Friday, November 3, 2006

Sermon for October 29, 2006 -- Reformation Sunday

Unforgivable Sin
Genesis 45:1-28

Is there a sin that’s so bad that it’s unforgivable? Is there be a betrayal so treacherous that God would refuse to pardon it? Murder? Suicide? Adultery? Will God forgive the perpetrators? Has any one ever done something to you that was unforgivable? Has anyone ever shown such deep disloyalty to you that the very thought of that person makes you sick?

If anyone could have felt that way, it could have been Martin Luther King Jr. One night, his home was burned down by a group of white men who hated his message about racial equality and the black voter initiative in the south. Under the leadership of Dr. King, African-Americans grew more confident of themselves, less willing to be oppressed and neglected by society. And they were angry -- angry about their treatment by white society. They were particularly angry on the night that their leader’s home was destroyed. A crowd of Dr. King’s friends and supporters gathered. Some talked about getting guns. Others talked about getting gasoline and setting fire to the homes of all the white people in the area so that they could suffer as the black people had suffered. The crowd wanted to hurt those who had hurt them. They wanted to destroy their enemies.

It’s a common human reaction. We instinctively seek revenge. We convince ourselves that evil deeds deserve instant repayment in kind. Violence feeds on revenge, and revenge feeds on violence. We see the cycle of revenge and violence in places like Belfast, Ireland. Those who spent years trying to get Protestants and Catholics to stop killing each other quickly learned that revenge motivated most of the killing. One young man whose brother had been beaten to death said that if he didn’t go after the ones who killed his brother, it would be like his brother’s life didn’t matter.

I wonder if Joseph felt caught up in this cycle of revenge. If anyone had the right not to pardon the betrayal of his enemies, it was Joseph. When we last left him, Joseph was kidnapped from a dried-up cistern. His brothers hated him so much that they dumped him in a hole in the ground and then left to decide whether to kill him. When they returned to the cistern, Joseph was gone and given up for dead. Years later, Joe is now the second-in-command of in Egyptian. While the rest of the world suffers from a sever famine, Egypt has plenty of food due to the wise agricultural practices of Joseph. Now all of the earth comes to Egypt to buy grain – everyone including 10 of Joseph’s brothers. Joseph sees his brothers, and he recognizes them immediately, but they don’t know him. The text says, “He spoke harshly to them.” In an explosion of anger, Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies. Finally, Joseph’s sees his chance for revenge. Taking the role of the cruel ruler, he will hear none of his brother’s excuses. He demands that they be locked up, and that only one return home to get Benjamin, the brother who stayed behind. Then Joseph changes his mind, imprisoning one brother while the rest go home to fetch Benjamin. His inconsistency is similar to the psychological warfare we see today – designed to create fear and uncertainty in the minds of captives.

Jesus teaches us how to break the endless spiral of vengeance. The gospel says, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those that curse you and pray for those who mistreat you.” Jesus often makes statements like this – expectations that are impractical and impossible to live out. How do we do it? How can we do good to people who have gossiped about us, or cheated us, or oppressed us? How do we love the abusive parent, or the teacher who embarrasses students, or the ex-spouse who tries to destroy relationships? How can we love our enemies when everything we feel about them wants to hurt them back as they have hurt us? How can I love someone for whom I feel no love? How can I bless those who curse me?

The night Martin Luther King Jr.’s house burned did not end in violence -- the way that feels so natural. Instead, the crowd left their enemies in peace and they went home determined to win the victory with votes instead of with guns, with politics instead of with fire, with love instead of hate. Dr. King calmed down the crowd by telling them, “When you live by the rule, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, you end up with a nation of blind and toothless people.” Dr. King believed that a new society could not be built by violent means. He believed that one could only defeat the enemy with love -- that the way of violence only leads to more violence -- that hate only fosters more hate. He would not allow others to seek revenge when his house was burned. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you.

We can choose be victimized by someone else’s sin, and then replicate it through revenge. We can allow hatred to grow and infest our souls with its hellish tendency towards exclusion. When we do this, forgiveness flounders. We believe that our enemy has committed unforgivable sin, and therefore must be excluded from God’s grace. We think it’s OK for us to take on the role punishers – God’s instruments of vengeance. God never asks us to take that role for ourselves.

Forgiveness happens when we stop trying to justify our hatred by pointing out the wrongdoing we’ve suffered. Liberation comes through confession. Real forgiveness is not about revenge, but about repentance. Only those who are forgiven and willing to forgive will be capable of relentlessly pursuing justice without falling into the temptation to turn justice into revenge. Love is a choice. Love is the decision to do right even when wronged, to do good even when bad is done, to bless even when you are cursed, to forgive even when you are condemned, to care even when you are not cared for.

In June 1992, Serbian paramilitaries invaded the Franciscan Theological School in Sarajevo, holding everyone inside prisoner. There were sixteen Catholic priests and brothers, and eight nuns. The soldiers were amped up, some buzzing on cocaine. They went through the school destroying everything: shooting up the chapel, ripping paintings off walls, burning the library, and hitting the priests with rifle butts. The captives were certain that they would be killed any minute.

In the midst of horrific chaos, Sister Isadora, a nun in her eighties, addressed the young militants with love like they were her grandsons. One man, barely in his twenties, had blood spattered on his shirt. He was trying to ignore it, but it clearly bothered him, and he kept trying to wipe it off. Sister Isadora approached him saying, “My boy, your shirt is stained. Let me get some water and clean it.” She took a damp rag and began to clean the blood from his collar. When she finished, she asked to go to the bathroom to clean the rag. The young man and one of the priests accompanied her. When they returned, the young man had his gun pressed hard into the priest’s side. Sister Isadora touched the man’s arm and waved the gun away. “Move out of the way,” she said. “Come with me and let us go into the kitchen and make some tea.” And so he did. When the soldier’s superiors found out, they were angry, but that young soldier never harmed the captives. After several days, a prisoner exchange was negotiated and all of the captives were released. That is the power of love.

Joseph also learns the power of loving his enemies. When his brothers finally return to Egypt, Joseph throws his arms around his brother Benjamin, and reveals his identity to his family. Now the brothers are afraid. Realizing what they had done, and who this man really is, they expect revenge. Their guilt outweighs the possibility of Joseph’s forgiveness. But Joseph breaks the cycle. In untypical human fashion, he doesn’t repay his brothers for their evil deeds. He no longer carries the baggage of bitterness and anger that accompanies an unforgiving heart. Joseph’s brothers expected nothing better than retribution. But Joseph extends forgiveness – a reminder of the kind of forgiveness that God shows to us.

We love because God first loved us. If we want to be forgiven, we must forgive. Jesus sums up this ethic by saying, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” It is truly a golden rule. Every great religious belief, has a version of it for people to follow.
« Judaism says it this way: “What is hateful to you, do not to others”
« The Hindu faith says it this way: “Do naught to others which would cause you pain if done to you”
« Confucianism tells us “Do not to others what you would not have them do unto you.”
« Islam says: “No one is a believer until you desire for another that which you desire for yourself”

The golden rule is held in balance by another spiritual law: “The judgment you give, is the judgment you will receive. What you sow is what you will reap.” I cling to this law the most when dealing with those whom I would rather not deal with - those whom I feel like harming rather than healing. I try to tell myself, “Count to ten Matt - and at every count remember that what you do here and now will come back to you in abundance. Forgive - because you need lots of forgiveness. Bless, because you need lots of blessing.”

How would you have others treat you? What measure of forgiveness do you want to receive from God when you feel like you can’t fix what you’ve done? What judgment do you want to live with - both here, and in the world to come? May your choices about who to love be good choices. Praise God for abundant of grace, the grace that loves and forgives us even as we struggle to love and forgive others.

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace.
Heather Zydek, ed., The Revolution
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