Sermon: On Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Spiritual Direction
Scripture: Habakkuk 1:1 – 2:4
Delivered: Calvary Moravian Church, Allentown, PA; October 6, 2014
To me, there is something about our culture that seems somehow fake. Its not that our culture feels like it’s not real, it just sometimes feels…synthetic. It sometimes feels contrived. This reality is one of those things that both makes me laugh and makes me very angry.
For example, I feel like watching our elected representatives operate is sometimes like reality television, akin to The Real Housewives of New Jersey or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. On the surface level, it seems very real. But when Congress does something silly like opting to shut the functioning of government down, I don’t get too flabbergasted, because I simply assume that it will work itself out. Just like on reality television. Though the viewer might witness a lot of drama, and fighting, and perhaps too much makeup, we can just assume that the show will work itself out – because it’s all a story, and stories need happy endings.
But then, when I realize I’m having these thoughts – that somehow the government is acting like reality television – or worse, that we enjoy living in a synthetic culture – that’s when I become angry. I become angry, because I remember that people’s lives are at stake. I remember that real people have all sorts of experiences. Real people need a livlihood; real people need to feel creative; real people get sick and injured; real people feel pain, and real people see beauty.
We live in a world of experiences. I mean as a double entendre – we live in a world that is full of dynamic cultures, understandings, practices, and ways of living. And, we live in a world, our own personal world, where no two persons’ experience of the world is alike.
As individuals and as cultures, we make decisions based upon the experiences we have had, and the experiences we hope to have.
And this is why, I think, in our synthetic culture, forgiveness is one of the most real decisions we can make. Forgiveness is difficult. Forgiveness is not a secular value. Some believe that we live in a Christian culture – but I dispute this on the solely on the fact forgiveness comes so unnaturally to us. If we were a Christian culture, why are we so excited and motivated by “being right” and the prospect of revenge?
Take, for example, the catchy song I heard 7 times this weekend: “Beware of a Woman with a Broken Heart” by rapper Big Sean. Don’t worry, I’m not going to sing. But in this song, Big Sean recounts the demise of a relationship he had with a woman he loves. But instead of approaching each other with a forgiving heart, the man and the woman try to one up each other, until the woman is portrayed as some crazy, controlling woman, who can’t make up her mind. That’s the song in a nutshell. And I think that, even though many in this room have never heard this song before, we can understand it because its a song and a story we’ve heard and seen over and over again. We know what it’s like to not be forgiven.
But when we’re upset with someone, rarely do we empathize.
And so, I think that empathy is the first step in forgiveness. Rarely do people act completely irrationally. I believe people are always motivated by something when they make decisions. And whether those motivations are self-interested or not, I think it’s important that we remember that our decisions, at one point, made sense.
And so, at some deep level, the act of forgiveness is a deep recognition of another person’s humanity.
Take, for example, a plot line in Les Mis. Les Mis is a book by victor hugo, which was adapted into a musical. Les Mis is set in France in the Napoleonic era. The main character, Jean Valjean, was arrested for stealing a loaf of bread in order to feed a starving family. He was sentenced to several years of hard labor. The conditions of his release from prison were contingent upon a truly prohibitive probation system. Instead, he fled from his restrictions and found himself, starving and cold, in the care of a bishop on rural france. The bishop feeds him, gives him rest, and sends him on his way. In the meantime, Valjean, made cruel by an awful penal system, opts to take some of the bishops silverware, in order to make a life for himself, and flees. Police discover him fleeing, a homeless man with lots of silver, and they take Valjean back to the Bishop who, instead of having him arrested, blesses the police for doing their job, but insists that Valjean made a mistake – he forgot to take the two silver candelabras, as well. This simple act of recognition and empathy, of forgiveness, completely transforms Valjean who understands all of this as redemption. In the musical, Valjean sings a song about how the bishop recognized his humanness and called him “brother”.
And so that story is very powerful. But I wish it werent. I wish that we were so accustomed to forgiveness, the recognition of other’s humanity, that the story of Valjean and the Bishop weren’t so powerful.
But our culture doesn’t like to forgive people, and so many of us find it difficult to forgive – not only others, but ourselves. Why don’t we like to forgive people? Perhaps some of the reason is that we think forgiveness makes us weak whimps Perhaps some of the reason is that we think it gives permission.
Certainly Habbakuk had his doubts. Our scripture lessons, today, opened with the prophet Habbakuk lamenting:
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4 So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgement comes forth perverted.
But then our lesson takes Habbakuk to a place of forgiveness:
or there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
4 Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.
So Habbakuk is having difficulty forgiving the people who surround him, the people who, he perceives, continue to defy the will of God. But Habbakuk is transformed by the trust, the faith, that God has a dream, and God’s dream will come true – and even though the culture around Habbakuk was troubling, the righteous still lived by faith.
And I think this is where our Gospel picks up –
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent”, you must forgive.’
5 The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’
In other words, Jesus says – everyone stumbles. Everyone needs forgiveness. And if someone needs forgiveness multiple times per day, forgive them. And the apostles, in doubting their ability to forgive repeatedly, say, “increase our faith”.
As Christians, it is our job, throughout the day, to recognize other people’s humanness. It is our job to forgive. In fact, that Luke gospel continues with Jesus saying, ‘all you need is a little faith in order to forgive. But if you can’t do that, then do it because I said so. You’re my slaves, and this is my order.”
Now, in terms of forgiveness, I’ve been thinking on a very personal level. Perhaps it has been someone who said something that offended you, or caused you extra work or stress, or what have you. But as difficult as those things are to forgive, they’re the easy things to forgive.
In South Africa, after decades of Apartheid, which was the systematic dehumanization of black South Africans, Apartheid was ultimately abolished in the early 1990s. And instead of trying all of the white leaders and offenders – who, in all actuality, committed terrible atrocities that might otherwise be considered war crimes, like genocide, rape, destruction of property – a strong coalition of people formed to forgive. Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, among many other wonderful people, motivated with sincere desire to forgive, convened a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The process was for the people who were offended – thousands of people – to come and recount their stories of horror to the people who committed the atrocities. They told their stories. And the awful people listened, and, as you can expect, repented.
But this decision to hold a truth commission wasn’t a weak person’s perspective. It was a powerful decision, much more difficult to make than trying the offenders for crimes and submitting them to prision time or capital punishment. That sort of process encourages a cycle of violence. Instead, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had an eye on the bigger picture – to share the truth of what happened, and to promote reconciliation, forgiveness, so that these awful crimes are less likely to happen in the future.
And we live in a violent world, where the majority of people are worried about finding food and not being murdered by a military. Instead of solving our problems quid pro quo, tit for tat, what if we sought to solve our problems through forgiveness?
Forgiveness requires us to admit when we’ve made a mistake, and seek reconciliation through the Divine means necessary.
And, sisters and brothers, forgiveness is at the heart of communion. In the 18th century Moravian Church, if you were mad with someone, and were having trouble forgiving someone, you yourself were prohibited from taking Communion. I think that’s becuase it’s difficult, if not impossible, to experience the Kingdom of God while you are living in a hellish place of non-forgiveness.
I want to leave you with a Spiritual Practice that I use, when I am having difficulty forgiving someone. I write. When I am upset with someone, I enter into a prayerful mode, and I begin to write whatever feelings I have onto a paper. This is called concsiouness.