Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
There have been some pretty funny rapture jokes flying around the internet and I imagine a fair number of preachers are including one or two in their sermons this morning. I liked the suggestion, which was more of a practical joke – to leave some clearly identifiable outfit of clothing out on a sidewalk or in the driveway – shirt, pants, shoes, as if you’ve been raptured right out of them and all that’s left behind are your clothes. That would have been fun. I’m interested in how one fairly pathetic old preacher, Harold Camping, managed to cause such a stir. In 1992, he predicted the world would end in 1994. When it didn’t, he said the calculation was a mistake, and upon a more accurate recalculation, he set yesterday, May 21st as the big day. I remember hearing Avery Post, that beloved saint of the United Church of Christ once say, right here in our Batchelder Lounge, there is such a thing as bad religion. And bad religion is dangerous and damaging and hurtful. Many of Harold Camping’s followers dropped out of medical schools, quit their jobs, left their family members, squandered all their savings in order to join in the caravans that traveled around the country to spread the message. Only one of his six living children still believed him. “Most of my family, I can’t even talk about it with,” Camping said. The thing about bad religion, all the foolishness notwithstanding, is that it preys on vulnerable minds. It makes people who don’t have a strong, flexible core of self-confidence and common sense react in harmful ways. It cheapens religion’s highest aspirations.
There are only a few essential requirements for being a Christian and none of them have anything to do with heaven and hell or the apocalypse. There are a million details, of course, and complications and contexts, but there only three or four requisite behaviors upon which the whole of Christian discipleship rests. One of those principles is to accept and bear responsibility for those who are weaker, poorer, and unjustly judged by those with power. Another principle is to love your neighbor and to appreciate that every stranger is your neighbor. A third – is to look deeply into your own heart, your own motivations, your own trash before judging the heart, motivations, or trash of another person. And the fourth – forgive, just forgive, forgive, forgive. These four requirements are difficult, of course, but it is this last one – you must forgive, that we tend to think is, well, optional. Some things are unforgivable, aren’t they? And maybe withholding forgiveness can bring about a change in behavior of the person who has done wrong. That would be nice reframing. Wrong, but certainly attractive.
Forgiveness. So powerful and so necessary. I remember once, years ago, preaching for a large gathering of UCC clergy and lay folks about judgmentalism. After the service, one drama-hungry minister told me that he forgives me. Well, thank you? This forgiveness stuff can get tricky – was I now supposed to forgive him, for forgiving me? Forgiveness requires humility, self-awareness, the full employment of emotions we would rather not feel. And while some people are better able to enter into its risky embrace, confident that on the other side of forgiveness is serenity, asking to be forgiven is not easy for anyone and actually forgiving is even harder. Whether working out an issue with a family member or friend or intimate partner, or trying to find the way through a catastrophic event, forgiveness is somehow involved and it is often wrenching.
I think about when I need to forgive someone for something he or she has done. I’d rather think about those times than all the times and ways I’ve done things for which I need forgiveness. I know, as sure as I am standing here before you this morning, that everyone in this room is withholding forgiveness from someone. I know I am. And, as sure as I am standing here, everyone of us in this room needs to ask forgiveness from someone, maybe even someone very close to us.
Being forgiving is the cornerstone of Christianity. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And in today’s reading from Acts, right at the brink of his death, Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”. There have been injuries done to us, to our hearts, our sense of worth, of self—injuries that have been real and vicious, unintentional and intentional, injuries that even lead to death and sorrow. Can we forgive those who are responsible for the injuries? I recently wrote an essay about the use of religious symbols and metaphors in the practice of executions in this country. Two in particular hold a kind of obsessive interest for people – the last meal and the last words. What did he ask to eat? There is the heart-breaking story of who only ate a bit of his last piece of pie, saying he wanted to save some for later. And waiting to hear the last words of the condemned, presuming that they might offer a confession from the unrepentant, or the secrets of the serial-killer. Witnesses to the witnesses tell us that most people come away from executions unsatisfied, not having heard from the dying what they need to hear. And what would that be, the words that would soothe, bring closure, or demonstrate that “justice has been done” (and may I just add, parenthetically, that I despise that sentence). Would Stephen’s last words at his stoning have soothed, brought closure, or inspired in the hearts of those throwing the rocks the confidence that justice was done?
John Patton, a clinical pastoral psychologist who calls forgiveness the “common human denominator”, wrote the best book I’ve ever read about forgiveness. It was from his book I first understood that to forgive another requires that we first recognize that we have more in common with the person who has harmed us than not. This difficult proposition is from his book Is Human Forgiveness Possible? written more than 25 years ago. Its lessons are timeless and eminently accessible to anyone who wants to be a forgiving person. I am certain that critical self-awareness is the necessary and most difficult first step toward genuine forgiveness. It is confession. It is the relinquishment of moral superiority. It is the paradigm of humility. I have been harmed, and I am one who harms. I have been wounded, and I have wounded others. I share culpability. My humanity has been shaped by many of the same forces that have shaped the humanity of the perpetrator. I am him in another skin and living another life. I share her experience only in another setting. Is it not possible, even probable, that I have injured someone as deeply as I have been injured? Is it not possible that, though our circumstances vary widely, there but for an accident of fate go I? And if I have injured another human being and have not asked forgiveness, have I any moral right to withhold forgiveness from this person who has harmed me? Am I not complicit in the privileges that come with wealth and race and nationality? Am I good because I genuinely want to be good, or is it just because it is the way I have been conditioned? If my skin were brown, if I had been born in Afghanistan, if I were a Muslim by family origin, if I were dirt-poor and could find my only self love as an object of another’s sexual desire, if I couldn’t read, if my teeth were rotted because I couldn’t afford a dentist, if I had to rely on public transportation to get to work, if I didn’t have a job, if I didn’t know how to access helping services, who would I be? Who would I harm? Who wouldn’t judge me? I this not the very essence of Jesus’ simple and most powerful words, “let the one without sin cast the first stone”.
Some of us need to ask forgiveness - to be forgiven, both by the person we have harmed and by God who waits, patiently, for us. We have all done stupid things, let our impulsiveness run ahead of our heads. We have been motivated by human emotions we thought were under control, the desire to feel superior, the rationalization of temporary pleasure, the illusion of detachment, the myth of autonomy. We have said things too quickly, been entirely too obsessed with ourselves, pretended our actions would have no impact on anyone else or that they should influence everyone else. We have not been patient enough. We have not recognized our own shortcomings in our children. We have been seduced by our culture’s values instead of committed to our faith’s values. We have been persuaded that to excise the undesirable is the greater good. And because of all these things, we need forgiveness. Who are we then, to hold on to resentments? Who are we to withhold forgiveness? Who are we if we do not embrace our common humanity with those who have hurt us?
A long time ago, Frederick Buechner wrote, “To accept forgiveness means to admit that you’ve done something unspeakable that needs to be forgiven, and thus both parties must swallow the same thing: their pride. This seems to explain what Jesus means when he says to God, ‘Forgive us our [sins] as we forgive those who [sin] against us.’ Jesus is not saying that God’s forgiveness is conditional upon our forgiving others. When somebody you’ve wronged forgives you, you’re spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience. When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you’re spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride. For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins…”(p.29).
Well, one day, not long from now, another sermon will be titled “Forgiveness, Again”. It is, apparently, a throb that won’t go away forever. No, as long as we are alive, you and me, we’re going to have to work at it – that is, if we want to be Jesus’ disciples. Amen.