Saturday, September 14, 2013
Forgiveness: The Lost Coin
RCL Proper 24C (Series 2)
15 September 2013
Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Exodus 32.7-14; Psalm 51.1-10; 1 Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10
One day two monks, one an older man, the other quite young, were walking from their monastery to a nearby town. As they were walking, they came to a stream that was swollen with water from several days’ worth of rain falling in the mountains. There had never been a bridge over the stream, so travellers normally crossed at a ford where the waters were quite shallow and easy to wade.
Even though the waters were high and the current stronger than usual, the stream posed no obstacle for the two monks, even given the difference in their ages. Years of hard work in the monastery’s fields and of walking with heavy loads had given both men more than enough strength to cross at the ford.
However, at the ford the monks met a young woman bound for a different town whose strength was not equal to the force of the stream. Her size and weight posed no problem for either monk, but her gender did. These monks belonged to an order that maintained a strict rule regarding contact between men and women. Picking the young woman up and carrying her across the stream would be a serious breach of the Rule.
Nevertheless, the older monk’s offer to carry the young woman across the stream was gratefully accepted by her. Through the waters the trio passed and, on the other side, they parted to continue their separate journeys.
As they continued their journey, the older monk became aware of the younger monk’s troubled silence. “What’s bothering you, Brother Thomas?”, asked the older monk. “You carried that young woman across the stream, Brother Michael,” answered the younger man, “that’s against the Rule.” “That’s true,” responded Brother Michael, “but you have forgotten two things. First, her need was great and we are pledged to help others as best as we can. Second, at least I put her down after we crossed the stream. You’ve carried her every step since then!”
My friends, all of our readings from the Scriptures today tempt us to focus on sin, on our human failings, on our lapses in faithfulness to our understanding of what God is calling us to do and to become. But to focus on sin alone would be, I believe, missing the real focus of the Scriptures today. The real focus is on forgiveness, the process by which we are liberated from the prisons of our pasts and empowered to imagine a new future.
We live in a world that is filled with people who are more committed to remembering past wrongs, ancient sins, than they are to forgiveness.
i) Thirteen years ago the tragic attack on New York and Washington DC set in motion a wave of conflict and violence across the globe, a wave that does not appear to be diminishing.
ii) Sixty-five years ago Jews and Arabs entered into a conflict which continues to this very day with both sides remembering ancient wrongs, some real and some perceived.
iii) In our own country we are confronting the dark deeds of our colonial past and their lasting consequences for First Nations across Canada.
In these and in other similar stories too numerous to recount today, there are people held hostage by their own past sins and the sins of others. Some of these hostages, I know from my own experience, are afraid to let go of their pasts because they have no hope in the future. Their pasts, they believe, define the future and that future is rather bleak. Still others harbour desires for vengeance, the opportunity to visit upon their oppressors, their abusers, any who have wronged them, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. There is an old saying that vengeance claims two victims.
I understand such feelings and I am sure that many of us, if not all of us, know these feelings all too well. But at the heart of the Christian gospel is not the cataloguing of sins and wrongs but a call to forgive, one of the more difficult acts a human being can undertake. Forgiveness requires courage and hope.
In the week to come the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada will be in Vancouver to listen to the stories of the survivors of the residential schools. I will join a group of my clergy colleagues in being present at these hearings. We will sit in a ‘listening circle’ and be prepared to hear the stories of any who would like to speak a word to the church and, I hope, be prepared to hear a word in response. For that reason, I want to share with you what I believe forgiveness means.
1) Forgiveness does not mean forgetting the past. Part of forgiveness is the courage to tell our stories, both the sorrows and the joys. We cannot forgive if we are not willing to give voice to the dark secrets that may have held us in thrall. Untold stories can hold us hostage, sometimes hostage to shame for fear of what someone may think of us, sometimes hostage to hopelessness because we believe that our present and our future are solely shaped by our past.
2) Forgiveness means telling our stories so that they no longer have power over us. In telling my story of being wronged and, perhaps, of wronging, my past loses hold over me. While it is true that our pasts shape us, for good and for ill, they do not define who we might become in the present and in the future. In the week to come, we shall be hearing the stories of people who have lost language and culture, knowledge and skills, innocence and childhood. But we do not listen to those stories solely to lament what has happened, we listen because we live in the hope that the future can be one in which all God’s peoples can live in dignity and justice in this rich and fair land.
3) Forgiveness means liberation from the prison of the past in order to envision a new future. We cannot deny that the future would have been a different one had the abuse and wrongs of the past not occurred, but we can dare to hope that a re-visioned future can be shaped by people of good will and compassion. I recently heard an interview of a journalist who had been kidnapped and abused by her kidnappers. She said that she tires of hearing herself described as ‘a brutally raped’ woman. While she was brutally raped, this journalist reminded her interviewer and those listening that ‘brutally raped’ does not define who she is nor who she seeks to become. From this past she has risen to create a foundation to help the people of the country in which she had been held and tortured. While her story is dramatic, it illustrates what I mean by being liberated from the prison of the past in order to re-vision the future. She carries the scars of that past, but they do not form the contours of the future she wishes to live into.
4) Forgiveness only takes one to tango. While all of us might wish to have that moment of confession where those who have wronged us seek our forgiveness, there are people I know who have lived their lives limited by this desire. “When that person asks my forgiveness,” they seem to say, “then I can move on.” My friends, this is another form of bondage. Sometimes that person is dead or so estranged from us that the likelihood of such a moment is remote. We cannot control their behaviour nor their choices, but we can take control of our own lives.
I do not believe that forgiveness, whatever the past cause, is easy. I know this because there are still aspects of my past that have some hold on my present. But I do find some hope in the fact that I know these aspects and I also know the joy that I have experienced when I have been able to forgive those who participated in the hurts and darker episodes of my past. I have also known the freedom that forgiveness brings, a freedom which opens my eyes to the graciousness of God in my past. That graciousness gives rise to thanksgiving and I have always found in thankfulness an antidote to the bondage of sin.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” (Luke 15.8-9) My friends, the courage to forgive is the lamp that casts its light on our past so that we can find the silver coins of God’s love, compassion and presence in our stories. Those coins become the capital by means of which we can build a future in which we and all God’s children can be free, a future in which the dignity of every human being, including ourselves, is honoured.
May God give us the courage to build such a future and the grace to forgive in order to become more fully alive, more fully the persons God means us to be. Amen.