For Giving (Part 2): Heal

I’m sorry.

It’s one of the first lessons we teach our children. When Ever hits Hyla (I was just trying to hug her), his mother or dad will say,  “Tell your sister you’re sorry.”

And of course, what they really mean is, “… and, don’t do it again.”

It’s one of the important things we humans have to learn because, well, we’re human, and we mess up. We make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes injure others in body, soul, or mind. Our self-involved actions keep us from acting on another’s behalf.

Our actions—and sometimes our inaction—cause suffering, guilt, remorse, and broken relationships. Some are quickly remedied. Others fester or get bottled up for a long time. Sometimes we seek to avenge the wrong, to make the person responsible experience something of our pain. Sometimes the injury is so traumatic, so scarring that no cure seems possible. Alternatively, have you ever experienced regret for not speaking up and not responding in the moment? Our silence is sometimes worse than our words. Is there anyone among us who can claim they don’t have reason to say, “I’m sorry?”

Public apologies are having a moment right now. Hardly a day goes by that someone—-a media celebrity, a sports figure, or a congressperson issues an apology for bad behavior. Don’t judge them for not having spoken up until the outcry from people on social media, various pundits, and those hurt by the actions became impossible to ignore. But let them be examples of how not to apologize (we can let them be temporary scapegoats for our own reluctant responsibility).

I’m so sorry if my actions offended you.

I apologize for making you angry—that was never my intent.

These paltry attempts have little power to mend relationships or heal one’s inner soul. Why is it often so difficult to get it right?

Last week, we considered God’s action to right the wrongs in our lives and reconcile us to the Love that holds this universe. Today, we get down to earth to explore the healing possible between individuals who have hurt each other. Next week, we’ll reckon with community guilt for injury against groups of people for whom the consequences are felt throughout generations.

Our text today is fascinating for its very human hero, a fabulously wealthy tax collector, possibly afflicted with Napolean Syndrome (due to his short height and powerful position) named Zacchaeus. Before we read it, a little Sunday School experiment. Do you know a little musical ditty about this guy? Show of hands? Before we read the text, let’s sing the song—extra credit for hand motions.

Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. And when the Savior passed that way, he looked up in the tree, and he said, “Zacchaeus, come down from there. For I’m going to your house today. I’m going to your house today.”

Just a little reality check for any who question the wisdom of teaching children Bible stories.

A reading from the good news according to Luke, chapter nineteen, verses one through 10. Listen for God’s word to you and me, and everyone: short and tall, powerful and oppressed, rich and poor, doubting and sure, naughty and nice—-who carry even a teensy bit of guilt for what you’ve done—or not done—to others. [Luke 19:1-10]

Zacchaeus’s apology focuses on his declaration that he has undergone a change of heart and practice. During the meal he shares with Jesus, he announces a dramatic offering to stop the extortion and financial burden he had laid upon his fellow citizens.

I’m going to give half of my ill-gotten assets to the poor. Beautiful. Yet, look a little closer to the second part of his apology: …..If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much. Maybe Zacchaeus is a lot more like us than we thought. He’s not quite admitting his role in the unjust taxation system of the Roman Empire toward its colonies. But it’s a start. And he nails the part of forgiveness that tries to repair damages and restore balance.

Zacchaeus may not be a perfect picture of apology, but he may help us remember some paths toward it. Forgiveness is often a process, not a single moment in time. We don’t know, for example, how open the others at the table were to receiving Zacchaeus’ apology. They may have been a teensy bit skeptical that this conniving leopard could change his spots.

Psychologists and 12-step advocates generally agree that acknowledgment of wrongdoing is the first step toward healing, along with speaking of remorse or regret for our deeds. We vow in good faith not to do it again.

Sometimes we have a way to communicate this directly to the person we’ve harmed. Sometimes, the realization dawns as we wrestle internally with guilt. It may not be possible or even desirable to confess wrongdoing to the injured party. And if one does and it is rejected, are we fated to remain unforgiven?

Then there’s the matter of repair—seeking to fix the effects of our actions. Zacchaeus’s generous gift of money could certainly help some people, but what about those who had gone to their graves impoverished? What about the many who had suffered by his greed (and were suffering now)?

There are some consequences of our actions that can’t be undone. Some of our wrongdoing results in judgment and punishment meted out by legal authorities; this is how justice and social accountability are achieved in the community. But talk to many incarcerated persons, and they will tell you that “doing the time” rarely provides healing either for them or the victims of their crime. Whether our wrongdoing has legal or simply moral consequences, how may we be freed of guilt for them?

The only healing response to that I know is found as we return to the Zacchaeus story. Turns out he’s not the star. It’s Jesus, whose inclusive welcome to some deemed outcasts had moved something in Zacchaeus’s heart that had taken him to great heights to experience. It’s Jesus whose acceptance and fellowship over a meal prompted a heartfelt apology and decision to change for good. It’s Jesus who pronounces unequivocal forgiveness to Zacchaeus and offers a new pathway and purpose for him.

Friends, Jesus still shows us that the heart of God is love and that love makes whole what has become broken and disfigured in us. Divine love is always available to us, before or even if we right the balance scales. Divine love doesn’t wink at bad behavior but insists that it does not diminish our essential goodness. Divine love allows us to say, “I did wrong,” and keeps us from concluding, “I am wrong.” With the first, there is hope for acknowledgment and forgiveness; the second mires us in shame that diminishes a healing outcome.

We can’t talk about the difficulty of forgiveness without the role of memory. Do we have to “forget” the wrong in order to forgive the wrong-doer? And can we ourselves feel forgiven if the memory of our action seers itself into our conscience?

Author and Presbyterian pastor Lewis Smedes helpfully clarifies this painful conundrum: Forgiving another does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into hope for our future. [Smedes, Is Human Forgiveness Possible?] God’s love frees us from a prison of regret and makes a way —against all odds— toward human healing, wholeness, and reconciliation.

If you find this hard to believe, you’re in good company. The heart of the Christian gospel makes no sense in proclaiming a God who lavishes love on imperfect people to demonstrate that we do not have to be perfect for God to love us.

So, I want to conclude this sermon with an act of daring faith, one that acknowledges God’s perfect love for all of us imperfect individuals. We will observe a brief moment of silent prayer. Then, I will invite you to come forward to Central leader Ron LaRocque or me to be anointed and blessed with God’s forgiveness and healing power. To do so is to admit our vulnerability. It’s okay if you’re not ready to do that today. But if you are longing to be set free from guilt, regret, or anything that blocks access to God’s ever-flowing stream of grace, please come.

Let us pray.

May the God of all mercy forgive our sins, release us from suffering, and restore us to wholeness and strength.