Delivered at Ames UCC
on May 29, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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When Adam and Eve were in God’s garden, they broke God’s one rule. God could not forgive them and so they were banished. Later, Adam’s and Eve’s sons presented offerings to God. God preferred that of Abel over that of Cain. Cain could not forgive the slight, but rather than rejecting God, he killed Abel.
After studying the Bible with pastors and congregants of Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, SC, a young man murdered nine of them in an effort to start a race war. On his first appearance in court, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance said
I forgive you…You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.
God “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6.5). It was unforgiveable so God told Noah to build an ark, gather animals and his children. Then God killed everyone else by flood.
The book of Lamentations mourns the utter devastation of Jerusalem and seeks for a reason behind the loss:
Let us test and examine our ways,
And return to the Lord!
Let us lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven:
“We have transgressed and rebelled
And thou has not forgiven.” (3.40–42)
Nor do we hear of forgiveness in that book.
In 1993 Mary Johnson’s son was killed by Oshea Israel. Johnson lived with hatred for Israel for years. Then she met with him in prison.
And I instantly knew that all that anger and the animosity, all the stuff I had in my heart for 12 years for (him)—I knew it was over, that I had totally forgiven (him).
God calls Jonah to be a prophet to the people of Ninevah. They, too, had grown wicked. But Jonah refuses, constantly running in the opposite direction. After being tossed into the sea and consumed by a fish, Jonah finally goes. Immediately on hearing Jonah’s message from God, the Ninevites repent.
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, (God forgave) and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3.10)
At which point Jonah pitches a fit and demands that he be allowed to die because Jonah wanted to hold onto his self-righteousness, and he could not forgive the Ninevites as God had.
Last week First Congregational Church UCC in Hazel Dell, WA, was burned in an act of arson. Their food pantry is the only in in that county “dedicated to those who have HIV or AIDS.” The perpetrator has not been caught yet. Will the church forgive her or him? Will their clients?
There is a neo-Nazi with professed ties to the Aryan Nations in Des Moines who follows our Facebook page. If he comes here among us to commit an act of violence, even the violence of his embodied hate, will we forgive him?
Christ on the cross cried out, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ (Luke 23.34).
In these stories, ancient and contemporary, God withholds forgiveness, we withhold forgiveness; we beg forgiveness; we offer forgiveness, and God bestows forgiveness more generously than we can accept.
I badly wish that I could give you a clean description of what forgiveness is and how we are to practice forgiveness and how we are to receive forgiveness. In my first pass at this sermon I did come up with some mighty smart arguments by picking and choosing from among scripture that ensured God looked good and we looked capable.
But by taking scripture and life as a whole, forgiveness is far messier and more complicated than my rhetorical tricks. Not so for Paul.
Last week we began our study of Paul’s second letter to the church he founded in Corinth. Let me pause for a moment to remind us of who this man Paul was since I didn’t do that last week.
Paul was a Roman citizen, maybe descended of Galilean Jews. So he was Roman and Jewish. We first meet him, once already grown, in the Acts of the Apostles, the companion piece to the Gospel of Luke.
Paul is initially referred to as Saul, Saul who martyrs and imprisons Christians. Saul was en route to do just that, to extradite followers of the Way from Damascus to Jerusalem, when he encountered the post-Easter Christ.1 Saul is blinded by this encounter, his sight only restored by a Christian sent by God. On regaining sight, Saul is baptized, eats, and begins to preach about Jesus. We then learn he was also known as Paul, which becomes his permanent name.
Paul spent three years “reevaluating his life and the Scriptures from a Christocentric perspective” and preaching Jesus as Messiah, as the anointed one prophesied in Hebrew scripture, to Jews.2 Paul then shifts to non-Jews, as seen in his mission to the Corinthians, about 13 years after his conversion.
It didn’t always go smoothly for Paul. He is at odds with his church because of how he spent his time while away from them. In this letter, Paul is attempting to regain or retain control of this group of Greeks and the gospel they profess and practice.
In doing so, Paul offers theological explanations for the world and theological arguments for our behavior within that world. Although Paul’s letters are bounded by history and context, through the Holy Spirit his words may transcend both. Last week those words spoke of God’s compassion, this week, forgiveness.
Anyone you forgive, I also forgive. And what I have forgiven—if there was anything to forgive—I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake…
What is forgiveness? In Paul’s description, it is communitarian and it is holy.
Anyone you forgive, I also forgive…in the sight of Christ for your sake.
Paul is making himself complicit in the forgiveness that others have to offer, saying that because of the Christ, forgiveness transcends both individual wrongs and individual redemption. Forgiveness is communitarian and it is holy.
A church, be it the one in Corinth or the one in Ames, is all about being communitarian and holy. We are neither a country club nor a service agency; a lecture series nor a concert hall. We do share some qualities with those: socializing, service, learning, and music. But not for their sakes. None of what we do here is for the sake of those individual elements. It is all for God. We call this a worship service, because it is a service not for us but in service to God.
Our scripture shows that our faith ancestors were honest about their greed and fearless in their accusations of God and self. They were at times as faithless as God appeared to be. But they kept circling back. They kept circling back to the holiness they knew in a community of God.
Paul was able to humble himself, and encourage the humility of others, because he knew that his own life’s cruelties had been redeemed on the road to Damascus only through the healing touch of another, one who lived in holy community.
Our concern with forgiveness, from Genesis through today is because we, too, want to live and grow in a community of holiness.
THE EVERLASTING ARM
I cannot fathom how those families and mothers of murder victims offered forgiveness to those who destroyed and ended lives. I would not have dared suggest to them that they should.
And were we to experience such devastation individually or corporately, I believe I would sound more like the author of Lamentations and act more like Jonah: yelling “Why?” at God and refusing to walk toward that which had betrayed God.
I cannot give you a clean definition of forgiveness and its dynamics, when to forgive, and how to accept forgiveness. Our tradition is too honest to be that tidy. But I can assure you that whatever your sins are this day, whatever you may be asked to forgive, your presence in holy community is the beginning.
Rather than seek pat answers we sing the eternal presence with Adam and Eve; with Mother Emanuel AME and First Congregational UCC we lean again on the everlasting arm.
It is together with God, that we tell our messy and complicated tales. It is in this communal holiness we call the body of Christ that we know God is good and we are capable.
1Longenecker, R. N. “Paul,” The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, Volume 4 (M–P). Merrill C. Tenney, General Editor, and Moises Silva, Revision Editor. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), pp. 698–733.
2Ibid., p. 705.