clean.  It was completely reasonable to ask for a washcloth.  But she might as well have been telling Heidi to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.  She couldn’t do it.  She was already late, and the fact that this additional task was expected of her made her suddenly furious.  Even in that moment, Heidi knew her fury was misplaced, but she was helpless before it and her mother took the brunt of the fury.

If Heidi was listening to a friend tell the story, she would offer the friend absolution.  She would, in fact, insist that her friend was forgiven.  But it’s been seven years, and Heidi still cannot access that word of peace within herself.  The tears still sting and slosh over her pail of remorse.

At some level, Heidi knows that if Phyllis could, she would grab that pail of remorse and toss it out the window.  Phyllis would forgive her.  In fact, Heidi is quite certain that her mother has forgiven her.  But in a way, that makes it harder.  Knowing of Phyllis’s unfailing love and grace makes Heidi feel worse about her own failure.  Of course, this happens most strongly when Heidi envisions her mother at her very best, now in heaven knowing as she is known and seeing her daughter with the eyes of God, and when Heidi is at one of my lowest moments.  What about God’s forgiveness?  God is always in a best moment and ever aware of our worst.  Does that divine forgiveness erase our regret or increase it?

Jesus’ first word to the disciples on the other side of the locked doors is peace.  This morning, Heidi imagined herself in that room, staring at his wounds and accepting the resurrection miracle.  She imagined embracing the improbable, exciting mission commended to her in the words that follow.  But peace?  Peace is another story.

After Jesus called Peter to feed his sheep, did Peter ever think back on that day around the charcoal fire when he denied the one he dearly loved?  Did Peter remember when Jesus yelled at him and called him a terrible name?  When Peter stood to preach on Pentecost and 3,000 were baptized in one day, did he go home and lie awake wishing he could take back his actions on another day?  According to the psalm, our transgressions are removed “as far as the east is from the west.”  If we accept that as true, then it seems that regret should not linger.  But in my experience, forgiveness does not erased regret.  At least not immediately, anyway.  At least not yet for Heidi.

This Easter morning, I am thinking that if our mind and heart are not yet in sync with what should be – with sin removed to a distance beyond my reach – perhaps mere inches matter.  We might envision regret like the giant stone that sits at the mouth of the tomb.  The stone is rolled aside, not away.  It’s still there, inches from the entrance, but it’s not blocking anyone’s resurrection.  The stone that’s rolled aside allows for feeding sheep, baptisms, and hopeful love of every kind.  The Easter angel does not make the stone magically disappear.  In Matthew, the angel of the Lord rolls back the stone and sits on it.  Does the angel prevent the stone from impeding us?  It’s still there, heavy as a regretful heart can be, but it’s not blocking anyone’s way forward.

I find some comfort in noticing that Easter seems to have come in inches for the disciples as well.  A week after that first word of peace they are back behind the same closed doors.  It seems that they have scarcely moved at all.  But there is nothing solid to hinder them, and soon they will head out.

After her own week of years, Heidi’s not in the same place.  She still hasn’t left the washcloth behind with the old grave clothes, but she hopes to.  And she is inching her way forward in the light of Easter.  And this year, perhaps, when she pauses to consider that familiar stone (or the wash cloth), her eyes will be drawn instead to the bright robes of the angel who keeps the stone in its place.  And the resurrection will continue to inch forward – in her life and in ours.

That’s the news from Mount William, New Hampshire, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children go to Sunday School every week.

[1] Adapted from a story shared in an email from sermons.com (dated 11 April 2017), citing Robert L.   Allen, His Finest Days: Ten Sermons for Holy Week and the Easter Season, CSS Publishing Company.

[2] The rest of this sermon is adapted from Heidi Neumark, “Resurrection by inches: Living with regret,” Christian Century, (14 May 2014): 13.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, march 15, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 13:1-17 and Matthew 18:21-22
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

There were times in my childhood when I was enough taller than the other kids in my neighborhood that it made a difference. This was especially true when we played hide and seek or kick the can. I was tall enough to be able to jump up and grab a branch in the pine by the Stuarts’ barn and pull my up into the tree and climb until I was above the roofs of the 19th century colonials at that end of the street.

This was a great hiding place and a horrible hiding place. It was a great hiding place because no one could find me. It was a horrible hiding place because no one could find me. If you’ve ever played hide and seek with a four-year-old, you know that the only thing they like more than hiding is being found.

I think that’s true of all of us. We spend lots of time and energy hiding. We’ve done it since adolescence or earlier. We create façades to hide behind, masks to present an acceptable self to the world. All the while, our deepest desire is to be found, for someone to look behind the façade, to lift up the mask and find us. We long to be fully known.

It is also one of our deepest fears. It is a fear because there is a part of us that thinks if people really knew us, they would reject us. We don’t just long to be found and known. We long to be found and known and accepted.

I suspect the main reason we form communities is biological. Our species needed clans and tribes to survive. So, natural selection formed us into a species that seeks community. Still, there is another reason, I think, that we seek community: our desire to be found, to be fully known, and still to belong.

I know there are friends, and then there are friends. You know what I mean? There are the people you connect with and then here are the people you really connect with. There are the people you know you can call if it’s before 9:00 in the evening and then there are the people you know you can call in the middle of the night and who know they can call you in the middle of the night – no matter what.

I think it’s like that with community. The deeper the sense of community, the more deeply we reveal who we really are. The deeper the sense of community, the more we bring out the best and the worst to our relationships with each other. The deeper the sense of community, the deeper our sense of belonging, and, therefore, the more vulnerable we are to deep wounding.

Communities that gather around Jesus have a hope that other communities don’t. We have a model in Jesus. We have a promise from Jesus that his revolutionary way of love can transform our relationships at every level. As Mark Scandrette points out, “The vision of belonging that Jesus embodied and taught calls us to a love that is far more ruthless and tender than seems humanly possible. It is a kind of love that can empower you to treat your worst enemy as your dearest friend and to keep hanging on, forgiving, believing and hoping against hope for love to win. An apprentice of Jesus learns to love as God loves.”[1]

We see how Jesus embodied and taught this in our reading from John’s gospel. Jesus is with his disciples, sharing a meal. John tells us that Jesus knows that Judas is going to betray him. He knows that the other disciple will soon deny him and abandon him. And Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his robe, and puts a towel around his waist. Their teacher, their rabbi, their Lord is now dressed as a servant, a slave. And he kneels and washes their feet.

Peter (Rocky) resists. You’re doing it wrong Jesus. You shouldn’t wash my feet. Okay, okay, but if you wash my feet, then wash all of me; make me clean. I’m so grateful Peter was a disciple because, listening to the man himself kneeling at his feet, Peter still doesn’t get it. If Jesus can call him a disciple, than maybe Jesus will call me a disciple, too.

What do you think it was like for the disciples to have their rabbi wash their feet? What do you think it was like for Judas to have Jesus wash his feet? What do you think it was like for Jesus to kneel at his disciples’ feet and wash them? Especially Judas’ feet – what was it like for Jesus to take the towel from his waist and dry Judas’ toes?

The gospel writer says that this was an act of love. Jesus had loved his disciples, and here, right up to the end, he was loving them still. And so he washed their feet. One of the things that amazes me about Jesus is his ability to love everyone. Loving the people who loved him – that was easy. But loving the people who hated him? Loving the Romans who were going to kill him? Loving a trusted friend, part of his truly intimate community, who was planning to betray him – perhaps that’s the most amazing of all.

Betrayal cuts deeply, hurts deeply. I’ve experienced hurts in my life. People have done things that hurt me physically, emotionally, even spiritually, but I’ve healed from those hurts. However, when I’m honest with myself, I know that I’m still carrying one wounding I haven’t fully forgiven. A close and trusted friend betrayed me.

That’s probably not fair. My friend made a series of choices that she thought were for the best and I experienced them as betrayal. And I still hurt from that. And I’m still angry at her. Because I’m withholding forgiveness. And there’s no way she and I can return to a sense of community with her until I forgive. It amazes me that Jesus could wash Judas’ feet. He must have forgiven him even before he was betrayed.

In our reading from Matthew’s gospel, Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive a “brother” who sins against him. The word, “brother” is translated “member of the church” in the NRSV, and not just to use gender-neutral language. The Greek word can mean both a male sibling and a member of a believing community. In context, Peter isn’t just asking about forgiving anyone who sins against him and he’s not asking about forgiving his brother Andrew in particular. Peter is asking about forgiving a member of the community. Peter thinks that forgiving as many as seven times shows patience and love.

But Jesus’ response is to forgive seventy-seven times. In other words, don’t bother counting: forgive. If you want to keep the community together, you’ve got to forgive.

I think it’s important to remember what forgiveness isn’t. It’s not denying our hurt. It’s not resigned martyrdom. It’s not putting another person “on probation.” It’s not excusing an unjust behavior. It’s not forgetting. Forgiveness is – well, consider this definition: Forgiveness is a conscious choice to release a person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and our desire for retribution, however fair such punishment might seem. The behavior remains condemned, but the offender is released from its effects as far as the forgiver is concerned.

Consider the consequences of this understanding of forgiveness.[2] Forgiveness means giving up the right to retaliate. It means being willing to allow something that happened to have happened the way it actually happened. It means that it is possible to forgive anything, that forgiveness is a matter of the will, and that we always have that option. It also means that forgiveness is never dependent on what the other person does or does not do. It is always under our control.

“Anger has been called a judicial emotion – a reaction to injustice.… [W]hen we experience any form of injustice, most of us react with a clenched fist, a closed heart, and a sense of resentment. These reactions are a natural effort to defend ourselves emotionally against further injury. And it works, in the short run. Like a scab, it protects the tender wound from infection, but if the scab stays too long, the wound never heals.”[3] Forgiveness is how we do the healing.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “Forgiveness will not be possible until compassion is born in our heart.”[4] Pastor Brenda shared another quote from Thich Nhat Hanh that speaks to how we find that compassion and do the forgiving. “Someone who is angry [and in that anger hurts you] is someone who doesn’t know how to handle their suffering. They are the first victim of their suffering, and you are actually the second victim. Once we can see this, compassion is born in our heart and [your responsive] anger evaporates. We don’t want to punish them any more, but instead we want to say something or do something to help them suffer less.”

The themes for our Lenten sermon series have come out of various lines from the Lord’s Prayer. Today’s line also speaks to forgiveness. In this church, we typically pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” A better translation is actually, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”[5] “Have forgiven” – an assumption that we have already forgiven before we approach God seeking forgiveness. Suddenly, in order to be forgiven by God, we need to forgive others first.

On the surface, I’ve got to tell you, it sure make God seem kind of snotty to me. But consider this: “If we remain unwilling to forgive those who wound us, how can God set us free from the knot of a twisted relationship? God wants more than anything to free us … to give us a way out of our impenetrable morass of sin. But if we refuse to pass the gift of grace along to those in our debt, we prevent the grace of God’s forgiveness from entering our own lives fully.… [I]t is not that God, in ornery fashion, is bent on punishing our hard hearts. It is simply that an unforgiving heart of itself blocks the mystery of divine grace. It cannot freely receive what God freely gives.”[6] So don’t forgive just seven times, but seventy-seven times, for when done authentically and in its own time, forgiveness makes the future possible.

Remember, I said that forgiveness is a conscious choice to release a person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. On the surface, that seems to be about the other person, but it’s also equally about us. When I forgive, I’m choosing to let go of my righteous anger and my need for revenge and judgment. That’s why I can forgive someone without talking to them. That’s why I can forgive someone who is dead. Because forgiveness is a conscious choice of letting go.

There’s an old story[7] about a father and son who had a major fight. The son ran away, and after a time, when the father cooled down, he set off to find his son. He searched for months to no avail. Finally, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in a newspaper (I said it’s an old story). The ad read: “Dear John, meet me in front of the fountain in the park at the center of town at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father.”

On Saturday 300 men named John stood around the fountain, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers.

Pastor Brenda and I have been giving you homework during this sermon series. Here’s this week’s assignment. Identify a place in your life where community is suffering because of a hurt or an anger you are holding on to and take at least one concrete step toward the conscious choice of forgiveness, the conscious choice of letting go, so a future is possible.

Amen.

[1] Mark Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 151.

[2] These consequences were shared with me years ago by a colleague who told me they were from For Everything There Is a Season © 1988 by Upper Room Books; I don’t have more information than that.

[3] Dan Gottlieb, “Forgiveness is hard but it lets you heal,” Inside Out, quoted by Mark T. English years ago in note #5126 in the ecunet.org meeting “Bottom Drawer.”

[4] “Compassion, the antidote,” Sojourners, Vol. 36, No. 2 (February 2007): 30.

[5] This is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the passage in Matthew’s gospel.

[6] Marjorie J. Thompson, “Moving Toward Forgiveness,” Weavings, VII, 2 (March/April 1992), 23.

[7] I’ve heard or read a version of this story many times over the years. I have no idea what the original source of the story is.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 14, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 18:21-35 (with Genesis 50:15-21)
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

In last week’s gospel lesson, we heard about a detailed three-stop process for dealing with a community member “who has sinned against you.” The process ends with the expulsion of the offending community member if the three steps fail. It’s a sort of three strikes and you’re out.

This week, picking up where we left off last week, Peter poses the question about how often we’re supposed to forgive. Jesus tells him, “seventy-seven times.” Some translations say, “forgive 70 times seven.” Regardless of the translation, many have interpreted it to mean we are to offer limitless forgiveness.

So which is it – “three strikes and you’re out,” or 77 times, or 490 times, or forgiveness without limit?

And then there’s that troubling parable in today’s lesson. If we do not forgive “from our hearts,” will God really hand us over to be tortured as it says in Matthew 18:35?

Sometimes I think it’s a mistake to try to impose an interpretation on Jesus’ parables. They are stories, and sometimes a better way at understanding them is to let the parable inspire another story. And I happen to have one, written by a Brit, as best I can tell, though I’m unable to figure out who it is.[1] Anyway, I’ve adapted it a bit.

They say lightening never strikes twice. John Rogers knew better. Everyone said how amazingly he had coped with being canned. A “reduction in force,” his boss called it.

It is no easy task to begin again, aged 55, after a lifetime working for the same company. But John had a plan. With a lightness of heart he sank his entire severance package into his new enterprise.

He rented a small space in a strip mall that was a little too far out of town, so it was zoned for manufacturing and retail. It was one of those places with a large, empty parking lot, a mom and pop diner, and a play area that was supposed to make it “family friendly.”

Equipping it with tools, buying and storing the lumber, and creating a display and sales area took all his cash, but it didn’t matter. What was important was that he could now make things. His specialty was wooden toys. Sometimes very traditional things – rocking horses, the grain of the wood dictated the racing shape of the animal.  Sometimes new things that seemed strange as wooden toys – alien space creatures that came apart, and docking satellite stations with flashing lights.

The business-advice woman at the bank said his margins weren’t large enough. He was covering his costs and making enough to live on – just – but he’d never be able to expand, and if supplies and sales got too out of kilter he’d have cash flow problems. He nodded and made some encouraging noises, but in his heart he didn’t care. He was making things. He was happy, perhaps the happiest he’d been in his whole life.

The arson attack was so mindless. A teenager fooling around, oblivious to just how paint and wood and varnish would blaze. He was a new to the area, in a foster home that was supposed to give him safety and structure. John knew nothing of him. He was pleased that the magistrate thought the matter serious; pleased that the sullen youth would serve some time in detention. But that didn’t make up for what he’d lost; somehow all his motivation had gone up in flames, too.

The insurance company paid out. The site manager was efficient in the rebuilding of the unit. Customers urged him on. But as the smell of the burning lingered about the place, so did the dead weight of John’s wounding. It was as if the fire had burnt from him all the enjoyment he’d once had. He was a victim, and he couldn’t shake it off.

And sure enough the business began to fail. His toys didn’t have the same originality about them anymore. The first Christmas after the fire, John just got by. The second Christmas was a disaster. “It won’t survive,” they said. “It was obvious from the start that it wasn’t a sensible thing to do with his severance package.”

The last thing people expected was that he would take on staff: a young man called Andy, a scraggly beard and a pony tail, a ring in his nose and in one of his ears. No one knew where John found him. It was all so unlikely; another indication that John had really lost it.

How surprised the scoffers were when the business started to turn around. Andy had a talent for working wood, and John was soon able to build on it. Teaching Andy rekindled his enthusiasm. For the first time for two years he had ideas for new toys.

And Andy brought something new to the business as well. Computers were his thing. Before joining John, Andy had been on an intensive course and he put his learning to good use. When their work featured in the “Living” section of the local paper, orders started to come thick and fast. They started selling from their own website. The woman at the bank was impressed.  “The business has turned a corner,” she said. When people asked John, “Are you thinking of retiring?” “Never,” was the reply.

But lightening can strike twice. The kid who broke into the workshop/store was after the computer. Why then did he smash the rest of the place up? Why wrecking the stock, smash the lathe, throw files everywhere, pour varnish over everything?

The police seemed to know who he was, but there wasn’t enough evidence to arrest him. “We’ll start again,” John told Andy. “There’s nothing here that a few weeks’ effort won’t put right.” But John’s optimism found no echo in Andy. The younger man burned with anger.

John had no idea how Andy knew who the suspect was. He had no idea either of the revenge he intended. It wasn’t until the police came to tell him that Andy was charged and in jail that he knew something had happened. Andy had followed the suspect to a local fast food place, cornered him in the restrooms, and beaten him until an arm and a nose were broken.

Minutes after the police left, John put the notice on the door. It simply said, “Closed Down.” With a heavy heart he turned off the lights, and locked his workshop for the last time.

A few days later the site manager came to see him. “Don’t you realize how much money you’re going to lose giving up the lease without notice? The business was going so well. Why end it now? You recovered after the fire, you can recover from this.” And sensing the real cause of John’s hurt, he added, “Surely the court will take into account why Andy did it? They’ll be lenient on him. After all it was his first offense.”

“No, not his first,” said John, “he’s already served time for arson.”
Forgiveness is not innate. The three typical responses to threat or hurt are flight, flight, or freeze. Forgiveness may start with “f” but it’s not a standard response. What evolutionary purpose could forgiveness serve? Fighting back, running away, freezing in an attempt to become invisible – these have potential evolutionary benefits. But forgiving? Forgiveness is not natural.

No wonder it’s such a challenge. The thing is, forgiveness does serve a purpose, perhaps not an evolutionary purpose, but a purpose nonetheless. The power of forgiveness is that it gives life.

Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu knows has done more study and teaching on forgiveness than anyone else I can think of. In some of his writing on the subject he tells about his own story.[2] Desmond Tutu’s father was an alcoholic who verbally and physically abused his mother. Young Desmond was a repeated witness to the abuse. He writes, “I can still recall the smell of alcohol, see the fear in my mother’s eyes, and feel the hopeless despair that comes when we see people we love hurting each other in incomprehensible ways.”

Years later, decades later, Tutu writes that if he lets himself dwell in those memories, he feels the anger and the desire to hurt his father.

He recognizes how normal this is, but, he notes, “hurting back rarely satisfies. We think it will, but it doesn’t. If I slap you after you slap me, it does not lessen the sting I feel on my own face, nor does it diminish my sadness as to the fact you have struck me. Retaliation gives, at best, only momentary respite from our pain. The only way to experience permanent healing and peace is to forgive.”

But forgiving is a challenge. It is not an easy thing to do. “Intellectually, I know my father caused pain because he was in pain,” Tutu writes. “Spiritually, I know my faith tells me my father deserves to be forgiven as God forgives us all. But it is still difficult. The traumas we have witnessed or experienced live on in our memories. Even years later they can cause us fresh pain each time we recall them.”

The thing is, forgiveness also has a power – the power to heal. When we choose not to forgive, we compound the pain of the hurt. And we compound it not just for us. We are all connected and when we choose not to forgive, we compound the pain for family, for community, and ultimately for the world.

Consider the impact on families. Siblings quarrel. They refuse to speak to each other. Years pass and their children only know that they don’t visit that aunt and that they don’t really know those cousins. “Forgiveness among the members of the older generations will open the door to healthy and supportive relationships among younger generations.”

Consider what would have happened to the descendants of Jacob if Joseph, who had good reason to hate his brothers, hadn’t chosen to forgive them. The invitation to forgive is not, however, an invitation to forget. “Nor is it an invitation to claim that an injury is less hurtful than it really was. Nor is it a request to paper over the fissure in a relationship, to say it’s okay when it’s not.  It’s not okay to be injured. It’s not okay to be abused. It’s not okay to be violated. It’s not okay to be betrayed.

“But it is okay to forgive.”

How, then, do we forgive? We start by recognizing the reality of the hurt, the violation that lies between us and the perpetrator. We invite the perpetrator to recognize the reality of that hurt as well. And then we seek out the humanity within the perpetrator.

Tutu writes about forgiving his father: “My father has long since died, but if I could speak to him today, I would want to tell him that I had forgiven him. What would I say to him? I would begin by thanking him for all the wonderful things he did for me as my father, but then I would tell him that there was this one thing that hurt me very much. I would tell him how what he did to my mother affected me, how it pained me. Perhaps he would hear me out; perhaps he would not. But still I would forgive him.

“Since I cannot speak to him, I have had to forgive him in my heart. If my father were here today, whether he asked for forgiveness or not, and even if he refused to admit that what he had done was wrong or could not explain why he had done what he did, I would still forgive him. Why would I do such a thing? I would walk the path of forgiveness with him because I know it is the only way to heal the pain in my boyhood heart. Forgiving my father frees me.”

Perhaps more difficult than forgiving others, is the act of forgiving ourselves. I know that for me, accepting forgiveness, especially from myself, is one of the hardest things. I now I’m not alone. We can become so mesmerized by the gravity of our own mistakes in life, that we have trouble believing there can be true forgiveness.

Reflecting on his childhood, Tutu realized that he was not just angry with his father. He was angry with himself. He had failed to stand up to his father and protect his mother. You or I would look at the situation and say, “Of course you didn’t, Desmond. You couldn’t. You were just a kid and he was an adult.” But Tutu held himself to a higher standard and it took him some time to realize how forgiving himself was just as important as forgiving his father. Perhaps more so.

“When I no longer hold his offenses against him,” Tutu writes, “and can also forgive myself, those memories of him no longer exert any control over my moods or my disposition. His violence and my inability to protect my mother no longer define me. I am not the small boy cowering in fear of his drunken rage. I have a new and different story. Forgiveness has liberated both of us. We are free.”

We, each one of us, has been forgiven. Each one of us is the beneficiary of God’s grace. And as recipients of that grace, we are called to extend it to others, to accept the challenge and to harness the power of forgiveness, and in so doing, to heal the world.

Amen.

Sources used and footnotes:

Laurel Dykstra, “Pay Attention to Power,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/pay-attention-power (accessed 7 September 2014).

Will Willimon, “Forgiveness Is Not Innate,” from an email from sermons.com dated 9 September 2014.

Stephen Charleston, status update posted on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/steven.charleston.5, on 2 September 2014.

[1] “If you do not forgive (a story),” PreacherRhetorica, http://www.preacherrhetorica.com/proper-19a.html (accessed 11 September 2014).

[2] Desmond Tutu, “An Invitation to Forgive,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/desmond-tutu/an-invitation-to-forgive_b_5050747.html (posted 28 March 2014; accessed 10 September 2014).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, CA
on Sunday, October 27, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 18:9-14
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Most of you know who Gregory Peck was.  For those who don’t, Gregory Peck he was a famous Hollywood actor in the 1950s and 60s, though his career spanned several decades.  I will probably always think of him in his roll of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Now, I find it funny that I need to tell some of you who Gregory Peck was because of this little story[1] I want to tell about him.

Once upon a time, the famous actor Gregory Peck was standing in line with a friend, waiting for a table in a crowded Los Angeles restaurant.  They had been waiting for some time, the diners seeming to take their time as they enjoyed their meal.  New tables weren’t opening up very fast and it seemed as if the line wasn’t moving.  Still quite far back in the line, Peck’s friend became impatient, and said to Peck, “Why don’t you tell the maître d’ who you are?”

Gregory Peck responded with great wisdom.  “No,” he said, “if you have to tell them who you are, then you aren’t.”

I had a nasty case of writer’s block this week when it came to this sermon.  I wondered what the heck was going on and, finally, it came to me:  I’ve been afraid that I will come across all Pharisaic.  I mean, here’s a guy who’s got is spiritual life together.  He fasts twice a week.  He tithes.  He goes to the Temple to pray.  And he’s really good at passing judgment on other people.  I would be talking about this passage and this passage lends itself to “good example, bad example” so easily.  In my desire to be not like the Pharisee (I thank you God that I am not like that Pharisee), I become just like him!  So, would you pray with and for me?

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, O God, my Rock and my Redeemer.  Amen.

Out of context, we might fail to realize that this parable is about prayer (among other things).  The big difference between an allegory and a parable is that an allegory makes a point and a parable is a story that is multi-layered and has much to reveal.  So, when I say that this parable is about prayer, that’s only one of the things that this parable is about.

Luke sets another parable just before this one.  The first one is about being about the persistent widow who keeps bugging a judge for justice (Luke 18:1-8).  Here we have a Pharisee and a tax collector going to the Temple to pray.  Jesus uses the least likely examples as teaching aids.

First he uses a widow – someone from the bottom of society, someone without power or voice – as an example.  In this passage, we get a Pharisee – someone looked upon with reverence by Jewish society – and a tax collector – one of the most despicable people in Jewish society.  It seems as if God is living right inside the Pharisee.  “His prayer is more of a Shakespearean soliloquy, praising himself and his works and his own goodness.  He has it all figured out, and things add up rather nicely for him.  Perhaps he comes out looking better than even God does!  It helps to have the tax-collector nearby for stark contrast, because the Pharisee far outshines him in his virtuous works.  To this religious leader, God is benevolent and has surely noticed how good the Pharisee is.  Actually, there isn’t much need for God to do anything in the life of this Pharisee except to agree with him.”[2]

But Jesus doesn’t use the paragon of religious fervor as our example.  He turns to the tax collector who “pours out his heart and buries himself so deeply into the voicing of his deepest anguish, his most profound awareness of his own weakness, failures, and sins, that he apparently never notices the Pharisee, let alone compares himself to him.  [The tax collector] flings himself on the mercies of God and depends on God to do something remarkable in his life.  There are so many reversals in the Gospel of Luke that perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this hated collaborator goes home justified while the observant religious type doesn’t.”[3]

“In our contemporary society there is a strong temptation to ‘use’ the spiritual life as a way to the experience of inner harmony and peace.  Often it seems that self-fulfillment, self-realization, and self-attainment are the ultimate goals of the spiritual journey.”[4]  And they may be for some spiritual traditions.  But I don’t think they are for Christians.  For the Christian, praying takes courage, courage to go all in on the lifelong struggle to unmask illusions.

I am, too often, tempted to pray, “O God, I thank you that I am not like that fundamentalist, judgmental pastor over there at that other church.”  But that’s an illusion.  I am just like that fundamentalist, judgmental pastor, and real prayer will unmask that illusion.  Henri Nouwen says, “The greatest illusion of all is … that a lifelong asceticism, filled with prayer, contemplation, fasting, and charity, can give us a claim on inner peace, comforting light, and a secure sense of God’s presence.  It is this illusion that can lead us to spiritual pride and destroy all that we set out to gain.”[5]

This is one of those spiritual paradoxes that seem to come up again and again in Christian life.  We can be like the Pharisee and fall into a limited prayer, a prayer that seeks to maintain the status quo, hoping that by being disciplined in that practice we will find inner peace.  But all that level of prayer does is leave us in a state of illusion.  Only when we pray like the tax collector do we realize how disturbing the love of God can be.

“If we come before God in humble openness and fervent trust in God’s goodness we make room for God to work in our lives.  That is much closer to righteousness than all the good works we can manage.  Charles Cousar writes, ‘Prayer is the occasion for honesty about oneself and generosity about others.’  Honesty flows from openness:  an open heart, an open mind, a life opened to God and to transformation.  For Luke’s audience, learning to be Christian years after Jesus died, ‘Prayer was not a last resort when all the plans and programs and power plays had failed; prayer was, rather, the first and primary task of Christians.’ Prayer helps us to discover who we are, and who God is:  merciful and loving and just.”[6]

One of the oldest non-Biblical prayers in Christianity is known as “the Jesus prayer.”  Not to be confused with the Lord’s Prayer, the Jesus prayer dates from the early 7th century and probably as early as the 5th century.[7]  The prayer has four phrases:
Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy on me,
a sinner.
Traditionally, it is repeated, mantra-like, with the first two phrases spoken (silently) on the inhalation and the second two phrases on the exhalation.  Sometimes it is shortened, even down to just two words:  Jesus, mercy.

When I hear the tax collector’s prayer, this ancient prayer that probably came from the desert fathers comes to mind.  “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” the tax collector prayed.  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This prayer can help create the openness that is needed for real transformation.  As I tried to think of a contemporary version, my favorite bumper sticker prayer came to mind:  “God help me to be the person my dog thinks I am.”

I know there is resistance among some of us to the use of the word “sin.”  If it was been used against us to whip us into shape by our parents and/or our childhood church, it’s a word that carries so much judgment and induces so much shame.  To the other extreme, because of how the word has been co-opted by society at large, the word has lost its meaning, becoming a “contemporary brand name for ice cream.  And high-end chocolate truffles.  And lingerie in which the color red predominates.”[8]  “Sin” ends up referring to the pleasurable consumption of something, including sex.

But neither of those is sin.  Sin is not a threat to keep us in line and to induce shame.  Nor is sin a pleasurable naughtiness.  Sin is simply the human propensity of screw thing up by what we do or what we fail to do.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, someone with the propensity to screw things up.

One of my other favorite prayers goes something like this:
Thank you God for this day.  And thank you that, so far, I have managed to get through it without saying a bad word or having a mean thought about anyone.  But I’m about to get out of bed …
I love that this prayer acknowledges our propensity to screw things up.

This parable begins with a journey.  The Pharisee and the tax collector go up to the Temple.  While the Temple was a real place, it is also a symbol.  It represents the dwelling place of God.  The spiritual journey is a journey deeper into the dwelling place of God.

The problem is that the Pharisee thinks he knows exactly where and how and who God is.  So he offers a prayer, a prayer to keep things the same.  He is not seeking transformation.  He certainly isn’t expecting any.  And so his prayer piously, reassuringly reviews the status quo.  The nasty tax collector in the corner even has his place as a foil, to add to spiritual contentment by furnishing a contrasting example of what it is to be in the wrong.  The Pharisee has met all spiritual requirements and things are fine just the way they are.

The tax collector, on the other hand, has no spiritual assets, but comes to the Temple needing transformation.  God can change his state through the power and grace of mercy.  And that yearning for transformation is the faith that God recognizes, and so the tax collector is changed by forgiveness.

The Pharisee, wedded to the status quo of his own success, has unknowingly divorced himself from God

“The life of faith is lived in a state of awakened desire.  In this state of arousal, prayer and worship bring a deep sense of homecoming and belonging.  Our actual apartments and houses can go a long way to satisfying this need for home, but never the whole way.  Faith recognizes a homesickness for God.  Only pilgrimage can lead us to that ultimate home in God.  In this awakened state there is no need for strategies of denial and avoidance.  Life is fraught with inevitable sufferings and losses.  These can be integrated into the life of faith when we experience it as a pilgrimage”[9] to our true home.

Amen.


ENDNOTES

[1] Based on a story shared in an email from sermons.com dated 22 October 2013.

[2] Kate Huey, “Just Worship/No Distance Too Great,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/feed-your-spirit/weekly-seeds/just-worshipno-distance-too.html (26 October 2013).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Henri J.M. Nouwen, “The Hell of Mercy,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/hell-mercy?parent=41244 (15 October 2013).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Huey, op. cit.

[7] “Jesus Prayer,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus_prayer (26 October 2013).

[8] Francis Spufford, “What Sin REALLY Is (The Human Propensity to F**k Things Up),” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/francis-spufford/what-sin-really-is-the-hu_b_4164852.html (posted 25 October 2013; downloaded 26 October 2013).

[9] Martin L. Smith, “Pilgrimage to Our True Home,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/pilgrimage-our-true-home?parent=41244 (15 October 2013).

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