This morning’s message is a message about forgiveness. I wanted it to be a simple, light-hearted look at how easy forgiveness can be…how gently we can look past things that offend us in others to preserve a sense of harmony with one another in the name of love. With so much worry, so much heartbreak, so much conflict in our world today, I hoped a soft message on letting go of what we can would be a relief and a comfort.
What came to mind was the easy way kids make friends at the start of the school year and how even when things don’t go well—and they don’t always go well—children find a way to forget the trouble quickly and get back to being friends. Wouldn’t it be nice if adult life were more like that?
For many kids, the first days of school are an anxious time, but things get better quickly as friendships start to grow. Children seem almost magnetically drawn to kids who will become their friends—funny kids they enjoy, smart kids they admire, and kids with interests like their own. Down deep, no matter what our age, we each have a need to be connected to others, and it feels good—and safe and right—to find the group or groups we belong to, where we feel accepted, understood, and part of the team.
But sooner or later, no matter how good the friendship, we hit bumps and snags with one another. When you’re ten, this might be something as simple as she said something behind your back and now you’re not talking to her anymore. Or he cheated at kickball and his side won and now he’s not your friend.
Skirmishes, misunderstandings, and group rivalries develop on the playground and the whole process—seen from a distance–is a fascinating and sometimes surprising study in human behavior. We are always forming in groups and out groups. It’s what we do. We’re social animals, continually seeking out people we identify with and steering away from people we don’t. Part of being a human being—in any age, in any culture—involves finding our people, those who speak to our condition and affirm the choices we’ve made, the perspectives we hold. This helps us feel a part of something bigger than ourselves and not quite so small and alone.
Right now there are a lot of people feeling isolated and vulnerable—and the gaps between us seem to be growing wider as we living through a time like no other. Group making continues at an almost frenzied pace—that happens when there is so much anxiety and perceived threat—and people are grouping around ideas that may fall anywhere on a social and ideological spectrum. Beliefs and positions are often polarized and emotionally charged and people struggle with—or have given up on—trying to understand things from the other’s eyes. What makes sense and seems right to one group may appear totally unfounded and wild to others.
What’s worse, the divisions that open up between groups aren’t just a benign area where we can all agree to disagree. Instead, that gap in understanding becomes a moat full of slithery creatures and mean-spirited accusations, eroding any trust we once had. Soon we’re making villains of each other, pointing fingers and casting blame, instead of trying to figure out how to build bridges across the moat of our distrust.
There is a way back from this point of disconnection, and our society, our ideas, our nation can heal. But it takes a willingness to let go and see differently so God’s love has a chance to guide us on the playground of our lives.
As I was beginning to work on this message Friday evening, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away from complications with pancreatic cancer. No matter what your views of the Court, she was a remarkable and respectful person, a brilliant and historic jurist, clear-sighted and compassionate, dedicated to the long view of doing her best to work for justice for all.
Seeing recent pictures of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it’s not hard to imagine what she might have looked like as little girl, playing on the playground in Brooklyn with her friends. I wonder whether she was she a balanced presence even then, getting along with everyone, speaking softly and injecting humor to lighten things up. Maybe the skills and talents that eventually led her to the Supreme Court first took root in her early experiences with friends and classmates.
You’ve probably noticed that there is a simple kind of playground justice that often works itself out when groups of kids get together. Even though feelings get hurt and things get said, and one group tousles with another, when kids really want to play—and they need their friends and teammates to do that—they are able to let things go and start again. They can almost instantly forgive and forget so they can get back to the game at hand.
Here forgiveness comes simply because we realize what’s most important. In this case, fun. The Old Testament reading today says the same thing in a different way,
“Whoever would foster love covers over an offense, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.”
We all know it feels like a different thing—a bigger deal—when we get offended as adults. The upset hurts and stirs us up. And it lingers if we let it. We want the support of our friends—Can you believe he said that?—but talking about it, Proverbs says, only creates more distance between us. This happens because when we rehearse something in our heads, especially if it has charged emotion attached to it, we are simply reinforcing the story, making it more real, and it becomes a bigger obstacle in our path to peace. When both people in a situation are doing this—and this does unfortunately seem to be our nature so I imagine we’ve all done it–our bad feelings for each other multiply in the moat that separates us. The other possibility, though, is that we could remember what ‘s most important—friendship, peace, harmony—and we could choose to let the issue slide off without overfocusing on who did what to whom.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg once shared a secret to her almost 60-year relationship with her husband Martin: “In every good marriage,” she quipped, “it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.” She also extended this light touch to her work as a jurist, saying, “When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out.”
Look past the infraction, she says, agreeing with King Solomon. And if you can do it with a little humor, all the better.
When we’re kids, giving friends “cuts” in line sometimes elicits protests from the friends behind us, but it’s a nice thing to do for someone who has a long wait ahead of them. As adults we sometimes do this as well, letting a person with fewer groceries or an over-tired toddler go before us in the grocery line. Sometimes the idea of helping someone get ahead—giving them a break—is also an act of forgiveness, a way to let go what you held against them in the past and instead offer some kindness, share a little grace.
And have you ever been talking with a friend when the two of you said the same thing at the same time and she called out, “Jinx! You can’t talk til I say your name!” This is usually said in good humor and gets a quick laugh. The silence doesn’t last long because it’s much more fun to play with a friend who can talk and laugh with you.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea in our world today to be find a way to spend more time in silence, to Jinx ourselves, to be intentional about listening more and learning something new about people who have ideas or beliefs different from our own. This silence could be an act of love, creating a little space inside, setting others free of our preconceived ideas about them as we listen to and get to know their hearts better, maybe for the first time, maybe in a new way. God will help with that, if we’re willing to try.
In a similar way, another playground technique–calling a “do over”–would be a lovely grace in our so-adult world right now as well. On the playground, a do over is a second chance—or third or fourth—when we foul the ball, when we’re captured in tag, when our chalk drawing comes out wonky. Calling for a “do over” is a call for forgiveness, a call for a fresh start, free of the bumps and warbles and bad choices that led to the less-than happy outcome w- want to erase.
Luckily for us our God is a God of second chances, giving us a virtually unlimited number of “do overs” as we learn gradually to live with more love and light. It’s a slow process, and we need the grace. In our New Testament reading for today, Jesus explains the dynamic for this kind of do over in God’s realm. You can hear that there is an expectation attached: we are to give “do overs” to others as God grants “do overs” to us.
At this point in Matthew chapter 6, Jesus is speaking to the crowd on the mountainside—this comes just after the scripture we heard last week and is part of his larger teaching that includes the Beatitudes–and he gives those listening a simple and beautiful instruction in how to pray. He begins by urging them not to pray for show only—just to look pious and devout—but to pray in the quiet of their hearts turned toward God. Then he gives them the model,
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11Give us today our daily bread.
12And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13And lead us not into temptation, a
but deliver us from the evil one. b
Forgive us our debts, he says—some translations say trespasses here—and the next line says, “as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Before we even approach God in prayer, asking for our own do over, Jesus suggests, we need to have found a space in our hearts to set others free of the debts we hold over them. The inappropriate comment they made. The disappointment we felt when they let us down. The hurt feelings. Our judgment of their character or intentions. When we are willing to let it all go and look for that of God in them, we are choosing to forgive in a way that can transform our relationships and change our world.
God will gladly work with our willingness and guide us to extend the Light outward naturally as little graces in our lives, giving other people a break, creating spaces for deeper listening, opening a path to bridge the gaps between us. And when we keep our eyes looking for that of God in each other, the moat with all its monsters shrinks and fades into the bad dream it always was.
In closing, I’d like to leave you with these words of Richard Foster on the topic of forgiveness. He writes,
“Forgiveness is a miracle of grace whereby the offense no longer separates…
It means that we will no longer use the offense to drive a wedge between us,
hurting and injuring one another.
Forgiveness means that the power of love that holds us together is greater than the power of the offense that separates us.
That is forgiveness.
In forgiveness we are releasing our offenders
so that they are no longer bound to us…
freeing them to receive God’s grace.”
Let’s let ourselves play on God’s playground for a while this week, experimenting with the different and simple ways we might—like a child—purposefully let go of the things that separate us. The world hurts too much to add more debts to its load. Let’s set each other free and look for that of God by choosing do overs for everyone—ourselves included—in the name of Love and a healing world.
- OT Proverbs 17:9
- NT Matthew 6: 5-14