Gospel Reading (corrected, ignore the one in the Worship Service video below)
When I was asked to give a sermon, my first thought was “NO!” In all caps. And I said, “you realize I’m not qualified in any way to do that. I don’t know about churchy things.” And yet, Jim said something like (I’m paraphrasing here) “You’re a layperson qualified to talk about your thoughts and experiences.” And that little voice we all have said, “Why not approach this from Yes? Why not try something new? Maybe stretch yourself outside your comfort zone, Karen. Come on, it’ll be fun! (Or at least growth.)” Oof.
So, I said yes, on a whim, and this is way outside my comfort zone. In fact, I’m not even calling it a sermon. I’m just up here talking about my thoughts on a topic. And then I found out what the topic was.
Forgiveness. Double Oof. Forgiveness is NOT my strong suit. I fully acknowledge that. Why did it have to be forgiveness? Really, please, anything else! But, I’d already said yes, and so, here I am. Forgiveness.
How does one forgive? How do I forgive? Is this a “Just Do It” kind of thing? Like I say the words, stamp the Nike swoosh on it, and call it done. Nope. I’ve tried it, and all those feelings are still there. Ok, so maybe it’s a process, like maybe there are some steps that I don’t know and was never taught. It feels like, with everything recently, the first step has to be acknowledging the problem. Like with all this painful growth our country is currently going through with racism, my growth starts with me. Yes, I have benefited from racism. Yes, I have been and probably continue to be racist, as much as I don’t want to be. Yes, I have work to do.
So, if we apply that acknowledgement to forgiveness. Yes, I have work to do. I need to work on being able to forgive past wrongs, to let go of my anger. But, screech, halt. It’s been with me so long, it’s like this comfort, this protective wall to keep from being hurt again. But, it also doesn’t let other people in, you know? Where do I go from here?
Step two: Name it. Name the hurt to forgive, the person to give forgiveness to. Because it seems like a giving thing here, right? They don’t necessarily earn it, or even deserve it. Forgiveness is given, it’s right there in the word. But the hurt is so damn personal, for each of us. If I have to name it, let’s call it Bunny (no that’s not her real name.) And as much as I tried to forgive her, as much as I thought I’d moved on, it’s been years and it’s still hard. Brief summary, I tried to be there for her, when she asked me to, when she was battling addiction. And then, she stopped returning my calls. And when I needed my best friend, when I was in my own battle, with infertility, she wasn’t there for me. Wasn’t it my turn?
Maybe it wasn’t, not from her at least. I am thankful I had others supporting me during that difficult time. But, maybe Bunny didn’t have anything left to give, not right then. I have to remember that I was there once too. During this same, hard time, an old roommate called me out of the blue and left a message that she needed support, and I didn’t give it. I was deep in my own battle and I didn’t have anything left to give. Maybe we all need forgiveness sometimes, even just from ourselves.
I’m sure there are more than two steps here, but heck if I know what they are. Does forgiving mean forgetting? Does it mean letting the person who hurt you back in? I really don’t know. This is a work in progress.
I started this writing task with today’s readings. There are so many topics here, I could probably write a book on all the thoughts I have. But focusing on forgiveness, there’s another kind of forgiveness here to work on. Something a whole lot bigger and wider reaching than me, than any one person.
To start, I tried to summarize today’s readings for myself, badly I’m sure. Okay, there’s the Ten Commandments scene with Charlton Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea. I don’t see a lot of forgiveness there for the Egyptian soldiers, to be honest. Maybe they were given a warning, I don’t know. Maybe it wouldn’t have made such a compelling story if God had just pushed the Egyptian army back and told them to stop following the orders of that evil Pharaoh. Maybe we leave their forgiveness up to God and move on. Next, we have a lot of praise for God totally crushing and drowning the Egyptian army, and then the reading from Romans that basically says, don’t judge each other. Now that’s a whole other topic, but maybe connected.
And then we come to the Gospel of Matthew that talks about forgiving, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” I have to say, that’s a lot of forgiveness. There are a couple things that strike me here. First the lord, meaning the land-owner, lower-case L, only forgives his slave once before turning him over for torture. What happened to seventy-seven times? But the bigger issue I see here, and every time it comes up in the Bible, is the slavery. Where does the Bible talk about slavery being wrong, wrong, wrong? I’ve looked, and I can’t find it. In fact, it talks about slavery as a normal part of life, and people ever since, for thousands of years, have pointed to the bible to justify slavery. Didn’t they know, even thousands of years ago, the difference between right and wrong? Didn’t some part of them have to know, deep down, that thinking they could own a person was wrong? I find the bible’s acceptance of slavery really hard to forgive.
I turn to a quote from Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Sounds simple, right?
I do not mean in any way to use her quote, the words of a brilliant black woman, to forgive slavery. I don’t think I can forgive that evil, and I’m not asking anyone else to either. We obviously know better now than people knew back then, at least as far as slavery goes. But there is still so much work that needs to be done, individually and publicly regarding the racism in this country, leftover from slavery.
And so, maybe Maya Angelou gives us step three: do better.
I have to acknowledge the writers of the bible were men, just men, probably not women, and definitely not perfect. And I know it’s supposed to be divinely inspired, but still someone had to hold the pens, and write down the stories in words that made sense in their world. Maybe it was inevitable that the writers’ experiences and view of that world would come through. And after the writing, there were also men who chose which stories to include as canon, and which to let fall to the wayside, and men who translated those words through several languages to arrive at the words we read today. The time they lived and the cultures they lived in put their own, indelible mark on these writings.
As a writer, this hits home. How do my own imperfections, the culture I grew up in, and this current, imperfect world we live in, mark my thoughts, and my stories? I’m obviously not writing a bible, but still,our own experiences and points of view come through in our work, and our daily lives, in how we treat people.
Yes, we know some things better now, and we do some things better now. Slavery is wrong, and illegal. But we are still imperfect humans and we live in another imperfect time. We are still fighting racism in our country, in our society, and in our streets, nightly in some places. If the first step is acknowledging that we have a problem, some of us are still burying our heads in the sand. Some have moved on to naming the hurts that have to change. And most of us, maybe all, still have much work, so much doing better to do.
This whole writing exercise makes me wonder, if the people of our past had such an inconceivable blind spot for the utter wrongness of slavery, what are we wrong about now? What are the things we do in our everyday lives that our descendants will say, why didn’t they know better?
Systemic racism is one, for sure, but it really doesn’t stop there. Poverty, millions of people in our world without even the basics of enough food to eat, clean water to drink, or basic healthcare. Plastics polluting our oceans and our food chain. The cruelty of commercial, industrial livestock farming. And yet we, I, do not give as much as I could to end hunger, or demand change from our leaders. If we wanted to, we could do so much better by the people of this world and our planet. And yes, I still buy pork chops from Costco wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic. Oof. I think that’s step one and two right there, acknowledging the problem, and naming the hurt, this time a hurt I’m contributing to with my actions. So, what’s step three again? Simply asking forgiveness? No. Maya Angelou tells us to do better. Asking forgiveness without committing to change seems—empty, incomplete.
There is so much change needed though! It feels daunting, like climbing a mountain. Plastic is convenient, it makes our lives easier, and so did slavery in its day. Easier for the privileged few, poison for everyone else. There is so much forgiveness to give, so much forgiveness to ask, and so much knowing better, then doing better to be done. I don’t think we can truly have one without the other. Forgiveness without doing better is missing a crucial step. And I don’t think we can “Just Do It” all at once, with a swoosh of good intentions. I think it’s going to have to be a conscious, committed process, a willingness to do the doing of forgiveness, one step at a time.