Friday, April 22, 2011

Father Forgive Them …

Sermon by Ken Lyon given April 22, 2011 at the College Hill Community Good Friday Service.

A reading from Luke 23:33-35

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”

“Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Jesus says this in his last hours, as he’s dying on a cross at the hands of the Romans. He’s been turned over to them by his own people and deserted by his friends. And he knows that this is a punishment that he didn’t deserve. And yet he says, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

This is an amazing statement. It’s a statement that challenges us. It’s a statement that has fundamental implications for our life with God and for our life with other people.

When Jesus says, “forgive them,” who does he have in mind?

As he looks around, he sees the Roman authorities and soldiers who had put him on the cross.

He sees some of the Jewish authorities, who turned him over to the Romans.

He sees the bystanders--executions always draw a crowd.

He’s probably thinking about his disciples--his followers—his best friends--who are nowhere to be seen.

Perhaps he has in mind all people--humanity in general. He understands that what the Romans and the Jews and the bystanders and the disciples are doing are things that most everybody does at one time or another.

It’s enough to make one weep for humankind.

And then Jesus says, “they don’t know what they’re doing.” Hmmmm. If they don’t know what they’re doing, what do they think they’re doing?

The Romans know what they’re doing. They’re executing an enemy of the state before he causes real trouble.

The Jewish authorities know what they’re doing. They’ve turned one of their own over to the authorities to prevent his movement from growing to the point where it risks triggering Roman retaliation that will kill many people.

The curious bystanders—well, they probably figure that those people being executed probably deserved what was coming to him.

And the disciples who ran? Who knows what they thought? Maybe they figured that Jesus could handle this situation on his own. Maybe they figured that when he couldn’t face down the Romans, he wasn’t the man they thought he was, that he had betrayed them and he didn’t deserve their support. People have amazing powers to rationalize their actions.

If we had been there that day, what would we have been thinking? Would we have been any better—would any of us known what we were doing?

And yet, for all of them, and for us, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.”

And look: none of these forgiven people ever admitted they’d done anything wrong or asked for forgiveness! With the possible exception of the disciples, they most likely lived the rest of their life never thinking they’d done anything wrong that day--that there was nothing to ask forgiveness for. But they are forgiven! Right here, right now! No strings attached!

And the disciples? Nowhere is it recorded that ask for forgiveness. The evangelist John tells us that on the evening of Easter Sunday and again on the Sunday after Easter, the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples where they are hiding in a locked room and he opens the conversation with “Shalom,” “Peace.” There are no pleas and no recriminations. Instead he commissions these undeserving people to be his representatives to the world!

This unasked-for, unmerited, grace on God’s part is consistent with God’s acts recounted elsewhere in our Bible. There are times when the people God chooses to save or that he chooses to be his agents neither asked for it nor deserved it.

He rescues the Hebrew people out of Egypt before they even know who he is, and he supports them all the way to the Promised Land even though they misbehave all the way. I can hear them now: “I’m hungry.” “Are we there yet?” But God sticks with them.

And then there’s David: God chooses David to be his favorite king, even though his morality makes modern politicians’ indiscretions pale by comparison.

How are we to get our minds around a God that loves and forgives and saves so unfairly? Maybe we’re having trouble with this because we don’t see the big picture—God’s picture.

Let’s see if we can look at this from God’s perspective--as well as any human can understand God’s perspective.

In the first creation story in the book of Genesis, God creates the world in stages, and at each stage but the last, he pronounces His creation, “Good.” But, at the last stage, when he creates humankind, he makes an exception to the pattern. He doesn’t pronounce us “good,” He pronounces us, “very good.”

From God’s perspective as creator of all that is--as the metaphorical parent of all people--God knows his children are, after all, children, compared to Him. God did not create us perfect—only God is perfect. God created us to be an interesting mixed bag of gifts and contradictions. And he called us “very good.”

So now I have an inkling why--from God’s perspective--why he loves and forgives you and me. He loves and forgives us just as human parents—on their good days at least-- love and forgive their children unconditionally.

In one of our prayers, we Episcopalians ask for forgiveness for all our sins, things we’ve done and things we’ve left undone, and, more to the point for today, for sins unknown as well as known. And we know that God grants that prayer, even without our asking, and that really is good news.

This is a God I can love!

But wait! If this is good news, it’s good news with a kicker. If God forgives me, God also forgives all those other people! Including those people who are hurting me or my friends or my country. Including people who are hurting on purpose and think that they have good reasons to do so!

How can I possibly forgive like Jesus did? Like God does?

And yet, that’s just what we’re called to do. As we pray in our Lord’s Prayer, we expect God to “forgive us our trespasses we forgive those who trespass against us.” To say it another way, as God has forgiven us, we are to forgive others.

We do have some shining examples of people who actually forgive in seemingly impossible situations—situations more difficult than most of us will ever face.

In a trip to England a few years ago, my wife and I visited the cathedral in Coventry. There, we heard an amazing story:

One night in November, 1940, the city of Coventry was bombed by the German air force. Five hundred and forty people died, nearly two thousand houses were destroyed, the city center was left in ruins, and the cathedral that had stood for over 600 years was destroyed by fire--only its walls and tower were left standing.

Six weeks after the bombing, the BBC broadcast a Christmas Day worship service from the Cathedral’s ruins.

It would have been so easy to hate the German people for what that had done and to call for vengeance--for German cities to be destroyed in the same way as Coventry.

But Provost Richard Howard, the senior priest at the Cathedral, had a different message. He had already written the words “Father forgive” on the smoke blackened wall of the sanctuary of the ruined cathedral. And in that Christmas Day broadcast to the nation he said,

Six weeks ago the enemy came, and hurled down fire and destruction upon our city from the sky, all through the long night. So many lives were lost, so many homes destroyed, and our Cathedral utterly burnt and brought to the ground.

I am looking now at the heaped-up ruins and the long line of outer walls, scarred and windowless. Yet even now, the ruined Cathedral keeps much of its former majesty and beauty, unconquered by destruction.

So is the Spirit of Christ unconquerable. He suffers alongside of us, just as this Cathedral suffered the same fate as the city. Christ lost everything he had, and won the world.

What we want to tell the world is this: that with Christ born again in our hearts to-day, we are trying--hard as it may be--to banish all thoughts of revenge. We are bracing ourselves to finish his tremendous job of saving the world from tyranny and cruelty. We are going to try to make a kinder, simpler–a more Christ-Child-like sort of world-- in the days beyond this strife.

As you might imagine, Provost Howard’s words of forgiveness and reconciliation took some courage to speak at that moment, and they were not well-received by many. But members of that Cathedral and others did reach out to Germany after the war, and Coventry’s Community of the Cross of Nails continues to work for reconciliation worldwide.

On 9/11, when those airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, I listened for a voice like that of Provost Howard calling for forgiveness and reconciliation for the hijackers and those who sent them, but I don’t remember hearing it. I wish I had heard such a voice. I wish I had been such a voice.

Yes, there are times when it’s hard to dare to take the Gospel—the Good News of God’s unconditional love and acceptance for all his creation—seriously. And yet it’s just those times when we need to.

Closer to home, we do sometimes hear of people in our own community who forgive just when it seems impossible:

During the sentencing of someone convicted of murder, or before their execution, we often hear those close to the murdered person testify about the pain the murderer has caused, about how they deserve execution, about how an execution will provide closure.

But sometimes we hear the bereaved testify that they’ve found a way to forgive the murderer, and they ask for mercy.

From the human perspective, this can feel like they’re letting someone get away with murder, but again, let’s try to look at this from God’s perspective, again using the parent metaphor.

I love both my kids. I do my human best to love and forgive them no matter what. When they were kids, one thing that really drove me up a wall was when they picked on each other. On a long road trip, I can remember seemingly endless arguments over exactly how much space each had in the back seat of the car. “Dad, he’s touchin’ me!” From my elevated parental perspective, I saw that they were squabbling over things that were trivial in the grand scheme of things. From my perspective, they really didn’t realize what they were doing.

Is that how God sees his world? Like a bunch of squabbling kids who need to get a clue? People squabbling over trivia at the risk of their friendship? Political parties squabbling over spoils and risking the nation? Does God see whole nations squabbling, as it were, over their space in the back seat of the car?

We have a lot to learn about forgiveness and understanding. Jesus’ words from the cross continue to challenge us. Jesus continues to say, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” We need to learn to pray, “Father, forgive us, we don’t know what we’re doing.”

At Coventry Cathedral, a litany of reconciliation is now prayed regularly in the under that sign that Provost Howard put up, “Father forgive.” My wife and I prayed it there one Friday. I’d like to pray it with you now.

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Let us pray.

All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

For the hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class, Father Forgive.

For the covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own, Father Forgive.

For the greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth, Father Forgive.

For our envy of the welfare and happiness of others, Father Forgive.

For our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refuge, Father Forgive.

For the lust which dishonors the bodies of men, women and children, Father Forgive.

For the pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God, Father Forgive.

Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.


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