September 13, 2020

“Forgiveness Revisited,” Susan Ryder

Leviticus 23:26-28 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 27Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall deny yourselves* and present the Lord’s offering by fire; 28and you shall do no work during that entire day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the Lord your God.

Matthew 18:21-22: Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.”

Karen Armstrong, The Case for God:  Shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem [around 70 CE], when Rabbi Yohanan and his companions had occasion to walk past the ruined temple buildings, Rabbi Joshua had been unable to contain his grief. “Woe is it that the place, where the sins of Israel find atonement, is laid waste.” But Rabbi Yohanan replied calmly, “Grieve not, for we have an atonement equal to the Temple, the doing of loving deeds, as it is said, ‘I desire love, and not sacrifice.’” Kindness would replace the temple ritual, compassion, one of the pillars on which the world depended, was the new priestly task.

The Bhagavad Gita: If you want to see the brave, look at those who can forgive. If you want to see the heroic, look at those who can love in return for hatred.

On a hot Saturday afternoon in June 1997, Bob and I had our final meeting with the NCC search committee in the Chapel at the Campus Religious Center. In the previous 24 hours we had met with them in groups of two or three over dinner, breakfast, lunch, and for a tour of the CRC and ISU campus. For the final part of our interview process we met with the entire committee to offer a “test Reflection.” Did I mention it was hot? There was no AC in the Chapel back then, and I was in a dress and pantyhose – probably the last time that ever happened – and Bob was in a coat and tie. We were given a topic for the Reflection ahead of time. (Back then, we didn’t really understand – what’s a Reflection? Is it a sermon? A conversation? We were told we would share some thoughts and then invite the group to respond with their comments or questions.) The topic was forgiveness, and since there were two of us, we would each take half of the Reflection before turning it over to them.

We decided to talk about two different aspects of forgiveness – two sides of the same coin, as it were – forgiveness of someone who has wronged us, and seeking forgiveness from someone we have wronged. I forget now which one I took – what I DO remember is that we each wrote out our thoughts ahead of time, and Bob left his manuscript at the hotel, which he told me just before we started. Did I mention it was hot? We managed to get through it, sans manuscript – and there was money involved. We gave each member of the committee a dollar bill and a pencil, and asked them to write the initials of someone they needed to forgive on one side of the dollar, and someone they needed to seek forgiveness from on the other. We invited them to keep the dollar-bill in their wallet as a reminder, and when they forgave the person initialed on their bill, or sought forgiveness, they could give the dollar away. Some <cough Pam Lewis> may have considered it a bribe – whatever the case, it worked, as a few days later we received the call to become the new pastors of NCC.

As Bob and I wind down our time as your pastors for these past 23+ years, we’ve been enjoying quite a few walks down memory lane like this one. Just a few weeks ago I shared a memory from our first Sunday service with you. The one I shared today was one of our earliest memories, and it came to mind as I considered the topic of forgiveness from this week’s lectionary passage. Two-thirds of Jesus’ teachings are about forgiveness, and at least a third of his parables were about forgiveness, directly or indirectly. It’s clearly an important issue for Jesus as a Jew and a Rabbi, and seemed fitting for us to revisit this morning, both because forgiveness is probably one of the hardest things we deal with as people of faith, and because Rosh Hashanah begins this coming Friday evening, marking the beginning of the New Year on the Jewish calendar, and a time to reflect on one’s life the past year.

Within Judaism, as Rosh Hashanah begins it is believed that our destinies for the coming year are written in the Book of Life. The Book remains open for ten days, referred to as the “Days of Awe” during which time the blessing, “L’Shana Tovah – May Your Name Be Inscribed in the Book of Life” is offered. These “Days of Awe” offer an opportunity to reflect on what one has done with their life over the past year – focusing in particular on occasions one has “missed the mark” and caused harm to others. During these holy days, Jews are called to hold themselves accountable and repent for any wrongdoings. Through these actions they become “at one” with themselves and God – so that at the last sound of the blowing of the ram’s horn, or Shofar, on Yom Kippur – or the Day of Atonement – when the Book of Life for the coming year is sealed, followers have returned to “right relationship” with all of Creation.

Neil Gillman of the Jewish Theological Seminary explains its significance: “This festival has evolved through our tradition to represent a season of personal and universal renewal. Every human being needs an opportunity to begin again, to wipe out the past and dream dreams about what his or her life can become. We say goodbye to the old time and hello to the new. In the process we say goodbye to our old selves and hello to our new ones.”

Whether or not one is Jewish, these holy days can offer a time of meaningful reflection because the ideas and truths behind them are universal – especially now as it feels like we are filled with so much anger and despair these days. While as progressive Christians we have rightfully tossed out the concept of original sin – we also tend to dismiss or ignore the notion of sin altogether, or at least the aspect of our own sinfulness, which can be to our detriment. It’s easy for me to point out the obvious sins of others, but not always as easy when it comes to holding up a mirror to myself. But when we “miss the mark” – which is the English translation of the Greek “hamartia” – when we do something harmful to another person rather than seeking their well-being, well, that’s sin, and we all do it. The difference is that Judaism teaches sin is an act of commission or omission, and NOT a state of being we are born with, as traditional Christianity believes. For Jews, sin is not something we are stained with at birth, it’s something we do, or don’t do, which causes harm. And when we cause harm, we need to seek forgiveness and reconciliation – set things right again.

That’s why I find Rosh Hashanah, the Days of Awe, and the culmination of Yom Kippur to be meaningful and life-giving. I appreciate the period of time set aside to intentionally seek out those with whom one has experienced a broken relationship during the previous year in order to make amends, to clean up the hurts, to heal the divisions that separate and find atonement – becoming at one – with each other and with the Sacred. Doing so annually, past hurts don’t go on indefinitely, and there is a rhythm and regularity to making things right. Of course we can and should set things right all year, but this time of year offers an opportunity to ritually return to our truest and best selves through a journey of rediscovery during the Days of Awe, inviting inward reflection and self-evaluation to consider the wrongs we have committed and where we have missed the mark over the past year.

And, as it turns out, forgiveness is not only good for us spiritually, it can also have powerful health benefits. Observational studies and even some randomized trials suggest that forgiveness is associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety, and hostility; reduced substance abuse; higher self-esteem; and greater life satisfaction. Yet, forgiving people is not always easy. One way to get more comfortable with forgiveness is to practice small acts in everyday life, says Dr. Tyler VanderWeele, co-director of the Initiative on Health, Religion, and Spirituality at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. For example, if someone is rude or cuts you off in traffic, use that moment to recognize the wrong, realize it wasn’t directed at you personally, and forgive him or her on the spot. “This way you also can learn to immediately stop the negative reaction and the feelings that come with it,” says Dr. VanderWeele. (

Small acts of forgiveness can help lead to forgiveness of larger issues, and perhaps even open our eyes to seeking forgiveness for the wrongs we have done to others.

Earlier, I asked you to write the initials of someone you need to forgive on one side of a dollar or piece of paper, and someone you need to seek forgiveness from on the other side. If you haven’t yet done so already, I hope you will soon. And as we did with the search committee over 23 years ago, I invite you to keep the dollar-bill or piece of paper in your wallet or somewhere you can see it regularly as a reminder of a wrong that needs to be righted. And during these Days of Awe, as you forgive someone or seek forgiveness, you can then give it away and let it go.

Closing words:

On Turning – Rabbi Jack Riemer
Now is the time for turning.
The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange.
The birds are beginning to turn and are heading once more toward the South.
The animals are beginning to turn to storing their food for the winter.

For leaves, birds, and animals turning comes instinctively.
But for us turning does not come so easily.

It takes an act of will for us to make a turn. It means breaking with old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong; and this is never easy.

It means losing face; it means starting all over again; and this is always painful.
It means saying: I am sorry.

It means recognizing that we have the ability to change.
These things are hard to do.

But unless we turn, we will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways.

God, help us to turn – from callousness to sensitivity, from hostility to love, from pettiness to purpose, from envy to contentment, from carelessness to discipline, from fear to faith.

Turn us around, O God, and bring us back toward You.
Revive our lives, as at the beginning.
And turn us toward each other, for in isolation there is no life.