In the Christian tradition, this season comes with a promise of peace. Christian theologian Henri Nouwen says, “We can only wait for what has already begun in us.” The Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield says “Come O Noble Born back to your true nature.” In this service we will invite the presence of peace as we explore the practices of forgiveness as taught in both traditions. Youth start in the Fellowship Building. Joys and Sorrows will happen in worship.
First Reading: from students at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York
My memory fails me. Things happened. We both experienced them.
You saw them your way – colored by experiences in your past, or by resentment or impatience.
I saw them my way – colored by fear, by pride, by the fact that I am myself and not you.
So our memories of what happened were very different from the start.
And then, before we knew it, memories hardened into myths and myths into dogma.
Now we find ourselves divided. We stare across the chasm, but we don’t see each other. Parent. Partner. Friend. Child. Denomination. Nation. Race. Class. Creed.
I’m tired of being alone on my side of the chasm.
I’m using up so much energy fearing and resenting you.
Sometimes I wish you and I could crack the dogma, peel away the mythology, and trade memories. What would it be like if we could see each other’s pictures of the history we share? If we could see each other?
What we need here, you and I, is a little humility and a lot of house-cleaning.
Humility: to say “only God sees history whole and knows the whole truth. All I have is my perception. It’s valid, it’s precious, it’s fragmentary. Maybe I ought to try seeing as God sees, from all the angles.”
Housecleaning: Memory is selective, and I’m carrying around years of slanted, narrow memories. I can’t see past them.
It must be the same for you.
What we need to do is let se of them go. Trade a few. Listen.
Maybe, if I ask you how things look to you, between us we’ll see something
we never saw before.
Second Reading: Maya Angelou
unaccustomed to courage,
exiles from delight,
live coiled in shells of loneliness Until love leaves its high holy temple and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
Love arrives –
and in its train come ecstasies, old memories of pleasure, ancient histories of pain.
And if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear from our souls. We are weaned from our timidity.
In the flush of love’s light,
we dare to be brave.
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are and will ever be.
It is only love which sets us free.
In our opening hymn, we sang come spirit come, our hearts control, our spirits long to be made whole.” And that’s why we come here Sunday after Sunday to feel more at home within ourselves, to hold tenderly the parts within that hurt, and to nurture the inward love that heals. The hymn goes on to say, “ an inward love that guides our every deed, by this we worship and our freed” This is a powerful intention, to make this love a personal call even in the most difficult times, perhaps because of the difficult times. Paul, the author of 1 Corinthians, who this hymn quotes, also lived during difficult times. Paul was telling his people in the divided community of Corinth that you can do all this work, be prophetic, give witness, get knowledge, and give of yourself, but without love the benefit can seem strangely thin. I know so many people today who feel worn out, thin. Paul goes on to say in his letter to the Corinthian community, For now we see in a glass darkly, we know only in part and yet he goes on to say But with love you will know fully even as you have been fully known. He saw through darkness with the love of Jesus. The anonymous Jewish boy who wrote the words of our anthem from his hiding place during the holocaust “I believe in love even when I don’t feel it,” saw through the darkness with the love of an ever-abiding God. For those of us who are agnostic, how we cultivate an inward love to help us see through the darkness to feel more whole, is one we bring here to worship. There is a chant, in our green hymnal, by the Jewish composer Shlomo Carelback that speaks of this as a journey. The text is beautiful: Return again, return again, return to the home of your soul. Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are born, and reborn again, return to the home of your soul. Not a geographic place really, but an orientation of the spirit. You come here to practice, to feel at home within yourself, and to cultivate a love to guide your every deed.
Realizing this love isn’t always easy and something that feels a bit like a mystery to me sometimes, especially with my birth family. Recently, I attended the wedding of my niece, the first of a generation, and the first time in many years that my siblings, and their partners and their now young adult children were all together. I was aware, as I am at every family gathering, how each of us, in the words of our reading, “carry around years of slanted narrow memories,” that we can’t see past, and that navigating these walled memories always leaves me exhausted, lonely, and sad.
The author of our reading writes, “my memory fails me, things happened. You saw them your way, colored by experiences in your past, and I saw them my way, colored by fear, and by the fact that I am not you. Memories hardened into myth, and myth into dogma. Now we don’t see each other.” This is how it is with my family and sometimes with my friends. Last summer, I had the chance to spend time with my four best friends from my childhood at our 40th high school reunion. I discovered two of them were estranged from each other, and had been for five years. They are as different from one another as sun and moon. One, a special education teacher wears her emotions on her sleeve, the other, an engineer, is far too pragmatic to be emotional. They had been close friends, but now their hearts were closed. Each one had her story, the story that makes sense, the narrative inside which she’s chosen to set down roots. But I don’t believe those stories are the true homes for their souls.
You may have people in your family, or in your wider circle like this, you may even be such a person, caught in such a bind, you look back through the windows of memory, each through a different window on exactly the same scene, replaying it over and over, an no one seeing the same exact thing the same way. My colleague Rev. Safford says, “The presence of a past that people can’t get past is a large, sad presence. What is shared for sure-the common ground-is hurt. What’s shared is loneliness, and what is shared separately, is anger sometimes, which smolders so remarkably tenaciously after all that time, and the presence of loss, a continuous whisper of missed opportunity.
A loss that exiles us from delight, as we live coiled in shells of loneliness, until love leaves its high holy temple and comes into our sight, to liberate us into life. Maya Angelou’s wordsecho those of Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield in the way he describes forgiveness. He says “forgiveness is the process by which you liberate yourselves from fear and repression to live fully the life ahead of you.” I first heard these words years ago after spending the weekend at the Glastonbury Abby with a group of people so in need of healing. One person’s father had been murdered, one was in the middle of a traumatic divorce, another couple’s son had been inexplicably killed in a car accident during his first visit home from college, and one woman had been abused by her father. In their pain, I witness the emotional shutdown that an unfathomable hurt can create, a hurt that divides you from your true nature, your God, and from the all-biding love. To be healed, to reconnect with our true nature, our knowing of God, and the abiding love we must come to believe, as each of us did that weekend in our own way, that forgiveness is possible, that we live in a world where forgiveness works.
That weekend, I learned all the things that didn’t work. All the things I had once thought were acts of forgiveness, like denying, being nice, and forgetting. I learned that forgiveness is not about absolving someone who has injured you, or being absolved by someone you have harmed. It’s not about forgetting, or pretending the hurt doesn’t matter, or sweeping the insult, the wrong deed that changed everything under the carpet. Forgiveness isn’t even about the other person, it is about you saying to someone “you no longer have power over me.” It is about freedom and living freely in the present instead of the past. I had been angry with my mom for years because when she realized she had incurable cancer she accelerated her death by taking all her pain medications at once. To my 21- year old self, she robbed us of precious time. What mother would do that? This question fueled my anger, which kept me in relationship with her and gave me an identity- as a victim. I lost my true self –the home of my soul. To live in a world where forgiveness works, takes courage says Maya, :”if we are so bold love strikes the chains of fear from our souls, and suddenly we see, that love costs all we are and will ever be.”
How then do we learn to be so bold and live in a world where forgiveness works? I started by asking myself who needs my forgiveness? Myself? Another? God? And I looked for my answers in the teachings of Buddha and Jesus, teachings that transformed my life. To begin to forgive says the Buddha you must feel the weight of the pain, a weight that tells your heart it is no longer in your best interest to keep feeling the feelings, thinking the thoughts, running through the same scenario. Feel the weight of the pain, says the Buddha but do not let your suffering define you. I know with my mom, I had let my suffering define me.
Feeling the weight of my pain, I connected with my mom’s pain, my anger turned to compassion, and I finally could feel my mom’s love again. Grieve, the Buddha says, and let, go, so you can live in peace among the troubled, in health among the afflicted, in love among those that hate. Forgiving my mom helps me be peaceful to others in their times of crisis.
Forgiveness, says the Buddha involves bringing the intention to forgive to both your inward mediations and your outward expression of making amends. Inwardly, reflect then on the benefits of a loving heart, a practice that makes your dreams sweeter, and your thoughts more pleasant. I think of Jesus’ response to the angry crowd when they presented to him the woman accused of adultery. For a while he said nothing, crouching down fingering the sand. Then he asked people to look within his or her heart for their own transgression and he waited for a while. Finally looking up, they were gone and the woman went home forgiven.
Outwardly, make amends. This is one of my favorites because it invites you to be accountable to the possibility you may have hurt someone. Jesus uses the metaphor of an altar to show this. He says to his disciples “if you are offering your gift at the altar, and remember that your brother has something against you…first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”1 He is saying if someone has something against you, it is your responsibility to make an initiative to make this right. This teaching helps me regularly with my siblings. I imagine the altar as the reality of their love, and my gift, gratitude. As I approach the altar, their center becomes mine, and I get a sense of what might be amiss in our relationship. It helps me as a minister, to approach the altar of love and see through another’s eyes and seek amends when I act independently sometimes and hurt another’s feelings.
The Buddha and Jesus teach that forgiveness includes all the dimensions of your life. It is the work of our body, mind and spirit. One teaching of Jesus comes to mind, a teaching that helped me forgive myself. I was in seminary, taking a course on the Parables. I was assigned the parable where the Pharisee, who is a Jewish priest and the tax collector, go to the temple to pray.2 The Pharisee prays, God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income. The tax collector who everyone despises because he implements the Roman’s corrupt system of taxation, kneels outside of the temple, eyes on the ground, beating his chest and prays “God have mercy on me.”
For three months we talked about this one parable, and our last assignment was to narrate our own story based on the parable. That’s when forgiveness clicked. My story was true. Ben and I had just married and I was 3 months into my new job in DC. We were living in a basement apartment off of DuPont Circle while Ben looked for a job. And I got pregnant, way too early. So we decided not to carry the pregnancy to term. Realistically our decision was right for us but there was no safe place to bring our grief. George Bush was in office, and I remember the day he signed a bill that limited abortion rights, he said, “God will bless our efforts to preserve life in this land.” Reverend Jerry Falwell told the press that Bush’s prayer speaks for the 80 million Christians in this country. Their words were in the newspaper, on the airwaves, on roadside placards, bumper stickers, everywhere. In my story, I see Bush, Falwell standing in prominence at the Temple or on the steps of the Supreme Court, like the Pharisee in the parable thanking God that they are not like the women who have had abortions. I see the tax collector kneeling in the temple, knowing he does what he does to survive. And I become him. His prayer for mercy becomes mine and in that place where God and the human spirit meet, I find forgiveness. I return again to the home of my soul. The Buddha says, “there is in us an undying capacity for love and freedom that is untouched by what happens to you, and to come back to this true nature, O noble born, is the invitation of forgiveness.”
A member of our social justice ministry council recently wrote a self-healing letter to those she imagined across the political divide. With her permission, I share with you how that letter helped her. First she named their fear of the other that she has witnessed, and how it blinded them to so many truths, including hers. Fearing their blindness, she held her metaphorical gaze until she saw in them, beyond all fear, their capacity for moral engagement to help save a world so in need of saving. Forgiveness, when you know yourself whole, comes suddenly as a gift. A moment you realize that your story is part of a greater one, that it’s not just your hurt, but the hurt of humanity, not just your pain, but the pain of being alive, a perspective that connects you to everything in this vastness. So come, O Noble Born let us practice together, so that you return again and again to the home of your soul, to the love greater than your longing and in our sharing, let love guide our every deed. Let us sing “Return Again” as both a prayer and a proclamation.
1. [Matthew 5:21-24]↩
2. [Luke 18: 9-14]↩