Learning a dialect of grace
Sept. 17, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19):
Draft text of the homily, it may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
A child on a skateboard. In the living room. As the skateboard goes out from under the kid, the child flies into a table, and the table and everything on it comes crashing to the floor. Before you can even muster an outraged look, the words come flying out of the kid’s mouth… “I didn’t mean to!”
That’s one of the images from a great kids book, David Gets In Trouble, by David Shannon…David Shannon has several books about David who continues to get into trouble, his parents always speak in some variation of “no!” The kid always offers some excuse. Until the last page when there is always reconciliation. Shannon explains in the author’s note “When his [parent] says ‘no’ it’s because [they] worry about his safety, [they] want him to grow up to be a good person. Deep down, [they’re] really saying, “I love you.” But when David says ‘no,’ it usually means, “I don’t want to get into trouble.”
“I didn’t mean to,”—even as an adult—is often code for “I don’t want to get into trouble.” Adults just have more clever ways of saying it. We’ve all heard those non-apology apologies. “If anyone was offended by my remarks, I’m apologize. I assure you it was not my intent to offend.” That’s just a grown-up way of saying, “I didn’t mean to.” “I don’t want to get in trouble”
Of course we don’t want to get into trouble, and last week we heard about what to do when we do get into trouble…when we didn’t mean to…but did anyway. This week we get the follow up…that we are to forgive.
Forgiveness is tricky to begin with. It’s hard to forgive people sometimes. It takes lots and lots of practice. And it’s even harder when we’re not clear about what we did…or when our intentions—whether we meant to or not—gets thrown into the mix.
How many times in your life have you had a conversation that includes a phrase like this “I’m sure she meant well, but…” “He’s such a nice guy, I’m sure he would never do anything to intentionally hurt someone…” Shifting the focus from what happened, to what someone intended—actually short-circuits the process of forgiveness because when we get locked into thinking about what someone meant, we often stop being truthful about the impact of behavior. And really, it’s the impact not the intent that matters.
Most of us don’t intend to say something hurtful, or do something mean. But we do. I don’t know anyone who wants to be like this guy in today’s parable…(We get that we’re not supposed to be like the guy in today’s parable, right?). OK maybe there are some who intentionally set out to make life miserable for others…but generally we get we’re not supposed to do that… we’re not trying to harm anybody, we’re just trying to get through our day…trying to take care of ourselves, or our family, or get the job done, and sure we’re tired, and cranky, and stressed out, and we don’t mean to act like that, but we do. And we also understand that we’re not supposed to make up excuses for ourselves or others…but we do that too, and that trips us up.
“I’m sure they didn’t mean to.”
The sad fact is, that even after centuries and centuries of teaching and preaching about forgiveness, we’re still not very good at it. In part, I believe, because we continue to get hung up on intention…on whether someone meant to do it or not. This is particularly true for those of us raised in a North American culture, and especially our church culture—which really values being “nice” over being truthful. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being nice, per se unless it short-circuits real healing and forgiveness. And being truthful isn’t the same as being a bully.
Learning how to do this—learning to apologize (or to use churchier word) to confess…and learning how to forgive is like learning a new language…and the language of confession and forgiveness is still pretty foreign to us.
Ideally, this is done in a situation like Jesus outlined last week. “If someone sins against you go and point it out when the two of you are alone.”
You’ve done something and someone lets you know it, and the two of you go off (and Jesus is there). First off: Swallow that impulse to say “I didn’t mean to.” Instead, try saying to yourself, “I didn’t mean to do it AND I did do it.” Now what?
Next: acknowledge the reality of the hurt—but, “I’m sorry you’re upset” is not an apology…neither is “I’m sorry you feel that way,” “I’m sorry I was rude.” or “I’m sorry I offended you,” that’s a start to an apology.
Be specific about it and take ownership of your own feelings and actions.
Don’t add an excuse…”I’m sorry I was rude, but I was really irritated,” means “I’m not really sorry, I’m just irritated” or I might be sorry, but I really don’t want to get in trouble… You could try flipping it around and changing the “but” to “and”—I’m really irritated, and I took it out on you. That was wrong. I’m sorry.”
Now, here comes the really tricky part: Ask for forgiveness. “I’m sorry I was rude.” I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.” Those great beginnings but they’re just statements. They invite no response. Adding, “Will you forgive me?” is a humble request that can build a relationship. Here’s the thing. And this is crucial…When you ask for forgiveness. You have to wait for a response. You can’t expect it. Nor can you expect the other to also apologize. So, “I’m sorry I broke the lamp.” “I’m sorry I was rude and interrupted. Will you forgive me?” Period. It’s up to the other person to decide how and when they will respond. Depending on the level of hurt, be prepared for them to say “I need some time. I’m not there right now.” As this parable shows in pretty graphic detail, we are never owed forgiveness. That’s why it’s grace and that’s why we should always be grateful when we do receive it.
The final step…attempt to make a repair. “I’m sorry I did X. Will you forgive me?” Wait… “Is there anything I can do to make this right?” And if there is do it.
It’s hard I know. I get this wrong every day. Learning how to really recognize our impact in the world…learning how to really acknowledge all of the things done and the things undone…both positive and negative…learning how to confess, and apologize, and ask for and receive forgiveness…it really is like learning a foreign language…and how much and often do you have to practice in order to learn a foreign language? Every day? Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times? Maybe even seventy times seven times…but imagine the healing that God could bring about if we all became fluent in this dialect of grace.