A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
delivered on September 17, 2017 at
First Church in Sterling, MA
“The earth is a forgiveness school,” Anne Lamott says. “You might as well start at the dinner table, that way you can do this work in comfortable pants. I really believe that’s why they brought us here, and then left us without any owner’s manual. I think we’re here to learn forgiveness. For me, it all begins with the hardest work of all, of being so crazily imperfect, and so sensitive and thin-skinned, and looking the way I look instead of like Cate Blanchett, which is disappointing. And all of the things we internalize in our younger years that other people might have said or hinted or even bullied us for.”
The earth is a forgiveness school.
Marriage is a lab to learn this truth intimately, with varying results.
I had the great honor yesterday afternoon of marrying Pam and John Clark’s son, Gordon, to his new wife Liz. It was a beautiful, beautiful day for a simply wonderful couple. They are musical, and smart, and funny, and deep, and they are truly friends. They love each other’s families. A wedding is such a celebration of audacious hope, and I have such great hope for their life together.
I also got to help celebrate the love of Jim and Judy Conway as they said their marriage vows again on their 31st anniversary--with their four adult children, two grandchildren, Judy’s parents and a slew of other family--all present at their Wednesday night Conway family dinner. I have been itching for an invitation to Conway family dinner since I arrived here in 2014. That weekly family dinner is the stuff of legends. Jim was actually worried that I would be offended by the things that people said and did there, which of course made me want to come even MORE. So this invitation to create a ceremony to honor their marriage was a thrill for me in more ways than one.
I know we were already pushing it in terms of “extended family” invited, but I really wished that Gordon Clark and his new wife Liz Quinn could have gone with me to that Conway marriage celebration. I can’t think of a better way to prepare for their wedding weekend than to participate in an auspicious event like that.
I got to tell the story of the thirty-one years of the Conway’s life together—which is full of twists and turns and sickness and health, and tragedy and heartbreak, and so much love and self-sacrifice, and hard, honest conversations, deep multigenerational family and community ties, and stick-to-itive-ness. The whole story, of course, wasn’t always romantic and easy. But it is a real love story.
A wedding is such a beautiful and exciting and carefree day in one’s life, and a marriage is a tour de force of joy and suffering and banality and loss and beauty and boredom, and acknowledgment of imperfection and frailty and just plain old perseverance and faith.
I almost think that we should have one of those $30,000 catered extravaganzas with the $10,000 dress and all the opulence on our 30th wedding anniversaries instead of on our wedding day. The wedding day should be some Ritz crackers and squeeze cheese, and maybe a cake. The REAL celebration should be decades later when you really know what you have gotten yourself into, and you are still at it anyway. (The problem is, we are too smart and practical to spend $30,000 on one day in our lives by the time we are middle aged.)
Anyway, the Conways gave us all a master class in how to stay married on Wednesday night. Every new couple about to embark on the part crap-shoot luck/part devastatingly hard work of marriage should take the Conway class. My track record for marriage isn’t so good, as most of you know, so I was taking notes.
Whenever I marry people, I tell them that their vows are aspirational, and they will fail to live up to them sometimes. I tell them that when they do, they will have to get really good at saying “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.” And mean it. To infinity and beyond. Robert Quillan calls a happy marriage a union of two good forgivers.
The same is true of the church. A happy church consists of an entire congregation of good forgivers.
Forgiveness is the hardest of the spiritual practices for some of us, and it is the foundation of the faith we practice. Said simply: forgiveness is the way God Loves. It is Jesus’ lesson on the cross. “Forgive them, Father,” he says of his murderers, deniers, betrayers. Some of us have trouble forgiving family members for leaving the toilet seat up, much less forgiving murderers and betrayers. No wonder this forgiveness project is so hard. (Now you and I know that there are some things that are absolutely unforgivable by we humans, so I am not asking you to forgive people who victimize you. That kind of forgiveness we sometimes just have to leave to Jesus.)
God’s grace starts with the assumption that offering forgiveness and being forgiven is a necessary part of a faithful life. To be forgiven is to be loved. To forgive is to Love. Modern day psychology might say that forgiveness is necessary for psychic survival. Someone said once that holding on to resentment is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die. We forgive so that we might live a more abundant and free life.
In our scripture from the Gospels today, Jesus gives us this lesson about forgiveness. In this part of Matthew, we are still talking about church drama, just like we were last week. Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, if someone in the church is a total jerk to me, how much do I actually have to put up with that? How often must I forgive? As many as 7 times? When do I get to say ‘fool me once, shame on me. Fool me seven times, shame on you?”
And Jesus says to him: “not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” which biblical scholars say means “infinity” times to Jesus. Jesus said to Peter, in essence, “your job as a member of the church is to never stop forgiving from the moment you are born until the day you die.” Your and my life is a forgiveness project.
The earth is a forgiveness school from which there is no graduation. We might as well start right here at the dinner table, wearing comfortable pants.
And Jesus reminds us that’s because we are forgiven.
Jesus answers questions people have in our scriptures with somewhat confusing stories called parables, as you know. Sometimes they are confounding and so deeply outdated or culturally specific that we can’t make sense of them. Our story today is an example of that, so let’s talk about it.
Jesus tells us a story about slaves who owe debts to their master. The King, taking pity on one of his slaves who doesn’t have the money he owes, forgives his debt and lets him go.
He is forgiven.
And then that same forgiven slave turns right around, and demands money owed to him from someone else. When his peer couldn’t pay the debt, the forgiven slave orders that he be thrown in debtor’s prison. This, in turn, angers the King. If you’ve been forgiven yourself, why wouldn’t you forgive your fellow human being, especially since it is for the exact same offense?
This text is as much about forgiveness as it is a call to empathy.
Whenever I am tempted to blast my horn and flip off a fellow driver on the road for cutting me off at a traffic light, I try to remember all the times I, too, have been a distracted driver. When I am tempted to fume because someone didn’t answer an email I sent that I think was of utmost importance, I try to remember the hundreds of unanswered emails in my own inbox.
Forgive those who trespass against us because we have been forgiven of our trespasses. The earth is a forgiveness school and there is no graduation.
And here’s the most important thing: we cannot forgive other people unless we have worked first to forgive ourselves. Jesus says the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as you love yourself. And you cannot love your neighbor if you don’t love yourself first. You cannot love yourself unless you have forgiven yourself.
This is hard to do, folks, I’m not going to lie.
Paul Tillich’s definition of grace is accepting oneself as accepted even though oneself is unacceptable.
When I was going through a divorce six years ago to my first husband, the daily prayer I prayed was on my knees. It was more of a pleading to God than a prayer. Truthfully, I was not convinced God was listening, but I pled anyway. I sobbed “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, forgive me, forgive me, forgive me” over and over again. I think I was talking to myself as much as I was talking to God.
I went to a church every Sunday then, as a congregant, not the leader. Hope Central Church in Jamaica Plain has confession at the beginning of every service. I was expected to acknowledge the ways in which I had separated myself from other people and therefore from God. And every week I was told by the pastor that I was forgiven anyway: that nothing in heaven and nothing on earth could separate me from the love of God. Eventually I believed her.
And eventually, I was able to start the process of forgiving myself. After that, I was able to start the process of forgiving my first husband. One of the most powerful memories of my life consisted of both of us tenderly saying we were sorry to one other as we sat next to each other, hand in hand, in divorce court. He said it first, which I needed. And both of us--one after the other--said, “I forgive you.” I’m quite sure this doesn’t usually happen in divorce court, and it is the best and most hard-won grace I have ever received in my life.
Friday night I watched my son, Isaac, the product of my second marriage to my Andy, lay his head on the shoulder of my first husband as we all watched our daughter in Beauty and the Beast here in the parish hall.
The earth is a forgiveness school and there is no graduation.
The most faithful act we can participate in is forgiving ourselves. There is no other way to understand God’s forgiveness. So, if that is the thing you struggle most to do, let’s talk about how to do it.
First: Acknowledge your humanity. We are all clumsy in our relationships with each other and with God. We are not defined by our worst mistake. You are not your addiction, your affair, your divorce, your last fight with your spouse, your failure to parent well in all moments. You are not your depression, your anger, your unbelief, your spitefulness, your greed. You are defined not by your sins, but by the name that God gives all of us, which is Beloved.
Second: Acknowledge and accept responsibility for the mistake that you made, but don’t let it become who you understand yourself to be. Guilt is a reminder that you’ve done something wrong. Shame is the belief that you are bad because you’ve done something wrong. Guilt is a useful emotion, but shame is a poison. Recognize the value in your mistakes. Release their power over you by asking what you learned from them. Release yourself from the burden of the mistakes by finding the blessing in them.
Third: have empathy for yourself. You are only human and doing the best that you can, and you, too, deserve understanding. Have empathy for others so that you can have empathy for you. Build bridges between your own flawed humanity and others’ flawed humanity. Laugh at yourself. Engage yourself with curiosity and courage. Look for the gray areas in every situation that you are hoping to find black and white answers to. Stop looking for who’s right and who’s wrong. Believe that the more nuanced your habits of mind, the better you can love.
Fourth: Give it to God. Nothing can separate you from the Love of God. Nothing in heaven or on earth. Jesus says, “come, all of you who are weary and I will give you rest. My yoke is heavy and my burden is light.” Lay your burdens at the feet of the one who Loves without condition; without inquiring who is worthy of it.
Imagine what the world would be like if we all loved like that. Imagine if everyone in our community practiced these steps. Imagine if our world leaders practiced this humility. To be forgiven is to be loved. To forgive is to Love. To Love is to live an abundant and free life, starting with yourself and radiating out to others. The earth is a forgiveness school you can never graduate from. Start at your dinner table. Wear comfortable pants.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org