9.14.14 Healing and Forgiveness
14 Pentecost, Proper 19 A 2014 September 14
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This past week I was troubled by these readings. I heard them coming from 2 very different places, and it seemed like a really strong challenge to reconcile them to each other.
Here’s what I mean. Our first reading gives us a very foundational moment for the people Israel, as God brings them through the Red Sea, or the Reed Sea, what have you. Remember, they’re escaping from Egypt, with Pharaoh and his armies in hot pursuit. They were many; they were vulnerable out there in the middle of nowhere. They were backed up against this huge body of water: backed into a corner and death seemed certain.
But God intervened in a most miraculous way, parting the waters and drying the substrate until they were able to cross over, and then stand on the other side. Then the waters closed back in, and all Pharaoh’s army were drowned. As our text says, “Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” [Ex 14:30-31]
This text is foundational to Israel’s identity as God’s chosen people. It makes the very strong statement that God intervenes for them and sometimes bends the laws of nature to save them.
But still: there was a mass murder on the part of the oppressor. That’s what seems so troubling here—especially since this text is paired up with a gospel that’s all about forgiveness.
I researched and thought and prayed this week, but I cannot reconcile the two. Other than to point that elsewhere in the Old Testament we hear that God commands his chosen People—that’s ancient Israelites and also us—to love God AND our neighbors. And Jesus, as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, builds on what it means to love neighbors. A huge ingredient in love for neighbors is God’s expectation that we work to forgive those who have inflicted hurt upon us—whether done intentionally or accidentally.
Forgiveness is one of those things that’s easy for me to preach about, but so very hard for me to do. I’ve found it to be very true that the deeper the hurt, the longer it takes to forgive. That’s how we humans seem to be wired. Perhaps that’s a self-protective mechanism. But, no matter how hard it is: we are told to work on forgiving. Jesus told Peter to forgive 77 times…that’s practically uncountable.
I’ve found that one thing that helps is to try to imagine the other person who hurt us—what it must be like to walk in their shoes. What are their challenges? What kinds of monkeys are they carrying on their backs? How have they been hurt in their own lives?
Asking these kinds of questions brings compassion—especially if we have done our own work on ourselves.
And developing compassion for those who hurt us is a huge step toward being able to let go, and forgive them the hurt. Developing compassion for others depends on our having the humility to admit that maybe our perceptions aren’t quite accurate. Maybe that person who hurt us isn’t some kind of twisted villain. Maybe he or she is struggling with stuff that made them unable to act as we wish they had.
St Paul gets at this idea in today's passage from Romans whenhe says "Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God." [Romans 14:10] In other words, no one is better than anyone else. People have their own weird or wrong motivations sometimes. We all do. Understanding this deep down helps with empathy and compassion. It helps us to forgive.
When we see things from another's perspective our own egos are forced to take a back seat. Things become no longer "all about me" but instead we may be given the grace to understand what happened from God’s perspective. That helps us have compassion and come to forgiveness.
And once we are able to forgive, over time, we notice that we’re released from the anger that bound us. We can carry on and feel a lot freer, without the weight of self righteous indignation pushing down on us. We are, in a very real sense, healed.
Let me tell you the story of a woman called Sheila Cassidy. She was born in Australia and after training as a medical doctor she went to work in Chile at the time when Salvador Allende was head of the government. Her story illustrates much of what I’ve been talking about.
"In 1975 Cassidy was caught up in the violence of the Pinochet regime. She gave medical care to Nelson Gutierrez, a political opponent of the new regime who was being sought by the police. As a result, she was herself arrested on 1 November, 1975, by the Chilean secret police...and kept in custody without trial. During the early part of her custody, she was severely tortured in the notorious Villa Grimaldi near Santiago, Chile, in order to force her to disclose information about her patient and her other contacts."
"On her release from custody and return to the UK, Cassidy's description of her experiences, including her account of her torture on the parrilla [a metal frame that takes its name from the word for 'grill'] and her imprisonment, did much to bring to attention of the UK public the widespread human rights abuses that were occurring at the time in Chile. Her story appeared in [various] news media and in her book, Audacity to Believe. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheila Cassidy]
Sheila Cassidy recovered from the torture and imprisonment slowly, and did significant inner work on forgiving her captors. But this took a lot of time. She went on to be instrumental in the hospice movement in England and also in the life of the Christian Church.
She wrote this about coming to forgiveness: listen to the empathy in her statement. "I've never met my torturers. My forgiveness of them is from God. Intellectually I think they were very wounded people. I believe the capacity to inflict pain is in all of us." [edgeoftheenclosure.org for September 14, 2014]
Truly, to be able to have come to forgive a torturer must be fueled by God's grace helping to develop empathy within one who had been so wounded.
But she was quite the realist also, when she considered how easy it is to tell people to forgive--when some of those people have suffered horrendous harm at the hands of others. She had something to say about this: "I would never say to someone 'you must forgive.' I would not dare. Who am I to tell a woman whose father abused her or a mother whose daughter has been raped that she must forgive? I can only say: 'However much we have been wronged, however justified our hatred, if we cherish it, it will poison us... We must pray for the power to forgive, for it is in forgiving that we are healed." [edgeoftheenclosure.org, op. cit.]
It is in forgiving that we are healed. Jesus, who wants only the best for us, knew that all along. We are to forgive because it brings us health and it frees us up to enjoy our lives.
So now I'd like to end this sermon today with a little guided meditation. Please close your eyes and call to mind some situation, either recent or older, when you were hurt, and which you still need to forgive. Remember the details. Remember the feelings you went through.
Now think about the one who caused the hurt. Try to think about why this person acted so as to cause you pain. Was it their own fear? Was it something in his or her life that influenced them to inflict pain? Could you have misinterpreted something they did or said? Can you see them as a precious child of God, for whom Jesus gave his life?
Is it time to move on, even though you will never forget the hurt? Is it time to let the chains of anger or resentment that have bound you fall off? What is to be gained by moving past the hurt?
What could be gained by wallowing in it for a whole lot longer?
Now let's invite Jesus in to help bring you peace and to help you understand. Can you let him help take your chains off? Can you trust him to help you move on in peace?
These are some of the steps we may go through as we come to terms with being hurt. Of course there is professional help available for those of us who are dealing with very heavy issues. Please don't hesitate to get it, if you need it. I can help you find it, if you need it.
And now, may God help us to seek the peace and the healing that come from forgiving. May we try to walk a mile in the shoes of someone who did us wrong, so that we can remember that we're all so very fragile and easily bruised. And may we never shy away from asking hard questions of God’s Word. There’s always a blessing in that.