SERMON June 20, 2010 - Compassion Meditation
On Father’s Day, what does a father wish more than anything for his children? More than anything, fathers want their children to lead happy fulfilled lives. Jesus taught us the key to happiness. The key to happiness is being forgiven, forgiving others and the freedom and lightness of being that comes from feeling and being completely freed. There is no greater gift that a father can give his children than the secret of how to forgive and be forgiven. Today, Father's Day, we will practice a method for forgiving others. It’s called the Compassion Meditation. And we can all do it together this morning.
This morning we read the Canticle of Zechariah, from Luke’s gospel. This proud and excited father’s prayer and blessing to his son, inspired by the Holy Spirit was this:
You my child shall be called the prophet of the most high. You shall go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.
...knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.
That is the simple secret. As we read this morning in Matthew’s gospel, Peter was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. “Whatever you bind, or hold on to on earth, shall be bound, or held on to in heaven. Whatever you loose, or let go of on earth shall be loosed, or let go of in heaven.” What does this mean? What are the keys to the kingdom of heaven? What is the secret key that opens the doors of heaven to us? In this passage from Matthew, Jesus was speaking to Peter before his crucifixion and resurrection. As the gospels show, we know the disciples always had trouble understanding Jesus while he was still on earth in human form. As even today we have trouble understanding other humans. But, then in John’s gospel, after the crucifixion, after the resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples and breathed the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Understanding on them. Then he explained the secret key to them plainly: Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.
Forgiveness is very important. It is a matter of evening things out, eliminating distortions, imbalance, creating peace. And peace is the kingdom of heaven.
Before we begin our practice, let’s look at what forgiveness is not. First, forgiveness is not forgetting. It just isn’t possible to “Forgive and Forget”. In fact, real forgiveness is the opposite of “dumb” forgetting. Forgiveness is mindfulness. Pains cause scars. Scars do not go away easily if at all. If we forget injuries we are not learning from experience. It is as unhealthy to try and forget or trivialize hurts as it is to nurse them and exaggerate them. Remembering helps us to learn and break away from whatever caused the injury. Forgiveness is not forgetting.
One of the reasons people don’t even try to forgive is they confuse forgiving with forgetting. Fr. William Meninger, one of the foremost writers and teachers on forgiveness, says when people say “I can never forgive what she did to me”, what they usually mean is, “I can never forget what she did to me.” Or at least, they confuse the two in their own minds. Neither does forgiving mean you condone or approve of what was done. When someone hurt us, they hurt us and had an effect on our lives. To forgive the perpetrator is not to say that what he or she did was okay or even to try to minimize it.
Neither is forgiving a form of absolution. When we forgive, we are not letting someone off the hook. They must still answer for what they have done. They have to answer to society, to themselves and to God.
Absolution is up to them, not to you. When we forgive the sinner, we are not absolving the sinner, we are not letting him off the hook. Remember, we are not forgiving for the sake of the perpetrator, but we forgive for our own sake. Otherwise, we are just wasting energy which we should be using to get on with our own lives. We are the ones who pay a price for unforgiveness, not the perpetrator.
There is much more to say about forgiveness. But, today, I want to practice an exercise in forgiveness. This exercise, called Compassion Meditation, gives us practical experience in how to forgive our enemies. We are told to "love our enemies", but all of us find that very difficult at first. Before we can love our enemies, we have to forgive them. This process of forgiveness looses us, unbinds us from the power their injury holds over us. This exercise teaches our mind to quiet down, and opens our inner hearts to the experience of extending compassion - especially to those who have done us harm. And compassion is the road to love.
I’m going to walk you through the exercise – a spiritual exercise – now. Don’t’ worry: we won’t do any sharing and there won’t be any test at the end. But it might be a useful tool when you’re struggling to forgive someone or something. Let’s try it.
There are three simple steps. First, think of someone you really like. Someone you love. A child, a parent, a dear teacher. Your favorite relative. An old and dear friend. Given the day, maybe it’s your father or son or daughter. It can be someone living, or someone dead. The important thing is it be someone whom you have great affection for. Take your time...
Okay. Do you have this person in mind? Now, picturing this person, we are going to bless this person. Take the insert from your bulletin. For today, I’ll read and you follow along, wishing these blessings of love and compassion on that person with all your heart. And as I read, let yourself really sink into this emotion. Receive it, let it wash over you as you keep this beloved person in mind...
1st Reading of Compassion Meditation (Found in your bulletin insert)
As you wish all this for a loved person, you can feel something, an emotion or sentiment even a little stronger than before. Remember this emotion.
In the second step we choose another person, a neutral person, someone we know of, but don’t really know. This could be a casual acquaintance, someone you read about, or a clerk in a store, a delivery person, someone in another class, or a stranger you saw the other day.
Then take the same emotion we experienced in the first step and transfer it to this person. We are going to wish this stranger the same intimate, personal, loving sentiment which we feel for our mother, our father, a child, a friend, and freely and willingly transfer it to a stranger. We are going to wish this stranger all the same loving impulses and sentiments of joy and blessing we felt in the first step. Let’s bring this person to mind as I read again...
2nd Reading of Compassion Meditation
Many people find this second step even harder than the third step, which, as you can guess, is to wish all these things for an enemy. Christianity teaches us we should love our enemies. And we are told even the pagans love those who love them. But what about the great mass of humanity, strangers we currently feel indifferent about? At least this is a start. We select one individual, and with no ulterior motive, we lavish love and compassion on that one person. And that is the key, without ulterior motive. Love must be freely given for its own sake. Love begins when nothing is expected in return. And, oddly, it can be a wonderfully freeing experience when we lavish love and compassion on an unknown and undemanding stranger.
Now for the third step. Choose an enemy. This might be easy, it might be difficult. It might be someone you know who “has it in for you”. Or, it might be someone who did you dirt. Maybe we aren’t aware of anyone who we actually hate or who really hates us. It can be someone whom we oppose or who opposes us. It can be someone who harmed us at school or at work. Maybe someone who spread false rumours about us, or who knifed us in the back. It can be a public figure. Or maybe a foreign dictator. Or even a despicable group, like neo-Nazis. Or the chairman of an ecologically destructive company. And, like in step one, our enemy, can be someone from our past who may be living or dead, but for whom forgiveness is still possible, if long overdue.
I don’t like to say, “dwell on your enemies”, but for this exercise, pick someone whom you think might be difficult to forgive. Got someone? I’ll wait...
Okay. Now, keeping this person in mind, go back to the emotions you felt in step one. Seems odd, at first, doesn’t it. Feelings of love, peace, joy, kindness, contentment – the gifts, the graces of the Holy Spirit. It feels a little odd at first lavishing these emotions on an enemy. But, keeping in mind how you felt at step one, let’s do the prayers and blessings for this enemy.
3rd Reading of Compassion Meditation
Now this is just a beginning. Remember, this is an exercise. Exercises, even spiritual exercises need to be practiced and repeated before the full effect is felt. But even now, I suspect, some of us are feeling slightly different about that former enemy. We are beginning to feel a little freed up from old hurtful emotions. And, most important, as you begin to appreciate that this enemy, too, is a child of God, one of God’s creatures, it becomes possible to consider forgiveness of that person.
As we conclude our little exercise this morning, I want us to remember that short passage from Matthew right after Jesus teaches the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus said to the disciples, and to you and to me. “If you forgive others the wrongs they have done, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive the wrongs you have done.”
So that’s our Father’s Day meditation today. What every father wants, our fathers here on earth and our Father in heaven, what every father wants for his child is a largeness of spirit, a freedom from being bound up. Freedom. You may want material success for your child. You may want your child to find her way into a life of service to others. Every father has his dreams for his child. But, you probably want your child, more than anything else, to walk joyfully with the Lord, to know God and feel his comforting presence every day.
Our sons and daughters may not be destined for a prophetic mission like John the Baptist. But, hey, you never know. Like Zechariah, we want our children to experience the lightness of life that comes from forgiving others and being forgiven. And, as Jesus said, it certainly is what our other Father in heaven wants for us and for our children.
So, fathers, if you have a son or daughter in town, if you haven’t already, go with them to the Fathers Day Pancake Breakfast. And as you listen to the community band playing at the breakfast, pay special attention to the tuba. You may have noticed the choir sang earlier than usual today. This was to give Bill Nichols, our bass singer, the chance to lift our spirits in the anthem and then, immediately after singing, race off with his tuba to add oomphasis to the community band at the pancake breakfast.
So, sons and daughters, go and enjoy the day with your father and tell him you love him – and wave to the tuba player between yummy bites of pancakes and syrup.
So, let’s join in standing as we affirm our faith by reciting together the Nicene Creed, found at the bottom of page 15 in our hymnals.