Monday, October 18, 2010

Sermon: "The Power of Forgiveness" (Delivered 9-19-10)

Once upon a time there were three little pigs. The first pig built his house out of straw. Along came the big, bad wolf and he huffed and puffed and blew the house down and gobbled the pig up. The second pig built his house out of sticks. Along came the big, bad wolf and he blew the house down and gobbled the second pig up. The third pig built his house out of bricks. Along came the big, bad wolf and he huffed and puffed and couldn’t blow the house down.

The fairy tale of the Three Little Pigs plays is a great example of a popular way of seeing the world. The world is a scary place full of dangerous things that are out to get us. Security and safety can be realized by building up walls of separation and protection. Our survival requires rigidity. It requires that we create a world that is strict, inflexible, and uncompromising. Security is achieved through distancing, through impenetrability.

Of course, the world doesn’t really work that way. In the field of architecture there is a rule of thumb that says that, at minimum, for every five hundred feet of height, a skyscraper needs to be able to sway one foot from side to side to maintain its structural integrity. The world’s tallest building, the 2,716.5 foot Burj Khalifa in Dubai, sways five to ten feet from side to side. Motion sickness and queasiness are frequent complaints for residents and employees who live and work in high rises only a fraction as tall as the Burj Khalifa. The strength of skyscrapers (or suspension bridges, to give just another example) depends upon a certain amount of elasticity, give, and sway.

When we learn about a devastating earthquake striking an urban area in a third world country, it is the brittle rigidity of concrete that proves to be a death trap to the earthquake victims. Of course, I am speaking in metaphor. We come together to engage in theology, not architecture. But, we can find parallel teachings in our religious tradition. A reading from our hymnal by the great Unitarian religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs teaches us that,
Some beliefs are like walled gardens. They encourage exclusiveness, and the feeling of being especially privileged… Some beliefs are rigid, like the body of death, impotent in a changing world. Other beliefs are pliable, like the young sapling, ever growing with the upward thrust of life.
In the New Testament we encounter in various forms the teaching that “the letter kills but the spirit gives life.” Through the ages this teaching unfortunately has been interpreted in ways that have engendered anti-Semitism. But it need not be. This teaching instructs us about the dangers of faith becoming overly legalistic, narrow, and absolutist; when that happens, the result is something brittle and crumbling. When faith and teaching are based in love, the results are robust and resilient.

The service this morning is on the theme of forgiveness. Forgiveness is challenging. Practicing forgiveness is difficult. A book on the subject of forgiveness from several years ago, used in a sermon by my colleague Roger Fritts, makes clear the link between forgiveness and power. The book quotes a man who is resistant to the idea of forgiveness as saying, “Teaching forgiveness is hogwash. You’ll turn everyone into benign, benevolent zombies. They’ll all be too blissed out to function in the real world, where you need a good, strong suit of armor to make sure you don’t get eaten alive.”

In the sermon, Fritts suggested that we may want to do away with the word forgiveness altogether. If a person has been wronged, if a person has been hurt, and especially if that person has been grievously hurt, it can do additional harm to command that person to forgive. Often, when religion requires a person to forgive, it can “trivialize the real hurts suffered,” and seem like a form of blaming the victim. Fritts goes as far to suggest that we use the term “understanding” instead of “forgiveness.”

Let’s look at that quote again. “Teaching forgiveness is hogwash… in the real world… you need a good, strong suit of armor to make sure you don’t get eaten alive.” In a weird way that quote reminds me of the third of the three little pigs.

An alternative view of forgiveness (cited in a sermon by Rebecca Lee) has been put forward by Dr. Fred Luskin, the co-founder of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, based out of Stanford University in California. Luskin’s research into the psychology of forgiveness demonstrated that people who practice forgiveness experience less anger, show greater compassion, and have higher levels of self-confidence. The Stanford Forgiveness Project claims,
Forgiveness is the feeling of peace that emerges as you take your hurt less personally, take responsibility for how you feel, and become a hero instead of a victim in the story that you tell. Forgiveness is the experience of peacefulness in the present moment. Forgiveness does not change the past, but it changes the present. Forgiveness means that even though you are wounded you choose to hurt and suffer less. Forgiveness means you become a part of the solution. Forgiveness is the understanding that hurt is a normal part of life. Forgiveness is for you and no one else.
Without forgiveness, the researchers report, we are likely to develop a “grievance story,” a way of telling the story of our experiences that focuses on blaming and that negatively impacts the quality of our lives.

There is an old story that touches upon an aspect of forgiveness. The story, it appears, was originally told by Leo Tolstoy and was then adapted by Margaret Silf in her book One Hundred Wisdom Stories from Around the World. It was further adapted by my colleague Eva Cameron and then I adapted it some more. The story goes like this:

Two women approach an Oracle to ask for instruction. One regarded herself as a terrible sinner. In her youth, many years ago she had done something selfish that had hurt a number of people that she loved, and she tortured herself constantly with the memory of her wrongdoing.

The second, on the other hand, had lived her entire life within the law and always followed the rules. She wasn’t conscious of any serious mistakes, had a clear conscience, and felt quite pleased with herself. She had come along to provide her friend with company. The Oracle asked both women about themselves. The first wept as she confessed the shame she carried. The second reported a clear conscience.

The Oracle said to the first women, “Go, daughter of God, and look for the heaviest boulder you can find—one that you can barely manage to carry—and bring it to me.” “And you,” the Oracle said to the second woman, who could not recall any serious wrongdoing, “Take a small pouch and bring me as many pebbles as you can carry.”

The two went off to do as the Oracle had instructed. The first brought back a huge boulder; the second brought back a pouch full of small pebbles.

The Oracle examined the stones and said, “Now take the stones back and replace each one of them exactly where you picked them up, and when you have put them all back where you found them, come back to me.”

The women went off again to carry out the Oracle’s instructions. The first very easily found the place where she had removed the huge boulder. The ground still had a curved indentation where the boulder had once sat. She put it to rest where it had been. But the second had no idea where she had picked up all the little pebbles! She had to return to the Oracle without having carried out the instruction.

“You see,” said the Oracle, “that’s how atonement works. It was easy to take the big, heavy boulder back to its place because you know exactly where you first picked it up. But it was impossible to remember where all those little pebbles came from.”


As I was writing this sermon, I have to admit that I experienced pangs of inadequacy. I wanted to regale you with stories of heroic forgiveness.

Like this: A year ago I spent a couple of days exploring the city of Lima, Peru. While searching for a museum I popped into the lobby of a building, hoping to ask for directions. The building happened to be the offices of the truth and reconciliation commission in Peru. Through the 1980s and early 90s, the Peruvian government engaged in armed struggle against the Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path, a terrorist socialist organization. The Peruvian government’s hard line crackdown included military strikes against rural villages and police sweeps at universities in which hundreds of students were rounded up, tortured, killed, and disappeared. That office building that I had wandered into was a location where citizens of Peru including the families and relatives of the victims could go and learn the truth about what had happened to their loved ones. This process with its policy of truth is a part of the national healing process.

Or, like this: I could have told you about the work of the Stanford Forgiveness Project in Northern Ireland, where what they learned about the power of forgiveness came from working with the families of victims who died in bombings.

Or, like this: I could have told you about one of the first sermons I delivered here seven years ago on the subject of forgiveness. In that sermon I told the story of Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a clinical psychologist who served on Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Her book, A Human Being Died that Night, chronicles her visits with one of the most violent and ruthless leaders of the Apartheid regime and how the work of national healing and reconciliation depended on gaining cooperation from some of the greatest offenders of human rights.

Or, I could have used any one of dozens and dozens of stories from the life of Gandhi. One of the hymns from our hymnal that we never sing is #178, a piece called, “Raghupati.” The reason we never sing it is simple. I don’t really think you want to try chanting, “Raghupati, Raghava, Raja, Ram. Patita Paban, Seeta Nam.” During Gandhi’s prayer meetings he had his followers sing this song that calls for peace and understanding between Hindus and Muslims. Each day Gandhi had his followers chant this song, a song that demands that praise be given both to Vishnu and to Allah. The non-violence practiced by Gandhi’s followers required that they understand the centuries of enmity and violence between followers of the two great religions and that they practice renouncing that violence by honoring one another.

I wanted to include stories like these, stories of extreme forgiveness, stories of people working to repair the tears in the fabric of humanity. But, there is a danger in telling just these stories. The figures in these stories may appear to set examples that it would be impossible for us mere mortals to emulate. It would be like preaching a sermon on financial stewardship and using as my text Jesus’ instruction to sell everything you own and give the money away.

Upon hearing about forgiveness in the context of a family in Northern Ireland who lost their child to a car bomb detonated in a marketplace, I take myself to the story of the two women and the stones. I put myself in the place not of the woman who carries a heavy boulder, but the woman with a clear conscience and a pouch of pebbles.

And so we return to our first image: the solid walls, the impenetrable fortress of the house made of bricks. There is the temptation to construct a rigid division between the person inside the house and the wolf outside. The person on the inside lives with a clear conscience and knows only the experience of having been afflicted, threatened, hurt. Outside, away from us, are the wolfish souls who are guilty of wrongdoing.

Recall however the architectural lesson that rigidity and absolutism are dangerous in building up a large edifice. Remember the suggestion that separation and distancing are not edifying, whether we are the ones who need to be forgiven or the ones who have something to forgive. We all carry a stone of some sort: a pebble or a boulder. And others carry us.