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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, April 2, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  2 Corinthians 5:11-21 and Psalm 51:1-12
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I had a seminary professor who thought that the church’s mission was summed up in our reading from 2 Corinthians.  He said that the church’s mission is summed up in the line about how God was in Christ, reconciling the world with God, and now God has given us this ministry of reconciliation.  The church’s job, this professor said, can be summed up like this:  we are to be a vehicle of reconciling the world with God.

While I think the universal church’s job does include reconciling humanity and God, I think there is an additional task:  Reconciling humanity with itself.  Of course, since I don’t believe creation and God are all the separable, the act of some aspect of creation coming back into right relationship with itself is a form of that aspect of creation being reconciled with God.  So, maybe I’m not disagreeing with my professor all that much.  I’ll stop there, before I get lost in some theological esoterica, saying this:  the church’s mission includes, and perhaps should even be focused on, reconciliation.

The full passage we heard from this letter to the Christians in Corinth is about Jesus changing lives.  Here’s my paraphrase of the reading (remember that Paul is writing):
Knowing God revealed in Jesus has changed us.  Sure, to some people we now seem a little nuts – but that’s because God has changed us.  And if we don’t seem nuts to you, that’s because God is changing you, too.  Our priorities have changed.  How we view the world has changed.  How we view you has changed.  We used to live in the world in a way that separated us from God and from people.  No more.  Now we’re reconciled with God.  Nothing stands in the way of our relationship with God.  And now we are helping people find that change in their own lives.

When I take a metaphoric look at the stories in the gospels of Jesus healing people metaphorically, I see Jesus doing exactly what Paul says Jesus was doing.  Jesus was bringing people back into right relationship with God and with their communities.  And when I look at what Jesus said, as recorded in the gospels, he was calling communities to get into right relationship with God and all their people.

I think the act of reconciliation is salvific.  And that, John claims, is what Jesus was all about:  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17, NRSV).  But reconciliation isn’t easy.  If you’ve ever experienced a betrayal in a relationship with someone you love, you know how difficult reconciliation is.  Salvation isn’t easy.  Jesuit John Harriott wrote, “Salvation is not comfortable.  Salvation is not a gentle application of Vaseline to a small cut, but the breaking and resetting of ill-set bones.  We discover our need when we are faced with situations over which we have no control, and in which we have no hope.”[1]

A demand of reconciliation is change.  And change is hard.  A result of salvation is change.  And change is hard.  But Jesus was about transforming lives.  And that hard, painful work is exactly what it’s going to take if we are going to be about the work of ending racism.

The rest of the sermon is primarily for the white people in the congregation (including myself).  That is because I have come to realize that racism is a white person’s disease and it is only if we white people do our work that it can finally be banished.

Being able to claim a “white” identity in the United States comes with certain social, cultural, and economic advantages, from getting a call back for a job interview, to finding an apartment, to getting a booking an Airbnb.  I’ve explored in the previous sermons in this series how this privilege has deep historic roots in our culture.  But acknowledging it, this privilege, is not intended to induce guilt.  Rather, acknowledging it helps us build a sense of responsibility.[2]

If you have any doubts about the reality of white privilege, I encourage you to read the essay “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” by Peggy McIntosh.[3]  In it, she rattles off over two dozen simple ways white folk experience privilege without even realizing it in day-to-day life.  These privileges were born out of a culture of white supremacy – a reality I’ve explored over the past few weeks.

Two professors at Calvin College have pointed out that the denial of the reality of white privilege is actually born out of that same white supremacy.  “If you deny white privilege, if society is indeed meritocratic and the game is essentially fair, it is difficult to avoid assumptions about who tends to win and who tends to lose.  If the white population is not privileged in some way, how else does one explain the discrepancies between them and people of color?  What’s left is assuming that white people are just smarter, more moral, work harder, or have a stronger culture.”[4]

Peggy McIntosh says, “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” that white folk walk around with without even realizing it.  We even open the knapsack and take out those resources from time to time without even realizing it.  Waking up to the reality that we are doing it, waking up to the reality of this privilege is the first step in the transformation of white people, the first step that is needed to end racism.

You see, this is very much a gospel activity.  Racism is a sin.  And Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation is a ministry of repentance, of turning from sin and toward the beloved community.  But it’s hard work, because white supremacy is an idol, and if you ever want to see someone get mad, really mad, threaten their idol.  And just to remind you, an idol is anything we hold onto more tightly than God, anything we worship and honor and value more highly than God.  An idol is any power that holds more sway in our lives than God.  And power, Richard Rohr points out, “never surrenders without a fight.”[5]

“If your entire life has been to live unquestioned in your position of power – a power that was culturally given to you but you think you earned – there is almost no way you will give it up without major failure, suffering, humiliation, or defeat.”[6]  That’s why a growing awareness of white privilege can hurt so much.

Which brings us to the second step in the transformation Jesus wants to work on us white people.  The Calvin College professors advise, “Resist rushing past or suppressing the deep sadness of this idolatry.  It is so easy to medicate with avoidance, delusion, and quick tears.  Repentance requires real sorrow and grief.  It is a sorrow that acknowledges that we have missed the mark, that we have fallen so very short.”[7]

Heather Caliri suggests we can find a model in the story of King Josiah in 2 Kings.  “In 2 Kings 22, Josiah starts restoring the temple after his father and grandfather neglected it.  In the midst of construction, Josiah’s high priest finds the book of the Law and reads it in front of the king.  Upon hearing it, Josiah tears his clothes in grief.…

“Before Josiah’s reign, two generations of Judeans neglected to teach the law.  Josiah and his subjects literally didn’t know any better.  “God still holds them responsible for the sins of their fathers.  To our Western ears, that might sound unfair, even if generational sin is a constant Biblical theme.  Like Josiah, we inherited [the] sin [of racism] not of our own making.  Yet it’s very much our problem.

“Saying things are better now is no excuse.  Josiah could have said the same – after all, he was trying to restore the temple before he discovered the Law.  God required hard repentance anyway.

“Josiah, grieved by his discovery, sent for [the Prophet] Huldah and listened as she blasted him with more bad news.  Josiah could have tuned out her negativity – especially when the sins didn’t happen on his watch, and he’d already done so much to change things.  Instead, he listened.”[8]

To be honest, that’s mostly what I’ve been doing in this sermon series.  I’ve been reading and researching our history and discovering things I’d never been taught.  I’ve sought out articles by and stories from people of color to better understand how they experience this culture.  I have tried, with some success, to open my eyes to the horror of slavery and its brutal legacy, and to the near genocide of the first peoples who lived on this land.  In that process, I have worked on recognizing my prejudices and biases.  This has not been easy work, but if we take Josiah’s story seriously, we must do as he did and patiently listen.  Then, and only then, will we be ready to take action.

“Once Josiah hears [the Prophet] Huldah’s words, he acts.  He burns Asherah poles, deposes priests and dismantles idolatry for 20 years.  Josiah demolishes a complex, idolatrous system.

“Systems span generations.  When our ancestors set up a sinful system, we carry on sinning unless someone dismantles it with tireless energy.  That’s why holding children accountable for the sins of their fathers makes sense.

“Josiah also teaches us who should dismantle systems.  Josiah confronted a system that, as king, benefited him enormously.  But his leadership was crucial – how can anything change unless those with power take action?

“In our own country, black people and other people of color largely lead the way on racial justice, even though they’ve historically had little institutional power.  Though some people and some white institutions have taken brave steps, we have not, as a people, stepped up as Josiah did.  [Since] white people created racist systems, God tasks us with the primary responsibility for challenging them.”[9]

So, here are a few concrete things white people can do to start the process of dismantling racism:

  1. Don’t ask African-American to forget what their ancestors went through as slaves in this country, or ask them to ignore how that impacts them daily.
  2. Don’t detach ourselves from what our ancestors or people that look like us have created, maintained, and have benefited from—and that we continue to benefit from.
  3. Remember that we were born into a system of white supremacy that we did not create, but must actively help to dismantle.
  4. Don’t be afraid to have the ugly conversations with people who look like us, and don’t be afraid to listen to and learn from the people who don’t look like us.
  5. Shut up while people of color tell their own stories, in their own ways, and to their own ends.
  6. Accept the truths and experiences of racial injustice shared by people of color as valid.
  7. Listen to people of color, advocate for people of color, sympathize with people of color, fight alongside people of color, and raise our voices to match the outcries being made by people of color.
  8. Be an ally by standing up against racial injustice, celebrating racial diversity, and taking on this fight as our own.[10]

“Josiah’s story is ultimately a tragedy.  When he dies, his own son goes right back to the idolatrous systems Josiah worked to eradicate.

“I once assumed that the Civil Rights movement had taken care of the sins of previous generations.  Josiah’s failure reveals my naiveté.  Between slavery and [the latest] versions of Jim Crow, we’ve experienced nearly [400] years of state-supported racism in America.  Josiah, in contrast, inherited a fairly new problem:  His father and grandfather wreaked havoc for only 57 years.  Yet 20 years of Josiah’s sustained effort wasn’t enough.  If Josiah couldn’t accomplish change in one generation, how can we assume we did [or we will]?”[11]

This will be a long struggle.  It is a multi-generational struggle.  White people have a lot to confess, and turning the whole system around in an act of societal repentance is a very big ask.  But it is the transformational ministry Jesus is doing in us individually and in us as a church.  And it is the transformational ministry, this ministry of reconciliation, Jesus has given to us.

Amen.

[1] John Harriott, SJ, quoted by Ryan Dowell Baum on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/revryandb/posts/1725011814455430 (posted and accessed 29 March 2017).

[2] Joseph Kuilema and Christina Edmondson, “Confronting White Privilege,” The Banner, http://thebanner.org/features/2017/01/confronting-white-privilege (posted 20 January 2017; accessed 27 March 2017).

[3] Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” The National SEED Project, https://nationalseedproject.org/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack (copyright 1989).

[4] Kuilema and Edmondson, op. cit.

[5] Romal J. Tune, “Richard Rohr on White Privilege,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/articles/richard-rohr-white-privilege (posted 19 January 2016; accessed 27 March 2017).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kuilema and Edmondson, op. cit.

[8] Heather Caliri, “Repenting of Systemic Racism,” Relevant, http://archives.relevantmagazine.com/current/repenting-systemic-racism (posted 7 September 2016; accessed 27 March 2017).  I’ve done some re-setting of her paragraphs.

[9] Ibid.

[10] This is taken from one of my own Facebook posts from 24 February 2016.

[11] Caliri, op. cit.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, November 16, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 25:14-30 and 2 Corinthians 5:11-21
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Those of you who have been around long enough and who have good memories will remember that I preached on our gospel lesson a few years ago.  Those of you who have been around long enough and have really good memories may even remember what I said.  I apologize for the portion of today’s sermon that’s a re-run, but I think it’s necessary.  The church has spent so much time and energy misinterpreting this parable that it is easy to lose track of this more accurate way of looking at this story Jesus told.

I had a professor[i] in seminary who said that interpreting parables (and he was mostly talking about the parables of Jesus) is challenging at best.  He suggested that perhaps they should best be understood as a cross between a riddle and a Zen koan, a cross between a joke, a puzzle, and a pool of wisdom.

If you look at the parables of Jesus, you’ll see that they can be divided into two general categories:  parables that attempt to unmask and critique the way things really are (think about the “there was a certain rich man … and a certain beggar …” parable in Luke 16:19f); and  parables that offer a vision of the way the world could be (think about the ones that start “the kingdom of God is like …,” for instance in Matthew 18:2f).  To fulfill these two tasks, Jesus used recognizable scenarios in plain language that any illiterate peasant could understand.  His parables use farming, shepherding, being in debt, doing hard labor, banquets, being excluded from banquets, rich homes, and poor people.

The thing that makes the parables like riddles is the surprising twist at their endings.  He used things like miraculous harvests, enemies becoming friends, and unexpected vindication.  They are also like a puzzle, so we often miss what Jesus is saying.  In our quest for the wisdom of the parables, they are often interpreted as moral tales, moral fables, and in the process we obscure the real wisdom they have to offer.

This happens much too easily when we forget or simply ignore the socio-cultural context in which the parable was originally told.  When this happens, we often end up recontextualizing the story with our own unconscious socio-cultural assumptions.  And within our unconscious socio-cultural assumptions, the parable ends up domesticated.  The parable[ii] told in today’s reading is a wonderful example of this.

In the King James Version of the Bible, the story begins, “For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants …”  The only problem is that in Matthew made not mention of the kingdom of heaven in verse 14.  He did back in verse 1, to open up the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.  But the line that opens up today’s parable does not mention the kingdom of heaven.

Why did King James’ translators add these words?  Most likely because they were trying to help make the parable understandable and, contextualizing the story in their own unconscious socio-cultural assumptions, stuck those words in.  They assumed that this was a parable about heaven or about the last judgment, so they added these words.  And what havoc is wreaked with these assumptions.

Because of these assumptions, we allegorize the story so the Master in the story ends up representing God, and it’s a pretty darn ugly representation of God.  This God is an absentee landlord who cares only about profit maximization.  This God is hard-hearted and ruthless.  This God is nothing like the God I hear Jesus talking about elsewhere in the gospels.

Despite these concerns, pastors (no doubt myself included) have preached on this parable saying how we Christians should gainfully employ our “talents” for God.  But “talents” in this story have nothing to do with individual gifts and everything to do with economics.  Nonetheless, sermon after sermon misinterpret this parable.

So how should we understand this parable?  I don’t think the original audience would not have allegorized this parable to make sense of it.  They would have heard and immediately recognized Jesus describing a great household – the closest thing in his day to the maga-corporation in our day.  It was quite common for the patriarch of a great household to be away on business, be it economic business or political business.  His affairs would have been handled by slaves, who in Roman society often rose to prominent positions in the household hierarchy as “stewards.”

The clue that reveals that this is a great household is the sums of money used in the story.  They border on hyperbole.  A “talent” was one of the largest values of money in the Hellenistic world.  “A silver coinage, it weighed between fifty-seven and seventy-four pounds.  One talent was equal to 6,000 denarii.”[iii]  One denarius was a subsistence wage for a day’s labor, the wage a peasant would earn for a full day’s labor if he were lucky enough to find employment.  That means that a peasant might earn one talent in 19 years.  Compared to today’s subsistence wage, a talent would be at least a half-million dollars, so the eight talents in the parable are at least equivalent to about $4 million.[iv]  This story is about a man with a lot of money!

The first two slave double their master’s money.  Though lauded by contemporary interpreters, this feat would have elicited disgust from Jesus’ first century audience.  The parable doesn’t say how long the master is away, but with compounded interest it would take 6 years to double the money at a 12% interest rate.  I’ve read that in Jesus’ day, 12% was the highest legal interest rate and I wasn’t able to confirm if interest was compounded or not.[v]

More likely than expecting his audience to know the rule of 72[vi] to calculate how long it takes to double an investment, Jesus knew that they knew all too well the story of how the rich got so rich.  The large landowners made loans to peasant small landowners based on speculation about future crop production.  With high interest rates and possibilities of poor weather conditions, farmers were often unable to make their payments and faced foreclosure.  Once in control of the land, the new owner could continue raking in the money by hiring laborers to farm cash crops.  (This process of economic exploitation and wealth accumulation is all too recognizable in today’s global economy.)

In the parable, the first two of the master’s slaves do this profitable dirty work all too well.  In the Empire’s economy, “success” was defined as the accumulation of more and more money and power.  People who make money like these first two slaves are extolled.  These slaves are seen as “good stewards” of the master’s resources.

The third slave is seen as “unproductive” and a failure.  But in God’s economy, there is such a thing as too much and too little.  It is an economy based on abundance and self-restraint, not scarcity and greed.  When we only gather up what we need and share the rest, there really is enough for everyone.  God’s economy recognizes this.

So, I think the third slave is, in fact, the hero of this parable.  When the master returns to settle accounts, he says the same thing to the first two slaves:  “Well done, good and trustworthy slave … enter into the joy of your master.”  We are used to reading this allegorically, suggesting entry into heavenly bliss.  But rub that hearing out of your ears and hear it how I think it would have been heard by people around Jesus.

The first two slaves seem to get promotions (“I will put you in charge of many thing”), but at the same time they’re reminded that they are still slaves.  They are only “in charge” of many things, not the owners.  They are still stuck in a system that uses the have-nots so the haves can have more.

Then the master comes to the third slave.  Jesus audience knows what happens to a slave that doesn’t play the game.  But before he has to face the music, he gets to be a whistle-blower.  “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.”  He unmasks the fact that the master’s wealth is entirely derived from the toil of others.  The master profits from the backbreaking labor of those who work the land.

Unwilling to participate in this exploitation, the third slave took the money out of circulation where it could no longer be used to dispossess another family farmer.  He repudiates the system, giving the talent back to his master with a curt, “Here you have what is yours.”  I wonder how many of Jesus’ original audience heard this story and thought, “I wish I could do that.  I wish I could speak truth to power.”  Of course this third slave is afraid.  He’s about to meet the prophet’s fate.

I find it interesting that the master does not refute the third slave’s analysis of his world.  The master simply castigates him as “evil and lazy,” the favorite slur of the rich toward those who don’t play the game.  In suggesting that the slave could have at least gotten the market rate by investing it, the master reveals that he’s not interested in “what is [already] my own.”  He appreciates only appreciation.

He then turns to make an example of the third slave, dispossessing him and giving the spoils to his obedient colleague, in order to illustrate how the “real” world works:  “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

What a stark contrast to what Jesus preached about the kin-dom of God.

The consequence of the third slave’s noncooperation with the Empire’s economy is banishment to the “outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Traditionally, we assume that means he’s sent to hell, and so perhaps it is.  Just not a hell that comes after this life.  Instead, this third slave is banished to the hell that so many on earth experience, rejected by the dominant culture, rejected by the economy of the Empire.

Today’s parable is followed immediately by the famous story of judgment that suggests that we meet the Christ when we serve by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.  In other words, we meet Christ in the places where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  The whistle-blower’s punishment may dispossess him of material things, but it brings him closer to Christ.

In our reading from 2 Corinthians, Paul explains what some have called the mission of the church.  “God was in Christ,” he writes, “reconciling the world,” and “[God] has given us this ministry of reconciliation.”  Reconciliation brings an end to enmity, conflict, and alienation.  It brings about a new way of being in relationship.

One of the ways the world is in conflict with God is economic.  The economic values of the Empire of Rome, which very much continue to exist today, are in conflict with the economic values of the Empire of God.  It’s one heck of an uphill push to try to reconcile the world’s economy with God’s.  But that’s the church-universal’s job, according to Paul.  God has given us this ministry of reconciliation.

growlogobrownNiles Discovery Church has come to see our part of that mission, at least now in our life together, to include elements of welcome, growth, and service.  When we welcome all, regardless of economic status, we are opening the door to this work of reconciliation.  When we help each other grow into new understandings of God’s economy, we are taking the first concrete step in this work of reconciliation.  And when we act on these understanding by serving our neighbors, near and far, we are moving forward in this work of reconciliation.

Today, we make and celebrate our financial commitments for carrying out this mission during 2015.  I pray our commitments help us step away from Rome’s economy and toward God’s economy.  May they empower us with the courage to be like the third slave, finding opportunities to refuse to participate in an economic system built on scarcity and greed, finding opportunities to speak truth to power, finding opportunities to serve Christ more deeply and fully.

Amen.
[i] The late Professor Douglas Adams of Pacific School of Religion.

[ii] The interpretation of the “parable of the talents” in this sermon is based on a sermon I preached in April 2011, which, in turn, was based on Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 38-45.  People in my congregation suggested that the sermons series of which the 2011 sermon was a part be published.  My response was, “They have been … by Ched Myers.”

[iii] Brandon Scott, quoted by Ched Myers, The Biblical View of Sabbath Economics (Washington, D.C.: Tell the Word, 2001), 41-42.

[iv] 365 days a year minus 52 Sabbaths off equals 313 days.  19 years x 313 days/year x 8 hours/day x $10/hour = $475,760, which is close enough to a half-million dollars.  Yes, $10/hour is not a subsistence wage in the Bay Area (which would probably be something closer to $20/hour; see http://livingwage.mit.edu/).

[v] See Richard Rohrbaugh, “A Peasant Reading of the Parable of the Talents/Pounds,” Biblical Theology Bulletin, 23:1, Spring 1993, pp 32ff; cited by Ched Myers, op cit.

[vi] See http://financialplan.about.com/od/personalfinance/qt/Ruleof72.htm.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 14, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Matthew 18:21-35 (with Genesis 50:15-21)
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

In last week’s gospel lesson, we heard about a detailed three-stop process for dealing with a community member “who has sinned against you.” The process ends with the expulsion of the offending community member if the three steps fail. It’s a sort of three strikes and you’re out.

This week, picking up where we left off last week, Peter poses the question about how often we’re supposed to forgive. Jesus tells him, “seventy-seven times.” Some translations say, “forgive 70 times seven.” Regardless of the translation, many have interpreted it to mean we are to offer limitless forgiveness.

So which is it – “three strikes and you’re out,” or 77 times, or 490 times, or forgiveness without limit?

And then there’s that troubling parable in today’s lesson. If we do not forgive “from our hearts,” will God really hand us over to be tortured as it says in Matthew 18:35?

Sometimes I think it’s a mistake to try to impose an interpretation on Jesus’ parables. They are stories, and sometimes a better way at understanding them is to let the parable inspire another story. And I happen to have one, written by a Brit, as best I can tell, though I’m unable to figure out who it is.[1] Anyway, I’ve adapted it a bit.

They say lightening never strikes twice. John Rogers knew better. Everyone said how amazingly he had coped with being canned. A “reduction in force,” his boss called it.

It is no easy task to begin again, aged 55, after a lifetime working for the same company. But John had a plan. With a lightness of heart he sank his entire severance package into his new enterprise.

He rented a small space in a strip mall that was a little too far out of town, so it was zoned for manufacturing and retail. It was one of those places with a large, empty parking lot, a mom and pop diner, and a play area that was supposed to make it “family friendly.”

Equipping it with tools, buying and storing the lumber, and creating a display and sales area took all his cash, but it didn’t matter. What was important was that he could now make things. His specialty was wooden toys. Sometimes very traditional things – rocking horses, the grain of the wood dictated the racing shape of the animal.  Sometimes new things that seemed strange as wooden toys – alien space creatures that came apart, and docking satellite stations with flashing lights.

The business-advice woman at the bank said his margins weren’t large enough. He was covering his costs and making enough to live on – just – but he’d never be able to expand, and if supplies and sales got too out of kilter he’d have cash flow problems. He nodded and made some encouraging noises, but in his heart he didn’t care. He was making things. He was happy, perhaps the happiest he’d been in his whole life.

The arson attack was so mindless. A teenager fooling around, oblivious to just how paint and wood and varnish would blaze. He was a new to the area, in a foster home that was supposed to give him safety and structure. John knew nothing of him. He was pleased that the magistrate thought the matter serious; pleased that the sullen youth would serve some time in detention. But that didn’t make up for what he’d lost; somehow all his motivation had gone up in flames, too.

The insurance company paid out. The site manager was efficient in the rebuilding of the unit. Customers urged him on. But as the smell of the burning lingered about the place, so did the dead weight of John’s wounding. It was as if the fire had burnt from him all the enjoyment he’d once had. He was a victim, and he couldn’t shake it off.

And sure enough the business began to fail. His toys didn’t have the same originality about them anymore. The first Christmas after the fire, John just got by. The second Christmas was a disaster. “It won’t survive,” they said. “It was obvious from the start that it wasn’t a sensible thing to do with his severance package.”

The last thing people expected was that he would take on staff: a young man called Andy, a scraggly beard and a pony tail, a ring in his nose and in one of his ears. No one knew where John found him. It was all so unlikely; another indication that John had really lost it.

How surprised the scoffers were when the business started to turn around. Andy had a talent for working wood, and John was soon able to build on it. Teaching Andy rekindled his enthusiasm. For the first time for two years he had ideas for new toys.

And Andy brought something new to the business as well. Computers were his thing. Before joining John, Andy had been on an intensive course and he put his learning to good use. When their work featured in the “Living” section of the local paper, orders started to come thick and fast. They started selling from their own website. The woman at the bank was impressed.  “The business has turned a corner,” she said. When people asked John, “Are you thinking of retiring?” “Never,” was the reply.

But lightening can strike twice. The kid who broke into the workshop/store was after the computer. Why then did he smash the rest of the place up? Why wrecking the stock, smash the lathe, throw files everywhere, pour varnish over everything?

The police seemed to know who he was, but there wasn’t enough evidence to arrest him. “We’ll start again,” John told Andy. “There’s nothing here that a few weeks’ effort won’t put right.” But John’s optimism found no echo in Andy. The younger man burned with anger.

John had no idea how Andy knew who the suspect was. He had no idea either of the revenge he intended. It wasn’t until the police came to tell him that Andy was charged and in jail that he knew something had happened. Andy had followed the suspect to a local fast food place, cornered him in the restrooms, and beaten him until an arm and a nose were broken.

Minutes after the police left, John put the notice on the door. It simply said, “Closed Down.” With a heavy heart he turned off the lights, and locked his workshop for the last time.

A few days later the site manager came to see him. “Don’t you realize how much money you’re going to lose giving up the lease without notice? The business was going so well. Why end it now? You recovered after the fire, you can recover from this.” And sensing the real cause of John’s hurt, he added, “Surely the court will take into account why Andy did it? They’ll be lenient on him. After all it was his first offense.”

“No, not his first,” said John, “he’s already served time for arson.”
Forgiveness is not innate. The three typical responses to threat or hurt are flight, flight, or freeze. Forgiveness may start with “f” but it’s not a standard response. What evolutionary purpose could forgiveness serve? Fighting back, running away, freezing in an attempt to become invisible – these have potential evolutionary benefits. But forgiving? Forgiveness is not natural.

No wonder it’s such a challenge. The thing is, forgiveness does serve a purpose, perhaps not an evolutionary purpose, but a purpose nonetheless. The power of forgiveness is that it gives life.

Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu knows has done more study and teaching on forgiveness than anyone else I can think of. In some of his writing on the subject he tells about his own story.[2] Desmond Tutu’s father was an alcoholic who verbally and physically abused his mother. Young Desmond was a repeated witness to the abuse. He writes, “I can still recall the smell of alcohol, see the fear in my mother’s eyes, and feel the hopeless despair that comes when we see people we love hurting each other in incomprehensible ways.”

Years later, decades later, Tutu writes that if he lets himself dwell in those memories, he feels the anger and the desire to hurt his father.

He recognizes how normal this is, but, he notes, “hurting back rarely satisfies. We think it will, but it doesn’t. If I slap you after you slap me, it does not lessen the sting I feel on my own face, nor does it diminish my sadness as to the fact you have struck me. Retaliation gives, at best, only momentary respite from our pain. The only way to experience permanent healing and peace is to forgive.”

But forgiving is a challenge. It is not an easy thing to do. “Intellectually, I know my father caused pain because he was in pain,” Tutu writes. “Spiritually, I know my faith tells me my father deserves to be forgiven as God forgives us all. But it is still difficult. The traumas we have witnessed or experienced live on in our memories. Even years later they can cause us fresh pain each time we recall them.”

The thing is, forgiveness also has a power – the power to heal. When we choose not to forgive, we compound the pain of the hurt. And we compound it not just for us. We are all connected and when we choose not to forgive, we compound the pain for family, for community, and ultimately for the world.

Consider the impact on families. Siblings quarrel. They refuse to speak to each other. Years pass and their children only know that they don’t visit that aunt and that they don’t really know those cousins. “Forgiveness among the members of the older generations will open the door to healthy and supportive relationships among younger generations.”

Consider what would have happened to the descendants of Jacob if Joseph, who had good reason to hate his brothers, hadn’t chosen to forgive them. The invitation to forgive is not, however, an invitation to forget. “Nor is it an invitation to claim that an injury is less hurtful than it really was. Nor is it a request to paper over the fissure in a relationship, to say it’s okay when it’s not.  It’s not okay to be injured. It’s not okay to be abused. It’s not okay to be violated. It’s not okay to be betrayed.

“But it is okay to forgive.”

How, then, do we forgive? We start by recognizing the reality of the hurt, the violation that lies between us and the perpetrator. We invite the perpetrator to recognize the reality of that hurt as well. And then we seek out the humanity within the perpetrator.

Tutu writes about forgiving his father: “My father has long since died, but if I could speak to him today, I would want to tell him that I had forgiven him. What would I say to him? I would begin by thanking him for all the wonderful things he did for me as my father, but then I would tell him that there was this one thing that hurt me very much. I would tell him how what he did to my mother affected me, how it pained me. Perhaps he would hear me out; perhaps he would not. But still I would forgive him.

“Since I cannot speak to him, I have had to forgive him in my heart. If my father were here today, whether he asked for forgiveness or not, and even if he refused to admit that what he had done was wrong or could not explain why he had done what he did, I would still forgive him. Why would I do such a thing? I would walk the path of forgiveness with him because I know it is the only way to heal the pain in my boyhood heart. Forgiving my father frees me.”

Perhaps more difficult than forgiving others, is the act of forgiving ourselves. I know that for me, accepting forgiveness, especially from myself, is one of the hardest things. I now I’m not alone. We can become so mesmerized by the gravity of our own mistakes in life, that we have trouble believing there can be true forgiveness.

Reflecting on his childhood, Tutu realized that he was not just angry with his father. He was angry with himself. He had failed to stand up to his father and protect his mother. You or I would look at the situation and say, “Of course you didn’t, Desmond. You couldn’t. You were just a kid and he was an adult.” But Tutu held himself to a higher standard and it took him some time to realize how forgiving himself was just as important as forgiving his father. Perhaps more so.

“When I no longer hold his offenses against him,” Tutu writes, “and can also forgive myself, those memories of him no longer exert any control over my moods or my disposition. His violence and my inability to protect my mother no longer define me. I am not the small boy cowering in fear of his drunken rage. I have a new and different story. Forgiveness has liberated both of us. We are free.”

We, each one of us, has been forgiven. Each one of us is the beneficiary of God’s grace. And as recipients of that grace, we are called to extend it to others, to accept the challenge and to harness the power of forgiveness, and in so doing, to heal the world.

Amen.

Sources used and footnotes:

Laurel Dykstra, “Pay Attention to Power,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/pay-attention-power (accessed 7 September 2014).

Will Willimon, “Forgiveness Is Not Innate,” from an email from sermons.com dated 9 September 2014.

Stephen Charleston, status update posted on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/steven.charleston.5, on 2 September 2014.

[1] “If you do not forgive (a story),” PreacherRhetorica, http://www.preacherrhetorica.com/proper-19a.html (accessed 11 September 2014).

[2] Desmond Tutu, “An Invitation to Forgive,” Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/desmond-tutu/an-invitation-to-forgive_b_5050747.html (posted 28 March 2014; accessed 10 September 2014).

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