SERMON FOR YEAR A, PROPER 19
BY THE REV. TOREY LIGHTCAP
SAINT THOMAS EPISCOPAL CHURCH
SEPTEMBER 11, 2011
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen
As we gather under the roof of this holy house today,
We are confronted with competing realities:
Two realities: each one, paradoxically,
Equally true, and seemingly opposed, to the other:
We have been wronged;
And we must forgive.
To the Christian, forgiveness is not optional; it’s not an add-on or a nice-to-have;
It’s not a state we mystically achieve after we have reached some spiritual plateau.
It is, quite simply, required of us each and every day;
And for many of us, it can be the hardest thing to do.
Because forgiveness, for whatever else the dictionary may tell us,
Means admitting at some level that whatever you have done to me,
Not only have I been wronged, but I’ve been wrong:
Wrong to hold on to anger, resentment, this callous heart
That lets me stereotype you and label you and put you on a shelf.
Letting go of all that is the admission that not only have I been wrong,
I’m also not the one in charge,
And if we were really truly truthful, we might confess that we like being in charge.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus teaches us through (if you will) this straightforward parable
That suffering comes from not being able to let go
Of all the frail emotions and desperate narratives to which we cling.
He teaches us about fundamental human behavior,
About the basic need and nature of forgiveness.
He says that all people are like this one person
Who was offered forgiveness on an exorbitant amount of money he owed –
Fifteen years’ worth of paychecks – No chance of repayment –
And of course, he took that forgiveness.
But when the time came for him to be reasonable back,
About forgiving a much smaller amount of money –
About three months’ wages –
He just couldn’t act with the same kind of compassion he himself had received.
He who was forgiven so much could not, himself, forgive even a little.
In the very next teaching, which is on marriage,
Jesus will call attention again to this pattern of thinking,
And he will call it what it is: hard-heartedness.
We must ask: is this going to be our legacy? Hard-heartedness?
On this day, of all days –
This day that means ten years since towers fell and people died –
This day that brings incalculable hurt to the collective memory
Almost just because of how it occurs on the calendar –
This day, a memory of having been wronged,
Senselessly, in a terrible, terrible way –
… On this day, are we really going to choose to be callous and prideful?
Will we be the hard-hearted ones?
Or will we open a new chapter in our collective narrative
That dares to speak of accepting forgiveness and offering forgiveness?
… Sit with that for a moment …
If it seems too audacious a thing to do, then let me ask …
The command is to forgive eternally, perpetually:
What if, as a start, you just forgave seven times?
Not seventy times seven; not yet; just seven times the one wrong.
As a start?
Not just to have done it, but because it’s the right thing to do?
… What if?
If you’re thinking, Gee, I don’t know …
Well, what if you did know?
Who would you choose to forgive in this way?
Just seven times. To start.
Maybe not some monolithic thing like global terrorism;
Maybe, instead, just someone you know,
Someone you’ve had in your life; someone who needs your forgiveness.
It would change your life!
The first forgiveness would be something of a practice, a dry run:
A remembrance, a sting, the memory of the pain.
But imagine pushing through it, maybe – I don’t know – for a month or two;
Imagine getting to the point of being able to say, I really genuinely forgive you.
I daresay the load would be lighter, even if only a bit.
The second forgiveness would be a regret and a lament:
You would say, Do I really have to go back over this territory again?
But just imagine staying with it, sitting with it,
Letting go of just a tiny fraction more of it –
Enough to be able to sit and breathe in that place of pain,
Rather than reacting immediately –
And finally being able to say, again, I forgive you.
One night in February 1993, Oshea Israel, who lived in Minneapolis, was at a party.
He got into an argument with Laramiun Byrd, just 20 years old,
And shot and killed him.
Oshea went into Stillwater Prison for seventeen years,
And eventually, while still in prison,
He agreed to meet with Mary Johnson, Laramiun’s mother.
Mary didn’t ask to meet Oshea at first; it took her a while, better than a decade;
She wanted justice for the death of her only son;
She thought Oshea “was an animal who deserved to be caged.”
But the more she thought about it, the more compelled she felt
That her faith in Jesus demanded that she find some way to forgive.
So she sat down across from Oshea at Stillwater, and she said,
“Look, you don’t know me; I don’t know you; let’s just start with right now.”
When the meeting was over, she stood up, and she hugged him!
And, she says, “Instantly [I] knew that all that anger and the animosity,
All the stuff I had in my heart for 12 years … –
I knew it was over, that I had totally forgiven.”
And she kept coming back, and they just kept trying to understand each other.
He was eventually released;
And now – no lie – his Minneapolis apartment is next door to hers.
He lives in number 902; she lives at number 904.
They look after each other now, keep each other out of trouble.
In the news reports, he looks at her and says,
“You still believe in me.
And the fact that you can do it, despite how much pain I caused you – it’s amazing.”
And the she looks at him and she says,
“I know it’s not an easy thing, to be able to share our story together.
Even with us sitting here together right now,
I know it’s not an easy thing.”
And they tell one another that they love each other.
Not in some fake moment for the cameras, but in real sincerity, and with Christly charity.
By the third forgiveness, my brothers and sisters, you’ll be cursing me
For having brought up this idea in the first place:
When I get a hold of that priest.
And then, gradually, a softening.
Stick with it, push through; stick with it, push through;
Eventually you will find yourself back on that ground: I genuinely forgive you.
By the fourth forgiveness, Jesus’ words will ring in your ears:
Because I have been forgiven much, so must I forgive at least this much –
I cannot be like that petty, unforgiving servant; I know I am called to do better.
And those words will come again, on their own: I forgive you.
It might not be any easier, but I know that by God’s grace,
You will bring it to flower once again.
Bud Welch is the father of Julie Marie Welch, who at age 23,
Was one of the 167 people Timothy McVeigh killed
With a truck bomb targeting a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
McVeigh was caught, tried, and remained unrepentant all the way to the grave.
Bud was scarred forever.
This is his testimony. He says,
Three days after the bombing, as I watched Tim McVeigh being led out of the courthouse, I hoped someone in a high building with a rifle would shoot him dead. I wanted him to fry. In fact, I’d have killed him myself if I’d had the chance.
Unable to deal with the pain of Julie’s death, I started self-medicating with alcohol until eventually the hangovers were lasting all day. Then, on a cold day in January 1996, I came to the bombsight – as I did every day – and I looked across the wasteland where the Murrah Building once stood. My head was splitting from drinking the night before and I thought, “I have to do something different, because what I’m doing isn’t working.”
For the next few weeks I started to reconcile things in my mind, and finally concluded that it was revenge and hate that had killed Julie and the … others. Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols had been against the US government for what happened in Waco, Texas, in 1993 and seeing what they’d done with their vengeance, I knew I had to send mine in a different direction….
I also remembered that shortly after the bombing I’d seen a news report on Tim McVeigh’s father, Bill. He was shown stooping over a flowerbed, and when he stood up I could see that he’d been physically bent over in pain. I recognized it because I was feeling that pain, too.
In December 1998, after Tim McVeigh had been sentenced to death, I had a chance to meet Bill McVeigh at his home near Buffalo. I wanted to show him that I did not blame him. His youngest daughter also wanted to meet me, and after Bill had showed me his garden, the three of us sat around the kitchen table. Up on the wall were family snapshots, including Tim’s graduation picture. They noticed that I kept looking up at it, so I felt compelled to say something. “God, what a good looking kid,” I said.
Earlier, when we’d been in the garden, Bill had asked me, “Bud, are you able to cry?” I’d told him, “I don’t usually have a problem crying.” His reply was, “I can’t cry, even though I’ve got a lot to cry about.” But now, sitting at the kitchen table looking at Tim’s photo, a big tear rolled down his face. It was the love of a father for a son.
When I got ready to leave I shook Bill’s hand, then extended it to Jennifer, but she just grabbed me and threw her arms around me. She was the same sort of age as Julie but felt so much taller. I don’t know which one of us started crying first. Then I held her face in my hands and said, “Look, honey, the three of us are in this for the rest of our lives. I don’t want your brother to die and I’ll do everything I can to prevent it.” As I walked away from the house I realized that until that moment I had walked alone, but now a tremendous weight had lifted from my shoulders. I had found someone who was a bigger victim of the Oklahoma bombing than I was, because while I can speak in front of thousands of people and say wonderful things about Julie, if Bill McVeigh meets a stranger he probably doesn’t even say he had a son.
About a year before the execution I found it in my heart to forgive Tim McVeigh. It was a release for me rather than for him.
I hope you don’t think that the fifth or the sixth forgiveness gets any easier;
If anything, by now you will have worked around some of the why of it – or not –,
And you may still be well within your rights to say,
What you did to me I can understand – or do not – yet the act itself
That will never change;
Nevertheless, I forgive you.
The last time I felt compelled to really forgive someone, it took such a long time;
I’m still doing it.
Number seven can’t be far away; after that, I guess if Jesus has anything to say about it,
I just go on forgiving.
And I’m pretty sure that the last thoughtless thing I did to someone
Left a searing scar that itself cannot be taken away;
It’s just part of that person now – that person I’m thinking of right now –
Even despite, and maybe even because of, my apologies.
Jesus doesn’t command us to understand, after all:
Just to forgive, and to keep on forgiving.
And then to keep on.
Otherwise, it’s like Nelson Mandela said:
“Not to forgive is like drinking a glass of poison and waiting for your enemies to die.”
Don’t be mistaken.
There’s no glory for us.
There’s no glamor in it; no extra beef in the soup,
No additional stars in our crowns, bye-and-bye.
Though it can be nice to walk a little lighter, sleep a little more peacefully at night.
Nevertheless, the commandment stands:
If we would Jesus people be, this we must do.
And glorify God all the same,
“Not only with our lips, but in our lives.”
Forgive, he said. Forgive, forgive, forgive, if you would my disciple be.
What a revolutionary act.
Let us pray.
Lord God, when we are hurt, scared, cornered, out of patience, or have just plain been wronged, you tell us to look to you, through the cross-shattered image of Christ, for hope and restitution and healing and forgiveness and reconciliation. And you tell us to give of the good of what we have received.
May this day be the opening-up of something new and real for each and every one of us and our country. May we find it within ourselves to do as you command.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.