june 12 sermon – forgiveness

It is a study in contrasts between Simon the Pharisee and the unnamed woman who is simply described as a notorious sinner.  Many commentators assume she is a prostitute (part of the Christian church’s obsession with sins of the sexual nature) and she may well have been but that is not stated in the biblical text.

A study in contrasts – Simon, there you go, he has a name, there you go, he – male, upstanding, influential, host, but despite all those status markers I have two big issues I am left pondering – what is his motivation in asking Jesus to dinner  and then not extend the usual greetings of hospitality and secondly does he even think he is in need of any forgiveness at all?

And the woman, there you go, I can’t even give the woman a name – like many characters in the scriptures she is described by the condition with which the person approaches Jesus or Jesus approaches them, she is not host but a gate crasher, she may not be poor, there are many sinners around today who make quite a tidy packet from their pursuits.  Some high status, eminently legal,  high profile occupations.  Just have not attracted the label “sinner” like this woman has.  Lawyers, accountants, board directors, politicians. She obviously knows she is in desperate need of forgiveness (or does she already know she has been forgiven?) to the extent she will publicly humiliate herself in a response of gratitude.  Now that is some forgiveness!

There is an irony here at play – Simon the righteous pharisee needs this woman.  He needs her bad. For Simon to hold onto his self satisfied, holier than thou attitude he needs a world populated with sinners to feel superior to.  In Simon’s world there has to be drawn a non permeable barrier separating those who are sinners and those who are righteous.   On one side those who are not in need of forgiveness for they are righteous and on the other side, those who are desperate for forgiveness for they know their need and their many shortcomings.

Jesus almost seems to go along with Simon’s division, but then, as he so often does, he flips the whole scenario on its head, he blows sky high that neat division of the world into those who need and do not need forgiveness – he does it by simply posing the question, And Simon in your division of the world, which side of the divide knows more about love? Wow!  What a stunning assessment of the issue.  If you do not think of yourself as someone who needs forgiveness, you will be lousy at loving people. Enough said!

There are two sides to this forgivness thing.   Being forgiven, which we have been pondering up to now and then the other side, forgiving others.

Forgiving someone does not mean forgetting. In the hospital ward where I was mental health chaplain we used to have reflection group each Monday morning and we would place picture cards with words on them on the floor and ask people to pick up two or so about how they were feeling, or what sort of person they were, or would like to be, what issues they were facing in their lives.  Did not really matter, it was just a tool to stimulate discussion.  We often ended up at this topic of forgiveness, because so many people had been hard done by others or life, or the health system, or the legal system, or family members the list goes on for ever and ever. Now while I have the greatest sympathy for many people’s situation I also became aware of something else that was going on.

For many people, not forgiving provides them with an excuse for everything that is wrong in their life. That is, they use the fact that years and years ago so-and-so did this-or-that to them to explain why their life has turned out so crap. If only that hadn’t happened to them, their life would be much better than it is. That is, they use the hurt that they experienced to get off the hook. If they forgive and heal, then they’re out of an excuse.

The other thing that would sometimes happen is someone else in the group would say in much blunter words that I could ever say as the chaplain – Mate you got to stop being a loser. Stop telling yourself that because certain things happened to you in the past, you can’t have what you want in the present or in the future. Instead, take responsibility for getting on with your life, in spite of anything that anyone may have done to you.  You can’t be a victim all your life or else you will never get on with living.  Some people do spend much of their lives sitting in their lonely rooms mulling over every person who has ever wronged them.  clinging hurts, resentments, imprisoned in their own grievance stories that  have spun out  as their life story.

It does your head in after a while.

Forgiving someone. It is a hard fought place to get to.  Let us make no error there by thinking because Jesus instructs us as a basic perquisite to imagine it comes easily.  Another phrase that sparked a lot of discussion was “forgive and forget”.  A lot of people used the phrase as it slips off the tongue easily, “You have got to forgive and forget”.  When the talk went in this direction and we started to unpack the expression   most people would reassess their understanding of what forgiveness was and came to the conclusion forgetting was not part of it. Yeah we agreed you never forget; forgetting it seems does not have to make up part of what forgiving another person is about.

When I was at St Kilda I got to know fairly well a guy.  He used to come into our Drop-in Centre regularly.  Over the years I got to know something of his background which like so many of the people who attended, and like many of the people who are supported by the church here had a pretty horrendous life, especially in the formative years.  This guy was raised by his father; not sure if his mother had died or left, but his father sounded like a brute; a drinker who terrorised his son verbally and physically, and while it may not be recognised by they guy he was also spiritually abused.  I say that because this fellow had huge issues with self esteem, identity, trust, intimacy, anger the list could go on – spiritual issues. In most of our conversation I did not use overt Christian or faith language though because he was as angry with God and church as much as his father. Anyway, most of the time I just let him talk, adding comments every now and then, but not trying too much to turn into a counsellor – not my role or the Drop-in.  I knew his father had died many years earlier, but one day I thought I would have a go at using some language of recovery and healing.  Maybe he would connect with that. I said, You are pretty close to your father aren’t you?  The guy exploded.  What do you mean?  As if he was saying haven’t you heard anything of my story all these years?!  My father has been dead 12 years and anyway I hate my father, I can’t stand him.  Yeah, I replied, I get that.  I did not say you like him, I said you are close to him.  What I mean is you have never succeeded in pushing him away, like you wanted to do.  He is always with you.  Every day.  As close to you as the air you breathe.  That’s it, that’s where he is – he lives in side you.  He lives in your head and he is there everyday.  Yeah you are very close to your father.  If you really want to be free of him, you have got some work to do.  If you really want to kill him off you are going to have to look at forgiving him. 

Normally minister’s sermon illustrations end with on a happy, mission accomplished note don’t they?  Not this story.  In all honesty what I said did not go over well.  You are saying I have to forgive that mongrel?  He does all that to me and now it is my job to let him off?  Just ignore it, pretend it did not happen?  You have got to be joking.My guy heard what I was saying as him having to do a favour for the man who brutalized him most of his childhood.  Of course he was not going to be feeling favourable towards him.Maybe he was not ready, maybe it was the way I put it in my inexperience, whatever it was this guy did not hear my comments as a chance to consider doing a favour towards someone he perhaps did feel favourable towards – himself.  I was not talking about making up, or reconciliation, with his father. Forgiveness does not mean excusing the wrong or saying it doesn’t matter. Things that don’t matter don’t need to be forgiven. Forgiveness says, “I know what you did. It hurt. It has hurt bad for a long time.  But I am choosing to lay down my right to stay angry and hurt by you. I am switching off your capacity to damage my life any more.  I am taking back my life from you and taking control myself.”  You don’t have to, its your choice, but he will continue to torment you, you are giving him the means, the connection, your anger which keeps him close, to keep doing what he did in his life time. You are not hurting him, you are hurting yourself. I am reminded of that old saying about anger and hatred. To nurture our anger and hatred is like drinking poison hoping that it is going to kill the other person. And yet all it does is kill us and separate us from God’s love.

He was going to resist any pressure from outside to do anything.  He would have experienced that as another violation of his rights.  And he was right – he unquestionably was violated and had every right to be angry.  There would only be one reason he might want to consider forgiveness.  For his own healing and recovery.

Forgiveness is letting go of your “right” to be right. It means offering up your anger, letting go of your “right” to revenge – and leaving justice to God. But you do not have to – it remains your choice  Quote from book Big Little Lies p. 25

Finally, don’t confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. Reconciliation requires repentance – but forgiveness does not. From the cross, Jesus forgave people who had not repented and maybe never would.

There was some mild interest.  Or at least the door was not completely nailed shut and welded closed.  I think the interest was maybe him getting free of the prison he was living in.  a place filled with anger, bitterness and seething resentment. Maybe it was dawning on him that forgiveness is not the same as reconcilation. Reconciliation requires two people and repentance.  Forgiveness does not.    But he clearly and definitely was not yet ready to take any steps.  It may be months, years, maybe never.  Sometimes in the church we are far too simplistic, and assume these things can happen quickly.

A pastor gave an example where a married couple came to him for counselling because they were destroying each other.  They had endured years of bitterness, wounds and wounding, and they had come to the point where they realised it could not go on.  They came to the pastor who counselled that he could see the hardness in their hearts and they had to forgive each other and start again so he got them to write a list of their grievances on a sheet of paper.  He led them to the church toilets and asked them to tear the paper up, throw the pieces into toilet, which they did.  Then he said, now flush the toilet.  They couple were not stupid they knew the pastor was using this as an illustration of forgiving each other.  And the froze.  They just stared into the toilet with the pieces of paper with all their grievances on it floating in the water but neither could flush the toilet, despite the insistence of their counsellor.  They knew to flush the toilet would be a lie, they were not at that point ready to forgive, and sometimes it takes years and years of hard work to forgive, if we ever are ready and able.  And sometimes we in the church move too quickly to insisting the victim/survivor/violated party do the hard work of forgiving far too early and it simply becomes another burden/responsibility they have to bear.

One of the reasons it makes good sense to forgive, apart from the theological reason that God is going to have a heck of a lot of trouble for some reason forgiving us if we are unable or unwilling to forgive others, it takes a lot of energy, concentration, distraction to maintain the hard edge of unforgiveness. Takes it away from positive life giving pursuits.  Takes it away from growing a gracious and well rounded soul.  A good analogy is Holding out rock with outstretched arm, or holding beach ball under water.  Get a large enough ball and it takes all our energy and focus.  Just let it slip through our grip once and it will shoot up to the surface, and sometimes with enough force to break the surface of the water and leap into full view above everything, thereby attracting much attention.

Forgive. Let it go. Release it! Throw it out! Take back the God-given power you have for your own life. For some, the time is right. For others, it will take time and healing. Perhaps you need to talk with someone, but take control.