That’s the text for today but it doesn’t come from the Bible. It comes from an act of graffiti. I was driving down Broadway in North Knoxville when I noticed someone had spray painted those two words across an abandoned building, “Forgive Yourself.”
Because I have a twisted sense of humor I took a picture of it posted it on Facebook page with the caption, “Are you ever tempted to commit acts of vandalism? Well then…forgive yourself.”
I was making a joke but then I got this message from my friend Margaret who had been having a very tough year of hurt, heartbreak and loss, and on top of all that she was just coming out of surgery.
She wrote, “Maybe it’s the surgery or post-surgery drugs, but that graffiti made me sob! I’ll be fine, but self-forgiveness is something that I have not succeeded in granting myself. This could take a while. This probably wasn’t quite the reaction you expected from that photo, but I do love it, and it obviously touched me. I hope that you are well. Margaret.”
Margaret’s message touched me. To be honest her words kind of make me want to sob now. Reading her note made me take a new look at that picture and those words, “Forgive yourself.” Maybe forgiveness is such an important message that we should get it out there by any means necessary. Maybe we should be passing out cans of spray paint on Sunday morning and encouraging everyone to spread the good news.
But before you call the police and report me for suggesting acts of vandalism let me say that when we do the work of the church then vandalism is unnecessary. When we do the work of the church then the message of forgiveness is a part of everything we do, our Sunday Services and our work out in the community.
There is a Buddhist teaching that tell us, “You can search the world over and never find someone more in need of compassion than yourself.” And I would add, “We can travel all over the world and never find someone more in need of forgiveness than ourselves.” So go ahead. Forgive yourself.
Today in the midst of both the High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar and the holiest days of the Jain calendar, we contemplate forgiveness, which is an important part of both traditions. However forgiveness is not just a Jain thing or a Jewish thing or a Christian or Muslim or a Hindu thing. Forgiveness is a fundamentally human thing.
This week I was eating lunch with old college friend Amadou Sall who is Muslim and he was saying to me, “In Islam if you hurt someone you don’t go to God to ask for forgiveness. You go directly to the person you have hurt and ask forgiveness.” And this is not only a tradition in Islam but it also the tradition of the high holy days in Judaism. By not going to God but directly to the person we’ve hurt we eliminate the middleman. It is a direct human-to-human encounter.
The proverb tells us “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” However, what Jainism and Judaism and Islam and Christianity teach us is this, “To forgive is human.”
So this time of year in Jainism and Judaism is about asking for forgiveness and it is about granting forgiveness…and yet if we are having a hard time doing either of these two things…if we are having a hard time asking for forgiveness or granting forgiveness it may be because we haven’t yet learned to forgive ourselves.
In the 12 step programs of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous the 8th step is to make a list of everyone we have harmed and become willing to make amends to them all. The 9th step is to make amends to such people whenever possible except when to do so would injure them or others. This exception is also an important part of the High Holy Days.
One of the problems with completing these steps is once we have made a list of everyone we have harmed we can start feeling pretty bad about ourselves. And once we start feeling bad about ourselves then we can find it difficult get outside of our own head and move toward the giving and receiving forgiveness of others.
Once a student approached a Zen Master and asked, “What is anger?” and the Zen Master replied, “Anger is the punishment we give ourselves for someone else’s mistake.”
However, sometimes we punish ourselves for our own mistakes. This week Nathan Paki sent me a proverb that read, “We are not punished for our deeds we are punished by our deeds,” and I might add, “We are not punished for our anger we are punished by our anger. In India this is called karma and it is an important part of the Jain tradition so much that if you’ve seen Viren Lalka’s car in the parking lot then you know that his license plate says KARMA.
Forgiveness is good for our health. Anger and resentments can increase our heart rate and raise our blood pressure and bring on the stress that leads to heart disease and strokes. An unwillingness to forgive can lead to depression and weaken our overall immune system. Forgiveness is good for our bodies, our minds and our spirits.
In a meditation on the meaning of the High Holy Days Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein tells a story that comes from Spain. It seems a father and son had a huge argument and parted ways completely estranged from each other. The son ran away from home. After a period of time the father began to regret the argument and set out to find his son. The father had moved away from his old home and was worried he would never be able to reconnect with his son so he took out a full-page ad in a Madrid newspaper that read: “Dear Paco, meet me in front of the newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your father.” The next Saturday, 800 men named Paco showed up, all looking for love and forgiveness from their fathers!
All is forgiven. Forgiveness is one. The forgiveness we grant others we must grant also ourselves. And this is a message I have been seeing all week as I’ve explored the books and articles in my efforts to learn about Jainism and Judaism this week, “All is forgiven. All is forgiven. All is forgiven.”
Sometimes the words we see in a book or on someone’s Facebook page or spray painted on the walls of abandoned buildings come to us like the voice of God saying, “All is forgiven, all is forgiven, all is forgiven, all is forgiven, forgive yourself.”
(This homily was preached by the Reverend Chris Buice at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, September 16, 2018)