The Art of Letting Go:
Second Sunday in Lent • March 17, 2019
Scripture Lessons: Matthew 3:13-17 and Luke 23:32-35 (adapted from the The Message)
Rev. Jeff Wells, The Church of the Village (NYC)
When Jesus was baptized, he heard the voice of God’s Spirit say, “And along with the Spirit, a voice: “This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” That message of love and affirmation was not just for Jesus. It is for each one of us. Friends, you are the apple of God’s eye. You are God’s delight! Isn’t that good news?! Most Sundays when I preach, I hold the really good news to the end of the message, but today the Gospel of Matthew already gave it away: You are God’s delight! Ha!
So love yourself, forgive yourself. This is a part of the art of letting go. If you are wondering why I am talking about “forgiving yourself” in this worship series before we have covered forgiving others, all I can say is the Spirit told me to go there. I don’t think there is an order to forgiveness, like, “first we have to forgive ourselves and then we can forgive others, or vice versa.” I think they are mutually reinforcing and we ought to work on all of our “forgiveness’s” simultaneously. However, I do think there is a sense in which if you can learn to forgive yourself, it can help you to have a more forgiving attitude toward others.
To be human is to be in relationship with others. We always fail to live well if we try to live isolated from others. Yet, to be in relationship with others and to live in community means that we will inevitably disagree, hurt one another, and find ourselves in conflict, even with those we love. It is part of our human condition. And so, if we are to maintain those relationships and communities, we are compelled to learn how to engage conflict well and to forgive each other again and again.
Similarly, there is no human being who ever lived who had not made mistakes, hurt other persons, harmed themselves in various ways, and failed to act in ways God desires for us. Very often we do things that, upon reflection, make us feel guilty or ashamed. Sometimes they are small things that we can let go of fairly easily. In other cases, they feel huge and it is very hard to release their grip on us. Very often, we find it hard to forgive ourselves. Yet, forgiving ourselves is essential if we are to move forward, as God desires, into new life – a life sometimes reborn out of the ashes of our past. If we are to experience being made new in Christ, we have to accept God’s forgiveness and we have to forgive ourselves. The word, “self-forgiveness,” is not used in scripture, but I believe it is implied. On top of that, the experience of struggling to forgive ourselves is very present in our lives and we need to deal with it and try to help one another with it in whatever ways we can.
We have a propensity to feel guilt and shame. The wrong we have done, the hurt we are responsible for, the sin we have committed, and the guilt and shame we feel over these can sometimes feel overwhelming. It feels like a heavy weight we carry around and we do not know how to let go of it. We can start to believe we are not worthy of forgiveness. We can get to the point where we are unable to truly accept God’s forgiveness. Imagine the prodigal son in that famous parable. Imagine he comes home and, when the father says, “Let’s have a party!”, the son says, “I’d rather just go to my room. I don’t deserve to be celebrated. I am not worthy of your forgiveness.” The father in the story did not see only the bad choices and bad actions of his son, he also saw the potential and promise that still existed in his son and deeply desired a new and better future for his son who had been lost, but now was found. Our inability to forgive ourselves keeps us from entering into a new and better future that God desires for us and from the becoming the persons we have the potential to be. When we fail to forgive ourselves, we remain chained to our past bad actions. We cannot heal and grow. We are stuck.
Guilt and shame are not the same thing. Guilt is a feeling of remorse that we have done something wrong or sinful. Whereas, shame is the feeling that because of our bad actions, we are bad persons. Guilt can help us to recognize that we have done something wrong and have failed to live up to God’s values or our own. We would never find our way to seeking forgiveness and reconciliation without guilt. But shame is a toxin. It is purely harmful. Shame can become so poisonous and make us feel so worthless that we become unable to reach out to those we have harmed or to reach out for help. Shame makes us withdraw. Shame makes us feel like we should be chained to the boulder of our sin forever. You say, “I am not worthy to be part of this community,” “I am too ashamed,” yet, without the support and encouragement of others, you cannot get past the shame and accept forgiveness. Sadly, many expressions of Christianity have emphasized shame.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has written, “No one is bad, and none among us should be defined as the sum total of our worst actions…. None of us is an offender, liar, betrayer, or monster. We are all fragile and flawed humans who may lie or steal or betray. We are fragile and flawed humans who commit offenses against others. When we do these things, we are not monsters; we are human beings who have become separated from our own goodness.” You are not the sum of your sins. There is a song I love by Jason Grey called, “You are more.” The chorus goes like this: “You are more than the choices that you’ve made, you are more than the sum of your past mistakes, you are more than the problems you create. You’ve been remade.”
The scriptures frequently remind us that God loves us unconditionally. God is often described as, “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” I love that! That’s the God we follow. That’s the God we love. And that God forgives us. According to several passages in the Bible, God forgives us to the extent of choosing not to remember our sin. I believe the reason is because God sees what we cannot see. God does not see us as we see ourselves. Absolutely, God sees all of the worst we have done but God also sees all of the good and the potential good in us. God chooses to see you as if your guilt and sin are already stripped away. In this sense, God “forgets” our sins.
So strive, first, to accept God’s forgiveness. It will be easier to forgive yourself, if you can deeply feel God’s forgiveness. Second, seek forgiveness and reconciliation with the person(s) you have wronged and try to make amends. This is not always possible, but in the instances where you can, it will help you let go. Forgiving ourselves is much easier if we have at least attempted to seek forgiveness and reconciliation with the persons we harmed. Third, work to love yourself and release your shame. You are created by God and in the image of God and you are a beloved child of God. Lastly, remember that “forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” You cannot change your past, but you can learn to embrace the possibility of a far better future if you can let go of your mistakes and sins and forgive yourself. It does not mean you completely leave them behind, but we can set them down. We don’t have to carry them every day and we have a place we know we can come back to revisit them if we need a reminder of the lessons we have learned.
I have found that it helps a great deal to be in a community of love and forgiveness and support. In community together, we are able to open our hearts to the healing Spirit of God and to the loving, healing spirit we are able to offer to one another. We strive to foster a culture of forgiveness in this congregation. At its best, the body of Christ embodies a spirit of gentleness, kindness, humility, compassion, and forgiveness.
Remember that you are made new in Christ and all who participate in the community of disciples are being transformed over time into the likeness of Jesus. So, break the chains of guilt and shame that bind you. Accept God’s forgiveness. Let go and lighten your load. Set down that boulders and walk away. You don’t need it and it does not define you.
From the place of freedom from shame, we can at least begin to look in the mirror and look ourselves straight in the eye and say, “I love you” and believe it. We can start to see ourselves more as God sees us. Not as perfect, but as beloved. Love yourself, forgive yourself. You are God’s delight!
“The vote at the UM General Conference in St. Louis caused great harm and spiritual violence to the LGBTQIA+ community. The NYAC grieves this hurt. We pledge to continue to affrirm the lives, ministries, and families of our LGBTQIA+ siblings. We pledge to cotitnue to love and serve all people. We are the New York Annual Conference of the UMC. We believe…
Love is love
All persons are of sacred worth
Black lives matter
Climate change is real
No human being is illegal
All genders are whole, holy, and in the image of God.
Women’s rights are human rights
Colonialism is white supremacy in action
To devalue one person is to devalue all people.
We are working toward God’s justice together.
Love yourself, forgive yourself,
and go in peace to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
*Adapted from a statement by clergy and lay persons at the Special Session of the NY Annual Conference on March 16, 2019.
Copyright © 2019 by Jeff Wells
All rights reserved.