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Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Last Word

Alleluia by Margaret Warfield
As I read from the lectionary lessons on this 10th Anniversary of the deep tragedies in New York City, Washington, DC and Shanksville, PA, I found myself meditating on the word "forgiveness".

In the first lesson (Genesis 50:15-21), there is the remarkable scene of Joseph forgiving his brothers for stealing his coat, placing him a pit and then selling him into slavery.
But Joseph said to them, "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones." In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
Paul also has something to say about judgment and forgiveness. In Romans 14:1-12 he asks several times, "You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt?", adding, "For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat."

How familiar are these words to me, spoken first by Paul, some of which are said during The Service of Burial:
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
Ah, but it is Jesus, in telling the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-35), who has the last word on forgiveness - and it isn't pretty.

No, we must not forgive seven times, he says to Peter, the rock on which He built the church, but seventy-seven times.

Easy for him to say.

Then again, if you ascribe to traditional theologies about The Atonement, maybe not.

I think Jesus knew something about the human condition and our impulse for revenge as a way to deal with betrayal and grief. It's a long, hard process, somewhere in which we must deal with the fact that that which we hate most in others we do so only because we recognize that we have the same impulse or characteristics in ourselves.

If we didn't know it in ourselves, we wouldn't be able to recognize it in others.

That's what the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant is all about.

The hardest part of forgiveness is recognizing our own limitations, our own human penchant for betrayal and hardness of heart and yes, sin.

We do unto others that which they have done unto us - but we justify our thoughts or actions in the name of revenge. Or, righteousness. Or, even the Name of the Lord.

Yes, even terrorism.

The September 12th cover of Newsweek magazine bears the theme: "9/11: Ten Years of Fear, Grief, Revenge.... (and, in large white letters)... Resilience".

In a Christian magazine, that last word would be "Resurrection".

Br. Kevin Hackett, of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, writes: "The final word belongs to God, and that word, like the very first word that God speaks, is light. That word is life. That word is love. That word is resurrection. That word is hope."

In my morning meditation about the word "forgiveness", I found myself going back to the words in the Book of Common Prayer at The Burial of the Dead. At the Commendation we pray:
You only are immortal, the creator and maker of (hu)mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: "Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia."
It's a remarkable thing, is it not, this mystery of God's love and forgiveness which was embodied in Christ Jesus and which we strive to emulate? Sometimes, it is too high a thing for us to grasp. Too lofty an idea for us to wrap our mind around and take into our awareness and understanding.

God's final word is light.

It is life.

It is love.

It is resurrection.

It is hope.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.

Which is why, I suppose, the Psalm for the day (Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13) is "O Bless the Lord, my soul."

And, our response to this final word which is the very essence, the very breath or Spirit (Ruach) of God which calls us into life and calls us back to our Creator is to sing, "Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia."

Indeed, I think, at the center of the cosmos - if we would be able to peel back the layers of earth and work our way through the dust to the core of the universe - the sound we would hear would be music, in beautiful harmony, singing, "Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia."

So I find myself, this morning, on the quiet of my deck, with a lit candle, chanting along with some of the music from Taize.

As you consider "forgiveness" in your own heart, I urge you to consider chanting the mystery of our existence. Here's a little something from Taize to help you along.

If you walk around humming, "Alleluia" on this 10th Anniversary of 9/11, you should know that you may get some very odd looks from some people. My neighbors are pretty used to seeing me praying on my deck, but even they seem a bit confused by the music.

Don't be too concerned if you struggle to sing - much less say - the word "Alleluia" on this 10th Anniversary. Like forgiveness, it takes work to be able to say it - much less sing it - from your heart and really believe it.

It sometimes isn't a joyful word, the way some imagine. Sometimes, it sticks in your throat or in the places in your heart where the sharp, broken edges of painful memories sometimes reside, and causes you to weep.

Sometimes, it is hard to understand - and even harder to accept - this "last word" of our faith in the "last word" of God.  I confess that I don't fully understand it myself. 

Faith is not a thing to be understood.

Faith is a thing to be lived.

Say it anyway. And, if you can, sing it. You don't have to fully believe it to say it, but saying it and signing it will help you in your faith and belief.

May you know peace this day. May your faith be your solace and consolation.
Give rest, O Christ, you your servants with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more,
neither sighing, but life everlasting.
All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!


Ed said...

Thank you for your insights.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You are most welcome, Ed.

Brian said...

Amen. Alleleuia!

Daniel Weir said...

A baptism this morning at St Peter's/San Pedro in Salem reminded me that the promise of the Gospel is abundant life.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Yes it is, Daniel. Amen and Alleluia

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Brian - someone on FB reminded me of that fabulous song from Shrek with the line "a cold and broken alleluia". Sometimes, that's how it is.

Kemlynb said...

It seems to me that understanding the reasons behind the actions of another is a good first step toward forgiving. Too bad it's easier to write it than do it sometimes.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

To be honest, Kemlyb, there are aspects of violence or terrorism I will never understand. I understand my own violent impulses, but I will never understand the impulse to do physical harm to someone. I understand how violent impulses can lead to terrorism, but I will never understand the impulse to terrorize others. I understand the human condition, however, and I can learn to forgive. But, it will take me at least, if not more, seventy times seven.

Brother David said...

Would forgiveness have not been a good thing about which to think before the estimated 250,000 civilians were murdered in Iraq and Afghanistan?

3000 vs 250,000. It seems terribly lopsided to me.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Those are the mathematics of revenge, Brother.

Matthew said...

I agree with brother David. I was in Sweden this summer during the Norway bombing and terrorist attack. Because of our proximity, it was discussed much. Some Americans downplayed it because only 90-100 had died. But Norwegians reminded me that in a country of fewer than four million people, that proportionally is 100 times our USA population so for America to "relate" we would have to lose 10,000 in a single attack by a single individual (and a native Christian not a foreigner to boot).

Lastly, I can relate to doing physical harm to another having done so. But I am grateful to have been forgiven though admittedly I don't relate to harming strangers.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Matthew, for your visit and your comments.