October 01, 2023
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
St. Luke’s UMC
October 1, 2023
World Communion Sunday
The World’s Greatest Need
John 20:22-23; 1 Corinthians 13:12; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19
There’s a legendary story about a soldier in Napoleon’s army who committed an offense and was sentenced to death. Upon hearing the news the soldier’s mother left her home and made the arduous journey to find the general and plead for her son’s life. Upon reaching Napoleon she bowed down and begged for mercy for her son. The general replied, “Your son doesn’t deserve mercy!” The mother responded, “Sir, if he deserved it, it would no longer be mercy.”
Napoleon released her son.
We begin today a three-week series on forgiveness. The idea of forgiveness, of mercy, is a beautiful thing to many of us, yet the need to deserve is something we don’t let go of easily. As C. S. Lewis said, “Forgiveness is a lovely thing, until we have something to forgive.”
The tension between mercy and justice has become a heated matter in our world today. In our efforts to become a more equitable society that confronts issues like racism and sexism, organizations have arisen like Black Lives Matter and the Me-Too Movement. The purpose of such groups is to call out injustices and to make racial and gender discrimination or attack socially unacceptable. This a good thing.
But our swift action to remove or dismiss people who violate socially acceptable behavior has led to what’s become known as the “cancel culture,” an intolerance for those who offend. And some wonder if the climate of cancel culture is making us intolerant of anyone and everyone we disagree with or dislike. In such a climate we can allow grievances or disagreements to explode into reasons for castigating people and labeling others into the most extreme and darkest categories.
A Pew Research Center report that surveyed Americans on cancel culture showed many believe this has created a higher sense of accountability. But nearly an equal number question if its becoming punitive and vengeful, particularly when it comes to the ways such calling-out happens, like on social media. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2021/05/19/americans-and-cancel-culture-where-some-see-calls-for-accountability-others-see-censorship-punishment/
Of all places, A New York Times article in 2020 even made a connection between our cancel culture and the Old Testament practice of scapegoating. Last Sunday was the Holy Day of Yom Kippur in Judaism. This recalls the event from the wilderness years in Israel’s history where they took a scarlet cloth, representing the sins of the community and tied it on the head of a goat that would then be sent away into the wilderness. In relating this event to cancel culture the author said, “No longer is it acknowledged, however tacitly or subconsciously, that the scapegoat, whether guilty or not of a particular offense, is ultimately a mere stand-in for the true culprits responsible for a society gone askew (ourselves and the system we’re complicit in). Instead, the scapegoat is demonized, forced to bear and incarnate everyone’s guilt, on top of their own.” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/03/t-magazine/cancel-culture-history.html
This article also made the point that the word “cancel” comes from the same root as the word “cancer,” and it questioned if our cancelling others is becoming cancerous in our culture.
The most insightful resource I found that puts a spiritual light on this modern social reality is Tim Keller’s book, Forgive. Keller acknowledges the tension between justice and mercy. He cites the example of Desmond Tutu, the former South African archbishop, who after the fall of apartheid, became a huge advocate for establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He and other leaders said they must learn the lessons from places like the Balkans where corrections against tribal abuses became opportunities to retaliate once power and control shifted hands. Divisions among people didn’t lessen just because offenders were punished. Tutu and others wanted to create a future for South Africa in which the goal would not be just punishment, but reconciliation.
But this is not easy work. The tension between mercy and justice is messy. In a more recent example in our country, Keller references Amber Guyger, the Dallas police officer who in 2018 mistakenly walked into her neighbor’s apartment one night thinking it was her own. Seeing a black man inside she drew her weapon and killed him. After being sentenced in a courtroom to 10 years in prison, the victim’s brother, Brandt Jean, forgave Guyger and embraced her. Keller points out that nationwide the reaction was mixed. Some celebrated Jean’s action. Others vilified him saying this was just another example of Black empathy allowing white abuse to continue.
But if we think the tension between mercy and justice can be prickly, if not volatile, in our world, imagine the people of Jesus’ world hearing him say things like “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This would have evoked an angry reaction from some listening to him. They would have held to a high social value of loving only your neighbors and hating your enemies. After all this is what the Bible taught and what religious tradition confirmed. Some listening to Jesus would no doubt have fired back at him, “You’ve gone too far now. You aren’t even teaching the Bible! You disrespect what thousands of years of tradition has valued. You are undermining our way of life!”
So we can imagine that Jesus had detractors too, yet he continued to speak about the importance of forgiveness. In fact, when you look at all of the ways this topic came up in Jesus’ life you wonder if it was not his most important message. Consider:
--First of all, that Jesus himself forgave people. This was radical. No one but God can forgive sin. Jesus took forgiveness from just being an individual experience with God and brought it into the context of human relationships.
--He taught parables like The Laborers in the Vineyard that radically challenged what fairness and justice mean and The Prodigal Son.
--He told his disciples to forgive not just 7 times but 70 times 7!
--He taught things like, “blessed are the merciful…” and “He who has been forgiven much, loves much”
--He prayed in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
--At the Last Supper he said that his blood was “poured out for the forgiveness of sin.”
--On the cross he demonstrated his ethic by praying for his abusers saying, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
It is overwhelming the amount of times Jesus emphasized forgiveness. But the climax of attention on forgiveness comes after the resurrection, on the evening of Easter. He appeared to the disciples and breathed on them the Holy Spirit, a symbol of Jesus imparting on them his power and authority. He said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; and if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Holy cow, church! What are we to do with that?
The Gospel of Matthew makes a similar declaration, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 18:18) In other words we are given the power to bind up or release.
Perhaps Jesus saw in his world things not that different from our own, people needing to be unbound; unbound from the hurts they’ve caused; unbound from the hurts others have done to them. And answer to our great need is forgiveness.
So let me offer two observations. The first is this: Forgiveness Releases Us from Unforgiveness. I know that sounds rather obvious but it’s easy to forget, especially when we are the aggrieved. We can get so caught up in someone getting what’s coming to them that we become consumed. And before long our resentment will morph into self-righteousness and vengeance so that we start to cause the very hurt that hurt us.
The actor, Carrie Fisher, said “resentment is like drinking poison and then waiting on the other person to die.” (Keller, Forgive, p37)
In the Apostle Paul’s great chapter on love in 1 Corinthians 13, he said, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” (v.12 ESV) In other words we don’t see things completely. Not now anyway, not in this life. None of us can say we have the full, right perspective. And when we act out of a skewed perspective we can’t expect conditions to improve.
But notice in that verse it says one day we will see face to face. That’s the point, to live with a humility that says, our opinion may be wrong, but our aim is reconciliation. Our aim in working toward justice, in correcting the wrongs of this world, is still to look face to face at people we once called enemies and have nothing but love for them.
A good example of this is Eva Kor. She was a holocaust survivor of the infamous Auschwitz Concentration Camp who ended up living in Terre Haute. In her years after the war she became consumed with anger toward the Nazis and it was destroying her so she made the radical, public declaration to forgive. At first her announcement was met with outrage. Fellow holocaust survivors called her a traitor. But she persisted.
Listen to some of her words on forgiveness:
Forgiveness is not forgetting. Its impossible to forget events that deeply affect our lives.
Forgiveness has everything to do with the need of victims to be free from the pain inflicted upon them.
Forgiveness prevents future violence. We can teach people that, when they are hurting, instead of acting out of pain they can heal themselves through forgiveness.
Forgiveness brings serenity, healing, respect, freedom, peace, and love. Let’s see what the opposition brings: pain, anger, revenge, and war. Forgiveness provides the choice to live in peace and be happy instead.
But more is still needed. Left at just this forgiveness becomes a therapeutic, a self-help practice for victims, and forgiveness means more. And so another reason Jesus emphasized forgiveness is because: Reconciliation is the Goal. If we aren’t careful when talking about forgiveness it will appear as though justice is lessened and that must never be the case. God is God of justice. Its just that justice alone is not enough. Just making perpetrators pay for their wrongs does not rid society of wrongs. Otherwise all the punishment done to Nazi criminals should have removed the threat of Nazi ideology from our world but it is still here.
There must be more than justice and for Jesus, that is reconciliation. To the degree that it is possible, having improved relationships must be our goal. Helping offenders no longer want to offend must be our goal. Not tolerating evil AND preserving community is a messy, challenging task, but this is the mission to which we have been called.
Paul understood this in a world and culture that easily cancelled out others. He wrote in 2 Corinthians, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
When reconciliation is our goal, our pursuit of justice doesn’t change, but the way we go about it should.
Let me close with a story I believe pulls together a number of these thoughts, but relates in a way that is very practical and on a level of personal relationship….