Sunday, September 11, 2005

Pentecost 17 Year A

Peter was in one of his moods. This was no mere intellectual puzzle that Peter presented to Jesus. This was no theological conundrum. Bare-knuckled human relationships were at stake.

“How many times do I have to forgive those who’ve hurt me?” he asked Jesus. “How much garbage do I have to put up with before I can get back at folks?

Seven seemed to be a good, reasonable number, Peter thought. Even generous. It showed people that, yes, as a follower of Jesus, he was a forgiving person, but not letting himself become a full fledged doormat.

But Jesus offers no comfort. “Not seven,” he says, “But seventy-times-seven.” In other words: “always forgive.”

Of course, this fits in well with the rest of his message. His call to forgive and love our enemies was the cornerstone of his preaching. Salvation was about forgiveness; bringing people back to God, giving them a second chance, whether or not the deserved it.

But I have to be honest; Jesus’ call to love our enemies, to forgive those who have purposely hurt us, and even go a second mile for those who do not have our best interest in mind, is for me, the hardest of Jesus’ teachings. It makes absolutely no sense. It goes against human nature. It runs counter to everything we’ve learned about making our way in the world.

It must have sounded equally crazy to his listeners. These people knew hurt. They knew oppression. Their enemy surrounded them daily, controlling every aspect of their lives. Their home was occupied by the repressive Roman regime. They were being taxed beyond their ability to make a living. The Romans brutally executed thousands of their young men and raped even more of their young women.

To make matters worse, some of their religious leaders got into bed with their Roman occupiers, growing fat and rich off of the blood of their fellow Jews.

Jesus’ audience knew their enemy. To love and forgive them was out of the question. There was too much pain, too much anger, and too little hope.

How the crowd reacted to Jesus’ teaching we have no idea. To some, Jesus must have sounded like a traitor or a coward, selling out his people for some hippy-dippy religious nonsense.

To others, he probably sounded terribly romantic but purely impractical. “That all sounds well and good, Jesus, but let’s get real. Peace, love, and flower power won’t stop the Romans from killing our people. We need some real answers.”

But to others, Jesus’ words must have been liberating. They understood the power that Jesus was giving them. They had spent their whole lives as victims. They didn’t know any other way to see themselves. Their whole identity was in response to the pain and oppression the Romans caused in their lives. Jesus was telling them that they were more than victims; they were more than an oppressed people; that the enemy does not have to control how they saw themselves.

Jesus gave them the tools of resistance. Jesus was telling them, “You don’t have to be a victim. Why are you allowing the Romans to tell you who you are? Yes, you have pain. Yes, you are oppressed. You are not your scars. You are not your grief. Your wounds, your sorrow, your poverty, are part of you, but they don’t make up the whole of you.”

Jesus wasn’t dismissing the injustice and abuse they received, he was just challenging them to look beyond their pain.

“It is freeing to become aware that we don’t have to be victims of our past, “wrote RC author, Henri Nouwen, “ and can learn new ways of responding. But there is a step beyond this recognition…It is the step of forgiveness. Forgiveness is love practiced among people who love poorly. It sets us free without wanting anything in return.”

When Marietta Jaegar’ seven-year-old daughter Susie was kidnapped from her tent during a camping trip in Montana, her initial reaction was, understandably, one of rage:

“I was seething with hate, ravaged with a desire for revenge,” she confessed. “Even if Susie was brought back alive and well this minute, I could kill that man for what he has done to my family…I meant it with every fiber of my being.”

An understandable reaction, to be sure. But Marietta says she soon realized that no amount of anger could bring her daughter back. Not that she was ready to forgive her daughter’s kidnapper: she told herself that to do that would be to betray her daughter.

She wrestled with God. Finally, she surrendered: deep down inside she sensed that forgiving him was the only way she could ever cope with her loss.

As she prayed for the kidnapper over the weeks and months that followed, her prayers became easier and more earnest. She simply had to find the person who had taken away her beloved daughter. And she even felt an uncanny desire to talk with him face to face.

Then one night, a year to the minute after her daughter was kidnapped, Marietta received a phone call. It was the kidnapper. Marietta was afraid – the voice was smug and taunting – but she was also surprised at her strange feeling of compassion for the man at the other end of the line. And she noticed that, as she calmed down, he did too. They talked for an hour.

Luckily, Marietta was able to record their conversation. Even so, it was months before the FBI finally tracked him down and arrested him. And it was only then that she learned her daughter would never come home.

State law offered the death penalty, but Marietta was not out for revenge. She writes: “By then, I had finally come to learn that God’s idea of justice is not punishment, but restoration…Jesus did not come to hurt or punish, but to rehabilitate and reconcile.”

Later, she requested that her child’s killer be given an alternate sentence of life imprisonment with psychiatric counseling. The tormented young man soon committed suicide, but she never regretted her decision to offer him help.

Her efforts at reconciliation didn’t end there. Today, she is part of a group that works for reconciliation between murderers and their victim’s families (from Johann Christoph Arnold, Seventy Times Seven: The Power of Forgiveness).

I’m not sure that I could be a gracious and forgiving as Marietta; but that’s the challenge, isn’t it?

Evangelical theologian J.I. Packer wrote, “Readiness to forgive, Jesus taught his disciples, is the acid test of our moral and spiritual stature…As personal experience shows, nothing withers the soul like an unforgiving spirit – the poisonous product of pain and pride that craves revenge under the guise of justice.”

Forgiveness is power. Forgiveness is freedom. Today, we mark the 4th anniversary of the horrific and brutal terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. Many church leaders, especially in the United States, are wondering out loud what forgiveness looks like in the face of such evil. They wonder if they CAN forgive the terrorists and those who support them. They wonder if they SHOULD forgive.

In New Orleans, people are asking who is to blame for the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. For many, they want to unleash their anger at someone, to get even for their pain. They want someone to pay for what’s happened.

But others point out that Jesus never told us forgiveness would be easy. MLK reminds us that forgiveness is not a one time deal, but a way of life. When we forgive, we not only pardon a failing or sin, but we embrace the sinner and seek to restore a relationship. Once we reach out, we begin to cleanse ourselves of resentment. We may remain deeply wounded like Marietta Jaeger, but we will not use our hurt to inflict pain on others.

What resentments are you holding on to? What abuses have you endured that keeps you from living the freedom and power that God wants you to have? What resentment is gnawing away at your soul? God wants you to bring it to the cross, and move toward the reconciliation that restores and brings life. Forgiveness is discipleship; it echoes God’s grace, and sings the song of salvation.

May this be so among us. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home