As we Forgive Those

“Forgiveness,” said Mark Twain, “is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” In that sentence is all the paradox of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not justice; we emphasize the claims for justice, for righting the wrongs of racism, patriarchy, imperialism, but forgiveness works, when it does, by sidestepping claims for justice. Forgiveness does not undo the harm caused by the original wrongdoing. The violet is still crushed. But some of its essence remains on the heel that has crushed it. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. How do we deal with these things? UUs can duck these questions, we can say those are issues for orthodox Christians to work out, but I think we miss a lot of chances for doing good in the world if we take that attitude. For the potential for forgiveness and reconciliation arises whenever anyone in any context does a harmful act. Which happens many times per day. And in almost any such scenario, the alternatives are to fight it out in the arena of retribution and punishment or to try to find a basis for healing and restoration. How many of us are carrying a private grievance against a family member or an exteacher or boss for some wrong inflicted by them on us decades in the past? How many of us still suffer pangs of guilt for some wrong which we caused to someone else? On the public scene, the atrocity of separating families of immigrants stems from the misguided zero tolerance policy which refuses to forgive immigrants the crime of wanting to raise their children in a land where they won’t be murdered by gangs or government. Let me say right up front that I don’t stand apart from any of you. The details do not matter, but I am standing in need of forgiveness from some people, and I stand in need of forgiving others. A minister, this minister, is human and fallible and by no means have all of my moral accounts been squared. This pulpit is set three feet above the pews but I don’t think this puts me in any superior moral position. I should also say to all you good humanists and naturalists and atheists in these pews that this particular topic has to start with Jesus, though it doesn’t end with him. Sure, trespasses and harms and human shortcomings are universal and forgiveness and reconciliation would be possible responses whether Jesus had ever lived or not, but our thinking about them is inevitably grounded in what Jesus had to say first. There are three things to note about Jesus’ take on forgiveness. First, this sermon’s title is taken from the prayer that Jesus taught his listeners to pray in the Sermon on the Mount: the faithful ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I emphasize the “as” because it seems to me that these two obligations are reciprocal, in a sense. Now a purely reciprocal arrangement between two parties involves each d but it is broader than that. But the forgiveness sought of God is conditioned by the forgiveness bestowed by the praying person in the second clause – “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” As we forgive others, so shall we be forgiven. The corollary to this is that if we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven. Second, Jesus added an additional dimension to this in setting up the principles for how his disciples were to relate to one another; he made forgiveness mandatory if there was repentance. Luke 17: “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4 And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, 'I repent,' you must forgive." Seven times offense, seven times repentance means you must forgive seven times. This is tough stuff, and I bring it to you today not because I have in any way measured up to this standard, but because I believe it is the standard to which we all should aspire. This is Universalism, folks. It all makes sense if we postulate God as the embodiment of unconditional love. So we get to the third bit of Jesus, the parable of the Prodigal Son. God is here the loving father who insists on killing the fatted calf to celebrate the return of his son. But the eldest son will have none of it, for he has kept the rules and has lived obedient to his father. The eldest son makes a case based on justice, and the father answers with a case based on love, mercy and forgiveness. While we all may have a sentimental side rooting for love, mercy and forgiveness, most of us will also feel some sympathy with the eldest son here. Some of us here have children or other close relatives who have had a brush with addiction and many in that situation faced with an endless round of promises and relapses and detox will resort to tough-love strategies which rely on making the addicted person face the consequences of his choices. Christianity considers itself to have grown out of Judaism, though Judaism does not agree with this genealogy. Judaism of course has a central annual ritual dealing with sin and atonement for sin. Traditionally the sins atoned at Yom Kippur are of two kinds, sins against God and sins against fellow humans. Now the Torah contains very detailed provisions of law covering an astonishing variety of situations and acts allowed and acts prohibited in those situations. The faithful at Yom Kippur seek some mercy from their neighbors, in part, because they get very little mercy from God. God does things like destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because three of his angels were roughed up by a mob there, or destroy the world because humanity had become corrupt. This is not the open God of the Prodigal Son, and there is precious little forgiveness in the Torah. But at least there was some specificity. If you stole your neighbors cow on the second Tuesday in January last year, the ten days of atonement around Yom Kippur would allow you to make that good and aks for his forgiveness. Fast forward to the fourth century of the Common Era. St. Augustine, a Christian theologian meditating on a Jewish creation myth, the Garden of Eden, comes up with a spin called “Original Sin,” by which all of the human race is defaulted to damnation because of Adam and Eve’s sin in eating the apple. This will be interpreted to mean that babies who die after a few -2- hours of life will go to hell though they would have no conscious means of committing an actual sin. The only forgiveness which can alleviate this unjust atrocity is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. And even that may not work for these innocent babies. Here is where Unitarianism and Universalism part company with orthodox Christianity. If we are to follow the teachings of Jesus regarding forgiveness of sins, we must reject the sacrificial atonement theology. But I suggest that a saner course of UUs of the twenty-first century is to jettison the idea of sin altogether. The fact is that most of us do not believe in a life hereafter nor in a system of accounting for sins at the pearly gate which gets us assigned to heaven or hell. If anything is to be saved by forgiveness, by reconciling our differences, it is the coherence and sustainability of community on earth, not individual entry into the super-elite university of heaven. “Sin” seems a word tailor-made to fit into a system of rewards-and-punishments in the hereafter, but that has become is irrelevant to the way most of us live our lives. There are plenty of other concepts which adequately get the gist of wrongdoing: offense, trespass, shortcoming, crime, tort, causing harm. The trouble with original sin is that it is impossible to forgive or mediate or atone for. It is everywhere, like air. One useful concept from Eastern thinking is balance. It’s based on the assumption that there is a kind of balance to life and community, and the balance is disturbed by a wrongful act. So the goal of forgiveness or reconciliation is to restore that balance. T.S. Eliot in his masterpiece poem “Burnt Norton” wrote an arresting phrase: the stillpoint of the turning world. The world is always in motion and yet there are parts which are not in motion. Balance is not static, it is dynamic. To restore balance is to return to the still point. Another Eastern concept which is useful in thinking about forgiveness is karma. Karma does not have the personality of a God behind it; it is a purely impersonal force. If you have clear-cut your neighbor’s land in the middle of the night to enhance your own view, and the next morning your porch collapses on the plate-glass window, that might be karma at work. But notice that in this scenario, there would be no need for anyone to ask or give forgiveness. Now all of this is at a very abstract level, but if we think that forgiveness and reconciliation is a good thing we need to know how to go about it. I offer a few random suggestions. First, if you are the one seeking forgiveness, you first need to know what the person you harmed thinks happened, and what the stakes are. You may be prepared to apologize to an exspouse for an extramarital affair twenty years ago but not be aware that she believes that caused the collapse of her career or equally dire consequences. For the operative rule is that an apology is most likely to be accepted if it fully meets the offense and the harm caused in the mind of the victim. Second, forgiveness isn’t always something that happens once and for all. Sometimes forgiveness is given in doses, sometimes it is something which has to be renewed. Third, we think of forgiveness as something for a specific act or series of acts, but you can also have a kind of forgiveness for ongoing conditions. Let’s say your boss, or spouse, or daughter, or friend has some traits which drive you crazy. Maybe you need to just tell them that, choosing carefully the time and context, and so the relationship can survive. It is a risky -3- proposition, but if you succeed, you have effected forgiveness or reconciliation, its first cousin, without firing a shot. Fourth, there are no oughts in forgiveness. Despite what Jesus said or what you may take from what I say here this morning, nobody outside a troubled relationship can tell you you ought to forgive, or forgive on a specific timetable. The possibility of forgiveness arises when the burden of carrying anger for something which happened in the past becomes greater than the satisfaction of holding on to that anger. That tipping point might only be reached when one or the other party in the ruptured relationship is about to die or even has died. For fifth, anger is natural, and has a bunch of healthy uses, but in the long run can hurt the party holding on to it more than the party against whom it is directed. Real forgiveness is a freeing of both parties from the burden of that anger. And my sixth and final point is that genuine forgiveness acknowledges fully the severity of the original offense. I don’t want to wallow in or glorify suffering as the Calvinists do, but I am inclined to believe that an apology if it is to be felt as genuine has got to hurt a bit. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was an opponent of Naziism, criticized his people for seeking “cheap grace,” something which had the appearance of atonement but cost nothing. When our current president pardons Phoenix Sheriff Joe Arpao, that is not an act of forgiveness, it is an endorsement of the Sheriff’s draconian policies. In a genuine forgiveness, the original offender says, what I did was wrong, and I fully accept responsibility for the ways I harmed you, and the injured person accepts that apology. Let me close with a story from my first stint as a hospital chaplain, in Charleston in the summer of 1996. A man in his early 60s had suffered a massive stroke while on one of the area beaches, and had been flown into the city by helicopter as his family gathered in the waiting room. He was on life support, but there was no possibility of rehabilitation, and we were waiting for the neurologist to arrive to confirm his condition and authorize removing the breathing tube. In the meantime a family drama was playing itself out in the waiting room. This dying man, it turned out, had had three wives, and he left number one for number two and left number two for number three. IN the waiting room was a boy in his late teens boy from the first marriage who had been estranged from his father for more than a decade. The second wife and the third wife were also there, each with a coterie of children from their own prior marriages, and the tension between the family groups was so high, I put the hospital security guard on alert in case things got physical. Finally, the neurologist arrived; he was a friend of mine who shared my love of Irish music. He authorized the discontinuance of life support, but rather than take charge of telling the families, he asked me to do it. He said, “Edmund, you’ve been a lawyer for all this time and you’re used to conflict. They don’t train us for anything like this in medical school.” So I took charge. I assembled all the relatives and told them we would not remove life support until each of them had had a chance to say goodbye to the patient. I said the first one to go in will be the teenage son from the first marriage. I suggested to him that his father might be able to hear him and maybe this was a good time to tell his father what needed to be said between them. When he came out ten minutes later, he looked like he had been through the wringer. He was pale and tears were running down his cheeks. At the sight of him, something broke in the -4- other two families. They realized that the man who had been the source of their anger and enmity was gone. Within five minutes, these women who had been so hostile that we thought the police might have to intervene were hugging each other and exchanging phone numbers. That is the kind of healing that goes by the name forgiveness. It is the kind of healing that a President of the United States once bestowed on a grieving nation by singing Amazing Grace. It is an affirmation that what we have in common as human beings counts for more in the long run than the things which divide us. And while I firmly reject the idea of original sin, I do believe the value of forgiveness is in reminding us that for the best, the most virtuous of us as for everyone else, the moral accounts will never exactly come to balance. As Portia says in the Merchant of Venice, “The quality of mercy is not strained, It falleth as the gentle rains from heaven On the place beneath. It is twice blessed: It blesseth him who gives and him who takes.” Amen. Readings for As We Forgive Those Luke 15: “11 Then Jesus said, "There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.' So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands."' 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' 22 But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!' And they began to celebrate. 25 "Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me -5- even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!' 31 Then the father said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'" SONG “The President Sang ‘Amazing Grace’” by Zoe Mulford 1. A young man came to a house of prayer They did not ask what brought him there, He was not friend, he was not kin, But they opened the door and let him in. And for an hour the stranger stayed, He sat with them, and seemed to pray, But then the young man drew a gun, And killed nine people, old and young. In Charleston in the month of June, The mourners gathered in a room, The President came to speak some words And the cameras rolled, and the nation heard. CHORUS But no words could say what must be said For all the living and the dead So on that day, and in that place The President sang “Amazing Grace,” The President sang “Amazing Grace.” 2. We argued where to lay the blame On one man’s hate or a nation’s shame, Some sickness of the mind or soul, And how the wounds might be made whole. CHORUS (last line: My President sang “Amazing Grace”)

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​Sunday Service 10:30 AM

Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham

Open Minds — Loving Hearts — Helping Hands

© 2015 UUMH of Chatham