Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - praying for forgiveness

Before you read this, I want to say that in light of what happened over the weekend this was not a time appropriate sermon.  However, I was only aware of the events in Orlando as of that morning, slightly before worship.  So I did edit what I said (because I never actually say what gets posted here...I preach more impromptu and only refer to my written sermon as an "outline" of sorts or when I am quoting someone else and need it to be exact) but I'm still posting here what I wrote.  It would be better for another week, but because these are posted to our website as well, I'm going ahead and putting it here.  I apologize for the lack of a timely sermon.

Luke 7:36-50

Matthew 18:21-35

            Most of the time I’ve preached on forgiveness, I’ve focused on the human need to forgive others.  That is incredibly important because, truly, it is only in our acts of forgiveness, our choice to let go of our anger, our hatred, and our resentment that we can be made whole.  But while that is a worthy topic of conversation, today instead I want to focus on God’s forgiveness of us.  The title of today’s sermon, “praying for forgiveness” sums up what I want to say, which is that there is purpose and meaning in praying for forgiveness. 
            I say this, and yet I am aware of the many problems that have been created, especially for some people, through the weekly ritual of the prayer of confession.   My caveat before I begin here is that I am speaking in generalities and quoting studies that also spoke in generalities.  I realize that no generality can apply to every person or even any person all the way. 
That being said, much had been written at the time I was in seminary in pastoral counseling books and other counseling books which emphasized that men’s greatest flaw, or sin, is to blame others for the bad things that happen to them in their lives and to fail to look at their own issues, contributions and their own faults in creating problems for themselves and others.  When men were the majority of those who attended church, then it made a great deal of sense to remind them weekly that they weren’t the great, unerring creatures that they may, at times, believe themselves to be. 
But in study after study, women (and again this applies to others as well, but in this study it was predominantly women) behave and understand the bad times in their lives very differently.  Women tend to blame themselves for everything wrong that happens to them.  Women, on the whole, are overly quick to name their flaws and to take responsibility for almost everything that can possibly go wrong. For those who know Amy Schumer, she has recently done a parody on the number of times, for example, that women say “sorry”.  It is a constant and often completely unnecessary part of their conversation.  Someone interrupts a woman, she is likely to respond with “sorry”.  Someone bumps into a woman, she is likely to respond with “sorry”.  Someone takes something she was reaching for, she is likely to say “sorry”.  Women do this, one study said, partly as a learned behavior but also partly as a way of claiming control in situations where they have little to no control.  If this problem over here is my fault, than I can fix it or I can make sure it doesn’t happen again.  But whatever the reason for it, the prayer of confession that we say every week has sometimes failed to serve women because of their different orientation to the pain and problems in the world.  Women’s greatest flaw or sin is taking on too much blame and responsibility.  And so the prayer of confession, which may confront the flaw of those who do not claim enough responsibility, caters to the flaws of those who claim too much.  It can reinforce for those who are already too down on themselves that they are to blame for everything and that it is their own errors that make the world less than perfect.  This, too, then, can set them up as more than human.  They see themselves as more powerful, more in control of the pain in the world because it is their fault.  Now that 77% of our church attendees in the United States are women, this weekly prayer can become a problem.
            While these studies were done a while ago, while I was in seminary, I would say that for many people this continues to be truth.  Many of my close friends have shared with me that they often feel a constant strong sense of not being good enough.  They share with me a sense of failure, of guilt, a feeling that they have disappointed God.  One women in particular told me, “I know that God loves me.  I know this.  But I have come to the place in my being where that love is not enough.  I am acutely aware that I have disappointed God; that I have not and cannot live up to God’s hopes and expectations for me.  God is not proud of me.  God is disappointed in me.  Knowing that God loves me, if anything, adds to the pain when I realize I don’t deserve it.  God loves me in spite of myself, not because of myself.  How can I possibly continue to live with God’s disappointment?” 
Honestly, have any of you felt this?  Have any of you been so filled with a sense of unworthiness, of guilt, of failure that you feel God’s disappointment to be overwhelming?  How  would you respond to this? 
Hildegarde de Bingen, was, among other things, a Christian mystic in the 12th Century.  I pasted this quote on my blog a few weeks ago, so some of you may be hearing it again, but I love this particular quote of hers.  She said, “A divine voice spoke to me, saying, ‘How fragile you are, Human, made of dust and grime, but I am the living Light.  I make the darkness day, and I have chosen you to see great wonders, though I have humbled you on earth.  You are often depressed and timid, and insecure.  Because you are conscientious, you feel guilty, and chronic physical pain has thoroughly scarred you.  But the deep mysteries of God have saturated you, too, and so has humility.’
    “When I heard the Voice, I began trying to live a godly life.  The path became difficult as I questioned myself again, saying, ‘This is pointless.’ I wanted to soar. I dreamed impossible dreams and started projects I could never finish.  I became dejected, so I sat and did nothing.  My self-doubt is my greatest disobedience.  It makes me miserable, and I struggle with this cross daily.  But God is by my side, reminding me that (God) created me.  So, even in the middle of my depression, I walk with wise patience over the marrow and blood of my body.  I am the lion defending itself from a snake, roaring and knocking it back into its hole.  I will never let myself give in to the devil's arrows.” 
I love that line, “My self doubt is my greatest disobedience.”  For many of us, if there is anything that we need to confess, this is it…that we take on too many of the problems of the world as our own fault, that we are too ready to live in guilt and a sense of our own failure, too ready to see that we are not enough rather than just as eager to trust that “God don’t make no junk.”   We do not trust that we are beautiful and good, and called with a Godly purpose that we can accomplish.  I love this quote from Hildegarde de Bingen because it challenges us to step beyond guilt, beyond self-doubt and into the forgiveness which God hands us in every moment.
            Is this to say, then, that there is no value in the prayer of confession for those who torment themselves with their flaws?  Of course not.  But what I am saying is that I think we have a work a little harder to find the gift in it.  If we choose to wallow in the errors we believe we have made, then we are missing the point and it will not serve us.  If instead, we can use our prayers of confession to truly let go, to really release any guilt that we have keeping us from growing, keeping us from loving, keeping us from resting in God’s loving arms; in other words, if we can accept into our hearts the forgiveness that God is offering us, then we can truly be healed by our prayers for forgiveness.
            About six years ago I went to see a movie through the International Film Festival called “Bomber”.  The plot of the story involves a man haunted by something that he has done, needing to apologize, needing to let go of a past that has imprisoned him for over sixty five years.  He was, through the course of the movie, able to go and make the apology that he needed to make.  More importantly, perhaps, he was able to receive forgiveness from the one he had harmed.  The result of apologizing, the result of receiving the equivalent of human forgiveness, the result of releasing his guilt allowed him, through the course of the movie, to change, deeply and honestly.  How much more is this the case when we can receive God’s forgiveness?
            God’s forgiveness is there, offered to us before we can even ask for it.  We say the prayer of confession so that we can accept that forgiveness into our hearts.  Then we can allow that forgiveness to heal us.  God’s forgiveness is complete.  It is a wiping of the slate.  In this moment you start again.  In this moment, you are made whole, again.  In this moment you have the opportunity and the chance to really live by what you say you believe, to live a life of love to God, others and self.  God does not stand in a spirit of disappointment in you.  God stands in a place of grace and forgiveness, loving you completely, accepting you completely, forgiving you completely in every moment and making you new and whole again every time.  Can you take that to heart?  Can you accept that we are called to follow God’s law of love not only to make the world better but because God wants the best and the most for each of us?  My prayer for all of us is that we can realize our flaws so that we can move towards wholeness for ourselves and the world.  But I pray even more that after our self-understanding, we can feel the amazing, life changing power of God’s grace and forgiveness; and that from that place we can begin whole again. 

As the passage in Luke pointed out today, the consequence of the women’s loving much was that she was also much forgiven.  Jesus then continued by saying that the consequence of being much forgiven is, in exchange, an increased ability to love.  Accept God’s forgiveness, be renewed, begin again, and you will find you are able to fulfill God’s law of love more and more.