Epiphany 7C Forgiveness, Holy Spirit, February 24, 2019
“Jesus said, ‘I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful…Forgive, and you will be forgiven."’
Are there any Methodists in the congregation? Maybe used to be Methodist? Well, I have been an Episcopalian for over 50 years, but there is still a little Methodist in me, so I read fairly religiously the writings of William Willimon, former chaplain at Duke and former Methodist Bishop. This is what he has to say about this passage from Luke. In a former congregation in rural Georgia, it was the custom of one of the laity to pray after the sermon. After Willimon had preached a tough sermon on this difficult passage on Sunday, the lay leader got up and prayed, “Lord, today we’ve heard your word. And we don’t like it.”1 / I think most of us might agree.
Huston Smith, one of our great experts on world religions writes that Christianity shares many affirmations or statements of truths with other faith groups. “Love your neighbor, Help those in need. Obey God.” But Jesus’ declaration that we should love our enemies is found solely in Christianity.1
Willimon asks us to imagine someone who has greatly harmed us or our family. I’m talking about the kind of person we don’t want to see again. Whenever we hear his or her name, our heart rate increases, our palms get sweaty. Can you imagine extending your hand in love to that person and telling them you forgive them? Ouch! Too radical!!
Willimon believes that this sermon of Jesus is not a list of rules and duties for us to follow but instead is a picture of the kind of God that Jesus represents. This is a portrait of our God described to us by Jesus. Our God loves his enemies. Our God still does good to those who hate him. Our God blesses those who cruse him. Our God prays for those who abuse him. We have a God who is merciful, who does not condemn, who forgives.1 This is a God of love.
We may strive to follow Jesus, but we all know we will have great difficulty because of our humanness, but our God is constantly merciful, forgiving, loving. There is no act that cannot be forgiven. There is no one undeserving of forgiveness./
Let’s talk more about forgiveness. Hold onto your stone. Forgiveness is a radical, outrageous thought. You all may have wondered why we offered you a stone as you came in today. If you did not get your stone, see me or my husband after the service. But please! Do not throw it at us if you do not agree with what I am saying! The stone is an idea from a book by Bishop Tutu and his daughter, Mpho, The Book of Forgiving. Tutu reminds us that if we cannot forgive someone, it is like carrying around with us a burden, a large stone, that interferes with our living. I am asking you, if you can, to carry this stone with you the rest of the day in one hand. You may find it difficult to take communion, to eat, to use your phone or computer, among many other things./ You know those signs on cigarettes, “smoking may be dangerous to your health.” We should have similar signs on billboards and on television intermittently displayed: “not forgiving can be dangerous to your health.” Tutu quotes studies where forgiveness reduces stress, depression, anger. Revenge is dangerous to our health. It never improves it. 2, 3//
I don’t know about you, but when someone has harmed me, I begin to think about them all the time. I think about how I would like to harm them ( in a subtle way of course) or how I can expose them for who they really are. They live rent free in my head. They become my God, my higher power. That is when I decide I must do something about this, They are the last persons I would like to be my higher power./
We begin to notice people who have been able to forgive. We reread this passage in Genesis and realize how Joseph’s ability to forgive his brothers saved a nation. We remember why we continue to go to musical productions of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The music keeps ringing in our ears but it is the story of Jean Valjean, released from a French prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread who in desperation takes silver from a bishop who gives him shelter. When Valjean is caught, the bishop says he gave the silver to Valjean as a gift, and then says, “you forgot some other pieces,” and gives more silver to Valjean. As you know, this bishop’s unconventional and unconditional kindness completely turns Valjean’s life around to one of serving others.. We remember Nelson Mandela who forgave his guards of 27 years of imprisonment. Mandela writes, “If I had not been able to forgive my guards, I would still be in a prison.’ That is what not forgiving is like. It is like living in a prison where our life becomes very small and begins to center on the harm done to us./ Perhaps Charles Dickens gives us one of the best examples of what happens when we cannot forgive in his story, Great Expectations. Remember Miss Havisham who was jilted by her lover on her wedding day and lives the rest of her life in her decaying wedding dress seated at a rat-infested table set for a wedding feast as she plots revenge on males. Her life stops. /
Soon these resentments intermittently produce uncontrollable anger which erupts out of our body like a dragon. The anger brings with it a huge amount of energy. /Then the miracle.//
When we can transform and release that energy from anger to energy for healing, this energy will be used for us to become the person God created us to be. What helps the most is the knowledge that the person who has harmed us is still hurting us as long as we cannot forgive them.
Last year at St. Mark’s in Little Rock at a Forgiveness Workshop, Mary Dwyer from Contemplative Outreach, Ltd.,4 spent a weekend trying to teach us some of the basics of how to start the journey of forgiveness. She reminds us that forgiveness is the only conditional part of the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive our sins, as we forgive others.”
Reconciliation involves two parties./ Forgiveness involves only one party.
Mary cautions us about forgiving too soon.
Mary then describes a process of active imagination with God and the person who has harmed us. She calls it the Forgiveness Prayer. After a period of Centering or contemplative Prayer, we imagine our own sacred space with God very close to us. Mary actually imagines that she is sitting in God’s lap. I am still just sitting beside Jesus. My sacred space would be sitting on the white sandy beach of the gulf coast watching the waves come gently in as the sea gulls fly in and out at the water’s edge. We then invite someone who has harmed us to come into our sacred space with God beside us. We tell them all that they have done to harm us. Then we ask them if we have harmed them and then ask them for forgiveness. Sometimes having a picture of the person who harmed us may be helpful as we speak to him or her. This is not a one-time event but may require many encounters. For me, the Forgiveness Prayer is so helpful when the person who harmed me refuses to talk about it. The Prayer allows us to talk to that person in a safe place in our imagination where we cannot be harmed again, but also to acknowledge mistakes we may have made as well.
Mary also recommends praying daily for the person who has harmed us until we are ready to forgive. Praying does not change the person that harmed us but praying can change us. The change may be slow. I have people like this who have been on my prayer list for years.
St. Augustine has been quoted as saying, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
We do not have far to look to see others whose resentments for harms done to them have definitely poisoned their existence. Some try to hide it. Some openly live a life of resentment. It changes who they are. Anger, bitterness, self-centeredness live in that body. Wholeness is excluded. Some become almost paralyzed by the resentment and cannot deal with life on life’s terms. They in turn begin to resent others who do not appreciate the harm that was done to them. Addictions creep in as temporary harmful solutions to the increasing pain that the resentment brings. That person who harmed them is still hurting them. It is a very sad, isolated life, an icon of who or what we do not want to be.
Forgiveness is our only option if we want a relationship with God and a relationship with others.
Forgiveness never pretends that a wrong has not happened, but forgiveness is a way of remembering where a past wrong is not denied, but with forgiveness the injustice is deprived of its power to shape our future. Our response to others and what has happened to us is not predicted or determined or dependent upon the behavior of someone else. Forgiveness does not erase the past/ but is the pathway to a new future, a resurrected life.5
Good luck with your stones.
1. William Willimon, “Living with the God we Got,” Pulpit Resource, February 24, 2019, vol. 47, no 1. Year C.
2. Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving, HarperOne 2014.
3. John Buchanan, “One New Book for the Preacher,” p. 42, Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2015, vol 38, n 4.
4. Contemplative Outreach Ltd. www.contemplativeoutreach.org , a network of individuals interested in the practice of centering Prayer as taught by Father Thomas Keating.
5. Amy P. McCullough, “Preaching Forgiveness,” pp.22-23, Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2015, Vol 38, no 4.