Thursday, September 25, 2014

Forgiveness: Forgiving God

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Psalm 91:

What I am about to say will be shocking to some of you, and may even upset you a little but bear with me.  The Bible sometimes lies.  I don’t mean that there are mistakes or contradictions, because there are those as well, but I mean the Bible outright lies, and we just heard it in the Psalm.  In fact, as we were preparing for this week, Donna, who is our office administrator, read that psalm and said, “Are you going to talk about how that doesn’t match reality?”  And I said that was exactly what I was going to talk about.  In that Psalm we are told that those “who live in the shelter of the Most high,” will be delivered from “the snare of the fowler and the deadly pestilence….” that a thousand may fall at our side and ten thousand at our right hand, but we will remain untouched.  That God will command the angels regarding us to guard us in all our ways, that they will bear us up so we will not dash our foot against the stone, that we will trample the lion and adder under foot and they will not harm us.  Those who love God will be protected and rescued from trouble.  And yet, that doesn’t ring true, because the reality is that we do dash our foot against the rock, the lions and the adders sometimes strike us, we do fear the terror of the night, and, in fact, we are not always rescued from trouble.  And since that is true there are only really two conclusions I think we can reach.  The first is that none of us truly love God, that we don’t know God’s name and therefore we deserve what we get.  Or the second is that this psalm is simply not true, and I’m going with the second.

Today we conclude our series on forgiveness, by looking at an idea with which many of us struggle, and that is forgiving God.  And not only do some of us struggle with the idea of forgiving God, but many others don’t even think it’s a consideration.  I did a lot reading on forgiveness in preparation to talk about it, and of the probably 15-20 books I read, only one of them discussed the idea of forgiving God at all, and that book was sort of a new-age perspective on life.  Only 1 book talked about forgiving God.  But for me that too does not match reality.  I have known many people, and I’m sure you have as well, who have been mad at God for something that has happened to them, and most of them have left the church, have lost their faith, because they didn’t know what to do with that anger, or were told that it was inappropriate to have it, but they had it none the less.  We began this series talking about the shooting at the Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.  One of the reasons the perpetrator of that shooting gave was because he could not forgive God.  He was mad at God because he and his wife had lost their infant daughter.  He was mad at God and he couldn’t strike back at God, so he struck out at his neighbors.

And the problem is that the things that we might blame God for are not small things.  You can blame God if you fall and skin your knee, but I don’t think that rises to the level for divine accusation.  You can be mad at gravity, but don’t blame God.  We blame God about the big things.  We blame God for the stones that have to be pushed around because they are too big for us to even carry.  We blame God when we are knocked to our knees and we are searching for answers, for understanding, for compassion, for protection from the vagaries of life.  We cry out why?  Why now? Why me?  And others try and provide answers maybe more to justify themselves then to justify God, and they say things like “Everything happens for a reason,” or “God doesn’t give us anything that we can’t handle,” or “these are the cards you are dealt.”  But those aren’t really satisfying, especially when we are in the midst of despair.  Last week I talked about the death of comedian Billy Crystal’s father when he was 15, and that the last thing he said to him was shut-up.  In remembering that time, Crystal has an imaginary conversation with God in which he tells God that he will never believe in God again, because life is unfair, and says there should be an 11th commandment which says “thou shalt not be a schmucky God,” and then quickly adds, “I didn’t mean that.”  We want to strike out in anger, and where else are we to direct our anger except at God, after all we have the 91st Psalm hanging there telling us that God will rescue us in our time of need, and that bad things won’t befall us, that bad things will happen to bad people, but we will be protected, and yet we aren’t.  And we are left with that eternal question.  Even at the Disciples of Christ church down the street, there message this week is on why bad things happen if God is good.

The Book of Job tries to deal with this issue.  Job, we are told is a righteous man, and to prove that Job isn’t just righteous because good things have happened to him, all his possessions are taken from him, his wife and his children die, and he is covered in boils.  His friends try and give justifications for what he has obviously done wrong that has caused God to strike him down like this, which is that first answer to why the 91st Psalm might not be true, but all their answers are eventually rebuked and pushed aside by God.  Then Job in a long defense of himself says, “When I looked for good, evil came; and when I waited for light, darkness came.  My inward parts are in turmoil, and are never still; days of affliction come to meet me.  I go about in sunless gloom; I stand up in the assembly and cry for help….” (Job 30:26-31)

Job is crying out to God seeking an answer, and then, after first rebuking Job’s friends, we read “then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.  ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?   Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.  Will you put me in the wrong?  Will you condemn me that you may be justified?  Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like this? (40:6-9)… Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.   Who determined its measurements—surely you know!...  On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? (38:1-7)… Have you commanded the morning since your days began,  and caused the dawn to know its place… (12-13)  Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the deer?  (39:1-2)… Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings towards the south?  Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high? (26-27)…’”  and then God concludes by saying, “shall a faultfinder contend with the almighty?  Anyone who argues with God must respond.”

This is a major divine slap down.  Basically God is saying to Job, “Who do you think you are?”  And Job’s response is basically, “I’m sorry, I should have never questioned you,” or as Billy Crystal said, “I’m a kidder.  I kid.  I didn’t really mean it.”  I understand why Job says that, and perhaps I would say the same thing if God was saying it to me directly, but from where I stand, that is not a satisfactory answer.  Job is asking why, and God is basically saying “because I told you so.”  Now right now I can say that to Samantha and Abigail when they ask why they have to do something, but it won’t last for much longer, because at some point they are going to not only need an answer, but they deserve an answer.  And I think we deserve the same thing from God in the midst of our despair.  I don’t really care that I wasn’t there at the beginning, what I want is an answer, and I think I deserve one, so don’t try and put me off and tell me that only if I knew everything then it would be okay because it’s not.

Nobel Prize winner, and Auschwitz survivor, Elie Wiesel tells the story of a trial of God that took place at Auschwitz, which he later turned into a play.  He says that one day, late at night, the rabbis gathered around and conducted a court case with God as the defendant.  There was a prosecutor and defense attorney and a judge to render a verdict.  Wiesel says that at the end of the trial, the rabbis rendered him chayaz, which is not really guilty, but instead means something like “he owes us something.”  Then, he says, they went off to pray.  I trust Wiesel’s account of these events since he was there, but another ending says that they declared God guilty, proclaimed the death penalty, and then a rabbi said, “God is dead, and now it is time for the evening prayers.”  In interpreting that version, religious scholar Karen Armstrong, says that “that is a profound religious moment, I think, which is God is inexpressible, incomprehensible, undefinable by us. Ideas about God can live and die. But the prayer, the struggle to understand, even in the darkest moments of life, that effort continues….  Religion is not supposed to provide certainty… when you say that you are certain, this is usually ego. Because there can be no certainty about God. Nobody has the last word about God. God exceeds our dogmatism. God exceeds our limited little ideas…. And that if we try to limit God and make Him fit neatly into a simplistic ideology, then we're cutting God down to size.”[1]

Regardless of whether we should or not, we do blame God for things.  So how do we hold God accountable and how do we forgive God?  The steps to forgiving God are the same we have been covering in our other steps, except adding one more piece which we should also apply to others, and that is dealing with our expectations.  All of us have expectations for our lives and for others.  Whether they are good or not is another matter, but what we have to realize is that while we have expectations, we have no way of enforcing them.  So for example, we should have the expectation that we will be loved and respected and treated appropriately by our parents and other family members, but unfortunately that does not always happen.  We can hold our family members accountable for what they actually did to us, but we cannot hold them accountable for not meeting our expectations, because that’s not on them, that’s on us because we cannot enforce.  So if we have expectations of God like those presented by the 91st Psalm, then we are sure to be disappointed.

Which leads us to our thoughts about God, about who God is, and what God does and does not do, because when it comes to our disappointments with God, or things that we are angry with God about, it might be not only that our expectations  may need to be adjusted, but so may our ideas about God.  That is what Karen Armstrong was saying, when she said that God exceeds our dogma.  Our ideas about God may need to change when they don’t match the reality of our lives  When his son died of progeria, which is a premature aging disease, not only did Rabbi Harold Kushner decide to write When Bad things Happen to Good People, but he also had to rethink his ideas about God.  He said that he could continue to believe in a God which controlled everything, that caused everything to happen, that knew everything.  But there were problems with that idea, Kushner says, the biggest one being that claiming that God causes everything to happen, and is behind everything, puts God not on the side of the victims and those who suffer, but instead on the side of those who are the perpetrators.  Under this theology, God is not on the side of the victims of the holocaust, but instead on the side of the Nazis.  God is not suffering with those who have cancer, but God is with the cancer.  That was untenable, and if he continued to hold that position, Rabbi Kushner said he would have had to have lost God.  Or he could believe in a God who was not in total control, who allowed us to make mistakes, who was still in the process of creating and so there was still chaos in the world, and thus things beyond God’s control, and thus was also on the side of the victims and those who suffered, and was not only on their side but who suffered along with them.  And so Rabbi Kushner changed his conception of God and thus could also continue to struggle with God and be faithful to God, and that might be what some of us need to do as well in order to learn to forgive God.  As the Rev. Dr. Forest Church said, when someone says they don’t believe in God, I ask them to tell me about the God they don’t believe in because it turns out I don’t believe in that God either.

But the other step is the same as with forgiving others, and that is to tell God exactly what we are thinking and feeling, including being angry at God.  God is big enough to handle it all.  In a poem entitle Love Letter, Madeleine L’Engle begins, “Dear God, I hate you.  Love, Madeleine.”  Express everything just like we do with others we need to forgive, and then we conclude by saying “I forgive you.”  But with God there is one more step and that is to ask God to walk the journey of healing with us.  Not because God wasn’t going to do that already, but instead because it reminds us that God is already walking with us, that even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death that we shall fear no evil, for God is with us and God’s rod and staff they comfort us.  Or as Paul says in his letter to the Romans, that God is able to make all things work together for good, not because God causes the bad things in our life to happen, but because God is able to redeem them, because God is on our side, not on the side of those who have hurt us, that God suffers with us and seeks to bring about healing to our brokenness when and if we are ready to be healed and made whole through forgiveness.

Some of you may have noticed that as we have been working through this series that the pot which started out as broken has been being pieced back together, representing what happens when we start on the path of forgiveness, that we take the things which have broken us and we chose to be made whole again.  There is a tradition in china that if a pot is broken, that if it is put back together, rather than trying to hide the cracks, instead the cracks are painted gold in order to highlight them, and that it is the cracks that make the pot more beautiful, and the same is true with us.  We are not made weaker by forgiveness; we are made stronger and more beautiful.  We are not restored to how we were before, but when we choose to forgive we take control of our lives, we take control of the story we tell about ourselves, and we are no longer left shattered.  Because what forgiveness shows us is that by holding onto our hurts, we think we are hurting our offender, but in fact we are only hurting ourselves, and when we choose to let those who have hurt us out of the prison we think we have constructed for them, it turns out that we actually free ourselves.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.


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