Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Forgiveness: Carrying Stones

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 6:27-42:

On Monday, October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts entered into a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania carrying several weapons and 600 rounds of ammunition, and most of you know the rest of the story.  It was the third school shooting that took place that week, and the sense of shock that struck us all in that moment was not just of the five little girls who lost their lives and the 5 others who were wounded, but the shock was also about how the Amish community and the parents of the victims responded to this senseless act of violence.  The idea of forgiveness in the immediate aftermath came to be one of, if not the, dominating storyline of this tragedy.  Because on the same day of the shooting, members of the community, including relatives of the victims went to see Roberts widow and his children to tell them that they forgave him and them for what had happened.  They attended R oberts funeral and burial at Georgetown United Methodist Church, and when a fund was established to help support the girls and their families, a similar fund was also set up for Roberts family and the members of the trust who oversaw the disbursement of the funds, most of whom were Amish, made sure that Roberts family was also taken care of.  This was not what people expected, because this was not what people normally saw nor what they thought they would do in the wake of such a tragedy.

Now here is some good news.  Our desire to seek revenge, to be filled with anger and hatred, to want to get even with someone who wrongs us, has been programmed into us by evolution; it is part of who we are.  But here is the other good news.  Forgiveness is also part of our evolutionary programming, the desire to forgive, to heal, to reconcile and to move past tragedy are just as much a part of who we are as our desire for revenge is.  In fact, in every animal that has been studied except for one, they have demonstrated acts of forgiveness, conciliation and reconciliation.  The one animal that doesn’t do this is the house cat, and for those who own cats, and those who dislike cats, this should not come as a surprise.  The reason why it is found in other animals, including humans, is because we live in community, and to stay in community which is necessary if we are to survive we have to have the ability to forgive wrongs.  The simple fact is, we forgive every single day, even if we don’t know that we are doing it, because if we clung to every hurt that is given to us, we wouldn’t be able to go on.  But on the flip side of that we also hang on to a lot of those hurts for many reasons, and I’ll be honest and say that I am really good at holding grudges and not letting go of things, and I’m willing to bet, if we bet but we are Methodists are opposed to gambling, but if I were a betting man, I’d be willing to be that that is true for you as well.

This backpack represents our lives, and we’re going to look at what happens when we don’t forgive.  Every day we have little things that happen to us, that cause us small hurts. Maybe someone is rude to us, or we get yelled at by our boss, or we are running late and the line at Starbucks is too long for us to get our coffee, or the grocery store is out of the item we need and so we have to go to another store to pick it up.  Just those little irritations that happen every day.   Now there are some days where these things will just wash off of us like water off a ducks back, and then there are those days where, for whatever reason, we just seem to feel everything that thrown at us.  These little things don’t seem like much, they are just these little rocks, but if we even have just one of these things every other day, that’s 182 hurts every year, 1800 every ten years, and so let’s put some of them into our backpack.

Then there are those bigger wounds.  Maybe we were cheated or lied to, or there was a betrayal of some sort, after ten years of work we expected to get that promotion and it was given to someone else.  These are bigger and less common than the ordinary pains and so we collect several of these over our lives, and they get added into the backpacks.  And then there are the bigger wounds.  Statistics tell us that about 80% of us will be a victim of a violent crime in our lifetime.  So by simply demographics that is something that many of us are carrying around with us every day.  Or maybe there was a significant betrayal, your spouse cheated on you, or a family member was the victim of a violent crime.  And then there are the really big wounds.  A member of one of my congregations husband had been murdered.  That was a major wound in her life.  Most of us probably have something like this that gets added into our backpack, and we carry these things around with us our entire life.  And perhaps there is something worse, and it feels like this rock which we can’t even pick up.  This becomes our life.

Many of these hurts we carry with us because we honestly don’t want to forgive.  We know we’re supposed to, but we don’t want to.  We want justice, we want vengeance, we want restitution, we want our lives to be back to the way they were before, or the way we imagine they would be if this had never happened. We want something bad to happen to the other person.  Even people who are opposed to this, still feel it, as maybe perhaps summed up by an essay written by Rev. Mary Lynn Tobin in response to September 11, called “Vengeance is the Lord’s (but something inside me wants to ‘bomb the hell out of them).’”  We hear Jesus tells us that we have to forgive in order to be forgiven.  That we are not to judge so that we are not judged, we are not to condemn so that we are not to condemn, but we are conflicted because we want vengeance and we also don’t really know how to forgive either.  We are told that are to do it, but no one ever tells us how.  God said of the Israelites, we are a stubborn and a hard-hearted people, and we are, but that means we need to be given a step by step set of instructions about how we are to do this thing called forgiveness.  Most of us don’t want to be carrying this weight around with us, but we simply don’t know how to get rid of it, or maybe we don’t want to get rid of it because we don’t really know what forgiveness means, or we think it means something that it doesn’t but because we don’t know that we can’t begin to proceed.  So as we start this six week look at forgiveness, let’s start with a simple definition of forgiveness, but I’m going to work backwards and we’re going to whittle away at what forgiveness isn’t so that we can understand what forgiveness is.

Forgiveness is not dismissing the pain or saying it didn’t happen, that it didn’t hurt, or that it wasn’t important.  Indeed, if it didn’t hurt or wasn’t important, then forgiveness would not be necessary.  Forgiveness starts with the recognition that we were hurt in some way that we should not have been and that it should not be repeated.  It is not about condoning the behavior.  Forgiveness says that the behavior was wrong and you did not have the right to do what you did, that is why forgiveness is needed.  It is not about enabling behavior.  Forgiveness does not say the behavior is allowed to continue.  If you are in an abusive situation, for example, you need to get out of that situation.  Don’t allow them to continue to hurt you.  Forgiveness allows you, and in many ways, forces you to create proper boundaries so you don’t keep being hurt.  Which leads into the fact that forgiveness does not mean reconciliation.  If you have broken off being in relationship because of the harm done to you, forgiving that person does not mean that you have to reconcile and become friends with them again.  The breach of the relationship may be too big to ever be reconciled, but you can still forgive. To build on that forgiveness is not about trusting.  There may be no way you can trust that person again, but you can still forgive. Forgiveness is not about forgetting, often those two things get put together.  It’s not about forgetting, as forgetting can put us back into a similar situation where we may be injured again.  If I was to ask you to write down the ten most vivid memories you have from your childhood, some of them are going to be about painful experiences.  You still remember them, but hopefully they are not dominating your life or as painful as they once were.  Forgiveness is not about saying we deserved it or that we had it coming.  While we often do have a role in some of the painful things that happen to us, we do not deserve to be injured physically or psychologically.  Forgiveness is not about pardon or saying that there can be no justice.  You can forgive and call the police and testify in court and see the other person put in jail.  The Amish families in Nickel Mine cooperated with the police and all of them said that they would have wanted to see Roberts put in prison if he had not taken his own life.  Forgiveness is not a leverage of power in which we say that “I have forgiven you and now you have to do everything I tell you to,” or bringing up the fact that you have forgiven them again and again.  That’s not forgiveness it’s just another form of retribution.  Forgiveness is not about no longer having pain or anger.  Those things will remain for a while, and while forgiveness will greatly help reduce them, they may continue to show themselves in unexpected ways and at unexpected times.  And finally, forgiveness is not about their remorse or apology.  It may come with those things, but it can also come without those things.

That leads us into what forgiveness is.  As I began thinking about this topic I started with a simple definition that forgiveness was about not seeking retribution against the person who harmed us.  That is a more Biblical definition as well, as often forgiveness is talked about in reference to a debt, which is why the original version of the Lord’s Prayer talks about debts, rather than trespasses.  If we owe the bank money, we have a debt, and the bank says the debt is forgiven, that means that we don’t have to repay it.  It also means that the bank cannot come after us for that amount.  So by that definition, “forgiveness is the act of setting someone free from an obligation to you that is a result of a wrong done against you.”    But in all the reading and studying I have been doing, there was another definition that was widely used created by philosopher Joanna North who said “When unjustly hurt by another, we forgive when we overcome the resentment toward the offender, not by denying our right to the resentment, but instead by trying to offer the wrongdoer compassion, benevolence and love.”  When I first read that, I didn’t really agree with it because I don’t want to extend compassion, benevolence and love to the person who harmed me, I want to dislike them and wish for bad things to go there way, thank you very much.  But the more I’ve interacted with it, the more I think she might be right.  And here are some other things that forgiveness is.

It is a learned skill.  While we might be forgiving by nature, we don’t necessarily know all the steps to forgiving.  We have to learn them, and like anything that is learned it will be hard at the beginning, but we will get better the more we do it.  Forgiveness is caught more than it is taught.  Also like most skills, we learn the most by watching other people do it and then trying it ourselves.  That means that if we want those around us to be forgiving, especially forgiving towards us, then we need to be forgiving to start.  Forgiveness is about letting go.  It’s not about forgetting or pretending the pain and hurt don’t exist, but about letting go of those things so that we are the ones in control of our lives.  It’s about saying that fear and anger are not going to be the controlling factors in planning your current and future life, or worse letting the person who hurt us continue to control us through that hurt.  Forgiveness is more about us than it is about the person who hurt us.  It’s about, in the words of forgiveness researcher Fred Luskin, “becoming a hero rather than a victim” in the story we tell.  Forgiveness is an opportunity to display grace.  Grace cannot be earned and it is not deserved, and yet it is given anyways.  Forgiveness is a not a one-time event.  It has to be practiced and given, again and again and again.  Forgiveness is hard-work and it takes time.  One of the books I read was entitled How to Forgive Everyone of Everything in 21 Days, and I think she is wrong.  If we expect forgiveness to immediately remove all the pain and suffering we will be greatly disappointed and discouraged.  Especially for those big hurts, forgiveness will often take a long time, it’s not something we can simply toss away, but instead that we will have to chip away at.  Forgiveness will also cause us to have to relive some of that pain in order to remove it, and will often uncover other pains that we had tried to hide away.  And finally, forgiveness is about a choice.  We can either continue to carry around these stones or we can choose something else.  It has been said that holding onto our grudges is like drinking poison and expecting it to hurt the other person.  And so the first step to forgiveness is simply choosing to begin to forgive, or being open to the possibility of forgiving, and dropping our baggage.

In the passage we heard, Jesus said before we talk about the splinter in someone else’s eye that we need to see the log in our own eye.  So forgiveness begins not only with the decision to choose to forgive, but it also begins with the humility in recognizing that there are people walking around with stones that have our name on them as well.  That is why in the Lord’s prayer we ask first for our forgiveness before we talk about forgiving others, because it is much easier to forgive when we recognize our own shortcoming and our own need for forgiveness.  Today’s passage begins with a phrase that is easy to overlook, and that is that Jesus says, “But I say to you that listen.”  Are you listening?  “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, turn the other cheek, do not judge, do not condemn, and forgive and you will be forgiven.”  Today we begin a journey that takes us over the next six weeks in which we look at forgiveness, but that journey for us also begins today with the simple, and yet very hard decision, to drop the stones we are carrying and to begin the steps necessary to love those who have hurt us, bless those who have cursed us and to forgive.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

* I borrowed the idea of carrying stones from Adam Hamilton in a sermon he gave on forgiveness.

No comments:

Post a Comment