Can You Imagine: Forgiveness & Judgment

Exodus 14:19-31 | Psalm 114 | Romans 14:1-12 | Matthew 18:21-35

We’re going to save Moses and the parting of the sea for another day. It warrants a sermon of its own, given all the implications of the miracle at the beginning of the Exodus, especially that of a God that not only sanctioned the death of the firstborns but now also wiped out the pursuing Egyptian army. Today we’ll address our Gospel and Epistle topics of judgment and forgiveness. At the Continuing the Conversation on Wednesday, where 18 folks gathered to talk about racism– representing at least 5 different Christian denominations–one of the women said that given the need for dialogue and discussion, she didn’t feel like she had the tools to engage with people, the language to use in regards to having conversations regarding privilege and race. How could she give voice to where she’s coming from while respecting whomever she’s in conversation with? If we are filled with an understanding of judgment and well-stocked in forgiveness, aren’t these significant components pertaining to full reconciliation? I believe they are.

We want guidance and instruction, right? Peter asks Jesus: How many times am I to forgive? Is seven enough? (Because surely that’s more than generous.) Like us, Peter wants to make sure he’s doing the right thing and that it’s quantifiable, a transaction. Someone does you a wrong, you forgive them. The parable set forth shows a master who forgives his slave, yet the slave doesn’t show the same forgiveness to another. We can keep track of the forgivings and the withholding of forgiveness. This is what I call human economy: we can keep track of what’s going on, who owes who, and where we stand in relation to what’s expected. But Jesus . . . in response to Peter, Jesus says we’re to forgive 77 times, not that we’re going to actually count that many (if we could even keep track) but because

we’re not supposed to be counting in the first place.

Jesus sees our humanity and knocks it out of the park into God’s economy, where we try to comprehend terms like grace, mercy, unconditional, and infinite. We’re not supposed to keep track; we’re just supposed to keep sharing God’s grace.

But this storyline of the master and slave we have, it’s familiar to us. I can’t help but think of Beauty and the Beast–the Disney versions, of course, how at the end after Gaston has led the charge into the castle and tangled with the beast on the rooftop: the beast is given the opportunity to kill Gaston. He shows an act of mercy, telling Gaston just to go. What is he thinking?!? We’re proud and amazed at the compassion shown by the beast, and when Gaston pulls a gun on him (in the newer version — whole scene around minute 5:00), we see the injustice of it all flare and aren’t exactly disappointed when Gaston falls from the castle roof on his own. We breathe a sigh of relief at the happily ever after. When it comes down to it, it’s hard for us to comprehend forgiving someone who has wronged us. We are the master in the parable when it comes to withholding forgiveness or even taking it back. We make our human judgment calls on who is worthy or not of our forgiveness, forgetting what Jesus tells us and what Paul elaborates on: that it’s not our place to judge.

We joke about judging one another: I’ll ask you not to judge the cleanliness of my house when you come for dinner or my car if I give you a ride. We’ll more seriously ask not to be judged on the basis of our family system, our sexuality, our ethnicity. We’re not to cast judgment, but we make judgments all the time, discerning what to do or say in the next moment. Our decisions reflect the judgments we make. But what Paul tells us is basically: don’t sweat the small stuff and leave ultimate judgment to God. It’s our job to show God’s grace and mercy to others by staying in relationship with them, to the extent that we can. God isn’t telling us to stay in dangerous situations. God certainly isn’t telling us to forget. Forgiving someone does not mean we forget. We learn from our mistakes and know the burden of our sins. The knowledge we glean and the relief we experience are worth the scars we bear, and we can’t forget the stories of why we are better for what we’ve overcome. Even if we can’t stay in relationship with those who have done us wrong, we can stay in relationship with God as we work to let go of what was wrong and move toward life and love.

There’s a song in the Hamilton soundtrack about forgiveness. (Yes, I told you I love the soundtrack!) At the Garland County Jail, in the program I did with the folks there,  I wanted to play this song so we could talk about all the levels of forgiveness. But I realized they wouldn’t have any context if they didn’t know all the stories involved, all the references made. Did they know what Alexander was going through, the significance of this proud man using his wife’s words? Did they know Eliza’s grief of finding out about her husband’s past affair and then shortly thereafter losing her son when he died in a duel? Did they know how trusting and kind Eliza was? How deep the betrayal and how true her love? So, we had to listen to the whole thing. 😉  And when it came to the song about the unimaginable and forgiveness, there was stillness in the room, both times with the men and the women. In this song called “It’s Quiet Uptown,” the relationship unfolds in this confession, of not being afraid to admit what was wrong, and this willingness to be in relationship, to return to relationship. All the while, the company sings the chorus as witness to this beautiful thing unfolding with the words: “Can you imagine? . . . Forgiveness . . . Can you imagine?”

It’s hard for us to imagine forgiveness in the face of the horrible. Such swift judgment affords us the death penalty, just cause, self defense. We are absolutely amazed and in awe when not just in movies but in real life, people show true forgiveness and leave judgment to God. A prime example can be found in the survivors of the families who were killed at the AME church in Charlston in 2015, like the families of the children killed at the Amish school shooting in Lancaster in 2006–people who chose to relinquish the burden of judgment, giving that to God. Whatever their reasonings for doing so, I know that their decisions enable them to  move forward in their grief with a foundation of love. And it is hard to imagine, because it’s not the way of our world.

In the face of another acquittal for a police officer who shot and killed a black man, people in and around St. Louis demonstrate–literally–how difficult it is to stay in relationship with one another. On the way to church this morning, I heard a St. Louis alderman speaking on NPR about the peaceful demonstrations that are happening and the pockets of violence that erupted. His voice portrayed his fatigue, along with his words that said he was extremely frustrated by the same pattern repeating itself and not for the first or second time. What he sees reflected in the outcomes is a reinforcement of the message that black lives don’t matter, that they are not valuable. But he did seem encouraged at the unification of many in the area who were showing their solidarity and support for black lives. Maybe not all hope was lost.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean we sit idly by while injustice continues, whether it’s race relations, domestic violence, or any other of our societal maladies. Giving judgment to God doesn’t mean we abandon all responsibility. WE are the hands and feet here on earth sharing the presence of Christ. We don’t have to judge others, but we do have to discern what is right and wrong and choose how to best convey the presence of Jesus to the world around us.

And it often involves taking yet another long look in the mirror and making sure we forgive ourselves. However easy it may be for us to forgive others, sometimes we bear the hubris of not seeing ourselves as worthy of the generosity we extend to others. I’ll be infinitely patient with you and forgive you a million times over, but I don’t cut myself any slack. I have to be very intentional with myself, reminding myself how worthy I am of the love and compassion that others need just as much as I do. I have to remind myself that my relationship to God is only as healthy as I let God’s grace flow through me and others. Can you imagine what our town, our world would look like if we turned to one another with understanding of all our heartaches, all the sufferings, and let ourselves move toward forgiveness, toward reconciliation in safety and love? I can imagine it because I believe in Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, which have already accomplished the unimaginable.

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On Carrying a Cross & Following Jesus

The Scripture Texts for Proper 19, Year B, Track 1  are:

Proverbs 1:20-33 | Psalm 19 | James 3:1-12 | Mark 8:27-38

ashleyrosex_-Close-Cross; source: http://www.bishopinthegrove.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/ashleyrosex_-Close-Cross_yph0pk_zxz0yg.jpg We think we’ve got this figured out. To carry a cross, we hold fast, stay true, and stake our claim on what is right and good. We do what is right and stand up for Jesus. We stand behind the cross we boldly carry before us. But somehow we find ourselves back to back and going nowhere fast. Somehow we’ve created walls with our crosses and have lost sight of Jesus. We know we’ve lost sight of Jesus because there is no room for true love of neighbor, and love of God looks more like violence than compassion. Others don’t see Jesus, either. Or the Jesus they do see looks nothing like the Jesus of the gospel.

Whatever we think it means to be a Jesus-follower, today might be a good day to have a moment, like Peter, when Jesus flat out tells us that we don’t have our head in the right place. Today, Jesus tells us that if we want to be one of his followers, we need to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him, losing our life for his sake.

“Tell my would-be followers to deny themselves,” Jesus says first.

How do we deny ourselves? What are denying ourselves of?

I think of the phrase that I’ve been hearing and seeing a lot lately: “Not my monkeys, not my circus.” When I hear or use this phrase myself, there’s a sort of disassociation happening. We’re not responsible for what’s going on because that’s completely someone else’s problem, from the players to the whole play. But what if we look at problems around us and see ourselves as part of creation, part of God’s creation. Looking at it this way, I cannot deny responsibility nor accountability, but I do realize a crucial thing: I am not God.

What if to deny ourselves means to deny myself the first seat of power? What if I do the amazing thing and let God be God. What if I let Jesus bear the cross for humanity? Instead of trying to walk with Jesus under the weight of the world, whispering in his ear what I think the best next move is or even trying to show him what the best next step is by walking ahead of him, how about I let him go before me. Lead me, Jesus, through the valley. Show me the way out of death into life. I don’t have the power to do any of this alone. All power is yours, O God; help me, your willing servant.

Jesus says to the disciples, “Tell my followers to deny themselves and take up their cross.”

We have to remember that we’re not taking up the Cross, the cross upon which Jesus hung, “the emblem of suffering and shame,” if “The Old Rugged Cross” rings in your ears as it does mine. That cross embodies all the torment and rejection and suffering of the world absorbed when our saviour was crucified. That’s Jesus’s cross, not ours. We reverence this cross, and we can cling to it with humility and respect, but it’s not ours to carry.

I cannot know what your cross is, but I imagine it’s similar to mine.

My cross is made of all the splinters pulled from my wounds–some bigger than others–and is held together by the sap, sweat, blood, and tears that is my awareness of the suffering in the world both far and near. It’s made heavy by my grief, my fears. And y’all, it gets heavy. So heavy that there are times I can’t listen to or read the news because the reports are so awful, the pictures too painful. I could distract myself with what we call entertainment, but I don’t want my heart to be numbed, drugged into apathy or ignorance. Drugs and addictions come in many forms. So the weight gets heavy, heavier still by the “what if’s.” What if the Islamic State grows stronger? What if the voice of reason and common sense gets out-voted? What if my children don’t learn the way of loving kindness? What if I fail my family, my church, my God? All this and more is in my cross. Can I even lift it?

As if in one breath, what Jesus says is, “Let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Follow.

With Jesus before me, I see Light. I feel hope. I taste joy, and I hear faith. I am strengthened, or my burden is lightened. All the pain of my cross has already been carried for me. Jesus bore the weight of the world; I carry my mess of splinters. The cross I can pick up and carry reminds me that I have scars, scars that taught me to be calm and strong. Scars that taught me to listen, to be kind. Wounds not yet scarred that remind me to be compassionate, not to judge. These scars and wounds are marks of responsibility, gifts I have that will help me serve in God’s will for this world.

Do we follow Jesus with our cross before us? As far as we’re told, Jesus was removed from the cross. Jesus didn’t take the cross to hell and back. He took the wounds, the wounds the apostles saw, that Thomas had to touch. If we put our crosses before us, we might lose our way and get stuck. We might focus on our suffering, losing sight of Jesus and the hope and light he gives us. We know what our crosses are, what they mean to us, what they teach us. They empower us to overcome darkness and death, thanks be to God.

This isn’t an idealistic kind of discipleship. This is very much our real way of living in this world.

In the face of decade-long horrific violence, there are Christians–followers of Christ–who take seriously the call to be peacemakers. There are people like Amado Bello, who was raised Muslim and is now a Christian pastor in the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, who risks his life to speak to those who have the power to kill him. Not only does he speak to them, he treats them with respect, as fellow human beings, trying to understand them. And he prays with them and suggests routes they can take not to be killed “because I love you,” he says. “While driving with his family, (Bello) was stopped and surrounded by a large Boko Haram contingent. Bello expected to be killed, but one militant looked into the car window and recognized him. ‘He’s a good man,’ he told the others. To Bello, he said, ‘You may pass.’ . . . The family drove on without incident,” though they feared the worst.

The militant who let him pass was a man who had previously washed Bello’s car. Bello didn’t know that the man was a militant when he was talking about the importance of listening, understanding, and addressing problems rather than turning to violence and murder. Bello spoke the truth of the gospel and practiced the compassion of our Lord, empowered by the cross that above all things taught him to love his enemy and to pray for those who persecuted him, and he was recognized as Good. He was willing to lose his life for the sake of the gospel.*

Despite the harsh reality, stories like Bello’s can seem distant and unreal. Our neighbors aren’t often seeking us out to persecute us. More often, our enemies are guised as “friends,” say, Friends on Facebook, who say or do something that offends us. We want to strike back, lash out, “unfriend” them. How often do we offer them our sincere prayer? An openly gay, black priest serving in Kansas City, Father Marcus Halley had the presence of mind–the presence of Christ–not to lash out against Kim Davis in all the furor these past couple of weeks. What he did offer, was a letter, a letter he openly published which she may or may not have read. Among other things that I encourage you to read, he says, “It is my meet, right, and bounden duty that I affirm your humanity. Like our Lord who willingly offered himself in love to those who could not or would not return it – I am duty-bound to do the same. Why? Because creation will know that we are Christians, not by the way we argue right versus wrong, but by the way we love one another.”

In denying ourselves, we put our greatest love first. With God before us, we take up our cross, not buried by it or hiding behind it, but we take it up in our very being. And we follow Jesus, together. We follow Jesus boldly yet humbly, wherever he leads, so that all will recognize us by our love.

*Story of Amado Bello: Peggy Gish, “Learning to Love Boko Haram: A Nigerian Peace Church Responds,” Plough Quarterly no. 6 (Autumn 2015): 13-20.

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