A Sacrament Meeting Sermon on Forgiveness

A Sacrament Meeting Sermon on Forgiveness January 28, 2019

Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge; Screencap from the Muppet Christmas Carol

We’re in a new ward, and with the new meeting changes, talks sermons are assigned 6-8 minutes length. I was in the anchor spot, and so prepared to stretch or compress my remarks. I tend to prepare an outline (so there’s plenty of ad-libbing), with my stories, scriptures, or anything I want to read printed in full, so there’s no fumbling between papers or flipping through scriptures looking for the right page. One other speaker and I were on the stand early, the other came in about 10 minutes after Sacrament began. I spent those ten minutes reorganizing an expansion out to about 20 minutes, then had to contract when said speaker appeared. Here’s my written adaptation of remarks I made after I introduced us to the ward.

When Jesus was on the cross, he looked down on his physical tormentors and prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) This is an example of divine forgiveness, given how painful the crucifixion must have been.

But how do we forgive someone who does know exactly what they are doing? Who deliberately causes us harm or offends? Someone who knows just what buttons to push and mashes them hard? Those people who know us best are capable of hurting us the worst, and they are often family.

In Genesis 25, Jacob gets his twin brother Esau to sell him the birthright for a bowl of lentils. Among other things, this meant Jacob would receive 2/3 of Isaac’s possessions and Esau 1/3. Jacob “doubles his money” with that sly move. At best, that’s an expensive bowl of soup. At worse, it’s taking serious advantage of someone in a weakened position, a sin condemned repeatedly by Deuteronomy.

Further, in chapter 27, Father Isaac offers Esau a dying blessing, but first wants a bowl of his favorite goat stew, prepared by Esau. Now, Jacob and Esau were not identical twins. Esau was hairy and reddish (which is probably something like what Esau means), whereas Jacob was apparently smooth and baby-faced. Esau was an outdoorsy hunter-type, and Jacob more of an indoorsy nerd (to the extent that such terms apply to nomadic herders). While Esau goes off to hunt a goat, Jacob quickly slaughters one, makes the stew, puts goat skin on his arms so he will feel and smell more like Esau, and, in perhaps the earliest recorded case of identify theft, passes himself off as Esau to steal his blessing. (Genesis 27:19) [This is part of a series of deceptions over generations. See here for further discussion of “patriarchs acting badly”]

Esau reacts like any of us would when so “wounded in the house of friends” and family (Zech 13:6). He “lifted up his voice and wept…. and hated Jacob” and thought of killing him. (Ge 27:38, 41.) Jacob pushed Esau’s buttons in a case of family betrayal for personal gain, tale as old as time.

In scripture, forgiveness often appears as a financial metaphor. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers as a model of prayer, “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matt 6:12-13)

This is a useful metaphor to explore. Do we keep track of who owes us, morally speaking? Who has wronged us and exactly how much?

We’re not too far off the Christmas season, and I assume many of us watched some version or another of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge plays the central role. My favorite version is the Muppets, with Gonzo playing the narrative role of Charles Dickens, accompanied by Rizzo the Rat (who is just there for the food.)

Gonzo Dickens describes Scrooge as “a tight-fisted hand… a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” He intends to evict a number of his customers on Christmas Day.

Are we like Scrooge with those who wrong us, hoarding and carefully counting every penny of offense taken out against our account? Gleefully ready to avenge and foreclose on our debtors when they least expect it? Do we covet having people in our moral debt?

If so, like Ebenezer, we need to be visited by the spirit and repent.

Now, while Scrooge has become emblematic of miserly accounting, moral and otherwise, Ebenezer is ironically named.  You may know the puzzling line in the popular song Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come.”

Ebenezer’s name goes back to 1 Samuel 7:12, and the idea even earlier to Jacob at Bethel, who sets up a memorial stone for God. éven-ēzer means “stone of help,” and refers to the Rock of Israel, the God described as “merciful and gracious… forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex 34:6–7). This is Ebenezer Scrooge’s namesake. Ezer or “help” is a divine attribute, found in such names as Ezra and Azriel, “God is (my) help” and also in the Genesis narrative, where it tends to be mistranslated and misunderstood; Eve is there described as a “help,” the only single mortal so described in the Old Testament, but I digress. Forgiveness, mercy, and generosity are divine attributes. Ebenezer Scrooge repents and begins to embody his namesake more after listening to the spirit(s) sent to him.

How do we forgive when we see God as the culprit responsible for our troubles?

In the epic poem and greatest parable of the ancient world, Job first loses his livelihood, then his family, then his health, and then in a sense, his friends and his wife. His friends accuse him of divinely deserving his misfortune due to secret sin, and his wife’s advice is to “curse god and die.” (Job 2:9) Job’s response is one of steadfast but uncomfortable faith. Psalms make it clear that it is ok to be angry at God, to protest what we see as His actions. This anger coincides with faith instead of undermining  it, as we question the divine calculus.

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, O LORD! (Psalm 13)

One Psalmist consoles himself by seeking peace in holy places.

as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked….It was for nothing that I kept my heart pure! and Washed my hands in innocence! seeing that I have been constantly afflicted, that each morning brings new punishments….I applied myself to understand this, but it seemed a hopeless task, till I entered God’s sanctuary (Psa 73)

 To take a more recent story, look to Hugh B. Brown, counselor to President McKay in 1968. He had been afflicted in life by Trigeminal Neuralgia, an extremely painful nerve disorder of the face sometimes described as “being stabbed with an electric shock knife.” Brown tells this story [paraphrased/edited/modified below]

“I found myself in Europe. I had made some progress in the First World War in the Canadian army. In fact, I was a field officer, and there was only one man between me and the rank of general, which I had cherished in my heart for years. Then he became a casualty. And the day after, I received a telegram from London from General Turner, who was in charge of all Canadian officers. The telegram said, “Be in my office tomorrow morning at ten o’clock.”

I puffed up. I called my special servant. (We called them “batmen” over there.) I said, “Polish my boots and my buttons. Make me look like a general, because I am going up tomorrow to be appointed.”

He did the best he could with what he had to work on, and I went to London. I walked into the office of the general. I saluted him smartly, and he replied to my salute as higher officers usually do to juniors—sort of a “Get out of the way, worm.” Then he said, “Sit down, Brown.”

I was deflated. I sat down. And he said, “Brown, you are entitled to this promotion, but I cannot make it. You have qualified and passed the regulations, you have had the experience, and you are entitled to it in every way, but I cannot make this appointment.”

Just then he went into the other room to answer a phone call, and I did what most every officer and man in the army would do under those circumstances: I looked over on his desk to see what my personal history sheet showed. And I saw written on the bottom of that history sheet in large capital letters: “THIS MAN IS A MORMON.”

Now at that time we were hated heartily in Britain, and I knew why he couldn’t make the appointment. Finally he came back and said, “That’s all, Brown.”

I saluted him, less heartily than before, and went out. On my way back to Shorncliffe, 120 kilometers away, I thought every turn of the wheels that clacked across the rails was saying, “You’re a failure. You must go home and be called a coward by those who do not understand.”

And bitterness rose in my heart until I arrived, finally, in my tent, and I rather vigorously threw my cap on the cot, together with my Sam Browne belt. I clenched my fist, and I shook it at heaven, and I said, “How could you do this to me, God? I’ve done everything that I knew how to do to uphold the standards of the Church. I was making such wonderful growth, and now you’ve cut me down. How could you do it?”

I was driven to my knees, where I prayed for forgiveness for my arrogance and my ambition.”

Like Job, Brown was “doing everything right” and felt God had deeply wronged him. He humbled himself enough to recognize that although his life had not gone as he felt he deserved for “doing everything right,” God was nevertheless God, and ultimately had his best interests at heart, painful though the intervening mortality might be. Like Scrooge, Brown had to experience a change of heart, which lead him to forgive God.

Returning to Jacob and Esau, Jacob knew he had done wrong. Years later, when he encounters Esau, fully grown and with a family, so deep is his fear of retribution that he sends Esau gifts, divides his family in half, and hides them in two groups, lest Esau find and kill them all.

How does Esau react?

“Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.” (Genesis 33:4)

We do not know what had happened with Esau in the intervening time, but he had apparently arrived at a place where he could forgive his twin brother. For his part, Jacob’s catharsis of being forgiven of such devious harm to a family member left him (and me) in a deeply emotional, spiritual state. To Esau he says, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God, [because] you have received me favorably.” (Genesis 33:10)

Jacob sees in Esau the divine face of forgiveness, of mercy, of letting it go.

I’m a history guy and a language guy, and so I did a little research. As it turns out, the earlier uses of English forgive, a thousand years ago, include more broader meanings like, to give up, cease to harbor (resentment, wrath); give up resentment, pardon (an offender), let go. And as it turns out, the Greek word translated as “forgive” in the New Testament also has broader meaning. Gr. aphiēmi means, generally, to release, to let go. As I read that in my Greek lexicon, I couldn’t help but smile and hum a popular Disney tune about letting it go.

To conclude. Forgiveness is divine. When we forgive, we become a human proxy doing the work of a merciful God. We become better disciples of Jesus, whose entirely earthly mission was to enable forgiveness. May we repent like Jacob and forgive like Esau. May we recognize the face of God in those who forgive us of our deliberate, calculated offenses. May we change like Ebenezer Scrooge, and become a “rock of help” to those around us, to those who need our forgiveness. May we wipe the ledger clean, and let it go.

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