By The Rev. Sherry Deets
14 Pentecost, Proper 19 – September 14, 2014
You may have heard the story of the woman who spent the first day after her divorce sadly packing her belongings into boxes, crates and suitcases.(1) On the second day, she had the movers come and collect her things.
On the third day, she sat down on the floor in the dining room by candlelight, put on some soft background music, and feasted on a pound of shrimp, a jar of caviar, and a bottle of Chardonnay. When she had finished, she went into each and every room and deposited a few half-eaten shrimp and caviar into the hollow of the curtain rods. She replaced the end caps on the curtain rods, cleaned up the kitchen, and left. When the ex-husband returned with his new girlfriend, all was bliss for the first few days.
Then slowly, the house began to smell. They tried everything: cleaning, mopping, and airing the place out. Vents were checked for dead rodents, and carpets were steam cleaned. Air fresheners were hung everywhere. Exterminators were brought in to set off gas canisters, during which time they had to move out for a few days; and they even paid to replace the expensive wool carpeting. Nothing worked.
People stopped coming over to visit. Repairmen refused to work in the house. The maid quit. Finally, they couldn’t take the stench any longer and decided to move. A month later, even though they had cut their price in half, they couldn’t find a buyer for their stinky house. Word got out, and eventually, the local Realtors refused to return their calls. Finally, they had to borrow a huge sum of money from the bank to purchase a new place.
The ex-wife called the man, and asked how things were going. He told her they were selling the house but didn’t tell her the real reason. She listened politely, and said she missed her old home terribly, and would be willing to reduce her divorce settlement in exchange for getting the house back.
Thinking his ex-wife had no idea about the smell, he agreed on a price that was about 1/10th of what the house had been worth, but only if she were to sign the papers that very day. She agreed, and within the hour his lawyers delivered the paperwork for her to sign.
A week later, the man and his girlfriend stood smiling as they watched the moving company pack everything to take to their new home – including the curtain rods.
Most of us enjoy hearing a story like that – especially if we’ve been wronged by someone. We like to hear about people “getting even.”
Our enjoyment, though, points to an underlying reality – the reality that we really are vengeful. We don’t want to admit it, perhaps, but we prefer to see people get even rather than to forgive.
And when Jesus invites us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” we fully understand the sentiment of the man who always pretended to forget the words of the Lord’s Prayer – because he didn’t want to forgive his former partner for swindling him out of his business.
Rare, in our society, is the story of forgiveness. The news media was astounded at the way the Amish community here in Pennsylvania forgave the man who killed their children years ago, in part because the story is so rare.
In Matthew’s gospel reading this morning, as we remember the 13th anniversary of the events of 9/11, the question is asked: how many times do we need to forgive?
For many of us forgiveness is very difficult and often leads to questions about who we should forgive and what we should forgive. Should we forgive Osama bin Laden and the bombers he inspired? Jesus seems pretty clear on the subject and that answer would be, Yes, we must forgive.
A pastoral counselor believes that one of the main reasons people don’t forgive is because we don’t know how, and in particular we confuse forgiveness with reconciliation. Added to the problem is a lack of good working definitions of resentment, forgiveness, and reconciliation. So, telling people to forgive without teaching people how to forgive is not helpful and contributes to misery.
Resentment – a working definition. Resentment involves reliving, in the present moment, something from our past. To experience resentment we need to do one other thing than simply relive a past event. To create resentment, we need to add a demand, in the present moment, that the past event would not have occurred. These demands are often in the form “he or she shouldn’t have done, or should have done something.”
Regardless of how hard we demand, or how despicable the event was, demanding that something shouldn’t have happened doesn’t change the fact that the event occurred. Resentment: A demand in the present moment that a past event didn’t happen.
Forgiveness: When forgiving, what we let go of is the demand that the past would have been different than it actually was. To release a demand we can convert it into a preference. “I would have preferred that the past event wouldn’t have happened.” Forgiveness is not about saying “it didn’t matter.” These past events do matter, we know they matter, especially when our core values have been violated. Converting a demand into a preference means we get to maintain our integrity and our values.
When we convert the demand into a preference we can explore the values contained within the preference. If the values that were violated are important to us and we would like to keep them in the future we can take a moment and imagine personally sharing that value with someone in the future. It doesn’t need to be with the person who has hurt us, but we do need to be willing to give to people what we want to receive from them.
To let go of the past and live fully in the present moment we need to go beyond turning the demand into a preference and surrender the other person and ourselves into the Goodness of God that is fully available now.
I like the idea of the Goodness of God, I never define what that goodness is, but I know deeply that it is good, it is good for me and good for others. When I try to define the goodness of God, for myself and others, I find I contaminate it with all my ego wishes and wants. When dealing with people who have hurt me, my ideas of what would be good for the one who has injured me are generally for my benefit and not for the one who has hurt me.
Forgiveness: Letting go of our demands that the past would be different and surrendering ourselves and others into the Goodness of God in this present moment.
Forgiveness is independent of the person who has injured us. It is how we set ourselves free of things that have happened in the past. Forgiveness is a precursor to reconciliation, but it is very different than reconciliation.
Reconciliation is an agreement by two people on how they will live together in the future. Reconciliation requires shared values. It would be stupid to be reconciled with someone who does not share our values.
Jesus forgave those who crucified him, and he was never reconciled to the mission or goals of the Romans or the Pharisees.
Martin Luther King Jr. pursued a non-violent dream of equality and he was never reconciled to injustice or to those who perpetrated injustice. We can forgive Osama Bin Laden and his followers and we do not need to be reconciled to those who create terror.
If we truly want an end to terrorism then you and I must first renounce using fear to motivate anyone, whether they be our spouses, or children, co-workers, parishioners, citizens, politicians, or our enemies. For when we use fear to motivate someone we have become a terrorist in their lives. Only when we give up using fear to motivate people can we lovingly and fiercely challenge those who terrorize us.
Forgiveness isn’t easy. Nor does it require the other person to be repentant. Reconciliation, though, requires both. Reconciliation can only be done in the context of a trusting relationship where repentance and forgiveness are both present.
Seventy-seven times Jesus tells Peter to forgive someone – or in some translations, seventy times seven. A large enough number that we will lose count if we try to keep track, large enough that we may also begin to see how many times we need to be forgiven as well.
You see, our debt has been paid in full. Not because we deserved it, but because God decided the possibility of a relationship is more important than allowing sin to prevent it. How we respond is up to us. We can choose to spend our lives obsessed with settling scores with terrorists, with rivals, with noisy neighbors, with line jumpers, with the wise guy in the other lane or even within our own families. Life presents us with infinite opportunities to constantly get even or to forgive “seven times seventy”. The choice is ours. We can live in love or we can live in hate. Both are transformative forces. We become what we value and love, or we can risk becoming the evil we obsess upon. Love is better. God’s desire is that we use our forgiveness as a beginning point for a new and healthy relationship – with God and with one another. Amen.
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