I have a friend who has three daughters. When they were very young, they all approached their frustration with their mother in very different ways. When her oldest child didn’t get her way she took it in stride. “My mother must be right, “she’d think to herself, “So I will listen to her.”
When her youngest child didn’t get her way, she’d head to her room and cry. “Maybe my mother will feel sorry for me,” she’d think to herself, “And change her mind.”
When her middle child, also a daughter, didn’t get her way, she’d hold her breath. “Maybe my mother will die from a broken heart,” she’d think to herself, “And change her mind.”
Hear the insanity in the third child’s thinking? The only person who was going to die was the child herself---even though she thought holding her breath was punishing her mother—the only person she was punishing was herself.
So it is with holding grudges—nurturing resentment—the person we punish is our SELF. We think we hurting the person who has hurt us when we hold on to resentment, but the truth is we become incredibly awful ourselves.
Years ago a woman reached out to me for friendship. She wanted someone to go to the health club with her and swim laps in the morning, so I said yes. Who doesn’t benefit from a lap swim?
As we met in the locker room and changed into our swimsuits, the woman began to open up about her life. “I have two sons,” she told me, “One’s very smart, and the other has cerebral palsy.”
Her son’s disability disappointed her greatly to the point she was quite bitter. “I hate the quote,” she said quite frankly, “You can either get better, or get bitter. My husband and I didn’t deserve this fate. Everyone else in our Lamaze class gave birth to healthy children. They went on with their lives; their birthday parties and football parties. We were left behind. Our life is so hard. Our son’s life is so hard. We suffer.”
Week after week I listened to this woman. Week after week she shared her disdain for people with healthy children and sometimes for life itself. Eventually I started making excuses as to why I wouldn’t meet her in the mornings to swim laps. I simply couldn’t breathe the air she was poisoning with her resentment. I wondered how her family survived it, and which was worse, the work that the family carried out on behalf of the brother with cerebral palsy, or the work the family carried out on behalf of her resentment?
What we hope will happen, if we are ugly enough to someone, if we withhold mercy, is that THEY will change. We hope that if we withhold our love, our presence, our resources from someone, they will TURN AWAY from the behavior that is causing us grief and TURN TOWARDS the behavior that will cause us joy. The truth is resentment changes us—robs us of our true self; our joyful, compassionate, generous self, just like the child who held her breath hoping her mother would die from a broken heart.
Because God spends an incredible amount of energy forgiving us to wholeness, God invites us to trade in resentment for forgiveness. “You’ve got a bottomless pit of grace,” Jesus teaches the disciples, “Even though you think you have a breaking point. The truth is there is no breaking point, only grace; use it every time for my sake, and for yours.” What I hear Jesus saying is that forgiveness isn’t simply something we do, it’s something we ARE. Furthermore, forgiveness isn’t something we do because we love the offender. It doesn’t come from the same place as compassion—it comes from our will. It’s something we do because we love God and we love ourselves.
We cannot control the world—we can only control how we will respond to the world. Will we hold our breath? Or will we breathe?
Christian blogger and ordained UCC pastor Nancy Rockwell recalls the life Nelson Mandela in her reflections on this passage from Matthew. Rockwell writes, “Nelson Mandela, after 27 years in a South African prison, said, Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That’s why it is such a powerful weapon. When asked about his jailers, he responded that forgiving them was a choice to set his self free. He could leave those guards there in the prison instead of remembering them always by nursing resentment. And soon after his release, before his election, when he came to Boston, he danced a little freedom dance for all of us to see.”
Do any of you recall the story from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and the 32 year old man named Charlie who entered an Amish school and killed ten girls before killing himself?
That evening the young man’s mother’s first thought was, “I’ve got to leave.” But the Amish came to her the night of the shooting to say they wanted her to stay. Some of the victims' families attended her son's funeral. “We’re a forgiving people,” the Amish said.
"There are not words to describe how this made us feel that day," said the mother of the shooter. "For the mother and father who had lost not just one but two daughters at the hand of our son, to come up and be the first ones to greet us -- wow. Is there anything in this life that we should not forgive?”And every Thursday, she cares for the most seriously wounded survivor of the shooting, who is now 13 and lives with the help of a feeding tube and a wheelchair. “I had to forgive our son, too,” said the mother, “Or else I would have a hole in my heart as big as his.”
As someone observed, "You have this mother who raised a son who did this horrific damage to this young woman and the mother has the courage and spiritual fortitude to come back and care for this young woman, and the parents of the young woman welcome her into their home. It's a powerful, powerful story. We need to remember that there is always hope. To walk into the future knowing each day has something that we can be thankful for, and not to live in the sorrow 24-7. Ask God to provide new things in your lives, new things to focus on," she said. "That doesn't take the place of what is lost. But it can give us a hope and a future."
A future only made possible by forgiveness.
When it comes to forgiveness, we get confused because we think its contingent on the behavior of the offender. We want forgiveness to be the result of everything OUTSIDE of us being okay. We’d prefer the offender to have a change of heart. We fear being taken advantage of. So we think, “I’ll forgive so and so this time, but the next time, watch out!” What’s that saying, “Fool me once, shame on YOU. Fool me twice, shame on ME.” And we think, “I’ll forgive so and so when they say they are sorry.” Either way we still are setting ourselves up to be in the passenger seat while clearly placing the offer in the driver’s seat. The only way to sit in the driver’s seat ourselves is to let the hostility go.
But it’s even deeper than that. The real gift would be to never experience resentment; to never feel offended, or slighted in some way, indignation. The only way to truly remove an indignant spirit, such as the woman who gave birth to a child with cerebral palsy, is to become aware of that part of ourselves that takes everything so personally, and throw it out.
“The weeds and the wheat grow up together,” Jesus teaches us, “the joy and the sorrow. Learn to live with the tension.” Jesus sets a different world view in front of us by this teaching. All of life is a banquet, or a feast, to which we’re all invited; the seeding and the harvest; life and death. We’re not the chef. We are the guests. What do we know?
The remedy for an indignant spirit, or a wounded spirit, or a spirit that says, “I don’t deserve this,” is humility; a spirit that says, “Why me Lord, what have I ever done to deserve even one of the blessings I’ve known?”
This is the true path of faith and religion; humility. Humility is the only road peace. This sets us up for the Tao of Forgiveness:
The Tao Of Forgiveness
One day, the master gave the disciple an empty sack and a basket of potatoes.. "Think of all the people who have done or said something against you in the recent past, especially those you cannot forgive.
At first, the disciple thought nothing of it. Carrying the sack was not particularly difficult. But after a while, it became more of a burden. It sometimes got in the way, and it seemed to require more effort to carry as time went on, even though its weight remained the same.
After a few days, the sack began to smell. The carved potatoes gave off a ripe odor. Not only were they increasingly inconvenient to carry around, they were also becoming rather unpleasant.
"Yes, Master," the disciple replied. "When we are unable to forgive others, we carry negative feelings with us everywhere, much like these potatoes. That negativity becomes a burden to us and, after a while, it festers."
"Forgiving someone is the equivalent of removing the corresponding potato from the sack. How many of your transgressors are you able to forgive?"
"I've thought about it quite a bit, Master," the disciple said. "It required much effort, but I have decided to forgive all of them."
"Very well, we can remove all the potatoes. Were there any more people who transgressed against you this last week?"
The disciple thought for a while and admitted there were. Then he felt panic when he realized his empty sack was about to get filled up again.
"Master," he asked, "if we continue like this, wouldn't there always be potatoes in the sack week after week?"
"We're not at the realm of the Tao yet. Everything we have talked about so far is the conventional approach to forgiveness. It is the same thing that many philosophies and most religions preach - we must constantly strive to forgive, for it is an important virtue. This is not the Tao because there is no striving in the Tao."
"The sack is... That which allows me to hold on to the negativity. It is something within us that makes us dwell on feeling offended.... Ah, it is my inflated sense of self-importance. "
"In that case, you won't have any names to inscribe on potatoes. That means no more weight to carry around, and no more bad smells.
The Tao of forgiveness is the conscious decision to not just to remove some potatoes... But to relinquish the entire sack.
Prayer: Gracious Lord, help us to relinquish the entire sack that we might be free FROM indignation and free FOR forgiving. Amen.
(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener on Sunday, September 14 at Central Christian Church in Billings, Montana.)