Sunday, 22 March 2015

Lent, days 27 and 28(!): Sunday sermon, Lent 5B 'The fresh air of forgiveness'

SERMON ‘The fresh air of forgiveness’

1st reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
2nd reading: John 12:20-33

‘Let’s pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our
hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

What is forgiveness?
Comedian Emo Philips tells a story
from his childhood.
He says:
‘When I was a kid I used to pray every night 
for a new bicycle. 
Then I realised that the Lord 
doesn't work that way ...
so I stole one      
and asked Him to forgive me.’

I have a hunch that this is probably not quite
the right approach when it comes to forgiveness!
So, what is the best approach?
And why bother with forgiveness anyway?

Let’s explore our reading from
the Book of Jeremiah...
First, some background context to help us
understand the text.
And we know some of this already - clues that from the book of Isaiah -
readings we looked at before Christmas.
Jeremiah is a prophet -
called to warn king and nation of their impending fate
at the hands of the Babylonians.
The Babylonians are the major power in the area.

Try as he might, Jeremiah’s words are not heeded:
he’s initially ignored, and later, actively persecuted:
by false prophets
by the priests in the temple
and by those who serve the king -
all of them are living in a state of denial,
none of them want to displease the king by
telling him potentially devastating news.
However, Jeremiah’s prophecies come to pass,
and the Babylonians conquer the nation of Judah.
To emphasise that they’re in charge,
they raze the Temple in Jerusalem,
bind the king in chains
and lead him into humiliating exile in Babylon.
In a stroke, the spiritual and earthly leadership
of Judah is destroyed.

With their king now gone
and, with the destruction of the temple,
those left behind are left wondering:
has God disappeared as well?
In the midst of all of this,
Jeremiah calls on God’s community to repent.
But he also reminds them of God’s faithfulness.
The shattered nation has not been deserted -
God is with them.
God will forgive them.
This, despite a lack of faithfulness
from his people;
despite turning to other gods,
despite their leaders - spiritual and national - priests and king - being corrupt,
despite a myriad of failings -
of exploiting, not loving, their neighbour,
of allowing injustice, not God’s justice,
to flourish...
...Despite all of this,
Jeremiah tells the people that
God is still with them.
Calling them to him
calling them to turn back to him
loving them
and forgiving them time after time.

In the aftermath of their defeat
by the Babylonians
Jeremiah tells the community of the
not-quite-as-faithful-as-they-could-have-been
that God is faithful, that God forgives.
And with forgiveness, there’s hope:
Jeremiah talks of a new covenant
that will be written on the people’s hearts -
a new way of being,
where being faithful is as basic as breathing.
God will wash away their sins permanently -
enabling the relationship to continue,
to blossom and flourish
not wither and fade into bitterness.
They are forgiven...
in order that they can move on,
and start afresh.

From our text, it would appear that God’s approach
to forgiveness is one of persistence:
God doesn’t give up even when, to all intents and purposes, things look hopeless.
Instead, the olive branch of forgiveness and reconciliation is offered;
the door, not slammed shut, but left open -
and in that act,
demonstrating a willingness to keep talking,
demonstrating hope,
demonstrating that forgiveness brings healing
and new possibilities.
And, given the merry run-around the people of Judah have given God,
demonstrating that forgiveness is not a sign of weakness
but a sign of strength.
Because the seemingly easier course of action
would be simply just to walk away.
Clearly, forgiveness... is not for wimps.

If forgiveness is potentially so hard, then why bother?
We are the people of God.
Called to follow,
called to love as he loves -
and if last week, we talked of modelling
the manner in which God loves,
this week, we’re thinking about
how to model the manner in which God forgives.
We’re called to love as God loves
and to forgive as God forgives.
And I find it an interesting thing that so many of us
have trouble with forgiving ourselves for past mistakes.
If the God who created the universe, and all therein,
if the God who created us, and who loves us,
can, and does, forgive us,
then we should probably take notice of that,
and learn to live in the light of God’s forgiveness -
and forgive ourselves.

Every week, we think about forgiveness:
we pray about forgiveness -
as we pray the Lord’s Prayer:
‘forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.’
Or, another way of putting it:
‘in the same way in which we forgive others...
forgive us, God.’

So, how are we at forgiving others?
Because, effectively, if we can’t forgive,
we get caught in an ongoing cycle:
holding that grudge,
nursing it close to our hearts, is a recipe for bitterness...
but there’s something else at play - and it has to do with power.
In the act of not forgiving,
we allow the one who has caused hurt,
who’s offended us,
to have a hold over us -
if we keep picking at the scab
it will always be there, raw and bleeding.
We’re trapped.
And it’s only through forgiveness
that we get our life back,
that we find both freedom and peace.

There are some people who would rather die, than forgive.
And effectively, that’s what happens:
relationships wither and die.
And, with no hope for healing,
we begin to wither inside as bitterness takes hold.
This, is not the abundant life that we’re called to:
it’s the opposite and it’s grim.
...The most powerful thing we can do
is to forgive.

In the struggle to overturn Apartheid in South Africa,
Nelson Mandela was thrown into prison.
Desmond Tutu observes that:
‘before Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1962, he was an angry, 
relatively young man. He founded the ANC's military wing. 
When he was released, he surprised everyone because he was 
talking about reconciliation and forgiveness and not about revenge.’
Mandela’s approach,
choosing the way of forgiveness,
paved the way for reconciliation and healing,
and for the nation to find a new way of living and being together.

Tutu describes forgiveness like this:
‘a room can be dank because you have closed the windows, 
you've closed the curtains. But the sun is shining outside, 
and the air is fresh outside. In order to get that fresh air, 
you have to get up and open the window and draw the curtains apart.’

Forgiveness is hard.
It requires that we admit we’re hurt -
it’s an admission of vulnerability that risks being open to further hurt.
It requires that we see the one who has caused the hurt -
not as a monster, or any other dehumanising term we might use -
but as a fellow human being.
Flawed - yes.
But, then, so are we.
And it’s in seeing the one who has caused you pain as human
that leads to pity...
and pity takes away the power dynamic
somehow lessens the rage...
paves the pathway to forgive...
breaks down walls -
a little like the Greeks discovered when Jesus agreed to meet with them -
for there was a wall of cultural hostility between Jews and Greeks
that needed breaking through in order to see the other face to face.
Jesus breaking down the walls, letting them in:
was forgiveness, in a seemingly simple action.

Sometimes we don’t get the chance to meet face to face
with the person who’s hurt us or our loved ones.
Sometimes they refuse to meet,
or acknowledge the wrong they've caused;
sometimes it’s just too late - they've died.
Even so: forgive.
Ask God to help you - he’s been in the forgiveness business a long, long time.
Forgive, so that you can live -
and let the light and fresh air in.

If you were to look in the papers, or on the internet, you’d find many stories
of forgiveness in action:
forgiveness given in seemingly impossible situations.
Forgiveness is not an emotion,
forgiveness is an act of will.
Some of you may know of the Dutch woman, Corrie Ten Boom -
she was a Christian speaker and writer.
Corrie lived with her family - her father, her two sisters and a brother.
They were a family of watchmakers who lived
a relatively unremarkable life, until the German occupation of the Netherlands.
They joined the Dutch Underground, actively working to hide
Jewish people escaping from the Nazis.
Eventually they were discovered.
Corrie, her sister Betsie, and her father Casper were sent to a concentration camp.
Only Corrie survived - released due to a clerical error.
She returned home, and, after the war wrote of her experiences
in a book called ‘The Hiding Place’.
Corrie later returned to Germany,
and, one night, after a speaking engagement
where she’d talked of God’s forgiveness,
a man approached her.
The following, is in her own words:
“It was 1947, and I’d come from Holland to defeated Germany 
with the message that God forgives. It was the truth that 
they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, 
and I gave them my favourite mental picture. 
Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, 
I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown.
‘When we confess our sins,’ I said, 
‘God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. 
And even though I cannot find a Scripture for it, I believe God 
then places a sign out there that says, ’NO FISHING ALLOWED.’

The solemn faces stared back at me... 
And that’s when I saw him, 
working his way forward against the others. 
One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, 
a blue uniform and a cap with skull and crossbones. 
It came back with a rush—the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, 
the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the centre of the floor, 
the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s 
frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. 
That place was Ravensbruck, and the man who was 
making his way forward had been a guard—one of the most cruel guards.
Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: 
"A fine message, Fraulein! How good it is to know that, 
as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!" 
And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, 
fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. 
He would not remember me, of course—how could he 
remember one prisoner among those thousands of women? 
But I     remembered him. 
I was face-to-face with one of my captors 
and my blood seemed to freeze.

"You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk," he was saying. 
"I was a guard there." 
No, he did not remember me. 
"But since that time," he went on, 
"I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me 
for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it 
from your lips as well. Fraulein,"
—again the hand came out—
"will you forgive me?"
And I stood there—
I whose sins had again and again been forgiven—and could not forgive. 
Betsie had died in that place. 
Could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? 
It could have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—
but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult 
thing I had ever had to do.
For I had to do it—I knew that. 
And still I stood there with the coldness 
clutching my heart. 

But forgiveness is not an emotion—
I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, 
and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. 
"Jesus, help me!" I prayed silently. 
"I can lift my hand. I can do that much. 
You supply the feeling." 
And so woodenly, mechanically, 
I thrust out my hand into the one stretched out to me. 
And as I did, an incredible thing took place. 
The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, 
sprang into our joined hands. 
And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my 
whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
"I forgive you, brother!" I cried. "With all my heart!" 

For a long moment, we grasped each other’s hands, 
the former guard and the former prisoner. 
I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then. 
But even then, I realized it was not my love. 
I had tried, and did not have the power. 
It was the power of the Holy Spirit.   ...
[Corrie Ten Boom, 'Tramp for the Lord'

Corrie Ten Boom’s story is a powerful story of forgiveness
and reconciliation under the most extreme of circumstances. ...

We are the kin-dom of heaven on earth -
spiritual kin, brothers and sisters called to live
as a community of reconciliation:
for as we have been forgiven,
by the One lifted up from the earth to draw all humanity to him,
so too, we are called to forgive -
it’s not easy, it’s costly.
For that’s what it is to follow in Christ’s footsteps:
we pick up our cross,
we remove all the obstacles that prevent us - and others -
from following him....
and we go out, into the world,
as God’s beloved and forgiven community:
to share the good news with others,
to be like ears of wheat that fall to the ground
and which sow the seeds of healing,
of peace,
of reconciliation,
and forgiveness.
To sow seeds of hope, and light, and life
and the message of      God’s      love.
And we do all this, with the One
who walks by our side
and who will give us the strength to keep us walking.
And to him be all glory, honour and praise, amen.

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