The Art of Forgiveness: More on Covenant, Risk, and Forgiveness



The Art of Forgiveness:  More on Covenant, Risk, and Forgiveness
preached* for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
September 29, 2013

Forgiveness.  We’ve spent nearly a month talking about forgiveness in worship.  And I feel like we’ve just drawn the first line of our depiction.  But in this final sermon on the topic, I want to return to two ideas that have been presented – one was my own, in the first sermon I gave on forgiveness, the week it seemed  war with Syria was inevitable.  The other is the circle diagram that Nic created and talked about last week in his sermon, about covenant, risk-taking, and forgiveness. 

I start with my mention of war and peace.  It’s not a perfect comparison, but what I was trying to say is that the technical part of war, killing people, is frankly simpler than changing people.  We also have a long history of war making and killing.  We know what it looks like.   Peace, on the other hand, is harder to describe because we haven’t achieved it as well.  Peace requires real internal change, and that’s very, very hard.  Peace-making is an adaptive challenge..  It requires people to change, and that’s harder than killing them. 

Peace would be an adaptive solution; a solution that requires us to change.  Forgiveness falls into the adaptive category.  The technical part of it – the saying of the words, “I’m sorry” or “I forgive you” is easy enough to do, but doesn’t get us anywhere unless it is accompanied by a change of heart – the real sentiment of sorrow and forgiveness.

I have found it so very helpful to understand the difference between a technical problem and an adaptive challenge.  Because when we try to provide the technical solution to an adaptive challenge, it never works, and vice versa.  So that’s where I begin this morning.

This UPC bar code is the image of a technical solution.  The Universal Product Code can be read by a scanner to determine the product and cost.  The numbers make it also readable by a person.  And there are systems in place to reduce the chance of error.  One code, one product.  A technical solution.  What is this?  What does it cost?  Read the bar code, and there’s your technical solution to the problem.

Lots of problems in our lives are technical.  My car broke down; get it fixed, or take the bus.  Piano out of tune?  Hire a tuner.  Your floor is dirty?  Sweep it.

But many, many problems in our lives are not so easily fixed.  They are not so easily categorized.  Sometimes we don’t even understand why we’re angry, for example, with another.  We just feel angry.

We get some of that around the pledge drive – the season of raising money for the church, which we’re entering now.  It seems that some people don’t want their church to talk about money.  It reminds them of the church they left, or how poor they feel, or somehow they think the church should be above needing money – or something.  In any case, it often triggers feelings of anger and then requires acts of forgiveness.

Global warming is perhaps a better example of an adaptive challenge.  In fact, it may be the greatest adaptive challenge we face today.  and remember how long it has taken for us to understand and agree upon this as an issue? and note that some people are still in denial about its scope and size…

An adaptive challenge is more like a living, breathing, zebra– it moves and grows, it adapts to its environment, and changes over time.  Adaptive challenges, like zebras, can’t always be grasped all at once, certainly can’t be quantified like a bar code. 

The lines drawn around the issue are ever changing.  Did you know that the lines on a zebra are always unique and that it’s one of the ways zebras recognize each other – by their unique stripes? The challenges are often hard to describe because each is unique and we’re still trying to figure out what the issues even are.  The challenge is different from every other challenge.   If we could clearly name it, it would be a straight lined technical problem and our naming would point to the solution. 

But it’s an adaptive challenge, because like peace, it requires us to change and grow.

Forgiveness, because it involves a change of heart, is always an adaptive challenge.  and that brings me to my second point, the follow-up on Nic’s sermon last week where he showed this diagram   the circular relationship of covenant, risk,  and forgiveness. 

Forgiveness, can only happen in a relationship.  It can be in relationship with yourself, but it is always a relationship.  Our relationships are guided by the promises we make to one another – spoken or never spoken.  The promise we make to our children to protect them from harm, for example.  Or the covenant we share with others in a church community such as this one.  When those covenants are broken, which they will be, for we can’t always protect our children from harm, forgiveness is required to get us back into right relationship with ourselves, our children, or our church community. 

We risk breaking those covenants by trying anything new – the only way we could avoid breaking a covenant would be to always do the exact same thing – like scanning a bar code, getting the same answer each time.  So risk is inherent in living.  We risk great and small, but we risk whenever we try something new.

We are trying something new this year with the pledge drive…. the past several years we’ve tried very hard to separate the annual drive to raise money for the operating budget of the church from what seemed like a perpetually impending capitol campaign for a solution to our inaccessible and crowded building.  This year, we thought we’d just go ahead and name our greatest challenge we face and dream big!  Because we can’t get through this very challenging time of adaptation and change – as we figure out what our options really are for creating accessible and comfortable space – without the financial resources to do it. 

The leadership has pretty much decided – after discussing with the congregation three buildings over the course of four years  – that either what we want, we can’t afford or isn’t out there, and what we can afford and is available, we don’t want.  So, we either need to change what it is we want, change what it is we can afford.  or change our values – which I don’t think is a good option.    But as we keep saying we want our building to be accessible to people with limited mobility and that we want to welcome new seekers into the congregation….it feels less and less authentic the longer we remain here in this inaccessible and too small a place.

In short, it is clear to me now that we are facing an adaptive challenge, not a technical problem.  Hence, the logo for our annual budget drive – this UPC code and the zebra.  We’re taking a risk here, by talking about all these issues together, but I believe it’s the risk we have to take at this juncture in order to remain in covenant with our highest values.  We can’t pretend that money isn’t a factor here and that money wouldn’t help us with a solution.  But we also can’t pretend that money is the only problem.   We need to change what we want, change what we can afford, or change our values.   

What would I like to see happen this year?  One thing I would love to see is that everyone who gets contacted during the annual pledge drive responds.  It seems to me that it’s a pretty reasonable request – in a covenanted community -  that we promise to let each other know where we are in our relationship and whether or not we intend to show up in that relationship.

The response can be, “I’m out of work and can’t pledge this year.”  But by making your intentions clear, volunteers won’t have to keep trying to follow up to try to get that response.  By letting us know in advance how much money you think you will be giving to the church next year, we can build a budget.  When we know how much money we have, we can plan better as an institution.   Of course, I’d love those of you who are able, to increase your pledges so we could work into the budget things like interns – which we’re getting for free this year, or an associate minister like Kevin Tarsa, which we’re also getting at a bargain this year. 

Now that he’s seen the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, he’ll be in search for a full-time job with a church that can pay him accordingly.  We just truly lucked out this year, catching him during this transition.

We’re taking a risk this year, by trying something different.  It seems to us that with technology changing, this is the year we can put our pledge campaign on line.  We had hoped to launch it today, but when you try something new, sometimes it fails – we won’t be ready until Tuesday of this week probably.

You may have received multiple invitations to our all church dinner next Sunday night as well – that was because the original invitations had no way to telling us how many people were attending when you RSVP’d – so now we’re asking you to tell us in the comment box.  See, when you try something new, take risks, mistakes are inevitable, and forgiveness required.

Likewise you may have been confused about the event next Sunday night – that’s because your leadership has been grappling with this zebra of an adaptive challenge, and we haven’t been sure what it is we were going to be doing next Sunday night.  Is it a pledge drive show?  is it an informational meeting?  is it game night?  Yes.  We are adapting to our new circumstances and approach.  Let me tell you what I know now about next Sunday night. 

We want to have fun.  In that spirit, if you wish, you’re invited to wear black and white – stripes if you’ve got em.  I’m modeling appropriate attire today. 

Dinner will be a naked burrito bar from Qdoba.  We entertained the idea of holding the dinner in a larger space, but decided to just do it here.  The jazz combo, playing this morning, will also be playing that night.  The Board will have some presentation for you, and then we’ll break into small groups for discussion about this adaptive challenge.  We will likely have pledge cards there, but as we hope most of you will be pledging online this week, that’s not the focus of the small groups.  The small groups will continue some good conversation this congregation began in June at our last congregational meeting.  I hope you can join us.  If we don’t have your email address, you can make your reservation by calling the office and telling us you’re coming.  Next Sunday, black and white.  Lots of fun.  Promise.

So enough of the commercial.  I want to circle back to the readings this morning.  I do love the one line by Dan Pallotta about the problems with equating frugality with morality….boy do we do that sometimes at church…. and he asks us to start rewarding charities for their big goals and big accomplishments, even it that comes with big expenses.  He asks us to change the way we think about changing the world.  and he’s not just talk – he’s raised hundreds of millions of dollars with this approach.  What we could do with just one of those millions of dollars….

But none of this money matters, if the Beloved Community isn’t taking shape.  Angus MacLean said that,
“Today I am well, and the sick are glad to have me visit them; tomorrow I may look upon the world through the eyes of the suffering....,
Today I am young and tomorrow I am old and struggling to adjust to the fact. 
Today I am virtuous and tomorrow I may have done that which appalls me, and I need understanding and forgiveness.
Every day and every hour we are sustained by others reactions or destroyed thereby...., 
a church community should be most alert to these facts
It should be the Beloved Community."

I may have been talking about church a lot this morning.  If this is your first visit among us, I don’t always do this.   Sometimes, like when we’re trying to put together a budget for next year, I have to.  But I hope you see that church is also a metaphor for life.  We make covenants, take risks, and seek forgiveness in many areas of our lives.  And that is as it should be, for we’re not objects with bar codes to decipher, we’re more like zebras that grow and change over time.

There’s a reading in our hymnal attributed to that most prolific of all writers, anonymous, which seemed appropriate.   It’s called To Risk. 

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out for another is to risk exposing our true self.
To place our ideas – our dreams- before the crowd is to risk loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return –
oh, but do remember that you are loved.
To hope is to risk despair
To try is to risk failure
To live is to risk dying.

I had to add that sentence about remembering that you are loved….The ability to forgive and to be forgiven grows out of that love.   Or, as Reinhold Niebuhr put it, “we are saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.”

That’s what we’ve been talking about this month.   When we remember that we are loved, we can lay down those burdens of resentment and the desire to hurt in response to being hurt.  and what celebration that is.  Hallelujah!

Let us risk dying by living today, living well, and living into the fullness of our being, remembering that we are loved and held in covenant by the Universe and those we love.    Amen.


* Sermons are meant to be spoken and not written.  I have not edited this sermon to written form.