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Wisdom the Works, Part III

Forgiveness for All, Steps 7, 8 and 9

Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
March 6, 2016

As we begin the 4th week in Lent we hear the story of the prodigal son, Luke 15:11-32. It would be better called “the story of two sons.” Jesus told it in the presence of both his disciples and the good leaders of temple and synagogue. If you have done some really bad things in your life that you feel ashamed and for which you feel in deep need of forgiveness, then you identify with the prodigal son who returned to his father from starving in the pig sty. He’d reached what we call in recover programs rock bottom!

But if you think of yourself as a pretty good person, totally devoted to the work of our Father/Mother God, then you can see yourself in the good son,  who failed to appreciate all that his loving Father/God had poured into his life and was resentful that he wasn’t more appreciated.

Either way, we have all failed to live up to our full potential as children of the Most High. We are all in need of forgiveness and transformation.

If you have been with me from the beginning of Lent, you’ve walked with me into the wilderness of temptations to power, control and easy answers.  You’ve admitted you were powerless over everything but your choices (Step One). You’ve expanded your vision of the sacred to imagine a power great enough to restore your life to meaning and sanity (Step Two). You’ve even dared to turn your will and your life over to the care of that God of your understanding (Step Three).

If you’ve felt inspired by this journey so far, you’ve made a searching and fearless moral inventory of your faults, but also of your strengths of character (Step Four). You’ve shared that inventory with God, with yourself, and with somebody you trust (Step Five). And you’ve gradually become willing to have your Higher Power (your Spirit, the God of your understanding, by whatever name or no-name that you understand God) remove all these defects of character. We’ve made it through the first six steps. Now what?

Now we do Step 7, we humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings!
Why do we have to ask? Doesn’t God already know? Are we trying to talk God into something? If we get the biggest number of folks praying with us, will that change God’s mind? Shouldn’t we, in humility, just accept that God’s will be done?

We humbly ask, not to change God but to change us. Asking begins a real dialogue with the Holy One. It reminds us again that apart from God, even Jesus said, “I can do nothing!”

Richard Rohr, in “Breathing Under Water,” talks about our entitlement culture. When we feel entitled, that someone owes us something, we are no longer in relationship with that person. If we think we can demand things, we are no longer equals. Jesus knew that rich folks are more likely to feel entitled and that’s why he said it is harder for them to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

Rohr’s book is based on the idea that learning to live by the wisdom of the Twelve Steps and learning to live by the teachings of Jesus is like learning to breathe under water. Everyone around us is drowning in consumerism, violence and vitriol, but we are learning to live by compassion, justice and love.

When we humbly ask God to remove our defects of character we are reminding ourselves that all growth in spirit is relational; that God’s Spirit holds the wisdom and power to transform us in organic, wholistic, meaningful ways; that we are even powerless over the process of self-change; that we can trust God to guide us in God’s time and way.

I love the story of the Unjust Judge. A woman who is powerless and in desperate need comes before a judge who dismisses her as irrelevant. But she refuses to give up. She becomes so annoying that the judge finally gives her what she needs. God is a whole lot better than that judge. When we courageously ask for what we really need, in God’s time, we will receive it.

But while we wait for healing transformation there is still plenty of work to be done. We are on to Step 8.

God calls us into relationships with one another and too often in our lives we have broken those relationships by our thoughtless or addictive actions. We need to make a list of all those we have harmed. Not those we think have harmed us, but anyone who has been hurt by our words, our actions or even our lack of action.

And we need to become willing to make amends to them all. Notice the words “become willing.” It is a process, not an event. It may be relatively easy to make the list, but it takes time to really become willing to make amends. It is hard to admit how selfish and narcissistic we all are. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus tells us to make peace with our neighbor before bringing gifts to the altar. Should some of us go home before the offertory? Probably not! But we all have unfinished business in our lives.

Once we have that list we are ready to do some serious amends making! Step 9 says, “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

This is not about just getting it off our chests. Have you ever had someone tell you they were sorry for something that didn’t really hurt you, but now you feel bad about it? A Christian group I was a part of during college got on a “forgiveness” kick and all kinds of folks decided to tell me they “forgave me” for things I didn’t know I’d done. It felt like emotional assault and has nothing to do with making amends!

There may be people on your list that have already died. If your wrong continues to affect the lives of their heirs you may still have an amends to make. Or the forgiveness required will be about forgiving yourself.

If you stole something you can’t return, you can pay for it now. Micki Carter told me the beautiful story of one of our former tenants, now long gone, who evidently had a drinking problem and stole a case of champagne that was meant for Chocolate Fest. Once in recovery he came to her a few years back to confess his crime and give the church a check for $300 to cover the cost.
That’s direct amends.

If you to lied to someone, or hurt them in ways you can’t put into words, it may take time and wisdom to discover the way to make direct amends that does not cause more pain than healing.

Making amends without doing more harm is harder than you think. Just being totally honest may seem like a solution but revisiting old wounds may just open them up and make things worse.
When the media demands “tell all” journalism that gives us all the salacious details of someone else’s life, it is ugly, and no one is healed.

Churches, unfortunately are notorious for this kind of tell all gossip. Gossip too often becomes a source of power among the church’s in-crowd and is the reason many have walked away labeling the church hypocritical. This church, however, although it may have some trouble communicating clearly and making sure everyone knows all that they might need to know, it really doesn’t gossip! (And I’d love to tell you the story that proves this so well, but then, I would be gossiping!)

Now we have come to a turning in the road. Have these steps made sense to you so far? Can you see how they might apply to more than just alcoholics, or drug addicts, or the co-dependent friends and families of addicts, or over-eaters, or gamblers, or people who spend too much money? There are already successful 12 step programs for all these.

But I think all of us know we are powerless over something that damages our relationships with our family, friends, co-workers, or with ourselves, or with God.

Learning to live out the law of love as Jesus challenges us to do is helped immensely by the simply structure and guidance of the 12 Steps. That’s why I called this sermon series, “Wisdom that Works.” It really does work if you work it!

In my own life these days when I realize something or someone is making me feel crazy, I give myself permission to take a bathroom break. (Bathrooms can be really sacred placed!) There I walk myself through the steps, gradually turning the situation over to God, facing my part in it and discovering what I need to admit and make amends for.

Next week Paul Anderson will share with you his perspective on the last three steps, the steps that keep me learning and growing and applying these principles in all my affairs. He and Margaret Cross and Donna Stanger will lead you through the final chapters of “Breathing Under Water.” You won’t want to miss it!