Sermon: A Culture Of Forgiveness by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons

2019 October 6
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

A Culture of Forgiveness

Ana Levy-Lyons

October 6, 2019

First Unitarian, Brooklyn

 

Today is right smack in the middle of the Jewish High Holidays – between Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the creation of the world, and Yom Kippur, the celebration of our capacity to mend and heal and turn and return to ourselves. This returning is called in Hebrew “teshuvah.” So Rosh Hashanah comes first on the calendar, but there’s a weird and fascinating teaching in Jewish tradition that teshuvah was created before the world was created. It’s a kind of trippy concept if you think about it. Before there was a world at all, before there were marriages that fell apart, before there was over-parenting or under-parenting, before there was racism, before there was a climate to change, there was the ability to repair what is broken. Before there was anywhere to return to, there was the capacity to return.

 

I told this concept to someone the other day and they said, “Ok, that’s going to make my head explode.” So here’s how one rabbi explained it: “God thought of creating a world but every time she thought a world into creation God would destroy that world until she created teshuvah. It was teshuvah—the possibility that not being perfect does not inexorably lead to not being—that allowed the world to exist. Teshuvah is the guarantor that being human, being fallible, is not fatal.” Of course some mistakes are fatal, but most are not and so when we make a mistake, do something wrong, repeat a destructive pattern, the urgent questions become – Can we change? Can we deal with our issues, reset, and do better next time? And can we be forgiven?

 

When you go searching the internet for stories of forgiveness, as one does when one is preparing to preach a sermon like this one, all you can find is the extreme games of forgiveness. The dramatic stories like the families of the people killed in the Charleston church shooting forgiving Dylan Roof; Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor forgiving the Nazis who imprisoned her; Brandt Jean forgiving former police officer Amber Guyger for accidentally shooting his brother in his own home. These kinds of stories are awe-inspiring and sometimes troubling and hard to fathom. But most of the dramas of our daily lives, thank God, are not this horrific. The acts of wrongdoing and sometimes apology and forgiveness happen in small ways throughout the day, throughout the year, just a drip, drip, drip of moments that together form the fabric of our communities – our families, our schools, our workplaces, our congregation.

 

We ordinary humans who are not murderers make mistakes all the time. These are the kinds of mistakes we listed in that forgiveness prayer earlier — condemning in our children the faults we tolerate in ourselves; condemning in our parents the faults we tolerate in ourselves; deceiving ourselves and others with half-truths; pretending to emotions we do not feel. And it’s bigger things too – pursuing fleeting pleasure at the cost of lasting hurt; using violence to maintain our power, withholding love and support. Wrongdoing is inevitable. But teshuvah and forgiveness are not inevitable. They are choices we make. Sometimes we apologize and sometimes we don’t; sometimes we forgive and sometimes we don’t. But when we do forgive, it makes a difference, not just to ourselves, and not just to the person we’ve forgiven, but to the feeling in the room; the tone of the city where we live. It affects the air that we all breathe. They say forgiveness does not change the past, but it does change the future.

 

There is nothing more paralyzing than the fear that making a mistake will be fatal. That somehow if we choose wrong, act wrong, say something stupid, or fail to do what we said we would do, we will be unable to recover. We will be permanently diminished. People will forever think less of us. Or opportunities will slip through our fingers. Or someone we love will have a worse life forever. Or we will have a worse life forever. I notice this fear sometimes in myself and I notice it increasingly in this community and in the world at large. In the story that Sara told, imagine if the mother had punished the kid for spilling the milk instead of doing what she did. He might have been too afraid to try doing anything new again. By his own account, he might not have become the creative research scientist that he became.

 

There’s good reason for our fears. The world feels like a pretty unforgiving place these days. The economy punishes people for insufficient leaning in, choosing family over work. Families punish people for leaning in too much and using screens to babysit our kids. The call-out culture punishes people for social media faux pas. There are so many atrocities happening in our midst, even when we are not direct victims or direct perpetrators, the stress and anxiety pervade everything. There is pressure on all of us to be perfect progressives even though, as I was speaking about a couple weeks ago, the same social miasma gave rise to us all. We’re tired. And the fear that we will do it wrong sometimes stops us from doing anything at all.

 

This feels like a quandary that is very much of this moment – of the internet age and of our political climate. But actually, this kind of paralysis for the fear of getting it wrong is an ancient human struggle. That’s why that story about teshuvah being created first exists. It’s true for us as well. Knowing that it’s going to be okay if you make a mistake is a prerequisite to doing anything where you might make a mistake, which is pretty much everything. We need to know in advance that we can change, we can correct course, we can do better and, crucially, that we can be forgiven. Once we know this, we are free, and can proceed with living our lives.

 

This is where faith comes in. Many traditions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Unitarian Universalism, teach that just as our ability to change our ways is built into the structure of the universe so is God’s capacity or the universe’s capacity to absorb wrongdoing and welcome us back in love. It’s the essence of the spiritual. In the book of Romans in the New Testament there’s a beautiful, poetic statement of this. It’s an assurance of forgiveness. “Neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God.” This same assurance is the basis of universalism. Universalism was originally the conviction that no one will be punished forever in hell; everyone will be forgiven and restored to eternity with God. A more contemporary way to say this would be that there’s a cosmic statute of limitations on wrongdoing. There’s a gravitational force of love in the universe that ultimately enfolds us back into its warm embrace. We are loved by an unending love.

 

When we forgive one another, we are aligning ourselves with that gravitational force. We are making real in the world the cosmic love, the archetypal love, the very principle of love that is the foundation of our faith. And we are freeing one another. We are doing just what that mother did for her son in the story about the spilt milk. Her forgiveness was abundant and easy to feel in her kind words and in the way she let him play in the milk. His teshuvah – his mending – was cleaning up the milk with her. He was empowered to fix mistakes even at the age of two. It kind of reminds me of that Jewish tale – his ability to fix mistakes came practically before he was old enough to make any. And then the mother’s patience with taking him outside and letting him try it with a bottle of water showed him that he doesn’t have to repeat mistakes, he can try something and if it doesn’t work out so well the first time, he can practice and do it better next time. There’s nothing shameful about that process – it’s all good.

 

Imagine if we could all have parents like that. Imagine if we could all be parents like that, and friends like that, and co-workers like that, and co-subway riders like that, and restaurant-goers like that, and social media commentators like that – what a world we would live in. We would be creating a culture of forgiveness. A medium where we give each other the freedom to try things, to make mistakes, to apologize and do better, and not be cancelled, but embraced. A culture of forgiveness supports our faith that we are fundamentally okay; our worth is inherent and nothing can take that away from us. And then maybe when we do make mistakes, we’ll more readily admit it and jump right back in the pool to work on getting it right. Once we admit that there’s a problem, transformation can begin.

 

Of course forgiveness is not always that easy. A two-year-old spilling milk is one thing. But what about abuse? What about violence? What about deceptions that unravel our whole lives? What about someone who has no remorse about what they did? Some wrongdoing is hard to forgive, some is impossible to forgive, and some it might not even be appropriate to forgive. Only each of us knows in our hearts what we need to do. And if we find that we want to forgive someone, but we can’t – or can’t yet – then maybe we can work on forgiving ourselves for that. And give it some time. And someday maybe we’ll be ready to take whatever pain we’re carrying and for-give it up. This is an invitation to be gentle with ourselves and one another, knowing that none of us is perfect. We’re all works in progress.

 

It’s an invitation to try to rest in the two assurances of faith: First, that we have the capacity for teshuvah – we had it before the world was born. We don’t have to repeat our negative patterns forever. We may not be able to repair the damage that we did, but we can transform the part of ourselves that was out of alignment and return to our essence. And second, that no matter what, we will be forgiven and welcomed back into the embrace of the holy. Because we are loved by an unending love and in the end, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us” from that love.

 

With the assurance of faith and the help of a forgiving community, we can bring a little bit of the welcoming essence of the universe here into this plane. We don’t have to wait until we are perfect to start creating our world. Yes, we can be working on ourselves. Yes, we’ll make mistakes and try to return to our best selves, but while that’s going on, we can go with our lives. We can be open during construction. And then, like that little boy who spilled the milk, we can feel what it feels like to be free.

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