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Paybacks, Mean People, and Forgiveness
Larry Reimer
March 19, 2000

Jesus said, "Forgive and you will be forgiven; give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back." (Luke 6:37-38)

If you O lord, should mark iniquities, Lord who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.
(Psalm 130:3-4)

Jesus said, "If your brother or sister sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive." (Luke 17:3-4)

Jesus said, ""love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. This will prove that you are children of God. For God makes the sun rise on bad and good alike; God’s rain falls on the just and the unjust." (Matthew 5:44-45)

"All great decisions are made on the basis of insufficient data, therefore we must be willing to forgive ourselves over and over again." (If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him, Sheldon Kopp)

Forgiveness, probably the most obvious solution and yet the most difficult problem for the healing of our lives.

"For the Beauty of the Earth", is a simple song many of us have sung hundreds of times, without thinking too seriously about it. But by stopping and looking out onto the beauty of creation in its simplicity around this church and becoming aware of the "love which from our birth, over and around us lies," I had a sense of how much of creation and life I take for granted. I rush by it, intent on my schedule and all I have to do. Can God forgive me for my self-centeredness?

In the deepest part of my heart I believe that God does forgive and welcome us, over and over again. Look at Scripture reading #2. "O Lord, if you should mark iniquities, Lord who could stand? But there is forgiveness in you…" One of the names for God must be the forgiving one.

I hope that the exercise of the opening of this service gave you a taste of this process, because I believe that forgiveness is a sacred circle. One place to hop on this turning circle is with asking forgiveness from God. We continue the circle by accepting forgiveness. Then we ride the turn in the circle in our ability to forgive others.

I know that whenever I preach on forgiveness there is in almost every listening heart, an inner voice saying, "Yes, but." Every one of us believes in forgiveness but has some place where we maintain it doesn’t work for us. Some of us have somebody we just won’t forgive. Others have someone who won’t forgive us. For others, God’s forgiveness makes no sense. And then some find that place where we won’t forgive ourselves.

Look at forgiveness as a sacred circle, and think of the place where that circle is out of whack for you. Is there some bump on it, like wonky wheel of a bad grocery cart that makes what God intended to run smoothly instead go woogela, woogela, woogela like that bum cart?

Those of you who began Lent with the Ash Wednesday service here took a moment to focus on a bitterness that you held. That is also the first reading in the Lenten booklet. One place to enter the circle and smooth out the wheel is by examining our hearts and seeing where that spiritual plaque of bitterness is accumulating.

Look at scripture reading #1. Jesus says, "Forgive and you will be forgiven." It may be that we have to unlock that part of our hearts that won’t forgive before we can experience forgiveness ourselves.

Most of us, myself included, are thinking not of whom we can forgive right now, but whom we can’t. That may just be the place we need most to focus.

If we’re stuck here, realize first of all that forgiving does not mean forgetting. Henri Nouwen, a marvelous spiritual figure of our century, says in a reading for Ash Wednesday in our Lenten booklet, "When we forgive a person, the memory of the wound might stay with us for a long time, even throughout our lives. Sometimes we carry the memory in our bodies as a visible sign. But forgiveness changes the way we remember. It converts the curse into a blessing." Nouwen continues, "When we forgive our parents for their divorce, our children for their lack of attention, our friends for their unfaithfulness in crisis, our doctors for their ill advice, we no longer have to experiences ourselves as victims…"

Secondly, forgiveness does not mean living with and submitting to abuse. I do not believe God asks anyone to stay in a relationship where another person beats, humiliates, or degrades them in a family, marriage, classroom, social group, or job. Look at scripture reading #3. Jesus says, "If your brother or sister sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive." An offender needs to truly repent, which means actually change their ways. Jesus never says to stay where we are being abused. He tells his disciples to shake the dust off their feet and leave any place where they are treated poorly.

Third, forgiving is as important to you than as to the person you are forgiving, maybe more. Sister Marguerite at the Catholic Student Center here in Gainesville was part of a group in North Carolina that focused on forgiveness, illness, and healing. I’m anxious to learn more of what they did. It immediately struck me that lifelong unforgiving anger is a poison that we may well release into our own bodies and souls.

Another place to grab the wheel of forgiveness lies in scripture number 4 in your bulletin. In it Jesus says "love those who persecute you to show you are children of God, for God makes the sun to rise on the good and bad alike, and sends rain on the just and the unjust."

Have you ever noticed that this is true? Private pursuing rain clouds don’t follow individual bad people while bubbles of sunshine surround the good. Sometimes we wish they would. Sometimes we feel that storm clouds do follow us personally.

But in our best moments we see that life is much more complex than this. Those who happen to offend us aren’t all evil, and those whom we worship as heroes aren’t all good. Are all a mixed bag if love and confusion. To be able to love and forgive is to see the world as God sees it. I think one of the gifts of the best movies, plays, and books, is that they give us a glimpse of the world as God might see it. The worst and most shallow fiction sets up bad people to be so evil that we’re glad to see them dead and good folks as unfaltering saints.

I liked the movie Magnolia. I do not recommend the movie. It is a harsh, often very crude film, filled with terrible language, cruel behavior, and loud, often irritating, music. The character Tom Cruise plays, for example, is a motivational speaker who teaches men how to manipulate and demean women so they will have sex with them. The main characters include drug addicts, cheating partners, and people dying of cancer who have been mean to those who loved them.

But the gift of the movie is that it keeps pulling back layer after layer of those lives until we see that there is always another story beneath the surface.

Let me give you just one example. Earl Partridge is an elderly man dying of cancer. His dying wish is to see the son who has not spoken to him in twenty-three years. Earl’s hospice nurse, Phil recognize Earl’s son as Frank, the awful Tom Cruise character who teaches men how to exploit women.

The nurse Phil then happens to glance at a porn station on the TV. He calls a local store and asks for delivery of a loaf of bread and copies of Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler. We think, "What a creep." But it turns out that Phil has ordered the magazines to see if they contain an ad for Frank’s girl-getting service and Phil might be able to reach Frank to come see his dying father.

Constant twists and turns surprise us and come to a dramatic climax in a thundering rain of biblical proportions at the end of the movie that engulfs all the characters. As in scripture, God’s rain does not fall on only the unjust. This rain drenches and batters all the characters until they encounter the depth of their souls and those of each other. By connecting with each other in dreadful conditions, most of the characters in the movie forgive each other and find a measure of healing. They see in their humanly limited way through the eyes of God, which is what enables healing and forgiveness to happen. We see for a moment through the circle of life, turning and turning, over and over again.

If we can enter this circle of awareness, I believe we can be more ready to forgive.

Finally, look at the last quote. It is from If You Meet the Buddha On The Road, Kill Him, a popular book of the 70’s. The title alludes to the fact that in Buddhism there are no grand conversion visions, so if you see the Buddha in a flash of light on the road, it’s not Buddha. Kill that vision. The quote I remembered from it is, "All great decisions are made on the basis of insufficient data."

This means that we can never know enough to be sure if we’re are making the right decision on big issues. To get up and leave this building after this worship service is no big decision. But if a wild storm filled with tornadoes were raging outside, we wouldn’t know if we should stay here for safety, run and get our children, try to drive home before it hit or what.

We can never have enough information to know if we’re choosing the right college, marrying the right person, being tough enough or gentle enough with our children, or moving to a new town when we should be staying with an old job.

The corollary to this statement concludes, "Therefore we must be willing to forgive ourselves over and over again."

This is perhaps the last point on the wheel. If we won’t forgive ourselves, we probably won’t forgive others. Yet maybe what we need in order to be able to forgive ourselves is to go back to the first point of the circle and understand God forgives us. The circle continues again to remind us that God is within us, not out there. Forgiving ourselves may be the same as accepting forgiveness of God. God is within our own sacred circle, helping us if we will only allow God to help. God is reaching out like a parent pulling us on to a merry go round, lifting us up and welcoming us into the sacred roundabout circle for the magical ride where the earth is beautiful and love lies over and around us.

Begin your prayer today with the second step forgiveness by holding in your mind the image of whatever it is that most needs to be forgiven today, yourself, another person, a past event. Then say to yourself ‘I release you from the grip of my sadness, my disapproval, my condemnation.’

The burden may not lift right away, but imagine what life will be like without this burden, this bitterness, this sorrow.

Pray simply for the time when the burden is lifted will come. Trust that your desire to forgive will speed up the coming of this time of freedom.

Now pray as well for what you most desire in your life right now. Pray for health, happiness, rest, solutions…whatever you seek.

Hear Jesus saying to "Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you." Trust those words. If you cannot trust them, think of how it would be to live if they were true. Pray for that kind of living.

Finally, close with a word of thanks for a blessing that has come your way this week, a grace that has indeed happened. Amen