Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Forgiveness: Forgiving Yourself

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 15:11-32:

Some of you have already heard this story before, but when I was growing up there was a kid who attended my elementary school whose name was Paul, although we called him Pauline, and we hounded him unmercilessly.  I don’t know why I did it, maybe because everyone else was, or maybe because, and this will come as a surprise because of my incredible athletic build, but maybe I did it so that I could eliminate some of the teasing I received.  But whatever the reason I teased him, or to be honest, bullied him right along with everyone else for being different, for not being a real boy.  Now I don’t know whether Paul was gay or not, although I strongly suspect that he was, and knowing the elevated rate at which gay and lesbian teenagers commit suicide, I wonder if it made it.  But today as we talk about forgiving ourselves, this is one of the things that I carry around with me that I can’t let go of even nearly 30 years later

Most of us have something like that we carry around, that not only might we need to receive forgiveness from someone else, but that we also need to forgive ourselves.  Comedian Bill Crystal recounts that the last words he ever said to his father to shut-up, and his father’s last words to him were “don’t you ever say that to me again.”  Little did either of them know that Crystal’s father would have a heart attack and die that night.  How do you let go of that?  Or perhaps it’s guilt for what we did or didn’t do.  Joe lost his 6 year-old son in a household accident which he was unable to prevent, even though he was there, and he is wracked with guilt and grief especially remembering his son crying out his last word of “Daddy!”  and he is obsessed with the what ifs. How do we forgive ourselves for the guilt that we carry around?  Or really more to the point, how do we claim the forgiveness that God has offered to us?

Today’s passage really has all of these considerations in mind.  Known as the parable of prodigal son, it tells a story of forgiveness.  The passage begins by telling us that the younger son asks for his share of his inheritance, which basically is saying to his father “I wish you were dead,” because that would normally be the only way you could claim an inheritance.  That request might be something that we would possibly need to seek some forgiveness for at some time in the future.  It might also be something that you would carry with you in guilt, especially if you were not able to make amends before the father died, much like Billy Crystal, who said that his father’s death caused him to push around a very large stone for a long time.

The son then goes off and spends all of his money in dissolute living.  Once he has run out of money, he hires himself out and ends up working with pigs, which as a Jew is forbidden, but not only is he working with pigs, but he is willing to eat what the pigs are eating.  Not a good thing.  This is telling us that the son has basically hit rock bottom.  As a Jew, he really cannot fall any farther, and so he makes a decision, and that is to go back home.  Now, more than likely as it turns out he could have simply gotten up and gone home and would have been okay, but instead he says “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”  There is something powerful about this, and a message for us about what seeking forgiveness involves.

The first thing is that the son recognizes not only that he has sinned against his father, but that he has also sinned against God.  We hear a lot about sin in the church, but what sin means is to have broken relationship, and so we have to understand that when we have broken relationships with each other, we simultaneously have broken relationships with God, and so we seek forgiveness from God just as much as we do from the person we have transgressed against.  The son also makes it clear that he realizes the depth of his transgression by saying that he is not worthy to be called his son, and then says how he should be treated.  He is recognizing that what he has done in many ways is unfathomable, and just as he had basically said that he would prefer that his father were dead, he is saying in his apology that by his transgression he has ceased to be a son, or he has died as his son, that he is separated from his father.  Now it could be argued that this apology goes too far in telling the father how he is supposed to respond, and it could also be that he doesn’t go far enough in saying what he has actually done wrong and it’s also a question of whether he is actually truly sorry for what he has done or if he is just sorry that he has been caught.  To repent means to turn around, and so if we are to ask for forgiveness, it means that we need to be prepared to say that we aren’t going to do it again.

I’m sure that most of us have heard an apology that wasn’t very good.  Politicians, entertainers and sports stars give the worst apologies out there, ones where we can tell that they don’t really want to say it, but are being forced to.  They begin, “I’d like to apologize,” to which I usually add, but I’m not going to.  Don’t like to or want to, actually do it.  Second, say what it is that you are sorry about, and don’t say “I’m sorry you were offended,” or “if you were offended, I’m sorry,” because that is not an apology.  That says that you don’t really think that what you did was wrong, and it puts the onus of the wrongness on the person you are apologizing to not on yourself.  You are either sorry or not, and it has nothing to do with how others perceived it.  Then say what you want to happen, or more importantly what you are going to do about it.  Because if you are going to turn around and do exactly the same thing again, then it’s not an true apology, because you are not truly repentant, you are not going in a different direction.  And maybe it’s something you are working on, and so say that you are working on it, and that you might fail again, but you are recognizing that now.  The most important thing about an apology is to be honest about what you are doing and feeling.  Your apology might contain some extenuating circumstances of why you did what you did, but do not lead with it, and do not make it an excuse for why you did what you did.  Then, once you have said your apology, shut up and listen.  Also remember that they do not have to forgive you.

Forgiveness is a choice that can be given only by the person who was the victim.  Forgiveness is undeserved and unmerited, so don’t think that all you have to do is to say you’re sorry and everything automatically goes away.  But the first step to receiving forgiveness and forgiving ourselves is to apologize; saying to the person we wronged, or that we think we wronged, that we are sorry.  We might do this in person or on the phone, but it might be that it would be impossible to do this in person, either because the person is deceased or maybe we have no way of contacting them, which would be the case with me and Paul, or can’t contact them.  If that is the case, you can either write them a letter even knowing it will never be sent, but read it our loud after you are done, or do what we did last week about giving forgiveness, but in reverse.  Sit down in a chair with a chair across from you and visualize them sitting there, or you might go to the cemetery or someplace that holds their memory, and apologize to them.  Say the same things you would say if they were actually there, get it all out, say you are sorry and that you want their forgiveness.  It’s not enough to say it in our head to ourselves, even if they are not there, saying it out loud often makes all the difference in the world.  Then as a next step, ask yourself for forgiveness as well.  That may sound strange, but if we need to forgive ourselves then we need to ask ourselves for forgiveness, to confess our sins, to say what we are upset about, and say it out loud, and then forgive yourself.

As Protestants we often look down our noses at our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters and the idea of confession, but there is something that I think we’re missing in that process.  As I just said, sometimes confessing our transgressions out loud makes a huge difference in letting them go.  But the other thing that happens in confession is that there are penalties given, things you need to do in order to pay a cost.  Again, it sounds strange but often what makes it hard for us to forgive ourselves is that we don’t feel like we can just let it go without paying some cost, without being penalized for what we have done.  Now the simple truth is from God’s perspective this doesn’t have to happen.  God gives forgiveness freely and without cost, so we don’t have to pay for what we have done, and not to believe that ignores the power of the cross.  And yet, that might be what we need to do in order to feel free.  If that is the case, then be open to that idea and possibility.  It might be something that you come up with yourself, but a better idea is to confess to someone else and ask them what you think you could do to give restitution.  In my case, maybe it’s working or donating to an anti-bullying group, but be open to doing something to help free yourself.

In addition, in this process it’s possible that you might have to deal with some feelings that make you feel really uncomfortable and that you may have been avoiding.  In working with the issues surrounding his son’s death, what Joe discovered was that he actually held onto some anger with his son for dying.  That may sound wrong, but remember that having feelings are okay, even though they may seem wrong, or not fair, even if they might not make sense.  But all the dreams he had for his son, his dreams of seeing him play sports, and graduating and getting married, all those were broken and unfulfilled when his son died.  And so as part of the process of forgiving himself, he had to do the same visualization process we talked about last week, and to tell his son that he was mad that none of the things that he hoped to do with him, and he listed them out, were going to happen, and then to forgive his son and let them all go.  And when that happened, Joe was then able to work on forgiving himself.

The final step to forgiving ourselves is really the easiest and that is to confess our transgression to God and ask for forgiveness.  And I say it’s the easiest because although we say things like, “there is no way God could forgive me,” or “what I did is unforgiveable,” those are excuses we make.  There is nothing in scripture that says that.  In fact, we are told that the only unforgiveable sin is cursing the Holy Spirit, and we could even argue whether that is truly unforgiveable.  That means that God is ready to forgive us everything, which is how the parable ends.  The son comes back and begins his apology, but what happens?  He never completes it, because he doesn’t have to.  The father has been sitting and watching the road, waiting for the son to come home and he runs out to meet him and hugs him and kisses him.  The father has been waiting for the son to return.  The forgiveness has been there all along, the son just had to be willing to move towards the father and receive it.  But there is the crutch, we have to be willing to receive it, and if we aren’t then we have to ask why.

Are we holding on to it because it’s become part of who we are?  That sort of makes us professional martyrs.  Are we afraid of changing and becoming a different person by letting go.  Does the freedom that forgiveness offers scare us?  Are we happier being imprisoned by it? Or are we holding onto it because as I already said we think it’s unforgiveable or that God won’t forgive it.  But we know that’s not true, that God will forgive.  So if we understand that and still won’t forgive ourselves the next question is why do we have a higher standard for forgiveness than God does?  Do we think we are more stringent or more correct about things than God is?  And if we do think that, then we need to reevaluate ourselves.  God is ready, willing and able to forgive us, and so to forgive ourselves we simply need to be willing to let go in order to be received by God who is rushing out to us, ready to welcome us home and to receive us with hugs, kisses, with the good robe and with the banquet feast to forgive us everything and welcome us home.  God is ready to forgive, but we must be willing to receive.

On our first Sunday talking about forgiveness you were all given a rock and invited to come forward and to drop it as you were ready into our bucket.  Today we are going to do the same thing, that we have rocks that we are carrying around that have our own name on them, of the things that we cannot forgive ourselves.  But today when we come forward rather than hearing the sound of dropping the rock, instead we will be dropping them into water symbolizing God’s love and so our transgressions, those things that we need to let go of for ourselves, will be enveloped in God’s love and forgiveness. Amen.

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