Luke 15 vs 1 to 10
Sermon by Sue Waldron
Today’s readings present us with the bigger picture, about who God is, who Jesus is and who we are. There are different perspectives, and if we weave them together, we come up with a kind of tapestry of our own identity, of what we believe and how we got there. Embedded firmly in it are the issues of sin, repentance, forgiveness and gratitude and joy.
Jeremiah’s perspective, his image of God is that God is severe and judgmental who punishes sinners by destruction or turning his back on them. This is how the Pharisees and scribes saw God too and maybe this has been or is, part of our own experience at times.
Paul’s experience of Jesus and God is one of overwhelming gratitude and humility – of wonderment that he, foremost among sinners (as he says) should be treated with such mercy and love. And he gives all honour and praise to the Creator God, King of all Ages. Some of us may have been confronted suddenly by Jesus, as Paul was or else may have realized one day that we had been walking with him all our lives… and then when we finally understood what he had done for us, our desire was that he would use us in his service.
In the gospel reading we hear how Jesus is faced with the Pharisees and scribes who apparently believe that those whom they judge to be sinners should be avoided/ignored and are past redemption. And so he tells them 2 parables (3 actually) about the nature of a God who stops at nothing to seek out, find and reconcile with any of God’s children who are lost… and many of us have taken comfort in these images as we have turned to God in distress.
And so the readings evoke different ways that God is imagined – as a severe figure, harsh, punitive and unforgiving – or as a gracious savior, a faithful shepherd, a determined attentive maternal figure and an unconditionally forgiving Father figure.
I’d like to focus on Paul’s perspective/experience. We all know how as the Pharisee Saul, he persecuted Christians and sought to destroy Jesus’ followers before he met Christ on the road to Damascus. The shame and regret he felt regarding his actions must have been what caused him to describe himself as ‘foremost among sinners’ Yet this penitent and forgiven sinner went on to become one of Jesus’ foremost evangelists, taking his gospel far and wide, to the ends of the earth. By the power of God’s forgiveness he was truly empowered for service. And so let’s consider the power of God’s forgiveness.
God’s forgiveness is transformative – it unblocks the limits we place on ourselves. It allows us/me to envision the person we truly are, as God sees us – as Thomas Moore says, forgiveness allows life to resume its flow. And of course God’s forgiveness gives us the capacity to forgive others. We pray every day, Forgive us our sins as we forgive …..’ this is not always easy to do though – the breezy rhetoric of forgive and forget doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. It’s one thing forgiving someone who pushed in front of you in traffic – another when they have stolen something that had precious memories – and yet another to forgive someone who was responsible for the death of a loved one.
But the need for forgiveness is probably more central to human existence than we’ve thought. We thirst for it because without it, our lives are superficial/empty, we feel we are unconnected with other lives on any deep meaningful level. The psychological and physical effects of forgiveness and lack of forgiveness have been researched and recorded – our blood pressure remains elevated, breathing is faster and shallower tension is held in the body when we cannot forgive – our relationships are affected because trust and goodwill are compromised. So there really are hidden costs to unforgiveness.
All the great religions of the world place emphasis on it. Muslims pray for forgiveness from all wrong-doings 5x a day. Jews keep Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement as the holiest day of the year. They feel closest to God on this day as they focus on repentance and forgiveness of one another and they look forward to the forgiveness of God bestowed on them, with blessings for the year ahead. And Christians pray the Lord’s prayer ‘forgive us our sins as … most probably at least once a day. So this may all make forgiveness seem straightforward and easy … but it’s not. What about the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the people who disappeared during the years of the apartheid struggle? Are the families (mothers, fathers, children) able to forgive the soldiers involved in the on-going killings in Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia? Certainly the depth and magnitude of pain caused and the evil inflicted makes the question of forgiveness complicated … and if there is no justice and the perpetrators don’t show any remorse or regret, it’s difficult. There’s a story told by a man called Everitt (Ev) about his and his family’s experience in this regard. On Christmas Eve a few years ago, some men broke into his elderly mother’s home with the intention of stealing some goods. But when she resisted them, the attempted robbery turned to brutal murder. The police did catch the criminals, but due to a technicality they were not jailed or held to account … so there was no justice. Ev and his siblings anguished and angered over this, but then came to the decision that they would forgive the perpetrators. He said they did this for their mother and themselves, because in that way they were able to honour the values she had instilled in them.
In a similar vein, Thomas Moore says that often, before forgiveness is possible some aspects of our imagination may have to shift – perhaps it is in the remembering of a situation or a person, that we reconstruct the memories with fresh eyes … see things we didn’t notice before. This is hard work – emotional and spiritual work, but you may find that in this effort towards healing, it’s as though a valve is opened which allows life begin flowing again … and you can believe then, that forgiveness is at hand.
It doesn’t mean that the circumstances or people are forgotten, but that the pain and hurt is reframed – it is handed over and doesn’t overwhelm or control your life. Memories are important – they are part of who we are. Alexandra Asseily is a lady who has made an important contribution to the conversation about memories and forgiveness. She is Russian-born, raised in England, married a Lebanese businessman, and raised her children in London and Beirut. She is fluent in English, Arabic and French and is equally at home in Christian and Muslim Arabic worlds. While living in Beirut, she became increasingly aware of the effect that the memories of parents and grandparents have on us. These are passed down from generation to generation through conversations, experiences and through what is observed … and the effect so often is that emotional and psychic pain is experienced and perpetuated in the next generation. Alexandra could see the role that painful memories of Lebanon’s violent history of oppression and conflict, still play out in the present day. And so she has become involved in overseeing the construction of a Garden of Forgiveness in the middle of Beirut city. It is on a site where there is historical layer upon layer of ruins from the various invasions and conquests suffered by the Lebanese through the centuries. It is close to the war-time green line which separated the Christian and Muslim parts of the city, and it is surrounded/overlooked by 3 Christian cathedrals, and 3 Mosques. It is a garden where there is grass, trees, water and some structures – lots of different areas to walk, sit, pray or talk. She says she wants it to be a place where “people can confront ancestral memories and rid them of pain through the act of forgiveness”. So if we can forgive, we can let go of the pain in the memory, and pass on only the memories to future generations without being overwhelmed and controlled by it and without being ‘puppets of the past”.
The building of the Garden of Forgiveness is something that has caught the imagination of many people around the world. 3 women who lost family members in the 9/11 tragedy, travelled to Beirut to see it. They planted an olive tree there, putting photos of their loved ones in the ground beneath it. They found great relief in the act of planting the tree because all 3 were unable to recover the bodies of these loved ones to bury them. And this ritual helped them, in some measure, to forgive – to forgive those responsible for the bombings and also to forgive themselves for the resentment that they continued to feel.
So sometimes when forgiveness just seems impossible, it helps to do something – to plant, nurture, draw, paint, or even burn (something like a letter/prayer or a poem, not a building or a person!)
Today I set out to consider the power of God’s forgiveness as experienced by St Paul who was thus empowered to face the opposition, endure imprisonment and risk death several times as he went out and took the gospel of Jesus to places far and wide. He was strengthened and sustained by the belief that God had chosen him and forgiven his sin because he had acted in ignorance. God’s forgiveness is freely and generously given, and when we can accept it, we praise and thank God, for we understand that it is transformative. It opens us up to the freedom to be as we were created … and allows us the grace and the capacity to forgive others. In the world we live in today, this is not easy – although it is probably not any more difficult than it was in Paul’s time. Perhaps though we can draw more on our community to help us when we are struggling.