Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Sermon February 23, 2014 Forgiveness Part 2

Matthew 5:38 - 48
Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who, along with her father and other family members, helped many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust during World War II and was imprisoned for it.   In her book, Reflections of God’s Glory (page 69), she wrote, “In Africa a man came to a meeting with bandaged hands. I asked him how he had been injured. He said, “My neighbor’s straw roof was on fire; I helped him to put it out and that’s how my hands were burned.”
“Later I heard the whole story. The neighbor hated him and had set his roof on fire while his wife and children were asleep in the hut. They were in great danger. Fortunately, he was able to put out the fire in his house on time. But sparks flew over to the roof of the man who had set the house on fire and his house started to burn. There was no hate in the heart of this Christian; there was love for his enemy and he did everything he could to put out the fire in his neighbor’s house. That is how his own hands were burned.”
My sermon today could be subtitled ‘Forgiveness part 2’.  Last week when we looked at the commandment of Jesus to ‘be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect’ I noted that the key to understanding that seemingly impossible demand by Jesus is forgiveness.  Jesus knows that we are not able to live perfect lives.  He was well aware of the imperfections of his disciples and everyone he encountered every day.  The commandment in today’s Gospel is just about as impossible as that requirement to be perfect.  Loving your enemy is truly a challenge for people.  I guess we could consider it part of being perfect.  

Loving our neighbours is hard enough sometimes but loving our enemies that seems pretty much impossible.  That story by Corrie ten Boom illustrates how difficult it is.  If I were in that situation I don’t know how I would react and I hope I never have the opportunity to find out.  However, I’m almost certain I would not react as the hero of the story did.  I would probably be filled with hate and the desire for revenge at least at first.  I believe that my reaction would not be unusual.  However, as Christians we are called to love our enemies.  How then is it possible to love someone who does terrible things to you or your loved ones?  I believe that the key to that is forgiveness.  If we cannot forgive the hurts that life and people throw at us there is no possibility of loving not just our enemies but also our neighbours.  More than that, we do not have the possibility of loving ourselves.  

Corrie ten Boom has another statement which addresses the absolute necessity for forgiveness.  She says in Clippings from My Notebook, “Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.”  These are powerful images – the door of resentment; the handcuffs of hatred; the chains of bitterness; the shackles of selfishness.  This is exactly what hatred does.  It locks us in a prison with walls that separate us from the love of God.  However, we cannot love or receive love when we are imprisoned by hatred.

We can’t look at forgiveness through rose colored glasses.  True forgiveness is not in any way easy.  The church I believe has done a disservice by talking about forgiveness as if it comes easily to people.   Our culture has been an accomplice in this.  Just forgive and forget we are told as if everyone can do it if we only try – no problem just forgive and forget.  The church has also held up forgiveness as something we can do just as Jesus ask his Heavenly Father to forgive his executioners when he was on cross.  Jesus certainly did it and shows us the need for it but for us imperfect creatures it is another situation indeed.  There was a story in the news a few years ago which illustrates this.  A Church of England priest – a woman – had given up her ordained status – given up as a priest because she could not bring herself to forgive the person who murdered her son.  She believed that as a priest she was called to forgive as her Saviour had forgiven those who were in the act of executing him.  Despite all her efforts she found it impossible. The account did not go into detail but I have no doubt that this decision came after doing all she could to forgive that murderer.  I deeply regret that she was not able to find forgiveness but I admire her decision.  I also regret her decision because I’m sure she was a wonderful priest and a good shepherd of her flock.  I hope and pray she has been able to find forgiveness in her heart in the intervening years.  

Let us not have any illusions about how difficult true forgiveness is.    My experience of it confirms this.  I have struggled to let go of resentment and anger at people who have hurt me in the past.  Just when I thought I had achieved it, that dark force of resentment crept up on me and took possession of me.  That often happens in the middle of the night when our ego based defenses are at their weakest.  However, forgiveness is absolutely necessary if we are to become the loving people that God intends us to be.  The love of God does have the power to enable us to forgive and to set us free from the hatred and bitterness and resentment that imprisons us and kills our souls.  I want to close with a dream – a prayer really that I discovered when I was in the Holy Land some years ago on pilgrimage with fellow clergy.  We toured the Holocaust museum.  I was moved deeply by what I experienced there – it is a very powerful memorial to the terrible results of hate.  Of all I saw and experienced the thing that affected me the most was the account entitled, Dream of Abramek Kaplowics age 14 murdered at Auschwitz: 

When I grow up and get to be twenty I’ll travel and see the world of plenty.  In a bird with an engine I will set myself down, take off and fly into space, far above the ground.  I’ll fly, I’ll cruise and soar high above the world so lovely in the sky. And so delighted by all the world’s charms, into the heavens I will take off and not have a bother.  The cloud is my sister, the wind my brother.
Abramek could have been consumed with hatred for those who imprisoned him and ultimately murdered him.  However, rather than being chained to hatred he was able to dream of being set free and soaring into the heavens on a journey to his spiritual home. 

Sermon February 16, 2014 Forgiveness Part 1

This is not the Gospel I would have chosen to use to preach my first sermon here at St. Stephen’s.  It would have been much easier to preach on last week’s Gospel lesson.  It spoke of us being the light of the world and not hiding our light under a bushel basket.  However, I don’t think that these things happen by chance.  I have to think that there is a reason why this Gospel lesson came up on the lectionary today.  I’m just not sure what it is. 
Do any of you feel hopeful after hearing the Gospel this morning?  Well I certainly don’t – or didn’t when I re-read this passage on Monday.  Jesus sets a very high standard for us as his followers.  I have certainly been angry with people in the past.  I don’t think I am angry with anyone at the moment but I’m certain that I will be in the future.  I think getting angry is part of being human.  You would have to be a saint not to get angry at times and from what I know of saints a lot of them got angry at times.  I must also admit that I have a wandering eye at times and appreciate a beautiful woman. 
I like to think of that as admiration for God’s creation but I’m not sure after reading this how Jesus would consider it.  He is setting a pretty high standard.  

In the passage before the Gospel reading he tells us,Therefore, whoever breaks* one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”  Now Jesus is talking about the Ten Commandments but it goes beyond that.  As a good Jew he was aware that there were 613 commandments in the Torah.  He was certainly referring to all of them because he tells us that we should not break the least of them and certainly you can’t consider any of the ten as less than any others.  However, there are some of the 613 that can be considered lesser.  How about the prohibition of eating blood?  I don’t follow Kosher laws.  The one a particularly like is the commandment to execute a disobedient child by stoning him or her to death.  I must admit that I have not followed that one.  

Of course it is easy to justify not fulfilling some of these laws.  However, a few verses later Jesus sums up what he expects of his followers, “Be perfect, therefore, as you heavenly Father is perfect.”  How are we to live up to the standard that Jesus has set for us?  If we accept what Jesus is telling us at face value we might as well forget it.  We are doomed to failure and whatever punishment lies ahead for us when we meet our maker.  However, these commandments of Jesus cannot be taken out of context of his life and teachings.  Jesus spent a lot of time with outcasts and sinners.  I believe he did that because he knew that they were in need of him.  But I also in my imagination believe that it was because they were a lot more enjoyable to spend time with that the good pious people.  Jesus was also compassionate.  Remember the account of him saving the woman who was about to be stoned for adultery.  He stopped those preparing to stone her in their tracks by telling them that anyone who was without sin should cast the first stone.  Jesus knew that no one was perfect – no one was without sin.  So why would he require perfection of us?

If we investigate this at more depth we can discover that there are alternate ways of understanding what Jesus is saying.  We are reading this in English after various translations and after an oral tradition.  I have for some time struggled with the commandment of Jesus that tells us to be perfect.  That is certainly impossible for me and I do not know anyone who is perfect.  I also think it can be detrimental if we have expectations of ourselves and others that we will be perfect.  An alternate understanding of this passage is that the original language that Jesus was speaking in – Aramaic – a better translation of perfection is ‘all embracing’.  That is something which I can strive for.  It is still not something that is easy but it is a wonderful goal.  To embrace God’s creation in all its variety would be wonderful and I am striving more to do that in my life.  

However, I believe that the key to understanding the Gospel and much of his message for us can be contained in one word, ‘forgiveness’.  Jesus was and is well aware that we are not able to live the perfect life.  He told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more. However, if she didn’t – and I’m sure she sinned in different ways many times in her life as we all do.  However, if he had encountered her again he would have had the same message for her – he would not condemn her – her sins would be forgiven.   

For me the essence of this approach is summed up in our baptismal covenant.  One of the covenant statement says, ‘Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?’  Note it says not if you fall into sin but whenever you fall into sin.   We are to persevere in resisting evil.  But we will inevitably fail to do so.  We will miss the mark which is one meaning of sin.  As Christians we are called to repent of our sin – to acknowledge them to ourselves and to God and aim once more to hit the mark.  This may difficult and it is but it is not impossible for with God all things are possible.  Thanks be to God. 

Canadian Hockey Culture

Happy Family Day to everyone who is celebrating it today and even if it is not an official holiday where you are go ahead anyway.  It was not really on my horizon as being semi-retired I have the day off anyway.  I guess I just have to remember not to go shopping today as most things are closed here in Ontario. 

I am doing an interim ministry at St. Stephen's Stratford until after Easter and had my second worship service yesterday.  I also did my first children's focus and there were four little girls in attendance before they went off to Sunday School.  I have had mixed feelings about 'children's focuses' as they can turn into 'children say the darndest things' and children on display for the congregation.  I try to keep it short and not too sweet and focus on sending them off to Sunday School.

Yesterday I did talk about family and getting to know the children a bit.  I didn't have Family Day specifically in mind but this morning what comes to mind is what makes up a family today.  We have the traditional - almost deceased idea of the nuclear family of a dad who goes out to work and a stay-at-home mom and two and a half kids.  I did have close to that when I was growing up although there were four children but that certainly wasn't my experience as an adult.  The permutations and combinations have increased exponentially in the last ten, twenty or even thirty years.  This of course has its positives and negatives as does just about everything in life but the main positive for me is that people who are on the outside of mainstream do have more opportunity to live in loving supportive relationships.  That for me is a big positive.