Tuesday, 01 September 2009 15:38

August 30, 2009 Sermon

“The Difference Between Forgiveness and Reconciliation”
Matthew 5:21-26
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 30, 2009
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Here we are at the final week of the grab bag series of sermons.  What a rich and challenging experience it has been. I enjoy hearing from you the topics that are important to you.  We’ll find a way to address the other topics in the coming months.  Some of the topics include:  Sodom and Gomorrah; The Song of Songs; even Baptists and Basketball.  Three mentioned forgiveness including today’s topic:  Someone wrote that they would like to hear a sermon on  “The Difference between Forgiveness and Reconciliation.”  So that’s what we’ll look at today.

Forgiveness and reconciliation.  Two related but different concepts.  Two important actions—so important that even Jesus speaks about both of them.  We remember that Jesus said we should forgive someone not once, not twice, but 490 times.  Maybe we even need to forgive the same person for the same offense that many times.  The offense can be that toxic.

We all harbor grudges against someone or some institution—some big boogeyman out there.  It’s the human condition.  We have been wronged.  We have done wrong.  That fact needs to be acknowledged and affirmed.  And yet, it does us no good to stay in that unresolved state of rage against another person.  Ultimately we can’t change another person.  What we can change is how we approach that person, how we approach ourselves, how we protect ourselves. That’s what forgiveness is all about.

Forgiveness is not about not holding someone accountable for their actions.  It means that you are not going to let someone else’s actions become a toxic brew in your soul.  It means letting go of a hurt—at least the part that we inflict upon ourselves. not about being a doormat.  It means not being a doormat and a perpetual victim.

Anne Lamott has some choice quotes about forgiveness:
"Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past."
"Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back. It doesn't necessarily   mean that you want to have lunch with the person.  If you keep hitting back, you stay trapped in the nightmare."

Forgiveness is taking back your power.  It’s about not letting another’s bad behavior take up residence in your psyche.

I think it’s true that forgiveness is a prerequisite for reconciliation.  It’s pretty hard to reconcile if forgiveness has not already taken place.  But forgiveness does not require the injuring party to change.  It’s the injured party who decides that they are not going to hang on to the angst and energy of a wrong done to them.  That’s a lot easier said than done.  It sure makes it easier to forgive when there has been some kind of apology or acknowledgement of a wrong having been done. It gets even harder when someone hurts your feelings and knew they were doing it.  It gets hard to trust.  Maybe that’s wisdom.

Luckily the Star Tribune ran an article on Monday about Mary Hayes Greico. She has just published a book about forgiveness and is on a speaking tour.  The article said
“Studies have shown that people who blame a heart attack on someone else are more likely to have a second heart attack. Forgiving decreases anxiety, depression and anger and increases self-esteem. It's associated with lower blood pressure and heart rate and decreased muscle tension.” <!-- /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-parent:""; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman"; mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";} a:link, span.MsoHyperlink {color:blue; text-decoration:underline; text-underline:single;} a:visited, span.MsoHyperlinkFollowed {color:purple; text-decoration:underline; text-underline:single;} @page Section1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.Section1 {page:Section1;} -->


Forgiveness is not only good interpersonal practice, it’s also good medicine.  It’s also really hard and takes intense focus if you are really interested in doing it right.

She outlines eight steps to forgiveness.  Those in the recovery community are well practiced in this.  The rest of us need reminders. 

8 steps of forgiveness:

1. State your will to make a change in attitude and move on.  Don’t just think about it or wallow about it.  Actually verbalize your intent.
2. Express your emotions about what happened.  Tell your truth and own your feelings.
3. Release the expectations you are holding in your mind, one at a time: I expect them to change.  I expect to feel better.  I expect this or that result from the other person.
4. Open up to getting your needs met in a different way.
5. Sort out your boundaries by giving the other person responsibility for their actions and being willing to take responsibility for yours. Visualize a sphere of light around you, protecting you from the hurtful actions and attitudes.
6. Receive healing energy and unconditional love through your spirit. Imagine light pouring into you from above.  This is the God-part. 
7. Send unconditional love, as goodwill and light, to the person or situation.  Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  That’s sending unconditional love to another. 
8. See the good in the person or situation. Notice the physical change inside yourself and gently integrate it as your new way of being.

Forgiveness is serious business.  Brian McLaren said: "Forgiveness without conviction is not forgiveness; it is irresponsible toleration. It doesn't lead to reconciliation and peace; it leads to chaos." -Brian McLaren, "A Generous Orthodoxy”

If we’re serious about forgiveness, then we can be prepared to be changed.

I don’t think it’s realistic to forgive and forget.  That can only happen if there is reconciliation.  In today’s scripture reading, Jesus uses one of his famous “You have heard it said but I say to you” statements to talk about doing wrong to a brother or a sister.  Listen to the way he puts it:

You have heard it said that you shall not commit murder, but I say to you don’t be angry with your brother or sister.  You’ll be liable to judgment (Judgement here refers to a local trial).  But he doesn’t just end there.  He goes on to say, “if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council.”(the council is the Sanhedrin—the supreme court)  That escalates it doesn’t it?  Then he says, “If you say, “you fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.”(this is literally the flaming garbage dump outside of Jerusalem called Gahenna)  So we can see how it builds upon each other. 

First anger,
then insult of the actions of the person,
and finally insults on the character of the person. 
This is how unabated anger escalates.  It’s how it becomes toxic.  It’s how we become irreconcilable.

Here’s the advice Jesus gives:  when you are offering a gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go be reconciled with your sister or brother.” 
It doesn’t say, if you have a beef with someone, have it out.
It doesn’t say, if you have been wronged, get revenge. 
It doesn’t say, if you have been wronged, just forget about it or stuff it off into some out of the way place (where it will re-emerge at the most inopportune times)
It doesn’t even say, if you have forgiven you can forget and move on.

It says, If you remember that someone else has a beef with you, “Something against you!”  Go be reconciled.  That sets the bar higher doesn’t it?  Community is that important that you need to find a way to be on good terms with people.  Otherwise the community is fractured and as such it is unhealthy.

How do we do that?  Good question.  It comes from knowing yourself very well.  It comes from caring about others within the community.  It means working like heck to repair the breaches of relationships.  Because everything we do best, we do because we are in relationship with someone else.

If we are to succeed in a sport, we need our teammates. 
The best quarterback is only as good as his offensive line.

If we are to succeed in our studies, we need supportive family and friends and faculty and staff who will help us out when we get stuck and push us to reach better heights of excellence.

If we are to succeed in work, we need co-workers and colleagues who make the work environment pleasant, just and allow our best selves to shine forth.

If we are to succeed in our relationships, we need friends to celebrate with us when things go well and support us when they don’t go well, no matter how hard we have tried.

Jesus says that we are to come to terms quickly with our accusers, before you get to court.  Even Jesus says it’s best to settle out of court.

Jesus calls us to radical relationships—to be better than the rest of the world out there.  Are we up for that?

What’s the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation? Neither of them is easy.

Forgiveness does not need another person.  It can be done in a solitary way.  It is a step and it is about bringing your power back.

Reconciliation means establishing a new kind of relationship.  It means an honest hearing of the hurts of the past and an agreement on both sides to change behavior.  In South Africa, after Apartheid, they sought to come to terms with their history.  They had a commission called Truth and Reconciliation.  It could not just be called Reconciliation.  Reconciliation without truth would be short lived and would not deal with the elephant in the middle of the room.  Reconciliation means looking at your opponent in a different way.  It means eventually seeing your opponent as a brother or sister.

Here’s the rub with Jesus’ words on reconciliation.  He presupposes that we are brothers and sisters.  He says in so many words that we are made for right relationships one with another.  If we are not experiencing that, then there is something wrong with our system.  Something that needs addressing.  Something that merits our prayerful attention.

To paraphrase a word from Jim Wallis who said, “Protests are good, organizing is better.”  I would say, “forgiveness is good, reconciliation is better.”

An elderly Rabbi, grown wise with many years, asked his younger students: “When does the night end and the day begin?”  One answered, “When you can tell the difference between a sheep and a tiger?”  “No.”  Another ventured, “When you can see the difference between a tree and a human being?”  “No.”  “Then tell us, Rabbi.”

He replied, “the night ends and the day begins when you can see God in the face of your brother and sister.”

May we find ways to forgive and transform our relationships, so that we might imagine a more hopeful future.  May we seek to forgive and to reconcile.  For both are the noble works of a true Christian.

You know, while forgiveness is a solitary act and reconciliation takes at least two, I think the truth is that you can’t do either without God.  We need prayerful support, that faith in the ultimate transforming initiative that is the Holy Spirit.  We ought never to approach forgiveness or reconciliation without prayer and without the support and solidity of God’s unmovable power.  That power, that groundswell, that inspiration that always points us toward health and hope.

May we experience and celebrate the rare gift of both forgiveness and reconciliation.  It’s God’s gift to us as outlined in the scriptures. It’s up to us to implement it.  May it be so for all of us.