Monday, March 26, 2012

Forgiveness is the Main Event

Common English Bible (CEB)
 31 The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant with me even though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the LORD. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the LORD!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.

Jeremiah spoke these words to the people as together they struggled with the consequences of Israel’s disobedience to the law of God. The consequence was this - the overthrow and loss of their nation, the destruction of the Temple, the Ark of the Covenant and all the other sacred objects carried off to Babylon, along with the priests, the nobles and all the other leaders - anyone who those who were left behind might rally behind. The situation was not good. All they could see was a future in exile. All they could see was what they had lost. Jeremiah didn’t make it easy for them. He didn’t let them off the hook. He laid the blame for all of these things right at their feet for their disobedience. Then, he brought them the words of hope God had given him. He told them about the new covenant God would make with the people of Israel in time to come.

I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the LORD!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord;
If only. If only that was truly the case. If only we all acted as if God’s instructions were engraved on every heart from birth onwards. If only we all knew God in that way, and lived as if we knew that each and every other person also had God in their hearts. If only there was no need to teach our children to know God because they would see only loving obedience in all the people around them.

If you follow political news at all you are probably aware of the battles raging right now over women’s health, care for the poor, who gets the right to vote and other critically important issues. I find it especially disturbing that Christianity is being used as a reason for divesting women and minorities of their hard won rights. If you follow the national news right now you will probably have seen stories on the young man in Florida who was executed on a residential Florida street for the crime of walking while being black. The outrage over his killing, however, isn’t just because the shooting appears to have been racially motivated, although that is certainly reason for outrage. The outcry is because the admitted shooter, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, was not arrested or even taken in for questioning, and he was allowed to keep his gun. The admitted shooter told 911 that he thought the young man walking home from the mini-mart with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea looked threatening because he was black and wearing a hoodie. He then told them he was following the young man and was told by the 911 operator not to do that. A few minutes later, Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old honor student visiting his father for the weekend, lay dead. George Zimmerman claimed self defense.
TV personality Geraldo said that parents of young men of color should tell their sons not to ever wear a hoodie - that wearing a hoodie is what got Trayvon shot. Really? That’s right up there with claiming that short skirts and tight blue jeans cause rape. Today to protest that mind set, preachers all over the country are wearing hoodies. At the Ecumenical Advocacy event in DC a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea were placed on the communion table, and that too is happening in congregations across our land. Meanwhile, Black preachers are speaking out from their own life experience.
Dr. Preston T. Adams, III, Pastor of Amazing Grace CC (DOC)) in Indianapolis said: “As we ponder and respond to the Trayvon Martin tragedy, I'd also like us to consider the following: In my hometown of Chicago, 60 people were shot over the past weekend. Many of them were kids and several died including a child under age 8. Where is the national outrage for this? In the city I call home now (Indianapolis), a 16 year old allegedly shot 5 other teens in a gang related incident downtown using a .40 caliber weapon. Where is the outrage over this? I agree that we should be outraged over the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, but it can't stop there”.

Dr. Jack Sullivan, Regional Minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Pennsylvania said: “Twice in my adult life, while out engaging in ministry and service, and breaking no laws, I was stopped and questioned by law enforcement officers for no reason other than the color of my skin. One wonders where I would be today had I made a movement considered by those officers as suspicious. While the vast majority of officers and guards are fair and practice restraint, clearly many are misguided by racist stereotypes. Racial profiling is a clear and present societal danger that must be stopped.”

Racism, racial profiling, the hatred of the other caused by fear are all part of this tragedy. But I think that we need to consider that this is much more than a racial issue. It’s a human issue, a societal issue. The idea that any person can be killed by any other person because that other thinks they look threatening - the fact that there are laws supporting that - is just wrong. It frightens me that an independent group has offered a $10,000 reward for information on whereabouts of the shooter, whose family says is in hiding for fear of retribution. Because the law in Florida covering what constitutes self defense is so loose, I can easily imagine someone finding and shooting George Zimmerman in retribution, then claiming he looked threatening.
I am reminded of the shooting in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. Do you remember that one? On October 2, 2006, a shooting occurred at the West Nickel Mines School, an Amish one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County. Charles Roberts took hostages and shot ten girls aged 6–13, killing five of them, before committing turning the gun on himself in the schoolhouse. It was a horrific, brutal, terrifying event.

And yet - On the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls was heard warning some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, "We must not think evil of this man." Another Amish father noted, "He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he's standing before a just God." A member of the Brethren community living near the Amish in Lancaster County, explained: "I don't think there's anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts."

An Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them. Amish community members visited and comforted Roberts' widow, parents, and parents-in-law. One Amish man held Roberts' sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for as long as an hour, to comfort him. The Amish also set up a charitable fund for the family of the shooter. About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts' funeral, and Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims.

It would be wrong to think that the Amish parents weren’t angry about what happened. I’m sure they were. It’s just that forgiveness and reconciliation are important parts of their faith. They did what they believe Jesus would want them to do: to forgive those who injured them and to offer comfort to others who were also hurt by the events of the day. It seems to me that the families of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania acted as if they do have God’s law written on their hearts.

And if Charles Roberts had lived to go to trial, I expect that the parents of the murdered girls would have done the same thing that Erricka Bridgeford did just a few days ago. She argued against the death penalty for her brother’s slayer, saying that justice for the 2007 murder of her brother won’t come by lethal injection. “It’s not justice to me to have another dead body in place of my brother’s dead body,” she said.

Some outside the Amish community were critical of this quick forgiveness, arguing that forgiveness is inappropriate when no remorse has been expressed, and that such an attitude runs the risk of denying the existence of evil. Really? I can’t find the place where it is written that there must be remorse before forgiveness can happen. Jesus said to forgive seventy times seven times, but doesn’t say anything about first find making sure the other is properly repentant before forgiving him. Forgiveness doesn’t really have anything to do with the person who sinned, rather, it is all about the person who is sinned against. Reconciliation is not about forgetting the past, rather it is about choosing to walk into the future together regardless of what has happened in the past.

Jeremiah gave the people comfort and hope when he told them that God was going to start over again with Israel, forming a new covenant to replace the one they had broken so many times in their history. They will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.

For God, forgiveness is the main event. God’s greatest desire and delight is to see us all reconcile ourselves with God. It is in this reconciliation that the world becomes new. That is what Easter is about. With the death of Jesus, sin is buried. With his resurrection, we are reborn, we are made new, we are changed, we have the law written on our hearts in the new covenant. This is what we celebrate every Sunday at the Lord’s Table; reconciliation between all of humanity and God.
We come together at the Table in remembrance of the life and death and resurrection of the Christ. We come together at the Table to share the love of God. We come together at the Table to offer ourselves to God’s service. We come to share the Lord.

Title of this message taken from a sermon by Gage Church, pastor of Congregational UCC in Ogden, UT