This Sunday we will explore how our idea of justice and fairness intersect with the concept of forgiveness.
Lori Kyle is in her third and final year of study at Emmanuel College in Toronto at the University of Toronto. In addition to currently completing her course work for a Master of Divinity degree, she is doing a full time internship at the Unitarian Fellowship of Peterborough. Lori aspires to enter into congregational ministry upon completion of her ministerial training and ordination.
The complete sermon can be read below:
Some of you may know that the UU General Assembly was in Louisville, Kentucky this summer.
It was my first GA, and I gathered info about the workings of Unitarian Universalism, learned more about UU governance and how our theology is interwoven in that.
While I expected such from attendance of plenary and break out small group sessions, I didn’t expect the most memorable theological lesson to come from my encounter with the barbershop lady.
Soon after plopping myself down in her chair, and mentioning I was from Toronto, she said, “What do you think about Canadian health care?”
Although I couldn’t see her because she was standing behind me, I could tell she was asking with a curl in her lip.
Nonetheless, I replied earnestly that I loved that idea that no one is left behind, and how wonderful it is that all people in Canada have health care.
Then she said, “What about people who are lazy and don’t want to work? Do they deserve health care if they’re not pulling their weight?”
At that point the hairs on the back of my neck were sticking out.
But I didn’t jump on my horse of indignation because she was behind me holding a straight razor to my neck where those hairs were sticking out.
For the next bit of time we were polite, but clearly not seeing eye to eye about how deserving some of us are. I started to count the minutes until I was out of there.
It wasn’t until I noticed a sign hanging over the entryway that the tenor of our time together changed.
The sign said, “Forgive everyone everything.” I told her that I really liked the sign’s message, and asked her what it meant to her.
She softened immediately as she told me about her gay nephew, how difficult his life had been, and how inspired she was by his lack of bitterness, and his compassion to others in the face of his hurt.
As she spoke, I found myself wishing that the haircut could last a little longer, and was disappointed when it was time to head back to the convention center.
Our joining each other around the simple idea of forgiveness that day completely changed the spirit between the barbershop lady and me. Forgiveness has a way of joining people, but it’s not nearly as simple as the adage, “Forgive and forget.”
Earl of Chesterfield said it well... “What is forgiven is usually well remembered.” That’s because when forgiveness becomes relevant, some betrayal has occurred, followed by grief, and as much as we might like otherwise, the fabric of the relationship typically does not return to its former state.
A white shirt that has been stained is now a different shirt. It may continue to be functional, and may even be a tad more interesting because of the new mark, but it’s now something different.
Similarly, in the process of moving through the experience of betrayal and grief, we have a choice to embrace the soulful movement of forgiveness, which then transforms us to a new place...a place of freedom. In this way, forgiveness benefits the forgiver far more than the forgiven.
George Herbert appreciated this when he said, "He who cannot forgive breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass." Grief brought on by betrayal can hold us captive, and forgiveness is the bridge that leads us out of captivity.
While this sounds fairly simple, many people struggle with compassion because it appears to fly in the face of fairness. There’s a lot to be said for fairness. It reflects rationality, balance, some strength perhaps, and certainly justice.
I don’t have to tell you that these are attributes that we Unitarians hold near and dear. They are cornerstones of our theology. We approach theology and our relationships thoughtfully, rationally.
Typically we think about relations with each other, with the Divine, among communities and nations.
What about being in relation to ourselves?
Think about it... if there's any one person with whom we should work on right relation, it's the person you see peering back at you in a mirror, because we're stuck with that person 24/7.
And so we can ask ourselves the question, "Would I rather be right or happy?"
Most of us want to be right, righteous, justice seeking, AND happy.
The sensible idea of rightness or fairness gets a little fuzzy when we consider the concept of forgiveness.
That’s because compassion defies rationality and logic.
An eye for an eye makes good mathematical sense in our head. It brings symmetry.
Forgiveness will never be entirely symmetrical.
That’s because it isn’t as rational as it is soulful.
It calls us to leave the safety of the tree trunk, and to venture out on a limb. There’s vulnerability in being out there on that limb, to be sure.
But our perspective and ability to appreciate the entire landscape of a situation, of another person, is broadened considerably from the vantage point of the limb, not the safer but limited view that the trunk offers.
Such is the case for a friend of mine whose husband had an affair with her sister, the relative to whom she was the closest, during the sister’s stay with them while visiting from out of town.
You can imagine her deep grief over this betrayal from two of the people she loved and trusted most in the world.
She shared with me that central in her experience of moving beyond bitterness was appreciating the fullness of her husband’s and her sister’s humanity.
She explained that both of these individuals were generally lovely, generous, thoughtful, people, and that their lovable attributes didn’t magically disappear because of their hurtful actions.
Their goodness, she said, still exists as it always has.
My friend was somehow able to recognize that her sister and her husband didn’t engage in those activities to hurt her, and that in the scheme of things, they had burdened themselves more than they had burdened her.
She never used the ‘out on a limb’ analogy, but did say that her perspective became broadened when, through grace, she was able to rise above the eye level ‘at first glance’ perspective to see a more complete picture of these two people who had betrayed her. She says she experienced the Divine more intimately and clearly than ever before through the experience of recognizing the goodness and the hurts of those who hurt her. This calls to mind a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, who said:
"You cannot force yourself to forgive. Only when you understand what has happened can you have compassion for the other person and forgive him or her. That kind of forgiveness is the fruit of awareness. When you are mindful, you can see the many causes that led the other person to make you suffer, and when you see this, forgiveness and release arise naturally.”
This is similar to another story of a man who extended compassion toward the person who killed his brother. This man said the following of his brother’s murderer,
“For some reason I was able to feel all that he was dealing with. Like condemnation from others. And self-condemnation. Like this hovering darkness that surrounded him. People might think I’m strange to feel that way, but it’s just part of the nature of a person that’s closely connected to God. There’s a connection with God that can allow you to see past what’s in front of you.”
There’s a connection with God that can allow you to see past what’s in front of you.
As people of faith, a central part of our journey is nurturing our connection with the God, or Love, or a Higher Power, or whatever you call the Sacred, so that we can indeed see beyond what’s just in front of us.
Our UU principles certainly reflect this, as they encourage us to see beyond betrayal in order to recognize...
In the weeks following her daughter’s death she would say over and over, “This isn’t fair.” She searched desperately for justice and couldn’t find it.
I attended the sentencing hearing of the driver, where the judge would presumably exercise the voice of justice. Not unlike at a church wedding, the courtroom was divided down the middle...the driver’s loved ones on one side, and my friend’s daughter’s loved ones on the other.
Except, very un-wedding like, this wasn’t an occasion of joining. It was very much an experience of division.
One by one people from the opposing sides went to the microphone and shared stories with the judge about their loved one, pleading for an outcome that would satisfy their own sense of justice.
Finally it was time for the judge to render a sentence. You could hear a pin drop as the verdict was read...17 years.
Was justice done with a 17-year prison sentence?
Does my friend feel like 17 years adequately accounts for all the years of life her daughter won’t experience? Will the driver spending 17 years in a prison cell somehow make any of this better?
I don’t have answers to these questions, and I’m not sure concrete answers about justice always exist.
What I do know is that, sitting in court that day, the room was engulfed in grief, from all sides.
And it occurred to me that all that was left now was forgiveness. The dark cloak of grief and loss had descended upon all of them, and the way to light, through forgiveness and compassion, was hard to find at that point.
As we were filing out of the courtroom, I crossed the divide of the center aisle and approaching the driver’s father, who was sitting with his face in his hands, quietly devastated by the crushing reality that his beloved son would spend years and years in prison.
I touched his shoulder, and said, “We’re praying for your family.” He barely acknowledged me with a slight nod.
To this day I don’t know if it was a good idea to approach him in that moment. I wonder if it was maybe too soon, the wound too raw.
And it’s made me ponder the timing of things where forgiveness is involved.
What about the road, the process, to forgiveness, when a person hasn’t forgiven, because they can’t, or haven’t yet for whatever reason?
Is that person not as graced or as faithful as someone who has forgiven? Is such a person not as faithful, not as connected with the Divine?
We are, in fact, ever connected, interconnected. As Unitarians we embrace this idea so much that we made it one of our principles...the interdependence of the web of all existence. Perhaps it’s our appreciation and experience of that connection that becomes diminished because of hurts and betrayals.
Our roads in this life are sprinkled along the way with hurtful rocks that are unavoidable. Some rocks we bring to others’ and to our own paths, other rocks we’re subjected to, all of them hurtful.
The sacredness of our path, though, and the sacredness of our personhood as we imperfectly make our way down this path, isn’t diminished by the rocks that we or others bring.
Just as there is inherent worth and dignity of every person, so is there inherent sacredness in every path.
Yet another of our UU principles speaks to acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.
This includes acceptance of wherever we are on the road of forgiveness, AND encouragement toward growth that can lead to forgiveness.
May we find a place of acceptance with ourselves and with others, as we make our way down our roads, roads that include many rocks and hurts.
The prayer of St. Francis speaks to many of the things we’re addressing today. Please join me in a moment of reflection and prayer as we hear a version of this prayer.
May we be instruments and recipients of peace.
When there is division and injury, may we bring love and forgiveness.
When there is doubt and despair because of such injury, may we have enduring faith and hope.
When darkness from hurt and sadness comes, may we know some measure of light and joy.
And may we offer mercy, understanding and love,
For it is in through these that we come to know the peace for which we so long.
So may it be.
Read sermons by: