As We Forgive Those...

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, November 12, 2017.

Last Sunday I talked about the tendency, among some of us at least, to want to hurry to forgiveness, as if we can skip the intermediate steps. Doing the work of forgiveness requires acknowledging you have hurt someone, and trying to make amends, and finally asking, “Can you forgive me?” This isn’t easy. It can feel vulnerable, and risky. And it’s worth it.

We live in a culture that likes the quick fix, the easy way out, what the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” But can we acknowledge that there’s no such thing as a “get out of jail free” card? Or as Meatloaf sang, “there ain’t no Coupe de Ville hiding at the bottom of a Crackerjack box.” I thought about trying to sing that line for you, and my wife said, “Well, that would provide an opportunity for forgiveness.”

In this month when we’re reflecting on forgiveness, can we just admit that it’s not easy and it’s really important? Because without forgiveness, how can we ever be free? Forgiveness, for yourself and for others, takes time and effort. If you want to get there, you have to be willing to do the work.

I think of my father. Some of you know his story. A respected lawyer, he got into debt, and rather than admit he was in trouble, and ask for help, he started taking money from accounts he was managing for some of his clients. Eventually he got caught, and was sent to prison for embezzlement.

I hoped that going to jail might help my dad start to atone for his mistakes. Pay his debt to society, as they say, so he could make a fresh start. But that never happened. Unwilling or unable to face what he had done, he kept trying to make deals; he kept looking for easy ways out. In the end, he tried to run away from his troubles. Which never turns out well. 

His life taught me that our actions do have consequences. That the choices we make add up, and shape the course of our lives. The Buddha said, “We are the heirs of our own actions.” He was talking about what Eastern religions call karma, the understanding that there is such a thing as cause and effect. The Bible puts it this way: “Whatever a person soweth, that also shall they reap” (Galatians 6:7).

Have you ever noticed how, in the Lord’s Prayer, what some of you grew up calling the “Our Father,” the asking for forgiveness comes with a condition? “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Back when this prayer was first written down, not long after the time of Jesus, people had a different understanding of God than many of us do today. In that society of kings and rulers, God as a king, sitting on a throne judging people, made sense. Many of them, oppressed by unjust rulers, hoped and expected that God would come and make things right. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” meant liberation and justice for those at the margins. 

We have many different images and understandings of the Holy now. And that’s a good thing, if it helps us to live better lives. The invitation is to engage with the old wisdom, and interpret it for the living of these days.

So what about that line, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”? You could hear it as oppressive and scary, putting yourself at the mercy of an angry and judgmental God. But you don’t have to interpret it that way.

In that sentence, the most important word is the little word “as.” “As we forgive those” who hurt us. This is no easy task! Can you see that this line is acknowledging a basic human truth: that forgiveness isn’t free—if you want to be forgiven yourself, you need to learn how to open your heart and forgive others. The blessing of forgiveness comes when you are able to extend it to others.

The Lord’s Prayer is saying, to the extent that you are able to travel this way of forgiveness, to the extent you are able to forgive those who have hurt or annoyed or disappointed you, that is how much you will find your own forgiveness and your own liberation. It’s like karma, or cause and effect. It’s like a natural law; you can’t put something out into the world and not expect it to come back to you. 

Jesus said, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matthew 7:1-2). Or to put it more positively, think of those words the Beatles sang, “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

I actually believe that the universe is more generous and giving than that. Because so often, it seems we get better than we deserve. I like to imagine the Holy as a mother longing for us to come to our senses and come home; as Mary Oliver says, to find our “place in the family of things.” But I also believe there is deep truth in the conditional nature of forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer. I hear it saying, “You will be forgiven, and you will be free, to the extent you do this for others.” 

One of my spiritual heroes is Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He walked the walk of forgiveness during difficult times in South Africa. He wrote a book about the Truth and Reconciliation process there called No Future Without Forgiveness, and a more recent book called The Book of Forgiving. I put his words at the top of the order of service today. If they speak to you, maybe you’ll take them home at put them up somewhere you can see them. He says, “In our own ways, we are all broken. Out of that brokenness, we hurt others. Forgiveness is the journey we take toward healing the broken parts. It is how we become whole again.”

Not everyone makes this journey toward wholeness. But we each have a choice. The way of forgiveness is available to anyone who desires it, and is willing to travel this difficult and rewarding path. It begins, I believe, with seeing yourself as you are. With understanding that your life is a gift that you are here to share.

The Sufi mystic Rumi understood the importance of integrating the varied parts of ourselves. He wrote:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

What if we could live this way? How would our lives be different? 

One of the main reasons you come here, I believe, is to have this time that is set apart from your daily lives. To have this invitation to be still, to pay attention to what comes up in your own heart and soul, to be in touch with the Truth that resides there. That we can hear, when we take the time to listen. This truth isn’t always pleasant, or easy, but we need to hear it, into order to discern what is good and holy. And as you listen to that voice within, it will guide you where you need to go.

There is plenty of trouble in our world, and in our lives. There is too much that is broken. And yet, there is still beauty, and meaning; there is forgiveness and reconciliation. There is love. 

I want to leave you with an image. I posted it on our church Facebook page on Friday. It’s a photograph taken looking out over a dark lake. There’s a grey fog hanging over the water. The fog is starting to lift, and there’s an opening in the fog, and through it you can see across to the far shore, where a hill rises up over the lake; through that hole in the fog you can see a bit of blue sky and the sun shining through. 

This image is for me an icon, a window into this life of faith. Sometimes the fog descends upon us. Sometimes we are traveling through the valley of the shadow, and  the sun is hidden from us. The invitation is to trust in the light even when it is gone from our sight. To remember that the sun does come up every morning, even when we can’t feel its warmth. To trust in that Love which will not let us go, and be people who know how to forgive and how to be forgiven. To live our lives attuned to that gracious Spirit, so that we can boldly say: “through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing. It sounds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?”