Sunday, September 11, 2011

Pentecost 13A

I’m not one who believes that God is pulling the strings of a puppet-like universe, but I have to wonder how this gospel popped up on the Sunday which happens to be the 10 year anniversary of the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. I don’t know if I should read anything inappropriate into the collision of events, as if God had manipulated the lectionary to tell us something about how to process our memory of that September morning.

There are many who believe that there is no divine collusion between this morning’s bible readings and this particular event. Many of the worship planning materials and sermon help websites suggest changing the gospel for this Sunday into something more palatable.

After all, how can we talk about forgiveness after such a terrible and horrific attack? How can we read this passage in light of the hostility, violence, and death that took place that morning? How we hear Jesus’ call to reconciliation with our enemies when our enemies are filled with so much fanatical hatred?

This text cannot speak to this moment, they say. There must be a more appropriate text to mark the day.

Preach about God’s comfort for the grieving. Preach about the need for community and human connection. You can even talk about the human longing for peace. But you cannot talk about forgiveness. Forgiveness opens up a wound that was calloused over. So, they say, find a better text.

But I can’t. This text jumps out at me at this moment because it goes to the heart of what we believe as Christians. It speaks to the very essence of who we are as believers. After all, we are the beneficiaries of God’s costly, self-giving love. How can we NOT give to others what we have received?

In most of our day-to-day decisions, we’ve become followers of Reinhold Niebuhr, the 20 century American theologian who coined the term “Christian Realism” which basically says, that, yes, God does make some great and grandiose promises to the world, and yes, Jesus calls us to an ethic of love and compassion for our neighbour as well as enemy. And yes, as followers of Jesus we are called to shine God’s light in the dark places of the world.

But let’s get real. You cannot create foreign policy from Matthew 18. The best we can do is create and achieve “approximate goals” in Jesus’ direction. To take Jesus’ love ethic and transpose it to the realm of politics and policy would lead to disaster. To impose the bible’s standards of love on to the public realm would simply get people hurt. Jesus’ words may INFORM our decisions. But they should never DICTATE. Niebuhr was just being realistic.

However, the problem with Christian Realism is that it lets us off the biblical hook too easily. It makes no real demands on us as followers of Jesus and bears no witness to the world God has in mind for us.

While it tries to create a Middle Ground where the Christian voice can be heard at the decision making table, it’s really an escape clause,where we as Christians can dismiss Jesus’ call to love and forgiveness under the guise of security and freedom. It’s a backhanded way of saying that we don’t really trust what Jesus says when his words are put under the harsh light of human conflict. It’s like we’re saying that the world cannot be saved through love.

And even as I say this I know how hopelessly naive it sounds. It sounds like some hippy-dippy, new age, left wing nonsense that doesn’t take seriously world realities or the human capacity for evil. I know there’s evil in the world and there are people who wish to do us harm.

But to fail to ask the question: “What would the world look like if our decisions were based on forgiveness rather than revenge or or self-interest or even self-protection?” is to fail to take our Christian vocation to love our enemies seriously. It is to fail to ask how our Christian faith informs our lives. It is to fail to ask how we Christians are different from others.

And we’re not the first ones to fail to ask this question and we won’t be the last. Peter, in today’s gospel, wanted a number. He wanted to know how exactly many times he needed to forgive his enemy before he could indulge in his base human desire for revenge. What would be an appropriate amount of forgiveness to fulfill Jesus’ commands before the other guy could get what’s REALLY coming to him?

That’s our natural instinct. It’s our human inclination. We’re hard wired for revenge. In fact, I read a National Geographic article recently that said that a region of the brain known as the “dorsal striatum” which controls enjoyment or satisfaction, is activated when test subjects experienced giving punishment to someone they deemed to deserve it. In other words, yes, revenge is biologically sweet.

Of course men gained a greater sense of revenge satisfaction than women. Take from that which you will. It could explain the swaggering tough guy posturing that a lot of guys like to display.

What this study tells me though, is that our revenge inclinations aren’t something to deny or be ashamed of, but neither are they something to nurture. And they are something to be aware of. Revenge may be our human way. But revenge is not God’s way.

I’ve always been challenged by my Mennonite friends, and their tradition of pacifism. And if there’s one thing our society hates almost as much as terrorists, it’s pacifists.

I know a few faithful Mennonites who have been regularly harassed for their beliefs. They’ve been taunted and teased, just to see how far they can be pushed before they lash out. I even know some who’ve been beaten, just to see if they’d fight back.

And of course if they do fight back or protect themselves, they’d be exposed for the frauds they are, and it would be a triumph for brute force.

It’s as if the mere notion of not wanting to participate in a violent culture is so offensive to some, they faithful Mennonite Christians become targets for brutal attacks. It’s as if we, as a culture, believe that the most moral way to protect ourselves and solve our problems is through violence.

But Jesus doesn’t believe that. Jesus believes in loving his enemies, even if it meant his death. Jesus is more interested in repairing broken relationships than in inflaming them. Jesus is more interested in bringing life and hope to the world rather protecting what is his through violence. Jesus is more interested in forgiving others than in exacting revenge.

It’s a hard way to live. And I’m not going to stand up here and pronounce everything violent as evil. I’m not so naive as to think that world peace can be achieved through a few kind words and an outstretched hand.

But today, I can’t help but ask the question because I believe it needs to be asked even if we can’t get a clear answer: What does forgiveness look like in light of 9/11?

I don’t really know. It could mean a lot of things. It could also NOT mean a lot of things.

It could mean NOT scapegoating all Muslims for the acts of a few extremists. It could mean NOT glorying in the deaths of their leaders. It could mean NOT giving in to the human compulsion to vengeance.

And it could also mean building bridges between us and those who are different. It could mean listening to other viewpoints with patience and understanding. It could mean loving others more deeply rather than allowing the actions of others change you into who don’t want to be and who God did not make you.

It could mean taking up God’s challenge to live in the love and freedom that you have in Jesus. It could mean looking to God’s future with joy rather than in fear. It could mean serving others and the world God made, so that others may receive the same mercy and grace that you’ve been given.

Today, God is reminding us that forgiveness is at the heart of who we are as Christians because forgiveness is at the heart of who God is. And, as we know from God, forgiveness is not forgetting. And forgiveness is not condoning.

Forgiveness is repairing, repairing that which is broken. And in our fallen world, a world marked by so much hatred and violence, maybe our job as those who’ve been forgiven, is roll up our selves and start fixing things.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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Blogger rustcp said...

AND forgiving someone has the interesting effect of releasing you from bitterness, bitterness which can eat your heart out from within yourself. If you forgive someone, you set aside your vengeance impulse - you acknowledge (if not agree to accept) the wrong done to you, and set that impulse to one side. One cannot be bitter toward someone and forgiving toward someone at the same moment in time. Forgiveness can be an Act of Will.

7:12 PM  

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