Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Forgiveness: Forgiveness in families

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 18:21-35:

Rev. Adam Hamilton says that there are six simple words that keep relationships together, and so we’re going to practice them here.  The first three are “I forgive you.”  Can we say that together?  Sometimes easier said than done, but here are harder words.   “Please forgive me.”  Let’s try that together.  And here is where I disagree with Hamilton; I think there are at least 9 words necessary, or maybe even twelve.  So let’s try this.  “I was wrong;”  “I am sorry,”  “please forgive me.”  Now let’s say it all together.  I wanted to practice here because it’s easier to practice it when there’s nothing on the line then saying it without practice when it really matters.  And as also keeps coming up, it’s easier to forgive someone else, especially those who are close to us, when we remember that we have also been offenders, that we need to seek forgiveness as much as we need to forgive, and when we remember that we approach forgiveness and those who have hurt us with humility, rather than with superiority like the unforgiving servant does towards the person who owes a debt to them.

Peter comes to Jesus and asks how often he must forgive someone in the church who sins against him. Peter then provides a possible answer, one that goes beyond the normal, and says “is seven times enough?”  But Jesus says, not just seven times, but 77 times, or, some manuscript texts say, 70 x 7 times, which is to say forgive approaching an infinite amount of times, and then Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving servant, in which a man is forgiven by his king a debt of 10,000 talents, but is unwilling to forgive the debt owed to him of 100 denarii.  According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American makes about $179 dollars a day, which would be the modern equivalent of a denarii.  That means that a debt of 100 denarii is equal to a debt of $17,900.  That is what the servant is unwilling to forgive.   A talent is equal to 6,000 denarii, or 16 ½ years labor, if you were working every day.  Thus one denarii is equal to 1 million, 74 thousand dollars and 10,000 talents, the debt that is forgiven, is equal to 10 billion 740 million.  Now I don’t know about all of you, but it would take me a long time to pay off a debt of nearly 11 billion dollars, and you are going to have to give me a massive raise.

We forgive because we are forgiven, but what this parable also tells us is that if we are unwilling to forgive then we will not be forgiven.  I don’t think it’s actually because God refuses to forgive, but instead because in holding onto the grudges we have, we approach the world with a closed fist, a universal sign of displeasure, and in clenching and holding onto the debts that others owe us, we are unable not only to give forgiveness but we are unable to receive the forgiveness that is given to us.  And yet for any long-term relationship to stay together, whether it’s with parents, with siblings or with a spouse or even with close friends, forgiveness has to happen or these relationships are bound to fail, and so today we address forgiveness in families.

So just a quick review of the steps of forgiveness we have covered so far.  It begins either with the decision to at least being open to forgiving those who have hurt us, or with prayer.  And sometimes these are simultaneous.  But our prayer takes two different forms.  First, we pray for our offender, for God’s blessings to be with them, and second we pray for ourselves to help us with the forgiveness process and to give thanks for the forgiveness we have received.  Next we were to be clear what it was that we were actually upset about, and all of the feelings that we were feeling.  As part of that those steps we also talked about changing our thinking from negative thoughts to positive thoughts by practicing gratitude as a part of our life, and this is absolutely necessary in families, especially when it comes to our spouses.

We all have a sort of mental scale in our minds.  When our partner does something good, or we are grateful for something, we add a weight to that side of the scale, and when they do something we don’t like, or that hurts us, we add a weight to the other side.  Now the point of this is not really to keep this scale in balance, we want it to be out of balance, but preferably out of balance with more positives then out of balance with too many negatives, but as anyone who has been in a relationship knows there are times when the negatives begin to outweigh the positives.  If it stays like this or the negatives keep piling up, the relationship is going to have significant problems, possibly leading to break-up.  So when that begins to happen hopefully two things take place.  The first is that we start looking for what we are grateful for about the person whose negatives are stacking up.  This is a crucial step for us, because when we feel offended or taken advantage of, we stop paying attention to all the good things that are happening, not because they aren’t happening but because we stop seeing them or choose to ignore them.  So when you don’t feel like expressing gratitude towards someone else is the very time when we have to concentrate on being grateful.  And the second step is that if it is our negatives that are adding up, to start doing things to put the scale moving in the opposite direction towards good things.  Sometimes the scales can never be readjusted, and the relationship ends in divorce, a topic to which we will have to return.

One of the steps of forgiveness is to make sure it is what you are actually upset about, and as part of this you might need to decide who it is that you are actually upset about.  When they sat down to pay bills or talk about money, Mary and her husband Bill always argued, and Mary accused Bill of saying she was stupid and didn’t understand math.  When Mary decided to sit down and forgive Bill for the way she thought he was treating her in regards to their finances, she realized it wasn’t Bill at all.  Instead she recalled a male math teacher she had as a child had made her feel like she wasn’t any good at math, had made her feel dumb, and it wasn’t what Bill was doing, but instead it was the lens through which she was viewing Bill’s comments.  Once she was able to forgive her math teacher, to leave it behind, to establish new boundaries for herself about the story she told herself about herself, and then explained it all to Bill so that he understood what had been triggered when they talked, they were able to forge a new future for their relationship.

Which leads into just one more point, especially when it comes into our families, and that is the idea of projection. Projection is a defense mechanism in which we take what is our least desirable attributes and project them, or attribute them to others.  So, for example, you might say that your partner is self-centered, when in fact what you are actually seeing is yourself in them.  Now it does not mean that they are not also self-centered, but when looking at things that we really dislike about others, especially in our families where people are more likely to be like us, remember the things we dislike may be our own issues.

While we could talk about forgiveness in families for weeks on end, we don’t have the time, which leads me to my final two points of steps to forgiveness, and these don’t have to go in the order I am presenting them.  I presented a definition of forgiveness from 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.”  One step to do that is to, what has been said, assume the best of the other person.  I think a better way is to recognize what might have caused people to do the things they did.  It’s been said that if we knew everyone’s full story that we would never judge anyone.  So for example, the vast majority of people who are abusers were themselves abused.  Does this justify or give them permission to hurt us?  No!  But knowing their story can help us to see them in a different light, to see them as broken people as well, it allows us to begin to see them with compassion, benevolence and love.  I know someone who does not have a good relationship with his daughters, and when I hear him talk about them or stories from their childhood, I understand why they don’t have a good relationship.  What I also know is that his father walked out on the family when he was a very young boy, and so he had no role model of how to be a good father, and I think he did the best he could.  Was it perfect?  Not even close.  It doesn’t justify anything, but it provides context.  So to help heal our own brokenness, we need to see the brokenness of those who hurt us.

The last step we covered two weeks ago was to tell our story to one or two people to have them help us with the path to forgiveness.  And our final step for today to give forgiveness is to tell the other about how they wronged us.  But, and everyone pay attention to this point, we are not actually telling the other person, at least not yet, and because we are not actually telling them personally this is a step that can be done to forgive someone who is alive and also those who have already died.  I want you to go to a space where you feel safe, which will probably be in your own home, but maybe it’s here at the church, or some other location.  Take two chairs, one for you and one for the person you are going to forgive.  You might want to have a picture of the other person in the other chair, or some item that represents them, or you might simply visualize them sitting in that chair while you sit in the other chair.

And then you are going to tell the other person all of your feelings.  What happened from your perspective, all of the things that upset you about this event, all of the feelings you have about this event, how it has changed your life, just get everything out into the open.  Shout, scream, cry, stew, do whatever you need to get it all out.  You even have permission to bring in a pillow to hit it, and even to select one item that you might want to break during this session to help you express your feelings during this session.  Don’t break things that you did not plan specifically for this task.  Make sure you have plenty of time to do this as it could take a while, especially for those who we are or were close to.  Get it all out.  The purpose of this time is not as just as another expression of your grievance, the purpose is of this to get it all out so you can leave it all behind.  When you think you are all done, then be silent and calm for a moment, focus yourself in the moment, doing breathing exercises if necessary to be centered, and first we are going to say the simple words we started with today, “I forgive you,” and then we are going to pray again.

We are going to try and sense God’s presence in the room with us and we are going to pray for God’s blessings and for the Holy Spirit to flow over us and to bless us and to help us to let go.  But don’t just pray for it, visualize it happening.  Focus on feeling God’s blessings flowing over us, move your hands around like you are bathing so you can feel it, asking that all of our negative emotions and feelings will be washed away and that we can move on to a new future of forgiveness.  This might take a while because I want you to actually feel it happening, and then we are going to pray for God’s blessings.  Then we are going to again pray for God’s blessings to go out toward the person we are forgiving, that they will feel God’s blessings and that they will feel our forgiveness.

How often are we to forgive those who have sinned against us? Not seven times, Jesus says, but 70 times 7 times, and on this day in which we celebrate communion, we should remember that one of the things we know from the story is that the only person Jesus would have personally served the bread and the cup directly to was not Peter or James or John, but Judas.  It was to Judas that Jesus handed the bread and said this is my body which is broken for you, and handed the cup and said and this is my blood which is poured out for you and for many for what?  For the forgiveness of sins.  Jesus set the example on the last night of his life to offer forgiveness to the disciple who would betray him, just as he set the example on the cross to offer forgiveness to those who were executing him.  How often do we forgive those who hurt us, especially those whom we love?  An infinite amount of times, because God forgives us first.  I pray that it will be so brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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