Shuck and Jive

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Forgiveness Without Brokers: A Sermon

Forgiveness Without Brokers
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

June 13, 2010

II Samuel 11:2-12:10, 13-15
Luke 7:36-8:3


The church is all about forgiveness.

A few months ago we discovered that professional golfer, Tiger Woods, was in fact, a human being. His personal life was all over the news. Television newscasters and pundits were buzzing about him, wondering in particular what his dalliances might do to his golf game. One such broadcaster, Brit Hume, raised the stakes by stating that Tiger needed to switch religions. This is what he said of Tiger Woods:
He's said to be a Buddhist; I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be, 'Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.'
That comment raised a lot of furor. Fundamentalist Christians praised it. The rest of us thought it was tacky and gauche. Buddhist, Robert Thurman said:
Hume is slapping someone who is down by picking on Tiger Woods, who I don’t even know if he is a Buddhist. He is just pandering to the Fox News fundamentalist audience by acting as if Jesus can make everything fine. I think Hume and his colleagues need to commit a little time to interfaith study.
Of course, the obvious question is: what does Jesus, Christianity, or Buddhism have to do with it? If anyone cares, it would be Tiger Woods’ wife. No one else needs to have a role in that drama except for those who are affected personally. It isn't my business or Brit Hume's business or Robert Thurman's business. It isn't Jesus's business. Nor is it God's business.

The Church has claimed that sins, public, private, juicy and otherwise are God's business. Jesus is the vehicle and the Church is the broker. According to this theology, any sin is a sin against God. Jesus is the only one who forgives and since the church is Christ's body, it also the mediator, the broker, or the loan shark of forgiveness.

The historical Jesus never claimed that role. He was placed in it by the church. He spoke and acted against the brokerage system. When you find passages such as the one in Luke where Jesus says to the woman "Your sins are forgiven" the church saw this as proof that Jesus alone had special forgiveness mojo.

But is that really true? As we hear his parables, aphorisms, and injunctions, we find Jesus taking the power away from the institution. He wasn't giving it to himself, but showing by example what any of us can do. His stories of forgiveness and his interactions with others were about interpersonal relations. You don't need priests. You don't need a Temple. You don't even need an abstraction called "God" to intervene in human relationships.

The church was tone deaf to this and turned Jesus into a substitute for the Temple. Jesus dying on the cross became atonement for sins that we owed God. The church completely distorted the message of Jesus. For the historical Jesus, forgiveness had little to do with God and certainly little to do with religious institutions.

For Jesus, forgiveness happens when human beings discover the humanity of one another.

Before I go further with that, I should tie up this loose end. In talking about forgiveness in terms of interpersonal relationships, I am not talking about crimes against the state. That is the secularization of what we once called "sins against God." This is the David and Bathsheba story. David misuses his power to commit murder. He is a king so he has no one to answer to except God. Today, in a secular society, we create a system of laws and a judicial system to enforce them. God has no role in this except perhaps as a symbol for conscience, justice, or morality.

God also has less and less a role in terms of interpersonal relationships. When I do something to hurt you, I am not hurting "God". I am hurting you. My obligation is not to God but to you. If there is any forgiveness is will not come from God, but from you.

So what is forgiveness?

We tend to think that forgiveness is something we do or we ought to do. We are told that we need to forgive. Self-help literature is filled with admonitions to forgive. If we don't it will eat at us, cause ill health, and turn us into miserable little people that no one wants to be around. We feel obligated to forgive for our own good.

But so often we cannot forgive or we pretend to, but it doesn't feel real.

I can't forgive my husband or my wife for the affair.
I can't forgive my sister or my brother for taking the family's estate.
I can't forgive my mother or my father for treating me badly.
I can't forgive my children for ignoring me.

I am not talking about anyone in particular. These are everyone's stories. Is human forgiveness even possible? How do you do this? What does it look like?

It is not something we do. If we are lucky, it is something we discover.

In John Patton’s excellent book, Is Human Forgiveness Possible? he writes:
Forgiveness is a discovery after the fact, not something sought after and achieved by whatever religious or psychological means. P. 139
Patton’s book is on the top of my list of helpful books in terms of helping me listen to others as they struggle with interpersonal relationships, particularly forgiveness. This is his thesis that he returns to throughout his book:
…human forgiveness is not doing something but discovering something—that I am more like those who have hurt me than different from them. I am able to forgive when I realize that I am in no position to forgive…. P. 16
No one likes to hear that. That isn’t something I say up front, perhaps even ever when I talk with someone. The discovery itself is an act of grace. It cannot be forced. It is a discovery that we are all human beings. We may not even call it forgiveness. We don’t need to have a name for it.

When we think of forgiveness as something we do, we come from a position of power and righteousness. I am right. You are wrong. I choose or do not choose to forgive you. But keeping it in those terms keeps us from moving beyond it. We may not wish to be in relationship with the person who has wronged us. But if we do we will need at some point to discover forgiveness. Otherwise, there will always be unresolved debt and resentment.

It is perfectly OK to choose not to forgive, whatever we think forgiveness is. But if forgiveness is something we are looking for, we will actually discover it by not seeking it. I know that sounds weird. The issue is that forgiveness is human relationship. It is to use one of John Patton’s words, “Neighbor-hood.” It is recognizing that we have a place in the “community of sinners.”

When someone has tried it all and just can’t forgive and it is eating at her or him, and bitterness, rage, resentment are making a permanent abode, then it is time to do some self-work. Rather than worry about forgiveness, one suggestion is to think about coming to terms with one’s own self perception.

This has to do with coming to terms with our own shame, that is our own woundedness. We think it is about guilt, but it is really about shame. Shame is about who we are. When criticized we don’t take it as we have done something wrong but that we are something wrong. Shame is not measuring up. Shame is not being good enough. Shame’s symbol is nakedness. Adam and Eve in the garden feel shame. They need to cover themselves. In the story YHWH covers them as an act of love.

When someone wrongs us, particularly someone especially close, someone who has with us a relationship of intimacy and trust, and betrays that trust, our shame is triggered. We have been shamed and exposed. Our reaction to that is either rage or righteousness.

There is no wonder we can’t forgive the one who shames us because our rage and righteousness is our protection. When we do the self-work, when we find other ways of covering our nakedness (so to speak), we begin to realize that we don’t need the rage or the righteousness to do that.

These past few weeks I have been angry and righteous in regards to BP and the oil leak. But I wonder if some of that rage and righteousness is a cover for my own shame in terms of the lifestyle I lead and the oil I use to maintain it.

We can’t cure shame but we can care for it.
We care for it by being vulnerable and accepting ourselves as we are.
We care for it by allowing others to love us as we are.
We care for it when we see the other person as one who is also covering for shame.
When we can see that, we can discover that we have our humanity in common.
That is forgiveness.

It is not something we do. It is something we discover.

We don’t need a broker, but a third person who can provide the space for us to be ourselves without judgment is a rare pearl.

We don’t need God the cosmic lawmaker and stern judge, counting our debts, but we may need a spirituality that connects us to something larger than ourselves and surprises us with grace.

We don’t need Jesus who takes a beating that was supposed to be inflicted upon us, but we may need a Jesus who reminds us of what it means to be human and invites us to participate in our common human life, and who accepts us as we are.

I started this sermon by suggesting that the church is all about forgiveness. That is true but not in the usual sense. It isn’t a broker between us and God, or between us and others. The community doesn't need to supervise forgiveness. It can be, if we are open to it, a community where we don't give up on our relationships. Through that we can be surprised by our humanity and through that surprise discover the humanity of others.


  1. Well, I'll comment. Just catching up after the 4th week commuting to Clinical Pastoral Education training at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, VA (6 more to go).

    What?? Sea Raven, the liberal, at EMU? Yes. Because Mennonites for me offer the best examples for Christian covenant, and living incarnation.

    This sermon on discovering forgiveness is revolutionary -- or, as the director of the EMU CPE program would say, "counter-cultural." The Culture has co-opted Jesus's original message. This sermon shines a light on the way back.

  2. Wow, now that is a compliment. Thank you! And good for you connecting with the Mennonites. I have greatest admiration for them. My first church in northern NY had a large Mennonite population, the largest Christian group by far. I was very impressed with their peace work.