University Congregational Church
July 14, 2013
Ephesians 4: 25 – 32
On Sept. 11, 2001, Todd Beamer was on doomed United Flight 93 headed for San Francisco. Minutes before the plane crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania, he asked an airphone operator to send his love to his family, and then to pray with him, “Our Father, who art in Heaven…”
Days later, his widow, Lisa, remarked that the Lord’s Prayer asks God to “forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” She said, “in some ways, Todd was forgiving those people for what they were doing; one of the most horrible thing you could ever do to someone.”
For centuries, the subject of forgiveness has fascinated and vexed moral people. It pits judgment against mercy, rage against compassion, and instinct against intellect. And yet, forgiveness is one of the key doctrines in most religions. And so goes the debate – fueled by:
• the horrors of terrorists
• wars around the globe
• corporate betrayals
• sexual abuses by clergy
• abuse done by family members
• and let’s face it ~ some people are just mean!
Forgive because it’s good for you and breaks the cycle of hatred, some say. Don’t forgive because there are some things too terrible, too evil for any ethical person to pardon, claim others. One note here: forgiveness does not necessarily preclude or eliminate justice and consequences. There are wrongs that carry a penalty even though the perpetrator may be forgiven.
Our holy book is full of admonitions to forgive:
“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for evil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
Eph. 4: 25-29, 31-32
After 27 years in ministry, I would say that forgiveness is probably the most basic thing Christians need to learn. And a friend of mine who is a retired therapist mentions that she believes forgiveness is the key to mental health. Her definition of forgiveness is this: letting go of our need for retribution.
The prophet Isaiah wrote that every one of us is an imperfect person and “we live among imperfect people.” That’s a fair assessment, 3,000 years ago when it was written and even today. Think for a moment about the people in your life who are in need of forgiveness. Your co-workers, neighbors, people from your past, your spouse, your children, other relatives, people in the church, friends… If your list is long, you can take your bulletin or another piece of paper and start writing. Go on – do it! Who do you know in need of forgiveness?
Writer Anne Lamott writes poignantly and humorously about forgiveness. She says, “I went around saying for a long time that I am not one of those Christians who is heavily into forgiveness – that I am one of the other kind. But even though it was funny, and actually true, it started to be too painful to stay this way. They say we are not punished for the sin but by the sin, and I began to feel punished by my unwillingness to forgive. By the time I decided to become one of the ones who is heavily into forgiveness, it was like trying to become a marathon runner in middle age; everything inside me either recoiled, as from a hot flame, or laughed a little too hysterically. I tried to will myself into forgiving various people who had harmed me directly or indirectly over the years – four former presidents, three relatives, two old boyfriends, and one teacher in a pear tree – it was “The Twelve Days of Christmas” meets Taxi Driver. But in the end I could only pretend that I had. I decided I was starting off with my sights aimed too high. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, ‘If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.’”
So Anne Lamott decided to work on forgiving a woman whose son was in her son’s class at school. This is how she describes the woman she put on her forgiveness list: “She was all bundled up in a down jacket and below the jacket, she was wearing latex bicycle shorts. She wears latex bicycle shorts nearly every day, and I will tell you why: because she can. She weighs about eighty pounds. She has gone to the gym almost every day since her divorce, and she does not have an ounce of fat on her body. I completely hate that in a person. I consider it an act of aggression against the rest of us mothers who forgot to start working out after we had our kids. Oh, and one more thing: she still had a Ronald Reagan bumper sticker on her white Volvo, seven years after he left office.” Anne Lamott says that she thought such awful thoughts about this woman that she could not even say them out loud because and I quote “they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”
And then one Sunday, she was at church and the scripture reading was from Luke’s chapter 6: “Forgive and you shall be forgiven.” And she realized that there was no loophole. It didn’t say, “Forgive everyone, unless they’ve said something rude about your child.” And it doesn’t say, “Try to forgive.” It says, if you want to be forgiven, if you want to experience that kind of love, you have to forgive everyone in your life – everyone – even, for God’s sake, yourself.
Anne Lamott says that the veil dropped then and she saw that she was the one who was worried about competing with this woman. That she was trying to get her enemy to carry all the ugliness because it hurt too much to carry it herself. Anne recognized that what you put out into the world eventually becomes your world.
There is scientific evidence that forgiving or not forgiving has a profound physical dimension too. It changes our heart rate, blood pressure and stress levels… and these lead to heart attacks, coronary disease and strokes, ulcers, colitis, and immune system problems.
From a spiritual standpoint, forgiveness means that God is for giving, and when we accept God’s giving, we want to be for giving also. There is a wonderful story that illustrates how forgiveness can be put into practice… In the Babemba tribe of South Africa, when a person acts irresponsibly or unjustly, he is placed in the center of the village, alone and unfettered. All work in the village ceases, and every man, woman and child in the village gathers in a large circle around the accused individual. Then each person in the tribe speaks to the accused, one at a time, each recalling the good things that person in the center of the circle has done in his lifetime. Every incident, every experience that can be recalled with any detail and accuracy, is recounted. All his positive attributes, good deeds, strengths, and kindnesses are recited carefully and at length. This tribal ceremony often lasts for several days. At the end, the tribal circle is broken, a joyous celebration takes place, and the person is symbolically and literally welcomed back into the tribe.
Now, look at your list again. Remember…that list of people you know who need to be forgiven? What would happen if you surrounded that person with positive talk and uplifting words and heartfelt gratitude? What if you gave thanks for that person’s positive attributes, good deeds, strengths and kindnesses? What would it do for that person? What would it do for you?
When I do marriage counseling, I often ask each partner to list the things they love about the other. I get all kinds of responses like, “We aren’t here to discuss the good things, we’re here to work on the problems” and “I used to love these things, but now they irritate me” and my favorite “Can we make a list of the things we don’t like first?” The point is that very often in our relationships – be they family or friends or coworkers – we begin to focus on the negatives so much that we forget the positives. Eventually, that person becomes a negative in our minds and we respond accordingly. What would it take to turn it back around?
It’s like stepping out of death and into a clear, bright morning when you forgive someone. Because forgiveness is really about grace.
Steven McDonald is a New York policeman who was shot and paralyzed 15 years ago. His assailant shot him in the head, in the throat and then a third time when he was on the ground. His wife was two months pregnant at the time of the shooting. What became the focus of their attention was their faith. When his baby son was born seven months after the shooting, McDonald says their hearts opened to the “gift” of forgiveness “to free us from any bitterness and anger.” Forgiving the offender had very little to do with the shooter and everything to do with love for their son. You see, true forgiveness is a new way of remembering. Now, they live not looking backwards to a tragedy, but forwards to a future. Now, they realize what grace means. Now, they live for giving.
Look back at your list. What would it take to offer forgiveness to those people? It is a sacred task, but we are called by God to live for giving.
Berger, Rose Marie. “Just Forgive”, Sojourners Magazine, pg. 35.
Hale, Cynthia L. “Forgive Generously”, DisciplesWorld Magazine, Oct. 2002, pg. 17.
Kornfield, Jack. “The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace”, Bantam Books.
Lamott, Anne. “Traveling Mercies”, Anchor Books, pps. 128-137.
Roberts, Roxanne. “Should You Always Forgive?” The Washington Post, May 4, 2002.
- Ephesians 4:25 - 32