Sunday, August 20, 2017
Guest Moodler: Sermon on Forgiveness
Cathy Coulter, RN, BScN, Parish Nurse
Not everyone that comes to church has grown up hearing the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, but chances are they know the story of Joseph and the amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Here’s a quick synopsis: Joseph was the favoured child among the twelve sons and one daughter of Jacob. His jealous brothers sold him into slavery to a caravan going to Egypt. In Egypt Joseph experienced suffering and adventure but eventually ended up finding favour with the Pharaoh and gaining a position of power. When famine spread throughout every country, Jacob’s sons came to Egypt to look for food and Joseph recognized his brothers and finally revealed himself to them as we heard in the reading this morning. It’s a really great story with twists and turns that I’d forgotten about and I encourage you to read it again for yourselves.
Our scripture passage today is dramatic. Think of the emotion of that moment. Joseph had been ripped from his family and his home and here were the brothers that had done it. We expect Joseph to harbour anger and thoughts of revenge. But Joseph forgave his brothers with a graciousness that turned their world upside down.
How about Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman in the Matthew gospel? Was his response as welcome and gracious as Joseph’s? A Canaanite woman seeks out Jesus to beg him to save her daughter and Jesus says in effect, “Nope. You’re not good enough.” Jesus has taken his disciples away for a rest and that rest gets interrupted by this demanding woman. Who hasn’t been in this situation? You’re just about to have a break or settle into something you enjoy and you’re interrupted by someone’s demands. You’re annoyed. You ignore them, like Jesus did initially, or feel like saying to them, “I can only please one person a day. Today’s not your day. Tomorrow’s not looking good either.” But the woman has the courage to persist and use her wits to counter Jesus’ argument that only the Jews should receive his healing. Jesus finally shows graciousness at this point. He hears the woman. He changes his mind.
Does he admit he made a mistake? Not in our scripture reading, and likely not in traditional theology. But I like to think about Jesus, not as some sanitized, sinless saint, but also as a human being who has the vulnerability to admit he was wrong and change his actions accordingly.
How I want to see myself is how I see Jesus once the woman has schooled him with her quick witted reply to his protests… “Even the dogs get the crumbs”. How often I react when I’m caught out in bad behaviour by feeling embarrassed and defensive and “double down” to prove I’m in the right. But Jesus softens and changes his attitude. He shows the woman respect, hearing her and praising her for her faithfulness. And, best of all, he sends his healing energy to the Canaanite woman’s daughter.
Two stories this morning. One of forgiving and one of admitting making a mistake. We need to practice both of these actions to bring peace into our lives and our world. But how difficult forgiving and admitting mistakes are for us.
Forgiveness is a mysterious process to me. It’s not something we can summon up with will power. We can say with our heads, “I forgive you,” but we can’t force our hearts. I don’t know if it’s something we can practice and work on, or if it is more to do with God’s grace working on and healing our hearts. It doesn’t happen all at once, but you’ll know when you’ve truly forgiven someone. I’ve tried to figure out how to express the feeling, the knowing, but I can’t, other than to say a bad feeling is replaced by a feeling of love. We can’t force ourselves to feel forgiveness but I wonder if the first step is wanting to forgive. Wanting to have our eyes opened to the other’s humanity like Jesus and wanting to find gratitude like Joseph.
And what about admitting we’ve made a mistake? This can be excruciating, if we’re honest with ourselves. I call it my cringe-worthy moments. When, after my blustering and protesting and telling friends my side of the story to prove I had every reason to act (or not act) or say what I did…when I can finally admit to myself that I behaved badly or acted stupidly, or spoke wrongly, I feel an inward cringing that I find really hard to take. Do others ever experience this? That terrible feeling of cringing embarrassment?
I think I’m not alone because there is an epidemic of being right at all costs. I’m sure many relationships end because both parties insist they are in the right. Marriage can be a battle ground of two people being right. Like the old joke goes, I married Mr. Right. I didn’t know his first name was Always. The same joke can be told about Mrs. Right. A self-help talk on the internet is titled, “People Would Rather Die than Give up Being Right.” The classic, pathological example of this is the current leader in the country to the south never admitting he is wrong.
A really nice little book about this kind of thing that I found surprisingly useful is the classic “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” by Richard Carlson with the subtitle “And it’s All Small Stuff”. One of his quotes is, “Choose to be kind over being right and you’ll be right every time.”
So it’s not easy to admit we’re wrong. And it’s not easy to forgive. And I think that it is almost impossible to do either fully without two conditions. These are the two conditions for being able to forgive and being able to admit we’ve made a mistake. The first is we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. While forgiving may seem magnanimous, in reality, true forgiveness is hard because it means we leave ourselves vulnerable to being hurt again. Think about this for a minute. Even if you never see the other person again, to forgive you must drop the wall that you put up to protect yourself, and that is a vulnerable place to be, but the only place from which you can live a whole hearted life.
And of course, to admit we’ve made a mistake is to be vulnerable. It is to admit we are not perfect, and perhaps, like me, feel some uncomfortable feelings.
The second condition to be able to forgive and admit we’ve made a mistake is really the only condition because we can’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable without it. This condition is knowing we are grounded in that which created us and sustains us. In our tradition we call that Love. We call that God. We need to know in our hearts, in the very core of being, that we are okay as we are, loved as we are, not required to pass a worthiness test. That there is a purpose and a rightness to our very specific being in the world right here and now. If we don’t experience this sense of okayness and are not grounded in that sense of being loved, it will be impossible to become vulnerable. It will be impossible to forgive and allow someone who has hurt us back into our heart, or to admit we are flawed and imperfect and (God forbid!) wrong about something. It will be impossible because without that sense of groundedness it will feel like we are falling, with our feet swept out from under us. It will feel like we are dying. People would rather die than give up being right.
Jesus said over and over, in his words and in his life, you have to die before you can live. Sometimes life circumstances force us to be vulnerable. And then we fall, and that is where God begins to reconstruct our hearts. But we can also get a head start on the heart reconstruction that gives us that sense of ultimate security, and allow God to work on our hearts with prayer, particularly contemplative prayer when we stop doing and learn to sit in the presence of the Holy.
Until we come to know God as the ground of our being, we experience too much anxiety about protecting ourselves and making sure we don’t slip up. But when we sit in intentional silence, there is no hiding from ourselves, no pretending that we are better than we are, or covering up because we think we are worse than we are. In silence we can’t pretend we are in control and slowly and gently we begin to relax into that which is holding us. Into who is holding and always has been. And always will be. Practice sitting in silence every day. Start with 5 minutes. Then 10. Then 20. And see your life change.
What two betters examples do we have of people who lived grounded in the love of God than Joseph and Jesus? Look at the rest of the stories of their lives. It is really profound.
So now I want to ask you, who in your life are you estranged from, or have a strained relationship with? Are you ready to think about forgiveness?
A few years ago I spoke here about a vulnerable letter I wrote to my cousin when our relationship had been fractured. That was the talk that I got the most feedback about ever. One woman told me that after I spoke she went home and phoned her son whom she hadn’t spoken to for two years. Well, ever since then I was thinking about another letter I needed to write for another relationship that I had deliberately let go, but never felt right about. This was a friend that I had shared many important life experiences with when we were in our twenties. But I did not relate to the direction her life took after that. It seemed not to share many of the values that were important to me and I grew increasingly uncomfortable whenever we got together until finally I just kind of dropped her. But it niggled and niggled and I could never move on. It took years, maybe ten years until I was ready to try to find some closure and I did that this spring, writing her a letter over three stints in a coffee shop. The letter I ended up writing took me by surprise because through it I worked out why I was so uncomfortable with her life choices. I had been jealous. I was not secure in my own choices and felt I suffered in comparison. My wobbly self-esteem took the form of judging her harshly but what I worked out in the letter, now that I am more in that place I mentioned of feeling grounded, was that I actually behaved badly towards her. It turned out to be a letter of confession and apology.
When I came home from the coffee shop after I was done, I felt really buzzed, like the decaf coffee I’d ordered had been caffeinated. But I felt really good. Really happy with the letter. It was a good energy, and the rest of that day I turned to a big job I’d been poking away at and that was cleaning out the basement. And my goodness, did I clean out that basement! I couldn’t believe it when I was done. I honestly felt a surge of power and energy that I can only explain by the release of admitting I made a mistake and asking for forgiveness, and for forgiving my friend as well.
Annie Dillard writes: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? ... It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews…. ”
There is power in this God of ours. God is the rock on which we stand. God is the wind beneath our wings. God is the great dissolver, the great heart reconstructor. God gives us the power to forgive and ask for forgiveness and even clean our basements.
Let us pray.
God of Joseph and Jesus, thank you for the gift of life! Thank you for the gifts of the heart. Give us courage and grace to forgive and be forgiven.