Red Dress or Real Life? A Sermon on Forgiveness

77028_1540648872410_5641754_nPhoto taken by me outside the “Dunker” church on the battlefield of Antietam.  The little church was amid the worst of it, a congregation of pacifists… whose church now stands as a monument of healing.  My great-great-grandfather Miller fought here, and it was the first place that Clara Barton began her work.   November 2010.

Gospel of John 12:20-36 (New Revised Standard Version)

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.
*Sermon preached on Sunday, March 18, 2018, at First Christian Church (Hampton VA), the fifth in a Lenten series drawing upon aspects of the “12-Steps” that form the basis for spiritual recovery.  In this case, Steps 8 & 9.  If something resonates and deserves a private conversation, I am always available.  -Vinson
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INTRODUCTION

It was a red dress and it made her happy.  Really happy.

I was visiting folks on that church’s membership roll that weren’t active, and being still new there, I ran into their histories.  She had warmly opened the door and we sat down to talk, but when I brought up the church, her face darkened.  It wasn’t personal.  She was clear on that point.  On a spring day she had worn a new red dress to church, only for someone to say some snide remark that deeply hurt her feelings.

She could not, would not, forget the slight.

She held it over the long-dead offender and church alike.

She would never darken the door of the church again, and had been true to her word.  The event was as fresh in her mind as if it had happened the hour before, but it hadn’t.  It had been over four decades.

I had a hard time getting my mind around such a grudge, but I was still relatively new in ministry and had not yet learned how difficult some found it – to forgive.  For all the language and all the hymns praising God for sending Christ in whom we are forgiven, I discovered post-seminary that too often the followers of Christ viewed the Cross as a future insurance policy rather than an owner’s manual for living a full life in the here and now.  Needless to say, that gets acted out.

To forgive another.  To forgive themselves.  To forgive God.  It can be a difficult challenge, and I dare say we all struggle with it in some fashion.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

I bring this up as we continue to examine the path to wholeness in Christ, through the spiritual recovery process known as the 12-Steps, having come this Sunday to Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all,” and Step 9, “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

FOR INSTANCE

We gather on Sundays for one simple reason.  It is the same reason that some Greek Jews came up to Philip, and said to him, “’Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’”  That is the beginning and ending point, and everything in between.  But…

What does it mean to hear: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”?

What does it mean that we are told “Whoever serves me must follow me”?

What does it mean when we are admonished to “walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you”?

Each of these passages speak to the discipleship of the one who sought to restore us to God and one another in peace and right relationship – in the power of forgiveness, even at the price of the Cross.

It isn’t easy.  Sometimes it is downright hard.

In Alcoholics Anonymous’ Big Book, the description of Step 7 concludes with this prayer:  “My Creator, I am now willing that you should have all of me, good and bad.  I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows.  Grant me strength, as I go out from here, to do your bidding.  Amen.”  Thus begins the concrete steps to “repair the damage done in the past” and if “we haven’t the will to do this, we ask (God) until it comes.” [A.A. Big Book, p.76].

There are, as I see it, two challenges, what AA describes as character defects.  One is holding onto old resentments we have against others and the other is our guilt and shame because of how we have treated others.  Either way, we seek God’s help, we submit ourselves to the will of God – whether it is “justifiable anger” or crippling guilt – these are but two sides of the same self-destructive energy that robs us of peace… of life.  It’s coming to a place where we just no longer can or wish to bear the pain of negative emotions connected with unfinished business in our relationships.

Something has to give.

For example, back when I was supposed to have been left behind with Julie, for the birth of our son, I discovered five minutes before the ship’s brow was pulled that my boss had lied to me and to the Commanding Officer, and so I got underway.  When the ship’s comms went down about 20 hours after Julie had gone into labor, as a high-risk pregnancy, I asked him to pray with me in the ship’s chapel – he refused.  When there was a satellite phone in our office that would have allowed me to call and check on Julie, it was the Executive Officer who had to order him to allow me to make a call.  And when a flag was flown to honor our son’s birth, he was angry.  I came off the ship different.  He was a bitter man and I had drunk of a bit of his poison – I just didn’t realize how much for several years, before I finally did the work of forgiveness with the help of a friend.  It was eating away at me.  I had every reason to hold a grudge, and better reasons not to any longer – as such energy takes up the space meant for joy which belongs to God, those we cherish, and even ourselves.

Anger and guilt has a way of crowding out the life-affirming ways of thinking and feeling, whether there is a person or a circumstance that brings us harm.  No small wonder that in the Gospel of Matthew [5:23-24], Jesus instructs believers about to offer a gift at the altar and who realize there’s a break in a relationship, to make the effort to go and be reconciled – before returning to offer one’s gift.  It’s to hold up before God – the people, organizations and institutions we believe have harmed us — and toward whom we hold resentment, anger and even hatred.

As another has written, “In doing so, we come to recognize how much violence these negative emotions do to us and to those around us.  We pray to God to give us the willingness to let go of these poisonous, venomous feelings — for God to wash them away with the spirit of forgiveness and love.  In praying to become willing to let go in this way, we do not have to admit that those who wronged us are right.  We do not have to forget our histories and our pain.  We only need to ask God to do what only God can do: to remove hatred from our hearts and replace it with love, that we might live more peacefully and comfortably.  And so we pray: ‘Gracious God, we ask that you accept these names as we lift them up and grant us the willingness to forgive each of these.’”

But, even as others have harmed us, let’s face it – we have harmed others, and so as Rev. Dr. Paul Bradley writes, “filled with the loving Spirit of God, we lift up the names of those we know we have harmed — friends and family members, employers and employees, and all other people, and institutions, and organizations we have exploited, injured and otherwise done damage to.  We ask God to help us to accept and own our responsibility in each of these damaged relationships.  We accept responsibility both for our sins of commission — all the ways we have actively caused damage and destruction — as well as for our sins of omission — the ways we have caused harm through our absence (physical or emotional) while in the grip of our addictions and compulsions.  Having done all this, we make our list of those we have harmed, and we pray: ‘Gracious God, we ask that you accept these names as we lift them up and grant us the willingness to make amends to each of these.’”

SO WHAT?

Earlier this month I was reading a poignant article of a woman who lost a child 18 months ago, one of those deaths that just had no explanation.  It drew me in, as she wrote of how much anger she has noticed in people in the months since:  in extraordinary road rage and other events with folks just enraged, complete strangers making it personal to her.

As she writes, “Right now, chaos reigns.”

Then she added,

“I think back to that group who gathered in our living room on and off for weeks after Andrew died.  Many wonderful people — from across the political spectrum — converged to help us during that time.  They worked together to care for us, talking with civility and empathy about events and movies and even politics.  They were worried we would give in to rage and despair following Andrew’s death, so somehow, as a group, they held up a light.  I’m not so naive that I think asking people to behave the way they do at a funeral will solve the problems of the world.  Yet there is value in knowing what’s possible.  We were stretched with grief to a point where, I’m told, it looked as if we might just disappear.  So those around us accommodated.  They treated us with steady kindness, because we were frightened and mortal.  But so, ultimately, is everyone.”

So, Ann Bauer concludes, “Imagine if that were the goal: baseline civility and warm expectations.  This doesn’t mean we stop standing up for what’s right or being outraged by injustice.  It’s about speaking with respect, avoiding hate and generally being decent.”  In this, we abide in the words of Paul to the Ephesians:  “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” [Ephesians 4:31-32], that wherever possible, without creating harm, we may make direct amends.  Then, others will indeed, “see Jesus.”  Amen.

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Full articles: “Amends and Forgiveness: Taking Step Eight,” by Rev. Dr. Paul Bradley.  Huffingham Post, January 15, 2013. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-dr-paul-bradley/amends-and-forgiveness-taking-step-eight_b_2109305.html.  Accessed March 15, 1018.  & “Our anger is poisoning us. Here’s what I learned after my son died,” by Ann Bauer.  Washington Post, March 5, 2018.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2018/03/05/our-anger-is-poisoning-us-heres-what-i-learned-after-my-son-died/?utm_term=.9e19aa8a376a.  Accessed March 15, 2018.

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