Monday, October 02, 2006

Sermon: "How to Live a Wretched and Miserable Life" (Delivered 10-1-06)

In preparation for this morning’s remarks, I was doing a free association brainstorm on the idea of grudges… “holding grudges”, “keeping grudges”, and so on. And from out of nowhere the phrase “grudge match” entered my mind. So indulge me for just a moment, because the first sermon illustration comes from professional wrestling.

I’m serious here. Pay attention. Did you know that professional wrestling story lines involve feuds between characters? At first, those feuds are dramatic. But over time they are bound to become stagnant. And when that happens, the characters will have a grudge match, a final contest, after which, irrespective of outcome, the feud is to be set aside so that each character can be liberated to pursue new avenues of development. Let me say that again, “the feud is set aside so that each character can be liberated to pursue new avenues of development and possibility.” When I thought about this, I was amazed. How many of us are less adept than professional wrestlers at releasing ourselves from the bondage of our grudges?

I am deeply beholden to John Klozik, a member here, who delivered a comprehensive and powerful sermon on forgiveness about a month ago. John presented perspectives from world religions, from popular psychology, and from his own experience that described not only the nuts and bolts, but also the purposes and meanings of forgiveness. My own approach this morning is much more modest. I simply want to talk about grudges and the importance of releasing yourself from the bondage of holding onto them. To do this, I want to draw not so much from the wisdom of professional wrestling, but from wisdom of the Jewish tradition. And I want to talk about the importance of setting aside grudges from a personal perspective, a community perspective, and a world perspective.

In the Jewish scriptures, the law is set forth in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the second half of Exodus. Taken as a whole, it would seem that there is common theme running through many of the laws against things going on an on for unspecified periods of time. For example, there are extensive laws dealing with debt and the forgiveness of debts. Every seven years, according to Jewish law, debts and obligations are supposed to be released. Every forty-ninth, or seventh-seventh year, is to be a Jubilee year. What this entails is a little bit uncertain according to scholars, but some have interpreted this to mean that there should be a complete redistribution of all property in society. Things are not meant to go on and on without end.

In the book of Leviticus there is a commandment against permanently marking your flesh. It is from this passage we get the Jewish law forbidding tattoos. But this injunction against inscribing meaning into flesh is another way of saying things are not meant to go on and on without end.

And then we come to the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the day of atonement. It is the day of reaching out to those with whom you have not set things right. It is a day of contrition, forgiveness. The most important aspect of Yom Kippur observances is the recitation of the Kol Nidre prayer. The Kol Nidre prayer admits that in the coming year we will all make vows that we will not keep, promises we will not live up to, and that we all will inevitably fall short of what we might be expected to do or be. And for that we ask to be forgiven. But even in this there is a sense that things should not drag on. Yes, we’ll disappoint one another. But we shouldn’t dwell on it. We should move on. Things are not meant to go on and on without end.

The play that the Coming of Age class presented for us earlier in the service is quite remarkable. Author Barbara Marshman really hits the nail on the head. She describes the citizens of “Grudgeville.” At first they took great pride in their grudges. It was almost a competition to see who could shoulder the biggest. People came from far away to marvel: “My goodness, look at the size of those grudges!” But soon enough, the grudges ceased to make them feel special. The grudges made them feel miserable and people generally stayed away from Grudgeville because it was a miserable place. Over time, the citizens of Grudgeville grew to accept their burdens as a part of them. They forgot how to put them down – some of them even forgot how they formed their grudges in the first place! The story implies that holding grudges is the key to living a wretched and miserable life.

Is this too simplistic? Is this too trite? Say “I’m sorry” when you’ve hurt somebody’s feelings. Say “I forgive you” when someone has hurt you. I don’t think the order is all that important. After all, on Yom Kippur observers ask forgiveness for transgressions not yet committed and forgiveness for the breaking of vows not yet made.

We all know the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you would be treated.” There’s also, according to one of my colleagues, the Platinum Rule: “Treat others as they want to be treated.” And then there is my favorite, a liberal paraphrase of Jesus’ words: “I don’t need to like you. I don’t need to agree with you. But I do have to love you as much as either God or myself, whichever I love more.”

I hope my title this morning has not been too much of a bait and switch. There are all sorts of ways to live a wretched and miserable life. I could turn this into a sermon series. But a certain way to do this is to hold on to your grudges.

We need only look at the world, rife as it always is with ethnic strife, religious intolerance, and the hostilities passed down by groups over generations. How many younger generations willingly pick up the burdens of their parents and grand-parents and ancestors, adopting those grudges as a force that gives life meaning? A few weeks ago, Rev. Scott Tayler, co-minister of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York delivered a sermon on a related point. Rev. Tayler preached on what he called the myth of salvation by elimination – which is the idea that the world would be great and we would be safe if we could only get rid of all the bad people. (It is not possible to do this.) Tayler’s sermon suggested that since we can never get rid of all the bad people, we should learn to love our enemies.

In the same way, and more germane to this morning’s topic, we may be seduced into the belief that our lives would be wonderful if only all of the people who have hurt, disappointed, wronged, or offended us would only realize how very wrong they were, make amends to us with interest, and berate and castigate and flagellate themselves mercilessly for having had the gall to ever have dared to offend us. Or we could just learn to say, “I forgive you.” And learn how to mean it. Love your enemies. Forgive those who disappoint you.

This is of course a radical sort of thing. Some would say, “You know, I am a forgiving person. I have no problem with forgiveness. And as soon as that other person comes to me and makes a sincere and utter apology I’ll gladly forgive.” Is contrition a pre-requisite for forgiveness? I don’t think has to be is. I think their can be a dialectical relationship where forgiveness inspires contrition.

Remember, the Lord’s Prayer goes:

“Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”


“Forgive our trespasses that we’ve apologized for as we forgive those who have apologized for trespassing against us.”

Forgiveness without contrition: Yes, it is radical. And no, it is not fair. If you really want to try something radical, try apologizing to someone for holding a grudge against them!

It is not just the world that could use a lesson in letting go of grudges, offering forgiveness, inspiring contrition. This is actually something that churches could stand to improve at: Ideally, the church should be a crucible, a context, a petri-dish for us to learn to become forgiveness warriors, acolytes of acceptance, and crusaders in love. Church should be place to practice taking spiritual risks, a place to always assume the best and try to see the best in other people. But, like all imperfect institutions on this earth, churches don’t always live up to their highest principles. They’re human in this regard. We’re human in this regard.

I will always remember the first sermon I preached. It was that prime, high-attendance date of the Sunday after Christmas… during a snow-storm… but a few hearty souls attended. I delivered an earnest sermon about New Year’s resolutions. During the sermon I stuck the “love your neighbor as your yourself” line in there. In the receiving line after the service, one individual passed me and glared. “You don’t know my neighbors. I hate my neighbors and you can’t tell me to love them.”

People hold their grudges, even in church. I won’t go to that because they might be there. I can’t do this because of him, because of her. I don’t go to church their any more because of that minister, that minister who was the minister five ministers ago, or three ministers ago, or now.

The holding of grudges, the keeping of score, the refusal to forgive always represents a profound failure of religious practice. And, since it is the job of the church to help teach us to forgive, the holding of grudges represents a second kind of failure.

This may be kind of an unusual topic to introduce on a Sunday when we welcome New Members into the congregation. But my message for those new members, and those not yet members… and those who have been members for some time, is this:

Allow this church community to be a context for your spiritual growth. Let this church be a context for expanded sympathies, expanded concern, and expanded acceptance. Let his church be a context for experimentation with greater generosity – of time, talent, and treasure. Let this church be a context for the growth of not only your mind, but also your heart. And let this church be a context for the growth of compassion. Practice forgiveness. Practice laying your burden down.

Churches are not immune from error. They are not perfect. They are made up of real, flesh-and-blood people, after all! Which is a good thing, because each and every one of you is a real, flesh-and-blood person. As am I. And we’re here, with warts and blemishes, and with so much beauty to be found in all the vicissitudes and struggles of life. Amen.