Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Difference Between Grace and Forgiveness — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on December 11th, 2011

For many years my family celebrated Christmas alone, for the sole reason that as a military family, we were often far from all our other relatives for most of the year.  Occasionally someone would come to visit us at Christmastime… but most Christmases were just my mom and dad, me, and my two sisters.

That all changed when my Dad retired from the military.  I was about 11 years old when we moved to my parent’s home town of Knoxville, Tennessee, and we as a family began to participate in all of our extended family’s rituals around Christmas.  One of those rituals became all of the out-of-town family members coming to stay at our house.

Now, I don’t know about you, but there was nothing more annoying to me at 11-12 years old than having to give up my bedroom at Christmas time to some assortment of Aunts, Uncles, and Cousins.  Add to that that for the rest of the year, I had my own bathroom… Christmas was the only time I had to wait in line.  It also meant that I could not go hang out with my friends, because leaving would be “rude” to the family members who had traveled so far just to be with us.

So, I not only had to give up my bathroom and bedroom, I had to pretend to be happy about it.  Annoying… and in case you had not made this connection, the feeling “annoying” is in the same group of emotions as “anger”.  So, I was angry.

I remember my mother pulling me aside one day where my annoyance/anger was showing and saying, “Son, you need to show some grace…”

Our theme for this month is God and Grace.  Now remember, I did not set up our thematic ministry program, where we focus each month on a particular set of theological concepts in our sermons, in our worship design, in our classes and workshops, in our children’s religious education.  I particularly did not choose that, for my first month as Sabbatical minister to be preaching to a group of Unitarian Universalists on Grace and God…

I have had to work through some need for grace for Rev. Jan in that she set me up to be preaching on Grace and God at Christmastime and then skipped town on Sabbatical…

In October, our thematic ministry focused on the concept of forgiveness, and reflecting on that focus has brought me to exploring over the last few weeks a new theological tension… what is the difference between Grace and Forgiveness?

We often here these two theological concepts expressed as if they have the same meaning.  As a hospital chaplain, I would often ask people what they would want to pray for, and it seemed split about even between those who would ask that we pray for forgiveness, and those who would ask that we pray for God’s Grace.  I will tell you that at the time, I wondered if those who asked for us to pray for Grace or those who asked us to pray for forgiveness were asking the same thing, and just using whatever word their church or family most often used… but now I’m not so sure.

You see, I’ve begun to see a pretty profound difference between the concepts of forgiveness and grace.

Let me go back to my story of losing my bedroom at Christmas time.  I remember about the same pattern would happen for me every year.  A few days before Christmas, I would be banished from my bedroom to a sleeping bag on a couch in the den.  My bedroom was right next to the den… and so each time assorted aunts and uncles and cousins would go in and out of my bedroom, I would not-so-secretly become more and more annoyed.  Everyone would know that I was annoyed, just to make it clear what a huge sacrifice I was making.  However, by Christmas morning, I would have found my way to acceptance of the situation, and chosen to forgive them for intruding upon my space.

You see, through it all, I was in control.  I defined what the offense was.  I decided what my response would be.  I made sure they knew that I was upset by the offense.  I chose to be magnanimous and forgive them in time to make nice on Christmas morning.

With forgiveness, the center of the process remains the one who will forgive.  Now sometimes we need to forgive each other, but even then control of when and how to forgive is kept with the individual who will do the forgiving.  We who art offended remain in control when the practice we are using is forgiveness.  Forgiveness is a reactive art, one that requires that there be a response to another person’s behavior.

I will let you know that my forgiveness also had its expectations.  I expected my aunts, uncles, and cousins to be grateful when I had forgiven them for their intrusion into my space.  I expected my parents to reward me for choosing forgiveness by Christmas morning, so my earlier sullen behavior did not ruin the holiday.  Forgiveness is so often not free…

Grace, on the other hand, is different.  Where forgiveness is reactive, grace is pro-active.  Grace is the acceptance that we are imperfect human beings living in an imperfect society that rests upon an imperfect universe.  Grace takes the locus of control and places it in the needs and intentions of others.  Grace accepts that there does not need to be any reward to us for our acceptance of imperfections… our own and others.  Grace simply requires that we make space for one another amid that imperfection.

What might my behavior as a teenager at Christmas have been like had it been a grace-filled response, rather than a forgiveness-dependant reaction?  Well, first off I would have accepted that I had that room for 362 days out of the year, and perhaps not having it for a few days was not so bad.  What’s more, I might even remember that it could be worse… if my father could have figured out a way to charge me rent at 14 years old I’m sure he would have.  Or, one of my sisters could have been a boy and I would have been sharing my room all the time…

Grace would have helped me to see the blessing in seeing these family members, these aunts, uncles, and cousins that we did not get to see all that often, to see the benefit rather than focusing on what I had lost or how I had been offended.

Grace would have helped me to realize that no one had the intention of depriving me of anything.  Everyone had good intentions.  My aunts, uncles, and cousins had the intention of spending time with their family.  My parents had the intention of being good hosts.  In fact, if anyone did not have good intentions, it was me… because by focusing on forgiveness and not grace my intention was to squeeze the dislocation from my room for all the benefit that I could.

Grace would have kept me from building a barrier between myself and my family.  You see, forgiveness is always about taking down a barrier that has been built, but doing so on terms that the person who is forgiving controls.  Grace at the beginning, choosing not to accept the offense, means not building the barrier in the first place.

One of the things that I hope to bring to my preaching at our church is to regularly connect aspects of our modern practices of Unitarian Universalism with our roots in the classical Unitarian and Universalist traditions that we arise from.  It is my belief that you cannot understand who we are as a liberal religious tradition today without and understanding of who we were, and where we have been.  And you see, the Universalist side of our tradition was founded on a radical idea about Grace… and idea that continues to shape Unitarian Universalism today.

The idea is this… Grace comes that the beginning.

When Universalism came to America, it did so on a boat… or at least this is the way the myth goes.  Classical Universalism is the idea that we are all saved.  That there is no “divine sifting” after we die…  Universalism is the idea that all of us, no matter who we are, no matter what religion we believe in, no matter what we have done in our lives… all of us are to be reconnected with God after we die, in whatever form that might happen to take.

Now, in modern day Unitarian Universalism, we often express this by saying that whatever happens to us after we die is a mystery that will happen to us all equally.  We are all connected in the same interdependent web, and we are all of the same inherent worth.

The boat that brought Universalism to America carried a preacher named John Murray, who had sworn he would never preach again.  He had been preaching this idea of all of us being saved in England, and had gotten in quite a bit of trouble for it.  He was actually planning on becoming a Lawyer when he got to the Colonies… but circumstances led to him preaching one more time when he first arrived in New England.  What he preached that day began the Universalist Church of America, and the ideas in it have come to be known as the Doctrine of Universal Salvation…

What has amazed me however is that the title of that sermon he preached to a group of farmers that day was not “Universal Salvation”.  No, the title of Rev. John Murray’s sermon, which planted our religious movement here in America was “Universal Grace”.

Not God’s Grace… not Man’s Grace… not conditional Grace… but Universal Grace.  The kind of Grace… the kind of acceptance of each other in an imperfect universe that is throughout every aspect of life and has been with us from the beginning of the Universe.

In many ways, the idea of Universal Grace is the highest of all ideals.  It is a call to acceptance of one another, in all of our faults and imperfections… not so that we never have to change or grow, but so that we can have the space to change and grow in a community and spirit of love, compassion, and trust.  It is the acceptance of an imperfect universe that is not personally out to get us… and to hold to the faith, as was first said by Unitarian minister Theodore Parker and then quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, that the Arc of the Universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

One of the key differences I have found between Grace and forgiveness has been in whom is it centered?  When I was choosing to forgive the aunts, uncles, and cousins that had invaded my space at Christmastime, I remained the center of control.  I was the one who had been wronged.  I would choose when I would forgive, and under what conditions.  And, I would expect some kind of recognition or reward for having forgiven.

Grace is different in that Grace places the locus of control somewhere else.  First off, where forgiveness is always reactive to a perceived wrong, grace is pro-active.  Grace is accepting that there will be places in our relationship where both you and I are imperfect, and not allowing such imperfections to erect a barrier between us.  Grace is naming that there are things we value more than the offense that our imperfections of relationship might offer… things such as love, fellowship, faith, and community.

I believe that it is Grace that builds community, not forgiveness.  A community, a family, a relationship that is based in a practice of forgiveness is always subject to each person’s individual control over the choice to forgive.  I think we have all experienced this kind of relationship sometime in our life… where in each moment we do not know where we are with a person… if we have given some reason to offend them, and have to regularly negotiate with them.  These are the kinds of relationships where we always seem to need to “earn” the other person’s trust, and once that trust has been broken a few times we then seem to be always trying to earn their forgiveness.

I would be willing to bet that others have experienced us this way too… as if they need to always try to earn our forgiveness and trust.

Relationship built upon Grace is different.  It is the kind of relationship that accepts the other person’s imperfections, and loves them… and in that love gives them the encouragement and space to become better people.  It is relationship that assumes good intentions, and that requires an ability and acceptance of communication through all of the many ways we human beings misunderstand and make incorrect assumptions about each other.

Now, there is something that it is important to say here… and that is that an ideal of relationship based in grace does not mean that all relationship is healthy.  It does not mean that one stays in relationship with someone who is abusive because we are trying to practice grace.  A relationship based in grace must be a relationship of grace that goes both ways.  It is not enough for one person to be practicing grace, while another person is not.  Such relationships are almost always unhealthy, and often connect with words like “dependency” and “enabling”.

That is why, when someone becomes a member of this congregation, they agree to a Covenant of how we will be together.  For those of you who do not have a copy of our covenant, or have not seen it in awhile, please pick up a copy from the table near the entrance and read through it again.  If you are visiting today, there should be a copy of our covenant in the red folder you were given today.

Covenant is one of those big words with a lot of theological meaning that some of us may accept and some of us may not… so I’ll give you my shorthand.  A covenant is a agreement we make where the deepest parts of who we are is part of the commitment.  When two people commit to a life together, that is a covenant.  When we accept responsibility to raise a child, that is a covenant.  And when we form religious community as Unitarian Universalists, we do so through covenant.   We will be spending the entire month of March focusing on the religious concept of covenant, so I’ll hold here, but I think that’s enough for the basic point.

Our church covenant calls us to practice Grace with one another.  As a church, we covenant to assume good intentions in each other.  We covenant not to pass along anonymous criticism.  We covenant to keep our communication lines direct and open.  We covenant to stay committed to the church, even through hard times and decisions.  We covenant remain aware of our common hopes, needs, and fears as arise from our shared humanity.  We covenant in all of these ways, and so much more.

In essence, we covenant to live with one another in a spirit of Universal Grace.  Forgiveness is secondary… it is a way when we have failed in our Grace for one another to remove the barriers that arise between us and to return to community… but it is not the preferred practice.  We covenant to walk together in a Grace that accepts that we are imperfect beings, building imperfect relationships in an imperfect community, resting in an imperfect society and imperfect universe.

Our covenant calls us to step away from the focus on ourselves and our own control that is inherent in a practice of forgiveness, and to build a community of Grace,  where, to paraphrase the classic Universalist Preacher John Murray, we endeavor to build the unity of the spirit, in the bonds of peace.

Do we do this so we can have a harmonious church?  Actually no.  In fact, I have never found the perfectly harmonious church, where we always assume good intentions, always communicate openly, and never pass along anonymous criticism.  If I find it, I would probably be bored to tears.  No, we practice the Grace, we practice our covenant here as practice.  This is the community where we learn to practice grace, so that we can then teach that grace in the wider world we live in.  In our families, in our communities, in our nation, and in the world.

What we practice here is not so we have the perfect church… but so we can learn how to transform the world.

And so, as families begin arriving this week, and as some of you are moved out of the comfortable spiritual and physical spaces that we inhabit for the rest of the year, I challenge you to take the space for Grace that is represented in our congregation’s covenant with you into the coming week.  All of the things our covenant asks of us, why don’t we try to practice them with family and with friends?   Why don’t we see if we can live beyond these walls what we strive to learn to live within them…

And, perhaps that’s a goal for more than just these winter holidays…

So may it be, blessed be, and Amen.

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