3-26-17 Sermon “I Choose Love: Communities of Forgiveness”
“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Those very words could be spoken about each and every one of us on nearly any day of our lives. “Forgive us, Lord, we don’t know what we’re doing.” We don’t know. We think we know. We want to know. We pretend to know. But we don’t know. Like the so-called “butterfly effect,” the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia becomes the ultimate cause of a hurricane in the Atlantic, we don’t know what the ripple effects of our actions, or our inactions, might ultimately be. “Lord, forgive us, we don’t know what we’re doing.” How could Jesus forgive those who were killing him, in the midst of the killing? How could he forgive those who betrayed and denied him, while each strike of the hammer on the nails that pierced his body reminded him of the betrayal, the denial. As he hangs on the cross, his body ravaged by beatings, life slowly ebbing away as each successive breath becomes harder and harder to take in, he is mocked by the soldiers and the on-lookers, the voyeurs of death and dying. On either side of him hang what Luke describes as two criminals, also crucified this day. Crucifixions weren’t rare - they happened nearly every day - thousands each year. They were the officially government sanctioned death penalty of the day - the equivalent of our modern day injection chamber. The intent of these public executions was to be a deterrent, to scare or shock people out of committing crimes, out of standing up against the government that wielded such deadly power and authority. We’ve heard that argument before, haven’t we? It’s one of the arguments that modern day death penalty advocates make when advocating in favor of an even broader application of capital punishment. We could learn a few lessons from the Romans, though, when it comes to the deterrent argument. The fact that they executed thousands of people each year in spite of the very public and humiliating way in which crucifixion was carried out shows that its deterrent effect was minimal. And besides, Jesus was innocent, wasn’t he? That’s what the Roman centurion says at the end of this longer passage, “Surely, this man was innocent.” Note the difference in what Luke reports the Centurion saying, and Mark’s version, where the Centurion proclaims, at last revealing Mark’s Messianic Secret, that “Surely, this man was God’s Son.” Luke need make no such declaration here, he has made it throughout his telling. No, the important thing for Luke, is the proclamation of innocence. Luke is all about the justice aspect of Jesus’ ministry. And so in the end, despite all the wrong, the corruption, the lying, and the injustice piled upon Jesus, his prayer to God is simply, “Forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” And as human beings, with all the emotions we carry with us, we have to imagine that for the human part of Jesus, this had to be as difficult for him to do as it would be for us. At the same time, that part of Jesus which we call divine, knew that forgiveness is what had to happen.
Forgiveness might be the hardest thing we’re asked to do in our faith. It might be the hardest thing we’re asked to do in our life - harder than dying for some of us. Some of us swear we can never, will never forgive the wrong that has been done to us, or to our family. And that seems noble, it seems loyal, but in effect we’re locking ourselves in a prison of our own making and handing over the key to the person who wronged us. In the midst of our pain and our grief, though, that is so hard to see. It was nearly two years ago, in June of 2015, that Dylan Roof walked into a bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, and after sitting in the study for a little while, finally pulled out a gun and shot and killed nine people, all but one person in the group - leaving that one alive to tell what had happened. Roof did it, he said, because they were black - and he hated black people. Nadine Collier’s mother was one of those killed, and she became famous two years ago for three words she said to Dylan Roof at his bond hearing: “I forgive you.” With those words, Collier set off a global debate about forgiveness. And while her grief remains heavy, Collier said that she learned in that hearing that forgiveness is not weakness. It’s not resignation or a duty done begrudgingly. And it is not easy. Collier is trying to move on, but progress is slow. But her initial words, two days after the horror, hang powerfully in the public conscience and conversation. “I forgive you,” she told him. “You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.” That’s what her mother would have wanted, she knows. “I know she would have said, ‘That’s my baby. I taught her well.” It was in that hearing that she learned about forgiveness, its power and its challenge. “Forgiveness is power,” she said. “It means you can fight everything and anything head on.” The world has heaped praise on Collier and others for their acts of faith and forgiveness, and they have been sustained by the support and prayers of well-wishers from around the globe. But the shadow of grief remains. Most days, the home that the Rev. Anthony Thompson shared with his wife Myra, who was leading the Bible study at Emanuel the night she was killed, seems too quiet. There are reminders of Myra everywhere: fresh flowers on the table, just the way she liked them; a photo of her on the wall; her Bible, with the text marked for that night — the parable of the sower from Mark 4:16-20, along with the notes from the Bible study. When he last saw her, Myra was finishing up some last-minute notes, just before she left on June 17. She seemed to glow, he said, as if everything were right in the world. Then she walked out the door before he’d had the chance to say goodbye. Thompson had hoped to attend the Bible study that night, but Myra told him not to. His church was kicking off vacation Bible school that night, and he was needed there. He had finished up at church and had dinner waiting for her on the table when the call came. Even today, he has a hard time believing she is gone. He hadn’t planned on attending that bond hearing at first. But something prompted him to go. In the courtroom, Thompson said he felt God speak to him, telling him to forgive Roof. “I wasn’t thinking about him,” he said. “I wasn’t planning on going. But God put it in my head. It was like he was speaking through me.” After the hearing, Thompson felt a sense of peace. He told another, ‘Oh my gosh, that was for me,’” he said. “That was for my kids, and me, so we could have peace.” Not all of the Emanuel AME families have gotten to forgiveness yet, but they’re working towards that goal. They know that’s the only way they will ever be free from the grip of this tragedy, this evil, but they realize that it will be long, slow, hard work. Which is why they all have continued to be in community with one another, supporting one another, in a community of love and forgiveness. Our feature song this week, “I Choose Love,” was written as a response to the horrific events in Charleston, South Carolina and the remarkable choice of forgiveness made by so many of those families. But to forgive, is not to forget. That pithy little phrase is found nowhere in our Scriptures, nor anywhere in our faith traditions. To forget would be to deny, or to even block, the transformation or the redemption that can come out of the tragedy of events such as these. In our reading for today, Luke spares us the gory details of the gruesomeness of crucifixion as a means of execution. He simply says, “They crucified Jesus there with the criminals” (vs. 33). Typically read on Good Friday, this is the story of individual and corporate sin, betrayal, and abandonment - of the priests, Pilate, the soldiers, the blood-thirsty crowds, Peter, Judas, and the other disciples. Theologian Craig T. Kocher writes, “This text is not for the squeamish, but the world we live in is not for the squeamish either. Too often the prevailing theology in much of the church is that God is a God who doles out blessings to the faithful, materials riches to the devout, happy families to the pious, wealth and success to the prayerful. Luke’s good news lives in stark contrast to any prosperity gospel, any reading of Scripture that privileges the well-off, healthy, or esteemed. The theology of Luke’s gospel begins in the poverty of a stable and continues to describe a world in which the mighty are knocked from their thrones, the lowly are lifted up, the hungry filled, and the rich sent away with nothing. Luke grounds the story of God’s love revealed to us in Jesus Christ with the forgotten of the world. Indeed, Luke ends this grisly Good Friday passage with a condemned and dying thief entering the paradise Jesus goes to prepare.” And he continues, “God does not reward the pious with blessing, but enters into the pain and hurt and horror that we see and experience all around us; a world where so often there is little reason to hope or dream. Good Friday is the account of God’s passion, the word “passion” usually thought of in terms of God’s suffering.” But he then suggests that the other way for us to think of passion is connected to God’s love. “As much as Good Friday holds a mirror up to humanity’s bent toward sin and death,” he says, “it also reveals God’s unending love for God’s broken world filled with evil and violence. God’s love is patient and kind and passionate. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things to the end. Love does not go gently into that good night. On Good Friday, God’s heart in Jesus Christ is torn between the passion of sin-induced suffering and the passion of grace-filled love.” And to make his point, he reminds us that Jesus refuses to give in to the meanness and arrogance all around him. In the face of evil and despair, the passion of his love remains. To the cries for blood from the crowd, he does not respond. To the clubs and whips that beat him, he does not fight back. To the soldiers who have torn his body to shreds, he offers forgiveness. To the thief, he whispers the hope of eternity. “On the cross,” Kocher writes, “the passion of Jesus’ suffering is surpassed by the passion of his redeeming love. Good Friday reveals that only the tenacity of God’s love is greater than the tenacity of humanity’s despair.” And it is God’s love that we affirm, for ourselves, for the world, and for the beloved child of God receiving the sacrament, in our baptismal rites. Each time someone is baptized, the whole church body gathered also makes vows. One of the things we promise is to be a community of love and forgiveness. With God's help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life. So each day, in those thousand decisions we make about how we will be - will we follow Christ’s teachings or will we go our own way - each day we choose between letting the difficult things about life create resentment in us or allowing the work of forgiveness to make way for love. And love, too, is a choice. More than a mere emotion, more than the topic of a song or a poem, love is a choice. Love is a decision that we make about how we act, how we live, how we respond. Too often, we think of forgiveness as simply that which the pastor or priest proclaims at the end of a unison prayer of confession during the order of worship. We hear the prayer, written by someone else and that may or may not touch on the things which we as individuals need to confess, we wait through the time of silence in which we are allotted a brief - never long enough - time to confess our own personal sins, and then we move right on to the Assurance of Pardon because the service has to keep moving if we’re going to beat the Baptists to Bob Evans! But, is forgiveness as simple as reciting a prayer during worship? And some might wonder, is forgiveness really available to someone like me? Theologian Edward A. McLeod, Jr writes, “The answer to the first question is no; forgiveness is not simple, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer would also want us to be clear that it is not “cheap” either. The forgiveness we sometimes glibly invoke involves a God whose grace exceeds our imaginations and whose [passionate] love challenges our notion of how a God would behave. So it is not simple. It is profound and mysterious and deep, and when we turn it into a simple formula, it loses its power to transform and reform us.” “The answer to the second question, the one that emerges from anxious hearts all over any given sanctuary, is yes; forgiveness is available even for someone like you.” In Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they’re doing,” are words of good news to people every where, to people who are troubled by unbelief, and uncertainty, or confusion by all the conflicting messages that are spun out of the gospel. “We can be thankful that Jesus’ use of the word “them” is broad and nonspecific. Who are the “thems” for whom he is seeking God’s forgiveness? Who gets included in this sweeping show of compassion and mercy?” “Does “they” include, for example, Pilate, who knows the right thing to do, but is swayed by the clamor of the people, and in an act of political expediency sends an innocent man to die? “Does it include the crucifiers, those who actually carry out the mechanics of this cruel execution, who can hide behind the excuse that they are “just following orders”? “Does it include the chief priests and the other temple authorities who lead the effort for Jesus’ crucifixion, those whose position and prestige are dependent on keeping the religious landscape as it is, and who see in Jesus a threat to their status quo? “Does it include the people who find themselves carried along by a sort of mob mentality, shouting things they might not shout on their own, but who, in following the crowd, now find their hands stained with responsibility for injustice? Are those who turn on Jesus, so quickly after they have welcomed him into town, are they included among “them” for whom Jesus prays for forgiveness?” “The answer,” McLeod insists, “must be yes, yes, yes, and yes.” And if these persons are forgiven, then the good news to the church must be Jesus’ prayer from the cross - [forgiveness] for “them” who do not know what they are doing. This text also challenges our understanding of how forgiveness works, as we assume that forgiveness comes to those who confess (as in that order of worship mentioned before). Luke gives no record of Pilate, the religious authorities, the soldiers, or the people, gathering at the cross, seeking forgiveness for what they’ve done. On the contrary, Jesus petitions for divine forgiveness (rather than divine retribution) for a people who are still hopelessly entangled in a great conspiracy of evil - who still literally have blood on their hands. Paul saw this as the gist of the good news, “in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). No, forgiveness isn’t easy. Love isn’t easy. It’s a choice. We must choose love, because Love chose us. In the book, “The Shack,” there is a very powerful passage that I want to share with you about this very subject. Now, as you know, I rarely if ever recommend what are considered “religious movies,” especially from the pulpit, because honestly, I have found very few of them to be theologically sound, historically accurate, or for that matter, even well made. I do recommend “The Shack,” however, even though it is very clearly intended to tug at your heart strings and play your emotions, because it does have some very sound theology, especially around forgiveness and redemption. So, there’s your endorsement for both the book and the movie and a shameless plug for the discussion we’ll be having on the Wednesday evening after Easter - see your announcement folder for more information on that. To set this up, and to not be too much of a spoiler for those who haven’t seen it but intend to, Mack is the main character, and while on a family camping trip the youngest daughter, Missy, is abducted and then killed in a shack in the mountains. Some time later, Mack finds a note in their mailbox, an invitation, to come meet God at the Shack, and it is signed, “Papa,” which is the pet name that Mack’s wife has always used for God. Against his better instincts, he goes to the shack, where he encounters God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and has the opportunity to confront God about why God allowed this tragedy to happen to Missy and to their family. So, in this scene, Papa/God has begun to build relationship with Mack and has assured Mack that God didn’t bring about this tragedy, and that in fact, was with Missy the entire time. But now God needs to help Mack deal with one more thing… READ FROM "THE SHACK" - excerpts from pages 225-229 Love, faith, and forgiveness do not mean we forget either our pain or our grief. Rather, they mean that we choose to live free of hate, that we free ourselves from the prison of anger and bitterness that our inability or unwillingness to forgive builds around us. Forgiveness allows us to experience the passion of Christ, the passionate love of God, in ways that we simply cannot when we seek to keep that poison inside of us. Luke’s message for us today, and Christ’s example for us for all time, is simply this: choose love. Amen. Let us respond in song with the words of our focus song today: