“Public Forgiveness”  by Mark W. Harris

October 5, 2014 – First Parish of Watertown


Call to Worship –  A Newer Kaddish by Arthur Waskow

Praise for Life.

Praise for all the senses of the body

reaching out and plucking the universe like an autumn apple.

Praise for the dream of justice here upon earth, equity and well being for all humanity.

May our children’s children harvest

the dreams we plant in our brief lives.

Praise for life.

Praise though all of our philosophies and explanations trickle through the fingers of our experience like water.

Praise for life.

Praise for it though it is brief

before the lives of stars, and the lives of the world, and the lives of even trees that shade us.

Praise for life.

Praise for the sacred power of remembrance.

Praise for the sacred power of forgiveness and letting go.

Praise for life, the beginning, middle and amen of this prayer.

Reading :  Jonah 3:4-4:4

Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

4:1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Second reading – from Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt


October 5  –  “Public Forgiveness”  –  Mark W. Harris

This week the sermon wrote itself.  This is not to suggest that there was some direct inspiration from God. That might make me a UU apostate, and I am not even sure there is such a thing. Instead there were two events that occurred that directly related to the theme of forgiveness, and both were perfectly timed to coincide with the celebration of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and my scheduled sermon topic. First, I received a letter from a religious leader who confessed that he had been unfaithful to his wife, and he was seeking the forgiveness of the wider community of the institution he was affiliated with.  This indiscretion had occurred prior to his employment. He had been given the official approval to continue in his job, and genuinely seemed contrite for his actions. Some would say it is a private matter, but public leaders are subject to standards that demand integrity. Whether it is religious community or political constituency these kinds of confessional letters or public acknowledgements are not unusual.  From Elmer Gantry to Jimmy Swaggert, we are all familiar with stories of popular evangelists, who act in a manner totally in conflict with their espoused values of faithfulness and fidelity to God and family.  In my mind there was no more dramatic case than that of Jim Bakker, who disclosed an affair that shook his dollar laden pulpit and resulted in a flood of tearful pathos with revelations of cover-ups, and eventually a jail term.

I am not suggesting that the case I became aware of this week was similar to these televised melodramas.   Yet it had a familiarity that I found a little wearisome. I am not as interested as to why people behave this way.  Humans are imperfect beings who are mistake prone and subject to temptation and addiction, and thus we sometimes act counter to our espoused values. Or we simply do not have the courage to face our family or our employer with an ugly truth about our lives, and thus hide it, believing we won’t be exposed. Any situation like this is complicated, but it also true that usually we do not go public with our transgression until we are threatened with exposure.   In the situation this week, I am not sure why he wrote the public letter now.  Did an aggrieved party threaten him, and so he realized he better fess up now before he appeared to be a liar or part of a cover up?  I don’t know.  But in the case of politicians, this almost always seems to be true. They often pay hush money or concoct elaborate stories to continue to hide their transgressions, and only go public when they are forced to do so. Are they really contrite we wonder, or is it all done for effect, so they will continue to win our vote?  We can only hope that the person will seriously examine their lives, ask for forgiveness, and go on to be a better person.

These politicians and religious leaders who publicly confess their sins or acts of indiscretion are examples of seeking public forgiveness because they have a following – a congregation, an academic community, an electorate who they want to continue to have a relationship with, and hope to continue to hold the trust of . They extend their private need for forgiveness from the spouse or family they have hurt by their actions or lies to a larger community to whom they are beholding in commitments of responsibility.

The second event from this week that bears on the theme of forgiveness was the viewing of a film at the World in Watertown meeting on Thursday night.  The group saw a documentary called “Coexist,” the story of the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, where a mass slaughter of much of the Tutsi tribe along with moderate Hutus was perpetrated by members of the Hutu majority.  When the economy turned sour, Tutsis, who had been stereotyped as a defective people for their purported small size and farming occupations were judged and labeled as unfit “others” worthy of persecution.  In effect, the government helped dehumanize them, leading to their victimization.  Now a generation later, the government has taken the unprecedented step of implementing a required program of mass reconciliation between both sides, including the release from prison of thousands of perpetrators. Victims meet rapists and murderers in public settings where they are asked to overcome their pain, and affirm their unity as one Rwandan people.  The film made it seem as though the personal pain of victims is secondary to the larger goal of bringing the nation together, and that this is a forced reconciliation.  Do perpetrators fully grasp the severity of their heinous acts, and honestly feel deep remorse for what they have done?  And do victims have a real opportunity to work through the violation and loss of all they hold dear, and begin to heal and start a new life?   Is private pain neglected for the larger goal of public acceptance?

Both of these experiences this week made me reflect on this question of private and public forgiveness.   When I was young I remember my father railing over the ease of forgiveness that he perceived was true in the Catholic Church.  He would say something like, they can go out and murder someone, and all they have to do is march into the confessional, get absolution and a Hail Mary from the priest, and all is forgiven instantly. He stereotyped Catholics as not having to feel sorry for their misdeeds at all.  They could do anything, and receive magical forgiveness, and then go back and do more of the same without remorse.  At my high school reunion this summer I saw an old friend who reminded me of his bragging about the outrageous sins he used to tell me he tried to embarrass the priest with.  As we see in the reading, Catholics learned about forgiveness in the privacy of the confessional.  They may have feared the unforgivable sin, but its revelation was not going to take place in public. It was confessed to God, or his representative in the form of the faceless voice behind the wall.

Despite this ancient tradition of seeking forgiveness in private, our congregational or Puritan tradition developed a more public idea of forgiveness in the community. First, by definition, forgiveness had to do with social affairs in your immediate town.  Forgiveness was the removal or taking away of a previously incurred obligation or debt. Remember that version of the Lord’s Prayer that says forgive us our debs?  You don’t judge a person for their debt.  You forgive it.  It is about releasing an indentured servant, or allowing someone to be free from a contract.  It suggests showing some compassion in economic terms.  If a person would not forgive their enemies except with punishment or restitution or reparations then it was judged that they were not capable of being forgiven themselves by Christ. Sometimes people were admitted as members of a church based on their ability to forgive others.  This was always about the past, and not the future. God forgave, but also demanded repentance.  Going forward you needed to change your ways.  Calvin’s church in Geneva was a Reformed model. Calvin, not usually remembered as a compassionate guy, said those who held grudges, maintained disputes, and refused to express forgiveness by pubic gestures like speeches of reconciliation or bodily embraces (and you thought Puritans weren’t huggers) could be excommunicated.  At the First Church of Boston, they declared that you could not start legal proceedings against someone without the consent of the church.  Forgiveness trumped legal prerogative.

As time went by acts of forgiveness were required to join the church and to maintain membership.   This was the kind of forgiveness I saw in my research in church history when I studied my hometown.  Those who committed sins such as unchristian carriage, or fornication, or used bad language lost their membership privileges, but once they confessed their sins before the congregation, they were immediately readmitted to the community. We judge this now based on seeing it as strict old-fashioned morality, but cordial speech, political concord and debt relief don’t sound so bad.  Furthermore it allowed people the opportunity to feel forgiven after they had sinned.  What this provided was a sense that even though they were imperfect (as was everyone), and prone to say or do the wrong thing, there was still an opportunity for repentance, a chance to be better again.  Believe it or not, it was Jonathan Edwards who said, “We ought to pity and love our Enemies as companions in injury . . . and notwithstanding their injuries to us, love them as our fellow creatures and partaker with us of the same human nature.”

This is an interesting perspective for liberals, who have a hard time even saying the word sin.  Historically, it is good that our concept of human nature did not focus on depravity and worthlessness, because it gave people a sense of their individual worth. Yet at the same time it offers little chance for accepting your failings as a human being.  Once Puritanism faded away into Congregationalism, and especially Unitarianism, there was no ritual or practice of seeking forgiveness in a church community, public or private.  As a result liberals have this perfectionist tendency to be just the right kind of person with all the answers, and often feel guilt for not doing all that we can to be perfect or to save the world, but have no personal method or religious practice for reminding ourselves that we are not perfect, and that we might feel a need to forgive ourselves when we fail.. Like everyone else, we run up debts, we say bad things about others, and we are unfaithful.  Yet we have a difficult time expressing our regrets, admitting how much we have hurt others, or seeing our own flaws; our very human fallibility. Thus we not only cannot forgive others for not being perfect, we cannot forgive ourselves either.

So we travel from private rituals of forgiveness in the confessional to public in the community to none at all. Yom Kippur marks a community wide request for the forgiveness of sin.   The day of atonement picks up on this theme of not being able to entirely cleanse our ways by ourselves.  It says there is only so much we can do to make ourselves better, and so we must turn it over to God and ask that the slate be cleaned, or at the very least acknowledge that we can’t do or be everything.  Traditionally the human frailties are off loaded on to a goat, and thus the term scapegoat, but an ancient Jewish tradition used a rooster or hen where the transgressions are given over to the animal, and then it is killed and given to the poor.  The Kol Nidre prayer which begins the service goes back to this idea that even our best intentions go astray.   Like the confessional, Yom Kippur asks us to scrutinize our own lives so that unwanted behavior will not become too ingrown, and thus difficult to change.  Then it extends outward.  We repair the wounds we have inflicted on others before they become permanent. Finally, there is a community element where we are asked to recharge our communities so we don’t lose sight of our purpose.

On Yom Kippur the entire book of Jonah is read.  The story is used not because of the famous whale tale, where poor Jonah gets swallowed and spit back in the first two chapters, but because it has significance for the theme of repentance and forgiveness in the last two chapters.   We heard how Ninevah repents of its sins after all, and God forgives them deciding not to wreck havoc.  But their repentance, the story says, displeases Jonah.  And he gets angry.  Jonah disagrees with God.  He shows no compassion for the people of Ninevah, but wants God to kill them and impart strict justice.  They were bad, he said, give them what they deserve.  And because he disagrees with God, he says kill me.  He would rather be dead than be wrong.  So not only does he refuse to be compassionate and forgiving. He refuses to admit he is wrong.  And God asks him, “Is it right for you to be angry?

The replacement of compassion with righteous anger is significant.  Anger is something that comes easily to many of us in stressful situations, and most commonly for some of us when we are driving a car.  My son Dana was in his first traffic jam recently. Once he was out of it, he took out his frustration by speeding. I am frequently dismayed when people continue to run through stop signs and red lights with sheer abandon.  Then if you question their behavior with the use of your horn, or if you try to proceed where it seems to be your right of way, they respond with that upraised hand gesture so familiar to many of us, or refuse to look at you and acknowledge their indiscretion, or give you that look of righteous anger.  On that day when Dana was speeding, he came to me later that night, and said how sorry he was for behaving like that. He knew it was dangerous, and vowed not to do it again. In a nutshell he showed how anger can be resolved when the perpetrator says they are sorry and then the aggrieved person can grant forgiveness.  Too often people want to assert how right they are, rather than seek forgiveness. He didn’t try to justify his actions because of the backed up traffic. He merely admitted he was wrong.   That is hard for many people. Jonah would rather have died.  We struggle when someone else is in the right, and we are wrong. We would rather be right, but admitting we are wrong restores the relationship, and that is the ultimate goal of forgiveness. But it is also important to remember who is in the wrong.  Sometimes we are too quick to assume the blame, assuming we are just not loving enough, saying I can do more.

How much heart space are we going to allow the anger to take up?  The Puritans knew that forgiveness was about letting go of something out of our past, so that we can move forward and begin anew. It’s not about the future, but rather about letting go of the past so there is an unencumbered now that can build a new future.  If you find you must still dredge up the time you felt ignored or were abandoned by your partner, then the issue is not forgiven, nor you reconciled, and there is no space for love to touch you again, or a new sense of trust to carry you forward.

There is an old story about how park rangers catch monkeys in Africa that I learned from my colleague Patrick O’Neil. The ranger brings a plexiglass box, which has a small round hole on one side.  He puts a banana in there.  Next he places the box under a tree where there are some monkeys swinging from the branches. He moves away from the tree.  After a short time, one of the monkeys becomes curious.  He puts his hand through the hole, and grabs the banana.  But when he tried to withdraw his hand, his fist, holding the banana, will not fit through the hole.  The monkey goes wild, jumping up and down, squealing to get free. While all this is going on, the park ranger appears, and captures the monkey.   What did the monkey need to do to get free?  (open his fist and drop the banana).

Open his fist and drop the banana.  Many of us have held on to a certain banana for a long time, and we need to let it go.  We need to forgive ourselves for all we did not do or cannot do to change a situation.  Forgiveness though is not forgetting nor is it denial. We sometimes forgive others who hurt us severely.  Forgiveness is even possible in Rwanda, and in cases of severe abuse.  Long ago when I was a teenager, I met an African American man from Springfield when I was on a church youth retreat.  He knew first hand the pervasive discrimination of being black in America.  He did not forget the poor conditions he grew up under in Winchester Square, which ironically had once been an important area for Underground Railroad activities. But that weekend he said to me, that he wanted his life to be different, that the hatred he encountered was not going to define him. He was not going to hate me because I was white.

Finding forgiveness means that the anger about our past is not going to define us, and we are not going to be imprisoned by our past.  It is not easy. We can focus on anger, revenge, or on being right, and can thus live in isolation from others, and let anger define us.  Or we can return in our flawed ways to renew love and relationship, admit to each other we are not always so right and perfect, and find a renewed community sense of forgiveness. The experience in Springfield taught me that public forgiveness can be powerful, when we share our experience of painful truths together, let go of old grievances, and resolve to begin again. Henri Nouwen reminds us of the hard work of forgiveness when he said “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.”


Closing Words from Reinhold Niebuhr  (#461 – Responsive)

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;

Therefore we are be saved by hope. 

Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;

Therefore we are saved by faith. 

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone;

Therefore we are saved by love. 

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own.

Therefore we are saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.