Sunday, September 14, 2008

Pentecost 18 - Year A

“How many times should I forgive?” Peter asked, “Seven times?”

“Not seven,” Jesus replied, “But seventy times seven.”

I’ve told you this story before, but it bears repeating.

The Sunday after the US attack on Iraq, Global National News came to Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Halifax to get a faith perspective on the war.

We’d been leading prayer services for peace the months leading up to the war, services which had been covered by the media, and so a reporter came to interview me about how some Christians were responding.

He was known for his confrontational interview style. And it was clear he had an axe to grind.

He knew that I and most of the congregation were opposed to the war and he tried to get me to say on camera that any Christian who supported the war was going to hell. Saying that high profile Christians were destined for damnation would have sounded great on TV.

I tried to convince him that reconciliation was at the heart of the Christian faith and that was one of the reasons why I opposed the invasion of Iraq. He kept needling me, pushing me, asking leading questions. Frustrated, he turned the question around on me and snapped,

“Where then, is this ‘reconciling God,’ when children are being maimed, lives destroyed, innocent people killed, all in the name of so-called freedom?”

I fumbled around for words, very aware that any bonehead comment I’d make would be broadcast across the country.

The only response I could think of was, “God is present when people suffer unjustly. When a child is maimed, God is maimed; when innocent people die, God shares their death.”

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my answer. And from the disappointed look on the reporter’s face, neither was he.

It’s hard to talk about reconciliation in any real sense. Forgiveness, the other side of reconciliation, is easier to talk about in the abstract than to actually forgive those who’ve hurt us.

It’s easier to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation in grand terms, waxing poetic about how important forgiveness is to the health of our souls, and how bitterness can be like drinking Drano and expecting the other person to keel over.

But forgiveness, in any real sense, is hard. I think today’s gospel reading is one of the most difficult passages in scripture. Real forgiveness offends our sense of justice. It lets people off the hook.

It must have sounded equally nutty to his listeners. These people knew pain. They knew cruelty. Their enemy surrounded them daily, controlling every aspect of their lives.

Their home was occupied by the repressive Roman regime. They were taxed beyond their ability to survive. The Romans brutally executed thousands of their young men and used their young women as sexual play things.

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 for change.

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

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 us. We need some real answers. We need justice NOW.”

But to others, Jesus’ words must have been cold water in the desert sun. 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 wrapped up in the pain and cruelty the Romans caused in their lives.

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

Jesus wasn’t ignoring the injustice and abuse they endured. He was 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.”

18 years ago, two teenage boys got drunk and took a car out for a joyride along the rural roads down the Nova Scotia/New Brunswick border.

A young man was walking home from work at the side of the road. The driver of the car knew him from school thought it would be funny to scare the guy by swerving close to clip him. But instead of scaring him, he killed him, as well as his friend in the passenger seat, after the car left the road and hit a tree.

Charges were laid. The boy was convicted and sentenced. Afterwards, the parents of the boy in the passenger seat moved from Nova Scotia; their grief was too great and their anger too raw.

The mother of the boy who was hit while walking home, however, decided that she wasn’t going to live with bitterness and anger.

She wrote letters to the boy in prison. But he was too ashamed to write letters back.

As time went on she decided she wanted to visit him. Her friends weren’t sure that this was the right thing to do. They were afraid that, when she saw the boy - now a man - face to face, she would lose it.

She brought her pastor along for support. No one spoke as they waited in the visitation room. The prison chaplain waited with them. A guard stood just outside the door. The grieving mom chewed her fingernails and her pastor lightly tapped the table.

Finally, the door opened and the man came in. The mom got up from her chair, looked him in the eye, and embraced the man who killed her son, while tears streamed down both their faces.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” was all he could say.

“When you get out, you’ll come live with me,” said the woman.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because we already lost two lives, we aren’t going to lose one more.”

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

When the reporter turned off his camera, put away his microphone, and took down the lights, I asked him where he stood with regards to the war.

“I’m a Muslim” he snapped back. “I lived in Palestine in ’91 when the first Gulf war broke out. Back then we saw Saddam Hussein as the saviour of the Arab countries. But now I know he’s evil, he’s offering the Arab cause little help.

“But I can’t but see this war as anything else but an attack on Islam and Palestine. They’re doing Israel a favour by getting rid of Saddam, especially when there was so much progress made between Israel and Palestine.”

“Progress?” I ask with bewilderment? “Isn’t Yassar Arafat prisoner in his own home, enduring daily attacks from the Israeli army? Aren’t there suicide bombers blowing people up in crowded Jerusalem marketplaces? Isn’t there retaliation for retaliation? Revenge killing for revenge killing?” I was now getting frustrated.

”You’re right.” He replied. “But what you don’t know about are the villages outside Jerusalem, small cities, pockets all over the region where Israelis and Palestinians live together in whatever peace they can hammer out.

“They have agreed not to fight with one another, but to strive to live peacefully as neighbours. They don’t want bombs exploding at the corner Starbucks. They just want to make a living and watch their kids grow up. They just want a life like we have. These are not isolated cases; these communities are popping up all over the Middle East.”

“Why don’t you report on this?” I asked knowing what the answer would be, “Why doesn’t this get on the news?”

He smirked knowingly at me. “You know why. War is sexy. Peace isn’t.” With that he packed up his camera and went on his way.

When I reflected back on those villages where Israelis and Palestinians live peacefully together intentionally, ancient enemies in an ancient war zone, I wondered if that’s how God works: away from the TV lights, far from crowds. God is behind the scenes hard at work for the world’s salvation; reconciling enemies, healing relationships, standing with sinners.

Jesus never told us forgiveness would be easy. And it’s 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 restore a relationship.

Once we reach out to those who’ve hurt us, resentment begins to drain from our hearts. We may remain deeply wounded like the mom who lost her son, 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 bitterness is gnawing away at your soul?

God wants you to bring it to the cross, the home of forgiveness. Forgiveness is discipleship; it echoes God’s grace, and sings the song of salvation.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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