Sermon - Proper 16 - Aug 25, 2019
St. Andrew’s, Marianna
The Rev. Canon Renee Miller
How to Pray, Part 6
May the sacraments and the Word and the hunger of our souls meet, and lead us ever more deeply into the heart of God. Al-hamdu-lillah. Amen.
What is the first thing you think of when I say the word “prayer?“ I want to add a second question: “How are you using these prayers and are you noticing any difference? By that, I do not mean are you getting answers you want. I mean are you finding any inward changes? What do you still need? Where are you feeling stuck?
We come today to another short prayer in the Lord’s Prayer that seems not only familiar to us, but understandable. “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” We know that we are meant to forgive others, and we certainly want to be forgiven ourselves. We also know that it can be very difficult to forgive others and even harder to accept forgiveness for ourselves. I have preached many times about the elements of forgiveness and why it’s hard — our sense that forgiveness is saying what was done was okay, fear that forgiveness leads others to feel that they can hurt us again, the concern that forgiveness lets people off the hook, and the freedom that we feel when we forgive or are forgiven. I’m not going to rehash that. I want us to think instead about forgiveness as prayer - how to pray forgiveness into ourselves and others.
Interestingly, the meaning of the word forgiveness means to give up desire or power to punish. Let me say that again: to give up desire or power to punish. Sometimes we have the desire to punish ourselves or others for bad behavior and sometimes we have the power to actually do so. We seem to be hard-wired to think that punishment is necessary in order to wipe the slate clean; that we and others should ’pay’ for our misdeeds; that inflicting a penalty for misbehavior will ensure future good behavior. But is that accurate? Does punishment produce positive results and guarantee good behavior? And what if the opposite approach is taken? What if misdeeds are just passed over and there’s no accountability? Does a lack of punishment guarantee better behavior in the future? And, finally, does punishment erase the pain of the misdeed? I think the answer is “No” in all cases. Punishment sometimes is a deterrent. Love and forgiveness are sometimes a deterrent. But neither guarantee good behavior. So, what’s the deal then?
Let’s think of the prayer of forgiveness in terms of memory and peace. The first part is to attend to memory. You know how this works. You made a decision at one point to give up gluten. But, when that nice basket of biscuits came around, you just couldn’t help yourself — you took 2. Never mind they had gluten in them. But, you probably felt guilty because you had failed to do what you said you were going to do. Later when you decide to go on a diet and cut back on gluten you already have a failure stored in your memory bank. You remember how you couldn’t pass up those 2 biscuits last time. And, you automatically plant a seed in yourself that you won’t be able to keep to your gluten decision this time either. And, as a result, you probably don’t!
Or, let’s say a friend once manipulated you or defrauded you in some way. You thought you’d gotten past it, but they call you and want to do some deal with you. Immediately, you’re on your guard, because you have the memory in your memory bank about how manipulative and conniving they were, and how they took advantage of your relationship before. These are just 2 examples, but we have hundreds of these over the course of just one year! Our memory banks get overloaded.
When a computer or phone is overfull with all the actions that have been done on it, it’s unable to process more actions until some clearing is done. Sometimes a simple reboot of the phone or computer is enough to clear its most recent memory; sometimes a hard reset is required; sometimes the history or cache needs to be manually erased; and sometimes an anti-spyware program must do a big sweep of the memory banks quarantine the viruses and malware and delete them, in order for the computer to be ‘inwardly peaceful’ — that is, so it can perform at optimal efficiency without constantly going through all the old memories before completing a new task.
We function in a similar way. We commit actions that hurt ourselves or others, and others commit actions that disturb or hurt us. The memory of those actions gets filed in the hard drive of our heart and emotions. Every time another action like it occurs, it gets piled up in the memory of what happened in the past. We apply the same filters to the new situation as we did to the last and our heart and emotions get clogged up. Over time we get dragged down. Misdeeds that we have done or hurtful actions others have done to us are like those viruses on a computer. They need a heavy-duty program that will quarantine and delete them. Forgiveness is that heavy-duty program. It isolates and deletes all the bad actions we have done and the bad actions that have been done to us.
The power of this erasing of memory is illustrated by animals and children. We’ve all witnessed a dog or cat getting into a scuffle with another dog or cat; batting at them or growling at them with irritation. Yet, after the tiff was over, it was as if nothing bad had ever occurred between them. Or, think of children at play. They get mad at each other over something. There may be harsh words, fights, tears, even pleas to parents to punish the offending party. But, after a few minutes they’re playing again naturally as if nothing had ever occurred. There seem to be no remnants of anger or a desire to keep punishing their playmate. What makes it so easy for children and animals and so difficult for us? Spoiler alert! Children and animals don’t have overfull memory banks!
When we pray “Forgive us our sins for we forgive everyone who is indebted to us” we are given the opportunity to clear the memory, and when we do it with real intention, we hardly even remember the misdeed when next we want to go on a gluten-free diet, or deal with that person who manipulated us in the past. You may be thinking, “Oh, that might work for some small offense but you don’t know what has been done to me. And even if I forgive, I’ll never be able to forget.” So, let’s move to the next solution for that.
Let’s hear again a portion of the very hard, hard words of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, the famous Russian saint. He says "We cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other.... All condemnation is of the devil. Never condemn each other. Not even those whom you catch at the evil deed. We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves. When we gaze at our own failings, we see such a morass of filth that nothing in another can equal it. That is why we turn away, and make much of the faults of others. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach the inner peace.” Strive to reach the inner peace. This is the solution to forgetting — no matter how difficult the offense has been. Seraphim’s words are hard, harsh, honest, yet liberating.
If we can strive to reach the inner peace, forgiveness for ourselves and forgiveness of others will come naturally, without condition, and in freedom. The truth is this: anger and retribution cannot reside very long in the heart of someone who has inner peace. When we have inner peace, forgiveness of ourselves and others is so natural, it isn’t even an issue worth thinking about. In other words, we are free. It’s as simple as that. We’re free.
Consider this: God has forgiven us for things we’ve done, things we’ve thought about doing, things we’re now thinking about doing, things we will do! If we are aligned with God— reduced to that single straight line — we will try to be like God. We will forget what has been done, what has been thought to be done, what is being thought about being done in the future, and what will be done. And when we have been reduced to that single straight line with God; anger, injustice, entitlement, fear, unworthiness, strife, war, will be silenced. I can’t say this strongly enough: There’s hardly anything more important in all of life than striving for the inner peace. And striving for your own inner peace is the only way you’ll be able to completely erase any residual anger at what you have done or at what others have done to you. The prayer of forgiveness really has nothing at all to do with misdeeds done by you or anyone else. It is really only about striving to find the inner peace.
The prayer of forgiveness is a very simple — very simple — 2-step process that removes the viruses in your memory bank that keep you from finding inner peace: