Last week we talked about the call to love and how hard that is. As you may remember, I spent some of the time focusing specifically on the very difficult call to forgive. And today I want to talk a little more about this.
In todays’ gospel lesson we are told to forgive and forgive and forgive. And we are told, what’s more, that in the same way that we fail to forgive, so God will fail to forgive us. The way that I see this is more that our ability to accept forgiveness and our ability to offer forgiveness are one and the same. That it is in learning to forgive others that we are also able to release shame and guilt for our own misdeeds and accept the forgiveness that God offers us.
As I thought about forgiveness, several stories came strongly to mind. In the Judy Blume book, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Fudge ruins the class project left in his brother Peter’s room, he swallows his brother, Peter’s turtle. And to make matters worse, everyone is concerned about fudge when he swallows the turtle and not about Peter’s turtle or Peter. You can imagine that these would be hard to forgive. Especially if, when you finally get to a place of letting it go, the other person does something else to hurt you. Eventually Peter does come to understand how young and not quite bright his brother is and he does forgive him, but it is a tough path for Peter to get there.
The movie, Spitfire Grill, is about a very young woman who has just come out of prison for manslaughter and is looking to start a new life. She finds a small town where she is hired to work at the Spitfire Grill. And while at first there is a lot of fear and judgment towards Percy, as people get to know her they come to see her and love her for who she is. There is one exception in the movie, however. Nahum is extremely protective of his aunt, for whom Percy works, his family and his town. He sees Percy as a stranger, and as a threat. He doesn’t want to know her story, doesn’t care to actually look at the real person that she is, he only wants her gone. He cannot take the risk of getting to know Percy or, as he fears, getting hoodwinked by her charm. In the end, his failure to risk seeing her ends up in a terrible tragedy for the town. I won’t give away what that is for those who haven’t seen the movie, but I will say that it is only after this irreversible tragedy that he can see his own failure to forgive, to step into love, to risk seeing this other person as a human being. That failure to risk a new vision leads to a terrible ending, a deep loss for everyone in the town.
In the movie “Philomena”, the part that gets to me every single time is when Philomena who has had truly terrible treatment by the nuns in a convent in Ireland goes back to the Convent to find out the truth, to confront those who have taken away from her that which she valued the most in her life, namely her son. She goes with a reporter who has helped her discover the truth of what happened to her, and to him, so long ago. And when they arrive, the reporter is outraged and begins to yell at the nuns. Philomena apologizes to the nuns for his behavior and says to the reporter, “it happened to ME, not to you!” He in his rage responds, “So, what are you going to do about it? Are you just going to stand there?!” And Philomena says. “No.” She takes a huge breath, turns to the nun who pretty much headed the atrocities and says, “Sister, I want you to know that I forgive you.”
The reporter is incensed at this and yells at Philomena, “What? Just like that?”
Philomena responds, “No, not ‘just like that’. That’s HARD. That’s HARD for me. But I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you! Look at you!”
“It must be exhausting!”
While Philomena was based on a true story, it is a movie. But still, there are other stories of outrageous forgiveness, stories that we know to be true:
On CBS, for example, there was a story from MI about a man named Jamel who was arrested for dealing drugs. The officer made it up. The former officer admitted on this CBS news clip that he had decided he had to have another drug arrest that day, so he had just grabbed someone off the street and falsely arrested this man, “planting” evidence and falsifying reports as he did so. Jamel went to prison for four years as a result. Eventually the cop was caught and brought up on charges for falsifying MANY reports, arresting many innocent people, and for stealing. He was incarcerated for one year and Jamel, as well as other men the former officer had falsely imprisoned, were exonerated. Still, after four years in prison, Jamel had lost everything. After they both were released from prsion, the officer and the falsely imprisoned man ended up working in the same café together. The former officer said that he had a faith experience in which he felt convicted in such a way that making amends became a necessity for him. But in the case of Jamel, he didn’t know what he could do to make amends except to simply apologize to Jamel, and that is what he did. The officer apologized, and, surprisingly, Jamel accepted that apology, and forgave him. Jamel said he had been extremely angry, but the apology was really all he needed and all he wanted. They have since become friends; such good friends that they have become public speakers together on the subject of forgiveness, the power of it, the healing that comes to all parties because of it. When the CBS reporter asked Jamel for whom he had done the forgiving, Jamel’s response was , “for our sakes”. This confused the reporter who said, “you mean for yourself?” “No,” Jamel responded, “For the sake of all of us: myself, the former officer, and everyone else we encounter. For our sakes I forgive so that the world might see what kind of healing can be done through the act of forgiveness.”
As I’ve said before, the deep truth is that everything God calls us to do, everything Jesus insists that we do, everything… these are for US. I will say this again and again to you. You are not called to do the hard things for God’s sake. God doesn’t actually need our help. We also aren’t called to do these things solely for the person we are helping or, in this case, forgiving. The person who benefits the most from our forgiveness is always going to be ourselves.
How does it feel to be angry to someone? How does it feel to hate someone? Does that feel good? Not only does it not feel good, but it takes up a whole lot of space in our psyches. Space that could instead be filled with good thoughts. Space that could be filled with love and joy and peace. Space that could be used to be loving and creative and world-changing. Forgiveness frees up that space in our hearts, in our minds, in our lives.
I’m not saying that it’s easy. I’m also not saying that we don’t learn from the ways we’ve been hurt. I don’t really believe in the saying “forgive and forget”. I don’t hear in scripture that we are called to forget. We are called to erase the anger, release the hatred. But forgetting is a whole other ball game. And I think the things that hurt us are lessons to us.
Let me give you an example. If your dog constantly hits things off of the coffee table onto the floor, if that dog breaks precious things that you leave where her tail can hit it and break it, you can forgive the dog, but you can also learn not to leave your things in a place where the dog or dog’s tail might hit those objects and knock them to the floor.
This applies to people too. If we see repeating patters in the way a person hurts us, it is appropriate to change our way of interacting with them so we are not doormats to be stepped on again. If a person shows up late every single time we are to meet with them, we might choose to come to them, rather than having them come to us – or we might choose not to try to meet with them if it is too much of a strain. If every time we share a valuable part of ourselves with someone only to learn that it gets passed on to other people, we learn not to share in that way with that person. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, and it certainly does not mean setting yourself up to be abused repeatedly. But it does mean letting go of the hurt and anger, and if possible, finding different ways to be in relationship with those who have hurt us. It means not seeking revenge or vengeance.
Again, I realize this is not easy. I found myself reflecting recently on a situation that happened years ago when we tried to sell our very first home in San Leandro. We were in process with someone buying the house when at the 11th hour they pulled out. According to the contract they signed, that meant they lost their $5000 deposit for breach of contract. But they sued us to get it back and then in court they lied about what we had been willing to do to fix up the house. I was so stunned by the audacity of the lies that I didn’t even know how to counteract them. I froze up, my “fight or flight” mode went completely into flight, and I literally said nothing in response to this. I was so angry afterwards at the lies… not the loss of the money, though it took another 4 months to sell the house, and since we had been in contract on buying a home that meant we were paying two mortgages in the Bay Area for about six months. But the bold faced lies on their part, and their belief that this was an acceptable way of behaving, their willingness to do whatever it took to get what they wanted, their willingness to hurt others through immoral means – I had a very hard time forgiving that. It took time for the revenge fantasies left my head. It’s been years since all of that took place. It took time, but I long ago forgave this behavior. I now feel saddened for them for what I imagine to be a pretty regular behavior on their part, which can only harm them. Still, I haven’t forgotten. I am more aware that, especially in court situations and where money is involved, there are people who will do whatever they want to do in order to get what they want. I am more prepared to speak my own truth, even in the face of lies, than I used to be. I am no longer angry. I don’t carry that with me anymore. But I have also taken from it lessons in human behavior and how I choose to live in the face of that.
Presbyterians do not just pray for forgiveness, we do not just celebrate the forgiveness that has been given, we are also asked and expected to pass that along. I have mentioned this before, but the passing of the peace is supposed to be a response to having been forgiven. In this church we have put it at the end of worship as a way to great one another. But that isn’t actually what we are supposed to do.
Our Presbyterian Book of Order says this about the passing of the peace is: “It is important in worship that we take the opportunity to seek and to offer forgiveness for hurts, misunderstandings and broken relationships among ourselves and that we respond to God’s act of reconciliation by exchanging signs and words of reconciliation and of Christ’s peace through the passing of the peace.” (2.6001b) So what does this mean? The passing of the peace is a mending–of-hurts time, an act of forgiveness time, a reconciliation time. In other words, the people we might approach during this time should include those with whom we feel the need for reconciliation, or for offering or seeking forgiveness. You can pass the peace on to others as well, but it is as a sign that God forgives and reconciles everyone, and is not a “greeting time”. It is supposed to follow the prayer of confession and acceptance of God’s grace because it is a sign that we have taken to heart God’s grace and now want to pass that on to each other. And for this it is a wonderful gift to one another that we can touch and recognize the grace that is physically given to us.
I want to finish with a version of the Lord’s Prayer written by Rev. Dewane Zimmerman
Lord’s prayer (as it might be prayed by God to us):
My children who are on earth:
You reverence my name
But you do not celebrate my will for you.
You pray my kingdom come,
But how can it
When you ARE what I mean by my kingdom?
You pray for your daily bread,
But you have enough-and to spare.
You pray for forgiveness of your sins,
But how often you will not forgive each other.
You ask me not to lead you into temptation,
But what can I do for you
That I am not already doing?
Use the gifts I am giving you
And you will know my power and glory
Forever and ever.
My prayer for all of us is a heart of deepening forgiveness, for others, and for ourselves as well. Amen.