Acts 7:54-60 and Luke 23:32-35.
Sometimes religion catapults people to unbelievable heights.
Think of the heroes of faith, in our lifetimes or back in history.
Or Stephen and Jesus in their prayers we heard today: even as they were being killed, they prayed, asking God to forgive their murderers.
I wonder how many of us could get there, to such an expansive, gracious spirituality.
In a sermon, touching on the topic of capital punishment right after the death penalty was signed back into law in NY State in March 1995, I told the congregation, God forbid, but if I were murdered, I would not want my murderer to receive a death sentence.
I explained, that having now said that publicly, to all of them, I considered it on public record, and in the worst case scenario, was expecting and counting on them to inform the court of my wishes.
I guess it’s good that I’ve now said that to you all too. I’m really not hoping to become the victim of murder. But even more strongly, I don’t believe that taking the life of someone even if he or she has taken my life would do me any good. It wouldn’t right the first wrong. It wouldn’t effect any justice.
In fact, it only adds to it. Afterwards, two lives have been lost.
And now, I’ve gone on record again. Knock on wood, not that I’m wishing myself ill, but were some unspeakable violence to occur, I now trust this congregation to be my witnesses, to witness to my faith.
But there’s a crucial difference between what I just said and what Stephen and Jesus prayed:
I wouldn’t want my murder to be the motivation for the death penalty or taking someone’s life. But I cannot say that I would let myself or my loved ones be harmed rather than in self defense risk harming someone else.
I’ve been mugged twice, and though in my thinking brain, I say to myself, “Give up the wallet; he can have your cellphone; it can all be replaced.” I have both times responded violently. I mean to give the attacker whatever he wants, but then my reptilian brain has taken over, and I fought as hard as I could.
My friend, Diane, confirmed in her pacificm, she really might make it– resist resisting, allowing herself to be hurt rather than hurting another.
But not me. I might forgive or pray for forgiveness after someone has hurt me (when I’m again in safety). But I’m just not so sure I’d willingly let myself be hurt. Or be able to ask God to forgive my attacker while I was being hurt. No messiah complex here!
I hope with lesser crimes, I can be a bit more gracious, quicker to forgive. But if I can’t yet always pray for God to forgive those who are injuring me, I can at least pray for God’s help in becoming more forgiving.
What is forgiveness after all?
To forgive someone is to find the freedom to say, one way or another:
“Doing wrong, you have hurt me. By all rights, I should call it quits between us. My principles tell me so. And my pride insists. But neither of them have to have the final word. In fact, I don’t want your misdeed to determine my response.
I can’t guarantee I’ll forget… We may both bear the scars for the rest of our lives. Still, I refuse to let this injury stand between us or separate us. I remain, still stand in relationship with you.
Or from the other end of the equation: to allow myself to be forgiven involves admitting I’ve done wrong. To acknowledge my need to be forgiven.
In this sense, whether we are forgiving or being forgiven, much of what needs to happen, what is involved is swallowing our pride.
The other famous New Testament prayer passage about forgiveness is, of course, when Jesus teaches us to pray:
“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Beloved, Jesus isn’t implying that God’s forgiveness is conditional… that God is somehow limited and can only forgive us as much as we are able to forgive others.
First of all, forgiveness that’s conditional, that makes demands, rather than is freely offered– well, that’s not forgiveness at all. That’s something more akin to “Fair Warning” of “Gamesmanship.”
Second, it’s often our unforgivingness about which we need to have God forgive us most!
What Jesus apparently is saying by tying together forgiving and being forgiven in his prayer… is it’s SAME pride that gets in the way. Pride that is our trouble or stumbling block. Pride that keeps us from forgiving also keeps us from accepting forgiveness!
We struggle with forgiveness because we love ourselves too much, not in an affirming, appreciative way, as God loves us and we are to love ourselves as our neighbors.
No, we often love ourselves too much in the wrong way. Leaving us adamant about being right. Adamant about self-sufficiency. And adamant about being answerable to no one.
Beloved, this is what we really need God’s help with. See ourselves positively in all our limitation! Greater humility. An acceptance of our dependence on others. A willingness to be accountable for our mistakes right alongside of our successes.
May we love God and love our neighbor more, as we are to love ourselves, in so throwing ourselves into that spiritual equation, find new capacities and capabilities for forgiveness.
Beloved, we’re halfway to Jerusalem with Jesus. Easter is just three weeks away.
And we’re halfway through the Lenten sermon series on prayer:
We’ve considered that prayers are not so much certain magical words, or 10 minutes a day, or strking a spiritual pose, or following a certain form for talking with God. Instead, they’re keeping one’s whole life in conversation with God. Staying connected, if you will.
We thought also about why it’s important to pray with others, why prayer finally is not only an individual activity.
Last week we practiced healing prayer.
Today we’re challenged to forgive, or at least to pray for forgiveness. Will you pray with me…
(Michael then moved to the congregation and led everyone in a spontaneous prayer, asking God for help recognizing those parts of our life and people we need to ask forgiveness, help asking for forgiveness, help accepting the forgiveness others offer and finally help forgiving ourselves.)
(Preached by the Rev. Michael Caine)