Nov 7th, Forgive Generously with Rev. Kally Elliott.
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Forgive Generously with Rev. Kally Elliott.
By now, saying that America is divided has become almost cliche. But it’s true, and it is something that seems to touch almost everybody some way. The Pew Research Center recently reported. Political affiliation has become the most powerful way that people assess who to be close to and who to reject far surpassing differences by age, race, ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, and religious affiliation. But I don’t need to tell you that you already know this.
You experienced this on your social media field, in community politics, in your neighborhood, in the schools or even in the Church. But perhaps most of all, probably most painful of all, within your own family.
In an article in Behavioral scientist, psychologist Joshua Coleman writes, Political difference seems to be an increasing cause of family estrangement. Blood is no longer thicker than water, especially if that water is political affiliation, and I so get what he is saying. It’s no secret that much of my family, including my brothers, find their political home not just on the other side of the street from me, but way across town. And as in many families, we are struggling right now with how to be in relationship with one another.
In his book The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis paints a picture of hell that should haunt us all. In his book, Hell is like a vast, Gray city, a city inhabited only at its outer edges, with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle, empty because everyone who once lived in them has quarrelled with the neighbors and moved and then quarrelled with the new neighbors and moved again, leaving empty streets full of empty houses behind them. That, Lewis says, is how hell grows so large, empty at the center and inhabited only on the fringes because it is easier to move away from those with whom we disagree instead of staying put and working things out.
But it’s when you can’t understand, can’t even talk to the people who have been the closest to you, your mother or father or sister or brother, your partner, your friend, the one who sat across from you at the dinner table, or the one who you turned to with your secrets, the one who grew up with you when this kind of divide really, really hurts.
I think that’s why Peter phrases his question the way he does. Peter doesn’t ask how many times he has to forgive the Romans or the Greeks or the tax collector who swindled him. He asks how many times he has to forgive a member of the Church, or, as it literally says in the Greek, his brother, the word used his brother.
Growing up there was nobody who could make me feel white hot anger, like my little brother. One afternoon when my parents had left us home alone to run an errand, he did something to me. I don’t remember what it was, but it really ticked me off. I was so furious I grabbed him by the arm, and I focused all my rage on pinching him as hard as I possibly could. All I could think was, I hope this hurts.
But then there was the time that I learned an older kid was picking on my brother on the school bus the very next day. I was waiting at the stop when the bus pulled up and that kid got off in no uncertain terms. I let the bully know that if he ever bothered my brother again, he’d have to deal with me. Families are complicated, but Dang it, we need them, even if they aren’t the family into which we were born. But the family we’ve patched together over the years, and I am tired of feeling so angry, so perplexed by their stances so far away from them.
In the practical instructions Jesus gives to his disciples, he says, if another member of the Church sins against you, go and point out their fault just between the two of you again. While Jesus might have been talking about the family of God, member of the Church is literally brother in the Greek and can mean anyone close to you. And while having a differing political opinion is not a sin, the way that we hit people over the head with our political opinions probably does fall into the category of sin, but this is where followers of Jesus have an opportunity to be those who bridge divides and heal broken relationships.
But it can’t just be a nice idea. Forgiveness that leads to reconciliation takes practice.
It’s an action, and I think Jesus gives such practical instructions about how to heal relationships, because when we can first practice it in our own lives, in our own families, it can then spill out into our communities and the surrounding world. If we want to see reconciliation in our country, we first have to become people of forgiveness and reconciliation with one another. But it takes practice for some of us that is not easy to do. Conflict can create all kinds of difficult feelings within many of us would probably rather just separate ourselves all the while obsessing over how wronged we have been.
But I cannot think of one time that method has actually worked.
Think of CS Lewis description of hell, a city empty at the center and inhabited only on the fringes because it was easier to move away from those with whom we disagreed.
Jesus lets us know that relationships cannot work this way. You must go talk to the one who wronged you, he says. It’s the C word confrontation, as Miriam Webster defines it, a face to face meeting.
It’s one of the only things Jesus is actually very clear about most of the time. Jesus speaks in metaphor and parable, like he talks about things like fig trees and sheep and lost coins. But here talking about relationships, especially relationships that are close. He makes himself very clear and one of the most difficult things is that he puts the burden on the person who has been wronged. First, he says, if someone wrongs, you personally go to your sister or to your brother and talk to them.
And if that doesn’t work, well, then get a friend. You both trust involved. And if that doesn’t work, then reach out to a mutual mentor. And if that doesn’t work, well, then go ahead and treat them as a pagan or a tax collector, which seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it? But the words pagan and tax collector simply meant Gentile or outsider, someone other than the children of Israel.
And right before he gets into how to deal with conflict, Jesus tells his disciples about a shepherd who leaves 99 of his sheep to go after one lost sheep. So I don’t think Jesus is being harsh here. I don’t think he is saying, if you follow steps one through three and it doesn’t work for you, who cares? Move on. You’ve done what you can, I think instead he is saying, look, you’ve got a God who risks losing everything to go after one person.
So if steps one through three don’t work, keep trying. Actually, try even harder with love and compassion to pursue restored friendship with that person.
If that isn’t uncommon, forgiveness uncommon reconciliation. I don’t know what is. Every social media post I read, every magazine article and selfhelp book tells me I should let that person go that I’m better off without them. But Jesus instructs us differently. Forgiveness that leads to reconciliation is just that important to Jesus.
And please know I am not talking about forgiving or being reconciled to an abuser. If you’ve been abused, please find the help you need and the pastors at this Church are here for you.
So honestly, ask yourselves these questions.
When was the last time I admitted to someone that they had angered or hurt me? When was the last time someone in my close circle lovingly confronted me about something that happened between us? Who have I let down? But they are still by my side because we did the hard task of working through it.
Far too often we think we can skip to bringing reconciliation to bear in our city or in the nation or in our world when we haven’t even tried to bring it to bear in our relationships with those who have been closest to us.
Jesus rarely speaks about social reconciliation. Usually he just talks about personal confession and forgiveness, and I think that is probably because it has to start here.
Jesus continues, where two or three are gathered in my name. There I am with them.
And here we finally arrived at some of the most misquoted misinterpreted words of Jesus.
The last several years before we moved to Bend, part of my pastoral role was starting a new Church community. And I cannot tell you the amount of times I would get everything ready. All the social media would be posted the room, cleaned the table and chairs, set out the sign out front, and come. 05:57 p.m. I would be pacing back and forth, praying that someone would show up.
Finally, at like six, two, one or two people would walk through the door. I would greet them enthusiastically, and we’d awkwardly make small talk, and for the next ten minutes we would tap our feet and drum our fingers and waiting for more people to join our little circle. Eventually, one of us would try to ease the awkwardness by saying, it says in the Bible that where two or three are gathered in Jesus name, that he is there with us.
But when Jesus said where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am with them. He wasn’t trying to help us ease disappointment when only a few show up to Church, he was saying, do you know where you can always find me? It’s in that nervous, awkward moment when you approach someone that you have wronged or have been wronged by and say it to their face, that’s where I promise you I will always be. That is where we experience the presence of Christ in those hard, painful, messy moments when we are face to face and working through the way we have wronged one another.
I don’t know if I will be able to work through the differences with my family. I want to think I can do it, but I’m also afraid it will just be exhausting, and I will end up crawling back into my corner, licking my wounds. But recently I came across this article. That kind of gives me hope. It’s by a woman named Ariana Petrovsky Roberts, who works in faith and public life in Washington, DC.
In this article, she writes about her own attempt at working through the political divide with her father, she writes this summer I return to my rural hometown of Gardenerville, Nevada, for rest and retreat. I expected tranquility. Instead, I found a clash I had prepared for conversation with my father for weeks, but before I could roll back my tongue and with love and respect, enter into a conversation with my father. Things escalated. Dad and I both started to get upset.
I knew we were about to enter the point where we both had deaf ears, loud mouths. I knew then, as I know now, that political debate doesn’t change minds. I knew that I loved him. I knew that I don’t know everything. I knew that I might easily be a fool.
So on a whim, I asked my dad if he wanted to pray with me. It was a long prayer.
I didn’t change my father’s mind, and he didn’t change mine. But we left the conversation still as father and daughter, not political rivals.
When we joined the Communion of Saints in prayer, we entered a narrative larger than our current political moment. We declared together that Christ is King. That was a political act. As a result, the rules of political combat were changed. In fact, it became evident that combat is maybe not the right method at all.
And in this liminal space, heaven slightly broke through and diffused the worded missiles that my father and I had hurled at each other.
Jesus tells his disciples, whatever you bind on Earth, you bind in heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in heaven. To reconcile with someone is to bring heaven to Earth. That is why it is so messy and awkward and uncomfortable because we’re not used to it. We’ve become so used to the world as it is that to confess, to forgive, to be restored to relationship where you’ve known such brokenness, it’s like learning to dance. It’s messy and awkward, and you look weird at first, but it also brings us into the presence of God who has hurt you, whether they knew it or not.
Who have you stung with your words or just or your actions, and then just swept it under the rug? Who said something that offended you and you just quietly internalized it? Who broke your trust? Who disappointed you intentionally or not? Who have you written off or given up on?
Whoever comes to mind that relationship is the best opportunity you have for the felt experience of the presence of God that is the space in your life. God promises to be present if you just show up and that is sacred ground. Amen.