Posted by: smstrouse | September 13, 2020

Forgiveness: Even During an Apocalypse

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It would be so easy to focus only on the train wreck this year has been. ‘Apocalyptic’ is the word that seems to be the adjective of choice, especially this past week. There’s something about the sky turning orange and ash falling from the sky that makes Old Testament prophets like Joel sound not so bizarre:

In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your children will prophesy, your young people will see visions, 
     and your elders will dream dreams.
Even on the most insignificant of my people, 

I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.

The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and glorious day of our God.

That’s from the reading for Pentecost Sunday, which is the good news of God’s Spirit indeed being poured out. But those signs and wonders – I don’t know about you, but I always want to read that part of Peter’s sermon a little faster to get through it. But it’s impossible to ignore today, when major news outlets have headlines like “Apocalyptic Orange Skies and Dramatic Rescues as Fires Rage in CA.”

As strange as apocalyptic literature in the Bible may seem to us, it’s clear that most people understand ‘apocalyptic’ to refer to the end of the world. And it’s true, this genre of writing that developed in post-exile Judaism and early Christianity did concern itself with end times, prophetic visions (the word ‘apocalypse’ means ‘revelation, unveiling or disclosure’) about the coming of the end of the present evil age and the final advent of God’s realm.

Now here’s the thing. Even though some of the symbols and visions in apocalyptic writings are very strange and, truth be told, frightening, these writings were meant to give hope to God’s people in times of crisis. The faithful are encouraged to look beyond the struggles of this life toward a time of justice under God’s future rule.

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These days we tend to talk more about God’s rule being both now and not yet, though sometimes it’s hard to see the ‘now’ part. But, not wanting to put all our hope in a ‘some day’ promise, I wondered what revelations, disclosures, apocalypses might give us hope today. 

The Book of Daniel and COVID-19: Apocalyptic Hope in a Time of Pandemic and Political Oppression

At first glance, the gospel reading (part 2 from Matthew’s chapter 18) doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of good news. As Part 1 last week implied the reality of conflict among the faithful, Part 2 indicates an issue with forgiveness. Peter wants a concrete rule: “How many times do I have to forgive somebody?” We might wonder if he’s thinking about an ongoing offense: “OK Jesus, just how long do I have to put up with someone who’s unrepentant, whose behavior doesn’t change?” Or is he recognizing the fact that he has forgiven someone for an offense, but then when he again feels his anger or his hurt, he has to forgive them all over again, maybe many times? Peter doesn’t say whether this granting of forgiveness is a face-to-face encounter with the wrongdoer or if it’s something taking place within Peter’s heart and mind. 

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And it doesn’t really matter because Jesus’ answer applies to either scenario: “You forgive seventy times seven.” Or “seventy-seven times.” All of these ‘sevens’ in this account should clue us in that we’re not talking about the literal number “seven” here, but of innumerable, continual forgiveness. This incalculable amount might also remind us of Lamach, the great-great-great grandson of Cain (remember his murder of his brother Abel?). Lamach appears to have inherited his ancestor’s violent ways, when he vows to take revenge on anyone who does him wrong: “If Cain is avenged seven-fold, then Lamach seventy-sevenfold” (Gen 4:24). Jesus’ call to forgive is a repudiation of this kind of vengeance and violence. 

I’m willing to guess that none of us has been threatening anyone with vengeance and violence. But I’m also willing to guess that most of us, at one time or another, have had a problem with forgiveness. What comes to my mind, as I’m sure to yours, is the danger of forgiveness given too quickly or coerced forgiveness, for example when an abused person is pushed to ‘forgive’ and remain in an ongoing abusive situation. The seventy times seven rule could mean a life of misery, if not a death sentence, for such a person. And surely Jesus would have known that; surely he wouldn’t have created such a rule. 

And he didn’t, not in the way Peter wanted anyway – a hard and fast rule for dealing with the disagreements, bad behaviors, wrongs, hurts, and damages that are part and parcel of our lives as human beings who live in community with one another.  

This whole subject of forgiveness is so fraught with pitfalls, it’s another one of those teachings from Jesus that can cause discomfort – even angst when there comes a time when you find yourself unable or even unwilling to forgive. 

So, like most teachings of Jesus, we need to dig in and explore what this forgiveness business really means and how it can work for us. The first thing we have to do is give up any notion that this is a simple, clear-cut rule. It’s not like the Nike ad, “Just Do It.” Or I should say, it’s not ‘just do it’ and there’s nothing else to it – all over and done. Even those who believe in the immediate granting of forgiveness know this. 

The Amish are often held up as examples of Jesus’ command to forgive. They did just that when a man walked into a one-room school house in Nickel Mines, PA in 2006 and shot ten young girls, killing five. Members of that community have been open about the struggles they’ve had since. The command to forgive does not include the command to just get over it. That’s not how it works. It is work – holy work.

Jesus attempts to describe how it works, not by laying out a technical methodology, but by telling a parable. It’s an exaggerated story, we shouldn’t agonize over why the forgiven official should turn around and be such a jerk. The picture Jesus paints is a window into the economy of the realm of God, a way of life, a way of being – an entire climate in which the atmosphere is love and mercy, in which forgiveness is a quality of mind and heart, an ongoing a way of being, a skillset for living. In this realm, forgiveness isn’t something we do, it’s just part of who we are. 

The whole message of Jesus sounds foolish to those who don’t understand the value system of the realm of God, a system upside-down and completely at odds with the world of greed, power-grasping, violence, and destruction.  A messiah who teaches love, non-violence, who dies on a Roman cross. Ridiculous! But here is the truth: deep down within creation, there is a dynamic even more profound than all of the reality we think we know, one driven by love, humility, creativity, and generosity. Yes, to live in this realm means you will suffer – and it also means you will rise! The logic of self-centered grasping, of trying to save your own life, in the end only results in losing it. A way of life that entails “losing” your life for the sake of love and justice, in the end results in saving it.

I want to tell you about Father Gerry O’Rourke. Father Gerry, who died at age 95 just this past July, was a priest for 70 years. He had been head of ecumenical and interreligious work in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. He was instrumental in the founding of United Religions Initiative and the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, which is where I came to know him. He had also done a lot of peace-building work in Northern Ireland, bringing together Catholics and Protestants – talk about conflict management! 

In an interview last year, he said that the polarization going on in the United States right now may seem impossible to overcome, but only if you are not open to that miracle. “Somehow you have to respect one another despite all of that. I mean, first of all, I was the first Catholic priest the Orange (Protestant) man ever spoke with (at an ecumenical dinner). It’s seeing the value of that and letting the other know that you have that respect.”

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Forgiveness was a subject very close to Father Gerry’s heart. He once said that “people in the church see me as this ‘forgiveness kind of guy.'” And he was. He would often ask, “Who in your life needs to be forgiven?” I confess that there were times I didn’t want to hear it. I wasn’t willing or ready to forgive. I was still nursing a hurt or a grudge. But he was relentless. When he retired and moved to an assisted living facility here in Burlingame, Pastor Megan Rohrer and I went to visit and to interview him about some of the remarkable achievements of his life.  Watch video here

On the subject of forgiveness, he was quite clear: it’s not about having a feeling of forgiveness. He said, “I have a process that I use. If you want to forgive someone or you want to forgive yourself, the most important word is “willing.” Don’t go to your feelings. Go to your will. Am I willing to forgive? Am I willing to accept forgiveness? This willing, that’s where the power exists.”

I would add that Father Gerry is an example of someone who dedicated his life to living in the here and now realm of God – tapping into that climate of love and mercy, where forgiveness is a quality of mind and heart, an ongoing a way of walking, a skillset for living, a way of being. And he brought that way of being into some of the destructive places of the world – and changed them. 

There is a lot of bad stuff going on in our part of the world right now. We get weary. We become afraid. We feel overwhelmed. Perhaps forgiving yourself is the best thing to do in those moments. Living in the realm of God is loving others as you love -yourself. So be very compassionate and forgiving to yourself – or at least willing to be – as you are compassionate and forgiving to others – or at least willing to be. Remember, it’s a process.

Seventy times seven is the infinite, never-ending economy of God’s realm. The more that we can tap into it, align ourselves with it, abide in the wondrous goodness of it – the more we’re then able to exude the values of it out into the world. There will be no need to say “Just Do It” because we’re able to just be it. 

This is where we find apocalyptic hope. The flaws and failures of human institutions take nothing away from the deeper reality that Jesus taught us. The devastation and destruction of our planet caused by our actions and inactions does not negate our belovedness in God’s eyes. The power of a deadly virus cannot defeat the power of (capital L) Life and (capital L) Love. 

That power is what gives us the where-with-all to do God’s work in the world to overcome flaws and failures, devastation and destruction, and the power of death.

May we not allow the apocalypse of 2020 to defeat us. Instead, may we continue to see revelations of God’s ultimate power, promise, and hope.

Amen 

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Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came up and asked Jesus, “When someone wrongs me, how many times must I forgive? Seven times?”

“No,” Jesus replied, “not seven times; I tell you seventy times seven. And here’s why. 

The kindom of heaven is like a ruler who decided to settle accounts with the royal officials. When the audit was begun, one was brought in who owed tens of millions of dollars. As the debtor had no way of paying, the ruler ordered this official to be sold, along with family and property, in payment of the debt. 

At this, the official bowed down in homage and said, ‘I beg you, your highness, be patient with me and I will pay you back in full!’ 
Moved with pity, the ruler let the official go and wrote off the debt. 

Then that same official went out and met a colleague who owed the official twenty dollars. The official seized and throttled this debtor with the demand, ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ 

The debtor dropped to the ground and began to plead, ‘Just give me time and I will pay you back in full!’ 

But the official would hear none of it, and instead had the colleague put in debtor’s prison until the money was paid. 

When the other officials saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and went to the ruler, reporting the entire incident. The ruler sent for the official and said, ‘You worthless wretch! I cancelled your entire debt when you pleaded with me. Should you not have dealt mercifully with your colleague, as I dealt with you?’ 


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