Forgiveness for All of This? — UUS:E virtual Sunday Service, July 26, 2020

“On the Road to Forgiveness” by Heather  and Willow Alexson

Friends: You can view the entire July 26 Sunday Service on YouTube here.

The text to Rev. Pawelek’s sermon, “Forgiveness for All of This?” is below.

“It’s harder to forgive than to forget”—solid wisdom from pop singer Brandi Carlile. Thanks to Carol Kargher for that awesome rendition.

This sermon is about forgiveness. In the publicity for this service I said “at their best, religious communities strive for forgiveness in response to harm.” This is true: healthy religious communities prioritize forgiveness as opposed to forgetting harm, denying harm, or worse, seeking revenge.

Having said that, if you were to come into my office to talk about a harm you’ve experienced, forgiveness would not be the first thing we discuss. As a pastor I would strive to listen to your story, understand the harm, affirm your feelings, and make sure you know you are not alone. Maybe you’re going through a process of holding the person who did the harm accountable for their actions. I would expect to support you in that process. But then, over time, I would begin asking a different set of questions:

How much is this experience of harm still controlling your life?

To what extent is it preventing you from living the life you long to live?

What would it mean to let the harm go—not to forget it—but to claim power over it so that you decide its role in your life?

And finally, is it possible to forgive the person who caused the harm? What would forgiveness look like?

The harm will always remain part of your story, but as you forgive—or minimally, as you strive to forgive—it will no longer be the end of your story.

Similarly, what if someone has done harm to our congregation? Maybe they’ve vandalized our road sign or building. Maybe they’ve broken into the building and stolen something. Maybe they’ve disrupted our congregational life in some way. Forgiveness would not be the first topic of conversation. First we would want to understand as a community what happened, and who needs care right now. Then, if we know who caused the harm, what is their accountability? Are there any covenantal or legal implications? These are the initial questions. But, over time, I would urge us to respond to a different, deeper set of questions. How do we as a community not become beholden to the harm? How do we let it go, move on from it—again, not forgetting it, but not letting it have power over us? And ultimately, how do we forgive the person who caused the harm? The harm will always remain part of our story, but as we forgive, it’s no longer the end of our story.

We could just try to forget it. That’s much easier than forgiving. But it’s not particularly healthy. It’s not spiritually grounded. That’s the message of the story Gina shared earlier, “What if Nobody Forgave?”[1] In that story, the people have forgotten how to forgive, so they go about their days carrying their grudges on their backs. They even carry their ancestors’ grudges. Forgiveness frees them from these burdens.

Of course, sometimes forgiveness is impossible. The harm may be too great. Or perhaps the one who did the harm has died. Even then, in my experience, making the attempt at forgiveness still matters. Trying to grasp the imperfect, often broken humanity of the person who did the harm, matters. Trying to set relationships right, even if the person is no longer alive, matters. Pronouncing the words, “I forgive you,” matters. Orienting ourselves toward the possibility of forgiveness matters, even if we can’t get there. These things matter because they help us tell the story differently. They help us live the lives we want to live.


What does forgiveness look like when it’s not a person who causes the harm, but a global pandemic on track to kill more than two hundred thousand people in the United States, wreaking havoc with the economy, exacerbating already deep racial and class inequities in housing, jobs, healthcare, wealth, access to childcare, access to the internet. Forgiveness for all of this? What might that mean?  I ask because I can’t escape the thought that our capacity to forgive may be important—may be essential—to our own and our collective wellbeing as the pandemic harm continues to mount.

Lockdown was and is hard on everyone, though certainly harder, more complicated, and much more devastating for some than others. People lost work, or had to work in dangerous conditions. Parents and schools had to figure out how to educate children at home. Children missed out on regular schooling, social connections, and activities. People have died. People have lost loved-ones. Today infection rates are low in New England, but the virus is surging around the country. Everyone lives with the anxiety of re-opening businesses and schools.

Life has changed. The other night my neighbor stopped by to say hello. We spoke with him for an hour, outside, keeping a safe distance—a vigilance we could not have imagined just last winter, yet a vigilance we all must keep in order to reduce infection rates. I noticed my own grief for a lost way of being—being close, being able to touch, to hug, to pat on the back. Those who resist this new vigilance in the name of liberty express anger that something is being taken away from them. But underneath I sense profound grief that the way we used to live is not safe. The virus has changed life for all of us. Everyone is living with some degree of pandemic-induced harm.

At their best, religious communities strive for forgiveness in response to harm.

In late April a radio reporter was interviewing someone about the loss they’d experienced due to the coronavirus. At one point the interviewee said, “We just have to forgive God.” My gut reaction was to dismiss the idea. God did this? God caused all this pain and suffering? Not in my theology. No God worth worshipping would cause such harm? But the idea wouldn’t go away. It kept inserting itself into my life. At an online interfaith gathering someone talked about forgiving God. The Rev. Rebecca Parker once said: Even when our hearts are broken / by our own failure / or the failure of others / cutting into our lives, / even when we have done all we can / and life is still broken, there is a Universal Love / that has never broken faith with us / and never will.[2] I want so much to believe words like these, yet I can’t help wondering: is this pandemic one of those moments when that Universal Love actually has broken faith with us? Abandoned us? Left us entirely on our own, left us at the mercy of incompetent leaders?

In May I encountered this idea again in A Canticle for Leibowitz, a 1959 novel by the American science fiction writer Walter M. Miller, Jr. The story follows the monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz over two millennia as they attempt to preserve portions of humanity’s scientific knowledge after a devastating nuclear war. At the end of the story, as humanity, heedless of the lessons of its history, launches yet another nuclear war, the monastery’s leader, Abbot Zerchi, encounters Mrs. Grales, a local, impoverished woman. She calls herself a “tumater woman” because she sells tomatoes on the street to earn her living. She’s a fallout baby—one of many people born with mutations due to lingering radiation from the previous nuclear war. She stumbles as she prepares for confession with abbot Zerchi.

“Is something wrong daughter,” he asked.

She looked up at the high windows. Her eyes wandered about the vaulted ceiling. “Ay, Father,” she whispered. “I feel the Dread One about, I do. The Dread one’s close, very close about us here. I feel the need of [forgiveness], Father—and something else as well.”

“Something else, Mrs. Grales?”

She leaned close to whisper behind her hand. “I need be giving [forgiveness] to Him, as well.

The priest recoiled slightly. “To whom? I don’t understand.”

“Forgiveness—to Him who made me as I am,” she whimpered. But then a slow smile spread her mouth. “I—I never forgave him for it.”

“Forgive God?” How can you—? He is just. He is Justice, He is Love. How can you say—?”

Her eyes pleaded with him. “Mayn’t an old tumater woman forgive Him just a little for His justice? [Before] I be asking His [forgiveness] on me?”

Dom Zerchi swallowed a dry place. He glanced down at her … shadow on the floor. It hinted at a terrible Justice…. He could not bring himself to reprove her for choosing the word forgive. In her … world, it was conceivable to forgive justice as well as to forgive injustice, for [humanity] to pardon God as well as for God to pardon [humanity].”[3]

For humanity to pardon God as well as for God to pardon humanity.

I know God language doesn’t resonate with many of you. But I also know that for most of us, our spirituality, however we describe it, connects us to a reality larger than ourselves. Call it the good, green earth. Call it Nature, the Cosmos, the Ground of Being, the Interdependent Web. Call it Universal Love. There are no adequate terms, but whatever term we use, this harmful, life-altering virus is part of that larger reality. I am not suggesting—because I simply don’t believe it—that any larger reality somehow consciously sent this pandemic on purpose. Nevertheless, I continue to wonder: may it be that before we can claim the lives we long to live, we need to forgive this larger reality? Or, as Abbot Zerchi conceded, there are times when humanity must pardon God.

Of course, that’s not where our conversation begins. Forgiveness comes in time. First we must be clear about what harm has been done. Ask yourselves these questions:

What has been your experience of the pandemic?

How has it upended your life?

How has it impacted you emotionally, psychologically, spiritually?

How has it impacted your relationships, your work, your family?

Has it been harmful to you? If so, how?

What kind of care do you need right now? How might you receive that care?

But at their best, religious communities strive for forgiveness in response to harm. Eventually we must ask a different set of questions:

How much is this experience of pandemic still controlling our lives?

To what extent is it preventing us from living the lives we long to live?

What would it mean to let go of the harm—not to forget it—but to claim power over it so that we decide its role in our collective life?

And finally, what would it mean to forgive?

The pandemic will always remain part of our story. But with forgiveness of that larger reality in which the pandemic emerged and through which it has travelled so relentlessly around the planet, it will no longer be the end of our story. And I suspect, or at least I pray, that as we strive toward forgiveness that faith that has been broken will begin to heal; and we will come to know, to feel, to trust, once again, that reality larger than ourselves—that Universal Love—that holds us, connects us, sustains us.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Marshman, Barbara, “What if Nobody Forgave.” See:

[2] Parker, Rebeca, “Even When Our Hearts are Broken,” Lifting Our Voices (Boston: UUA, 2015) #184.

[3] Miller, Walter M., Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (New York: Bantam Mass Marker Reissue, 2007) p. 325.