Our sermon this morning is by Rev. Jan Christian, who currently works for our UUA on the Pacific West Regional staff. I believe it is important for non-male voices to be in heard in our sermons on a regular basis. She has wisdom to share about forgiveness which is helpful in our day-to-day lives and in our justice-making efforts. I like that she addresses the Occupy movement, which I was a part of in Boston, and that she quotes Nichola Torbett, who I worked with when I lived in California. Plus, I like sharing other ministers’ embarrassing stories almost as much as my own. I found her message to be insightful, and I hope you will, too. Without further ado, here are the words of Jan Christian:
I’ve told the story about years ago going to visit a friend in a gated community and struggling over the keypad due to the glare of the sun. I was vaguely aware of a voice in the distance but didn’t really pay attention until it grew insistent. When I finally looked up, a guy was saying, in a very emphatic way, “The gate is already open!” And indeed it was. I was so fixated on the key pad, I hadn’t realized that the gate I was trying to open wasn’t even closed.
About five years ago, I repeated this entering into a property development that had a long single bar across a dirt road. My son and his girlfriend were in the car and I went immediately to the keypad. They asked what I was doing, which I thought was obvious, but I explained patiently. Then my son said, “The gate is open.” We laughed and I told him that I had that happen before and I had used it in a sermon. He asked, “Was the point of the sermon that we miss what is right in front of our faces?”
I told him the sermon was more about the good news of Universalism. The gate is already open. We are more than our worst deeds. We are worthy of love, regardless of our worst deeds. We are already saved and loved. And yet, we have trouble going through that gate don’t we? We have trouble accepting that we are worthy and deserving of love. We have trouble forgiving ourselves.
In Karen Armstrong’s book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, she suggests that we begin by practicing compassion on ourselves. We often find that it is forgiving ourselves that is most difficult.
If you want some magic formula, I don’t have it. I do, however, have a suggestion. Richard Rohr has said, “We don’t think our way into a new life; we live our way into a new kind of thinking.” Perhaps we might think about what would be possible if we forgave ourselves and then go act in accordance with that vision. Here is what it comes down to. We need to quit using our unworthiness as an excuse not to be worthy. We need to live our lives as though we are forgiven.
Proving our worthiness is a losing proposition. Trying to earn the love of another or our own love is futile. What we are really after is approval when we do that and approval is based on judgment and that is not the same as love.
So we live our lives as though we are already forgiven, already loved, already worthy. And out of that mix, some really transformative things are possible.
We need to “act as if.” Imagine it. What would be possible in your life if you loved yourself just as you are? Possibly you would have a whole new self to get to know. This is why some people describe this experience of being loved by God as being ‘born again.” When we say we are not worthy of something, we are preparing the way to not be all we can be and all we already are. We are saying why our own light will not shine.
Rabbi Kushner tells a story about when he was “a young, inexperienced rabbi.” A woman came to him feeling guilty about not properly observing a Jewish holiday. She had visited her husband’s grave on a day when that was forbidden. He tried to talk her out of her guilt. Her reasons seemed compelling and he gave her rational arguments. Suddenly it occurred to him to use an irrational cure for her irrational guilt. Her offense had occurred on the 17th day of the month. He suggested she pay $17 to a charity in her husband’s memory. She was relieved. He writes, “If guilt results from what we have done, the cure is to do other things, better things: random acts of thoughtfulness…At the rational level, giving charity doesn’t undo the selfish or thoughtless thing we did to prompt the guilt feelings in the first place. But at the irrational level, where our souls live, it does introduce us to our better nobler self.” Rabbi Kushner says this isn’t about balancing the books. And this is important to remember. It’s about living out of our better natures.
Years ago, I worked in Arizona’s so-called justice system. There was a woman Kathy McCormick at the Attorney General’s Office who did victim-offender mediation and she told of a particularly meaningful mediation. A woman’s house had been horribly vandalized with damage in the thousands and thousands of dollars. She met with one of the young men who was responsible. She knew he could not undo the damage. He could not pay for it either. The books could not be balanced. She wanted something else. She wanted to be able to think of him as a good person. So she asked him to take pictures of himself being good. When he read to his little brother, when he helped a neighbor, he was to take a picture. Months later they got together again and he shared his picture album with her. She had introduced him to a side of himself he didn’t know existed and she was able to think of his goodness as well. Some time after that mediation, the boy’s mother called to say he was headed for college. She believed that mediation was the turning point in his life.
When we live out of our best selves, our saved selves, our place of worthiness, we can say we are sorry. We can practice confession because we know that being wrong does not mean that we are not worthy. It means we are human. We can say we are sorry. We can work to make amends. We can take steps so it doesn’t happen again. This being human means we will be wrong. It means we will be wrong in the way we are right. It means that we are complicit with structures of oppression and evil. It means our relationships will go kaflooey. That’s a theological term. Knowing our essential worth, we need only to get back to that place when we lose our way.
And to practice confession, to own our part is the first important step. I used to think that confession or saying I was sorry was just for when I thought I was wrong. But it’s not. Because I am often wrong in the way I am right. Know what I mean? And sometimes my relationships go kaflooey and I have no idea why and I can say that I’m sorry that things are the way they are and that I want to do whatever it takes to have them be some other way. rishing right now. I am sorry about the way things are between us.”
Let us find ways to introduce ourselves and others to our better selves. We can find real ways of saying we are sorry and of making amends. We can ensure that we don’t make some of those mistakes again. We can make real and symbolic gestures to introduce ourselves and others to our better selves. Love means working to repair the harm we have done. It means taking steps to make sure we don’t do it again. It means changing our way of being in the world. It means recognizing the importance of our actions and taking responsibility for them. Love means saying we are sorry.
And love means bringing this sense of humility (not unworthiness) to all that we do. I think this is the quality most often missing in our work for social justice. In this congregation, Dr Catherine Meeks will be helping us think through what makes social action “spiritual.” How is our activism different than the activism of some community organization? I think it has to do initially with humility.
The “Occupy Wall St.” movement gave me a new hope for my beloved country. Finally we were looking at the fundamental inequities in our economic system. And as we did that, there was great room for humility. I thought of that this last week when reading a very thoughtful blog by activist Nichola Torbett.
Here is an excerpt:
This morning I saw a Photoshopped image on Facebook. The photograph captured protesters at Occupy Wall Street, but superimposed over parts of the photo were captions like “Video camera by Panasonic,” “Camera by Sony,” “Black marker by Sharpie.” As you might have guessed, the photo, originally posted by Midnight Trucking Radio Network and clearly intended to discredit the protests, was drawing the ire of my left-wing social network.
But the creator of the image has a point, right? The truth is that we are implicated in everything we indict. Just by virtue of living embedded in a network of social structures that privilege some at the expense of others, we end up participating in oppression, violence, and exploitation, and to the extent that our protest movements ignore that, opting instead to present an image of us as the righteous good guys and “them” (in this case Wall Street stockbrokers and corporate execs) as the bad guys who done us wrong, we perpetuate a lie and make ourselves the targets of snide and cynical discrediting…
So all this has me thinking that we need a confessing movement. We need a movement in which we start by confessing our part in the suffering we have perpetuated in our efforts to escape suffering ourselves. “Not my banker brother, not my stockbroker sister, but it’s me, oh Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”
The confessing movement is for ordinary people—imperfect and no less lovable for it, deformed by our experiences of social trauma, at once yearning and tentative—people of all colors, classes, abilities, genders, sexual orientations, immigration statuses, and ages, who are coming to understand that we have benefited (albeit to vastly different degrees, depending on our social locations) from the suffering of others, who are starting to recognize the ways in which we’ve compliantly played out the roles assigned to us by a brutally exploitative set of interlocking death systems, and who are committing ourselves to each other in a movement of healing, social change, and solidarity. We need a movement where it is safe to look honestly at ourselves, acknowledge our true histories, make mistakes, be forgiven, and keep moving forward together.
Amen, Nichola. Confession is good for our soul, for the human family, for the planet. It comes out of our failure to live out of our inherent worthiness and a sense of our interdependence. Let us find new ways to live out of that place and to begin again in love.
Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation
April 14, 2019
© Rev. Jonathan Rogers