Sunday, October 6, 2019

The Difficult Work of Forgiveness

Sermon for 17 Pentecost, Year C
October 6, 2019   SMJEC
Texts: Hab. 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Ps. 37: 1-10; 2 Tim 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

Increase our faith! That’s what the apostles are demanding from Jesus, but why are they asking this question? I feel as though I have just walked up in the middle of a conversation. Because…well…I have. 
For whatever reason…maybe to save time…or to reign in the preacher…our lectionary diviners decided to simply pick up basically in mid-thought with our Gospel passage. So I looked a little further back in Chapter 17 to see what exactly made the apostles so concerned that they would need to increase their faith.
Here’s a quick summary of verses one through four:
Jesus lays down some hard truths about what it is to be one of his followers. To draw nearer to God through Jesus we must realize that we are going to fall short of perfection…a lot. And while we are apt to stumble along the way…anyone who causes another to trip and fall and falter in their journey with God…that one might as well be prepared to die because a great millstone will be tied around their neck. That’s harsh. But then Jesus goes on to tell the apostles that if a person does them wrong…and then that same person repents and asks for forgiveness…the expectation is that the offended one will forgive their offender. And if the offender then sins against them again…and again…oh, and again and again and again and again and again? If the offender turns around and asks for forgiveness…the offended has to forgive. Not “ought to.” They have to.
I think we can now see why this might cause the apostles to swallow hard. In the days of Luke’s writing…the way of justice was one of retribution and revenge, not repentance and mercy. Even in our own litigious society, we would rather haul someone into court and seek judgment against the wrong doer than to engage in an act of forgiveness. Think about it: we’re less than a mile from the Capitol Building and the U.S. Supreme Court. Can you imagine if every contentious debate would invoke this Jesus model of forgiveness and mercy? 
If you have been following the news in Dallas with the trial of the white police officer who shot and killed her black neighbor, you might have heard that Officer Guyger broke down in tears and admitted that she had shot an innocent man. In her initial phone call to 9-1-1, she had openly worried that her actions would cost her in her career. That doesn’t exactly sound remorseful for the fact that she shot a guy who was in his own apartment eating ice cream because she had mistakenly thought she was at her own door. But at the trial, she expressed sorrow and openly wished that she had died. The jury found Amber Guyger guilty of murder. The victim’s family members were then allowed to give testimony about the life of Botham Jean which had been cut short. He was a happy man. He sang beautifully and was a member of his church choir. He loved people and they loved him. His death was like a crater in their lives. I’m sure many of us can relate to that feeling when a sudden or unexpected death plunges us into the numbing other worldliness of grief.
But then in one of those rare instances that happens in a murder case, Botham Jean’s brother, Brandt, looked at his brother’s killer and forgave her in open court. He did not excuse her crime. But what he expressed later is that he did not want to spend the rest of his life saying, “I hate you.” He wanted to free himself and his heart knowing that he had settled this matter with her conviction. And he hoped that she would find Christ. He then asked the judge if he could hug her. The two bee-lined toward each other and embraced. How much faith did that take for him to offer forgiveness to his brother’s murderer and to believe her repentance? How much faith did it take for her to embrace his act of mercy? Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, the protestors, who were deeply hurt and angry at the 10-year sentence in this case, chanted “No Justice! No Peace!”  And yesterday, news broke that one of the key witnesses who helped to convict Officer Guyger…one of Botham Jean’s neighbors…was shot to death. “Increase our faith.”
The ability to acknowledge that we’ve done something wrong, that we have caused hurt to another person… and to say we’re sorry requires humility. And the act of having the compassion to offer mercy also requires us to step down from a seat of judgment and stand on that floor of forgiveness. 
Increase our faith indeed!
I can imagine on most days, when we’ve been wronged or violated we might feel more like the prophet Habakkuk. Rather than asking for more faith, we wail to God “Where are you?! Why are you making me witness this?!”  
I know I am upset every time I hear of yet another shooting, or when I hear the newscaster say that each month is “the hottest we’ve had on record” as scientists confirm that—yes--the temperature of the planet is rising. Yes, we are losing more species of birds. 
Such tragedies and hardships can leave us feeling powerless and hopeless in the face of what seems to be a cruel and unjust world.  In the words of the theologian Howard Thurman, “Why does the evilness of evil seem to be more dynamic than the goodness of good?”  Such a force can feel too difficult for us to handle.
Here’s the thing: it is too difficult for us to handle! That’s what Habakkuk realizes in his complaint. God answers him: “There is still a vision for an appointed time.”  God is not going to say when that time is, but he is telling the prophet Habakkuk to have faith and keep watch. In other words: stick with me and I will get you to the other side of this troublesome time. 
Spoiler alert: the book ends with Habakkuk singing a victory hymn and declaring God’s glory.
All the evil and the brokenness in the world is too much for us, but it is not too much for God. That’s Jesus’ point when he answers the apostles.  Note that he tells them they don’t need to have faith the size of a boulder; just faith the size of a mustard seed…just a jot of faith…just a small amount of humility to trust in God. 
Putting trust in God is a way of finding inner peace and strength in times of difficulty. Wecan’t solve all the problems of the world or our community. But if we gave even one ounce of our energy to connecting to the Source of Light and Love that became Flesh through Jesus Christ…the promise of God is to meet us and strengthen us for God’s service to free our hearts to bring more love into our world. It’s about making our faith so strong and free that we could uproot a mulberry tree and toss it into the sea. 
There’s a closing sentence in our daily morning office that I have found to be a helpful reminder of this as I head out the door to start my day: 
“Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation and in the church and in Christ Jesus forever and ever.”