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Sunday, April 15, 2012

To Forgive is Divine

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert with Worship Associate John Sebastian

To Forgive is Divine

A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

April 15, 2012

On my way to work each day, I pass two churches that display “words of wisdom” quotations on their roadside signs.  Sometimes their theology speaks to me and sometimes it doesn’t, but often there is a pun involved, and sometimes I find myself musing, or even brooding, on its meaning the rest of the way.

That’s how I found my title for today’s sermon. The sign said, “To err is human. To forgive is divine.”

More than once in a church I’ve served there has been a scuffle of hurt feelings between two important, and erring (therefore human) lay leaders in the church, communicated via email. Now, email is notorious for its ability to cause misunderstanding, because it cannot convey intent, tone of voice or emotion accurately. How I wished on these occasions that one or the other would just pick up the phone!

“Hi, I was going to send you an email conveying my frustration about XYZ, but I knew it would be better to call.” Or, in reply to a critical email, “Hi. I see why you are frustrated and I apologize for the mess-up … And I feel hurt that you didn’t even acknowledge my hard work on XYZ. So I decided to call rather email you.”

If to forgive is divine, then phoning is heavenly!

As easy as it is to use, and I use it a lot, email can get in the way of clear communications at work and in families too, but in our congregation, where we explicitly aspire to be the Beloved Community of all kinds of people “just getting along,” modeling the world as we wish it to be, with peace and justice for all, it’s so sad when church members cause hurt to each other via email, or Facebook.  It’s especially sad because the stakes are really not that high at church, compared with other arenas of our lives. It’s only XYZ church project that could have gone better – it’s not spouses splitting up or a job at risk or a fractured parent-child relationship! 

As James Luther Adams, the leading (actually, the only) well-known twentieth century Unitarian Universalist theologian, said so well, “Church is where we get to practice being human.”

To err is human. We all err, not always unintentionally, and the chance to apologize and be forgiven is a gift, a divine gift. Here, in our congregation, we can practice giving each other that gift. We can practice saying how we feel, telling the truth, kindly. We can practice taking responsibility for our actions. We can practice truthful apologies. We can practice changing ourselves.

But how – at church, at home, at work -  do we get to the “I’m sorry”? It helps if the one who feels aggrieved is open about their frustration or disappointment, of course! Don’t expect someone to read your mind or your heart, and don’t forget to convey a modicum of appreciation to the other person, whether you are the one who wants an apology or wants to be forgiven.   

Like, “You did A really well, but the B that was important to me went awry because of how you did C.”

Rather than, “Because you did C, my B didn’t happen. I deserve an apology.” Or, “Why did you do C?” which, depending on the tone of voice, may mean, “Why in the world did you do C?” or “There is no way you have a good excuse for doing C” not “I’d like to understand how C came about, so that we can do better next time.”

Of course, sometimes saying sorry isn’t enough, because it’s not completely for real, as in this poem by Judyth Hill, “The Sorry of Flowers”:

A dark horse ambles slowly through my apology.
A field of alfalfa and wild columbine,
I'm that sorry.

I'm sorry in the way of going too soon to seed.
I'm sorry in the way of haste and meadows,
a season of sorry, a harvest of regret.
But there's that animal in me that is not sorry.
That has moved with mysterious resolve
towards insult and mayhem.
That is maybe a bit gleeful,
accelerating to a brisk trot,
Then full tilt gallop,
a whirr of [bad] behavior.


Also, there’s what was said and there’s what we hear. How we hear each other as adults, practicing being human at church or anywhere, can be so tied into the experiences we had in our childhoods. We may hear what we expect to hear based on experiences in our past, rather than hearing what was intended in the present.

As our Worship Associate’s reflection and the song “Forgiveness” (words below) each so aptly conveyed, it’s the learning task of a lifetime to forgive the adults who harmed us as children. The challenges are to understand and undo the necessary survival patterns of behavior we developed as powerless children, learn new patterns that support us in healthier relationships, grow into our power and use it for good in our lives.

It deserves repeating:  the challenges of adulthood are to understand and undo any necessary survival behaviors we developed as powerless children, learn new patterns of behavior that support us in healthier relationships, grow into our power, and use it for good in our lives.

The poet, novelist, farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry has a character – Hannah - in one of his novels [Hannah Coulter] who felt mistreated, was mistreated, as a child by her father’s second wife, Ivy.

Hannah observed, “The hardest resentments to give up are the ones you felt knowingly as a child, and I had kept a list of resentments against Ivy…I remembered every one of her injustices to me. I had hated her for her power over us, and at times I had been afraid of her…”

Years later, when Hannah was “a grown woman with a husband and children and a place of my own… a good life…” she ran into Ivy in a dry goods store.  “She was wearing a headscarf and a dress that hung on her as it would have hung on a chair. She was shrunken and twisted by arthritis and was leaning on two canes. Her hands were so knotted as hardly to look like hands. She was smiling at me. She said, “You don’t know me, do you?” 

I knew her then, and almost instantly there were tears on my face. I started feeling in my purse for handkerchief and tried to be able to say something. All kinds of knowledge came to me, all in a sort of flare in my mind. I knew for one thing that she was more simpleminded than I had ever thought. She had perfectly forgot, or had never known, how much and how justly I had resented her. But I knew at the same instant that my resentment was gone, just gone. And the fear of her that was once so big in me, where was it? And who was this poor sufferer who stood there with me?

“Yes, Ivy, I know you,” I said, and I sounded kind.

I didn’t understand exactly what had happened until the thought of her woke me up in the middle of that night, and I was saying to myself, “You have forgiven her.”

I had. My old hatred and contempt and fear, that I had kept so carefully so long, were gone, and I was free.” [Pages 102-4]

It’s not the wrong-doer who benefits most from forgiveness. It’s the one who forgives that is freed.

So, in the words of the song by Mason Jennings (see below),

“I'm crying on a bench in an old time station. Betting all I've got on forgiveness.”

But forgiveness is not pretending everything is fine. It’s not stuffing away angry or hurt feelings. It’s not condoning hurtful behavior. It’s not even necessarily reconciling with or having contact with someone who hurt you. It’s not something you can be pressured to do. And it’s not forgetting. It’s coming to a place in which you are freed from dwelling in the emotions of a past hurt. Like Hannah said, “and I was free.”

What about forgiveness in the context of the killing of Trayvon Martin? Could I forgive the person who killed one of my children? No, not initially. Demanding justice helps. An arrest helps. Free on bail didn’t help. A guilty verdict would help. Remorse would help. Changes in the law, law enforcement and the criminal justice system would help. But only time and love surrounding me would free me from dwelling in the sad anger of the horrible day that my child was killed. Could I forgive the people who pushed for the law that empowers people with guns to use them wrongly? No. Could I forgive the culture in which racism persists systemically?  No. But, maybe, maybe I could forgive the man. For my own sake, not his. For my freedom, not his. Whether he benefits, whether he is freed, depends on his remorse and willingness to change, not on my willingness to forgive him. I’d forgive him for me.

Forgiveness is divine because it frees us to love life and live life more fully than before.

We encounter the divine in forgiveness in this story told in 1999 by Archbishop Desmond Tutu from his experience with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.  A man appeared before the Commission and the aggrieved, an officer, who with his four other fellow officers admitted giving the order to ambush some innocent villagers. “Yes,” the man admitted to an angry roomful of survivors, “we gave the orders for the soldiers to open fire.” Tutu relayed, “The tension in the room at that moment was combustible!” But then the officer said, “Please forgive us. Please accept my colleagues back into the community.”  And almost miraculously, according to the Archbishop, that roomful of angry, seething people broke out in to deafening applause. “And afterwards I told them,” Tutu recalled, “Please let us be quiet because we are in the presence of something holy.” [“What Limits Forgiveness?” by Lucinda Duncan in Quest, September 2004].

To err is human. To forgive is divine. It puts us in the presence of something holy. It makes the human… divine.  Amen.

“Forgiveness”  by  Mason Jennings

Sitting on a bench in an old time station

Waiting for the train to forgiveness

I've brought no baggage, I've come here alone
Looking for a way to forgiveness
All these broken pieces of arrows in my side

I took off and ran with them, I know now I can't hide, so
I'm looking out across the darkness down the tracks

Looking for the light of forgiveness
Call it bad company, call it what you will
My heart just won't let you go, I love you even still
Sadness and death, they both come along
So I sing this song called forgiveness
All these broken families, people taking sides
Hardly even bothered me, i never even cried, so
I'm crying on a bench in an old time station

Betting all I've got on forgiveness

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