Rev. Scott Summerville
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you–that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.
As we prepare for the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper today, I wish to focus our hearts and minds on Jesus’ message of forgiveness.
On the cover of the bulletin today there is a photograph of a statue. There is quite a story to this particular statue.
On November 14, 1940, more than five hundred bombers of the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, converged on Coventry England and unleashed a devastating attack. Among the casualties of the Coventry raid was the ancient cathedral, St. Michael’s, then some five hundred years old, and a glorious thing it was. When the flames finally subsided only a portion of the outer shell of the cathedral remained. The walls have been preserved; the space that was the great sanctuary is now open to the sky.
In 1995 at the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of the second world war a 90-year-old sculptor, Josefina de Vasconcellos, completed the statue which is named, The Statue of Reconciliation, which was installed at the ruins of Coventry Cathedral. Initially two castings were made of the statue. The second was donated to the Peace Garden at Hiroshima at the sight of the nuclear bomb blast.
Later an additional copy of the statue was placed at the site of the Berlin wall. Another copy of the statue was donated to the people of Belfast, Northern Ireland as a sign of hope for reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics. It is a statue that continues to multiply.
The statues bear the following inscription: “These sculptures remind us that human dignity and love will triumph over disaster and bring nations together in respect and peace.”
We read in the gospel of Luke that when Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was risen from the dead:
…he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
At the heart of the gospel message – at the heart of the Easter faith of the Christian people – is the message of forgiveness. Christ tells his disciples to practice and to proclaim forgiveness. To practice and to proclaim forgiveness and to pursue reconciliation.
When there has been violence between people and nations; when there have been deep injuries to body or soul or both; when human beings in their humanness have deeply injured others, how do wounded hearts and souls overcome the chasm of hurt and pain and take steps toward forgiveness and reconciliation? Jesus does not let us slide away from this question. He puts forgiveness and reconciliation right at the center of his way of life.
In an article entitled, Forgiveness as a Gift to Yourself , Joyce and Barry Vissel, describe a woman named Betty who struggled to forgive her father for abusive treatment of her as a child. This is a passage from Betty’s story:
Betty was having a particularly hard time forgiving her father…… She had fallen into blaming her father for the ways her life was not working. True, her father had acted wrongly, yet continuing to hate him was causing much unhappiness in Betty’s life.
I asked her to find a picture of her father as a young child and put it in a place where she could see it often. She found a photo of him taken at age six. As she more and more studied the photo, she began to see the sadness and loneliness in his eyes. He himself was abused as a child. Betty was able to open her heart to her father as a little boy. She felt like reaching out and holding him in her arms.
A month later, as her next step, she found a photo of him at ten years old. His eyes were still full of sadness and loneliness, but now he was starting to try to hide his pain. Betty was again able to feel compassion for him as an older child. A photo of her father as a teen showed an unhappy youth trying to act tough to further cover up the pain inside.
Through studying these photos, Betty was able to feel compassion for her father’s childhood. This compassion did not make her father’s actions right, but Betty could now understand the pain in her father that had led him to pass the abuse to another generation. Armed with this understanding, she was able to reach out in love to the sad little boy still within her father. Through feeling compassion, Betty’s heart was freed of the bitterness and hatred she had carried for most of her adult life. Her health improved, she felt years younger and found she had more love to give to her husband and children. Forgiveness of her father was a gift she had thus given to herself.
Forgiveness is a living process. It is usually not an easy process. Old photographs became the path to a great unburdening for Betty. How do you forgive? How have you learned to work through your personal injuries in ways that liberate you from the burdens of resentment and guilt?
Forgiveness is interactive; forgiveness is relational: remember the words Jesus taught us when he said, “Pray this way…. forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” How do we bring the grace of forgiveness into relationships strained by injury and misunderstanding? That’s a big question: how do we bring forgiveness into the natural flow of life? We do it when we stop burying pain and injury and resentment. It takes courage to bring things out into the open that are painful to hold. It takes guts to acknowledge to ourselves and to others where we have caused harm and where we feel we have received harm, and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation.
This takes courage. And it takes faith; faith to know that whenever human beings take steps toward reconciliation and forgiveness, they will find the blessing of God. For this is holy work.
An extraordinary thing happened this year in Australia. It was the culmination of decades of soul-searching on the part of the white people of Australia. In February Prime Minister of Australia delivered a formal proclamation of apology to the aboriginal peoples of that continent. It was part of a national campaign that went under the slogan: We Say Sorry.
In Australia they refer to the Stolen Generations. The policy of the Australian government from 1910 to 1970 was to breed out of existence the aboriginal peoples. Children were taken from their parents, literally stolen. Children were classified based upon how dark or light skinned they were. Languages and customs of the aboriginal peoples were suppressed. It was a slow genocide.
In February of this year the Prime Minister of Australia spoke an apology on behalf of the nation.
Skywriting planes spell the words, “We say sorry,” in the sky.
Thousands of people wore T-shirts with one word on it: sorry.
A national educational campaign was launched to bring to light the ugly history of what had been done to the aboriginal people.
Can you undo centuries of injustice with the slogan, a speech, a T-shirt, or even a history course? Of course not, but acknowledging the past opening up the truth of history, and making apologies; these things do matter, and they are all steps in a long process of repentance and forgiveness that open up a hope of reconciliation.
The challenge of forgiveness and reconciliation is a universal challenge. It is as near to us as our husband or wife or child – it is as near to us as our relationships one with another in the life of the church. It is present wherever human beings live and work together and inevitably experience injury and misunderstanding. Wherever there is injury and misunderstanding there is the opportunity for deeper injury and deeper misunderstanding and also the possibility for reconciliation, growth, and healing.
I believe that someday, I cannot say when – it may be ten years from now or twenty or more – but I believe that someday the United Methodist Church will issue a proclamation and say “We are sorry — we are sorry to gay and lesbian people. We say sorry for the pain, the exclusion, the harshness and the prejudice with which we have treated you.” Despite the failure of the recently concluded General Conference of the UMC to reverse its decades of active discrimination against LGBT people, I believe the day will come when the church will make an apology, and I find hope in believing that.
In our liturgy every Sunday we share signs of the peace of Christ. This is an ancient custom going back to the very beginnings of the Christian Church. When we share the peace of Christ it is not the same thing as saying, “Hello, how are you?” Exchanging the peace is a prerequisite, a condition, for worship. Exchanging signs of peace is a way we prepare ourselves for the sacrament of communion.
If I exchanged the sign of peace with my sister or brother, it means I have made a commitment to live in a spirit of peace and reconciliation with my sister or brother. Exchanging signs of peace is not a courtesy; it is a sacred commitment to live together in the spirit of peace and to do whatever is necessary to overcome barriers between us.
There is a question that we all ask ourselves.
It’s a question you may be asking yourself right now.
The question is: “Is it worth it?” Sure, forgiveness and reconciliation are fine sounding words and honorable principles, but for me, for now, in my situation, is it worth the risk? Is it worth the discomfort? Is it worth dealing with all the feelings that can arise when human beings try to work things out?
Is reconciliation worth all the trouble it takes?
We all ask ourselves that question.
Here, there can be only one answer. The answer is, “yes.” The answer is yes, yes, emphatically yes!
It is worth whatever it takes for human beings to come together and true shalom, in the peace of God.
Is it worth it: Yes!
So be it.
Shalom, salaam, grace and peace to you.