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Sunday, September 14, 2014

The forgiveness connection

Pentecost XIV - Proper 19A - September 14, 2014
St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Georgetown, DE
(the Rev'd Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

N.B. I preached this morning, as Herb O'Driscoll says, "from a prepared heart". I did not have a manuscript in front of me - Which, you must understand, is absolutely terrifying to me. The good folks at St. Paul's, however, make it so much easier. What follows is what I remember saying. 

Track 1

Exodus 14:19-31
Psalm 114

Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

So, I'll start with a confession.

On October 18th I will celebrate the 28th Anniversary of my my ordination to the Priesthood.

As you may know, the Eucharistic lectionary runs in a three year cycle (Pragmatically and without a hint of dramatic flourish  known as Years A, B and C). So, if  you do the math, you will see that I have preached on this set of lessons .... well, more that a few times.

Sometimes, the three lessons fit together like the proverbial hand in a glove.  There's some theme that connects them all, and they are reflective of each other.

And then, there are times like this morning.

Here's my confession: For the life of me, I can't tell how it is that the story of The Parting of the Red Sea fits with the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor. And Paul's Epistle about judgement really doesn't give us much help.

Can you? Can anybody here give me a clue? No? Well, okay, then. I guess that old saying is really true: Misery does love company.

Except, I had a bit of an epiphany this morning at the eight o'clock, thanks to something Gerry said, bless his heart. But, I'll get to that in a minute.

So, here's the thing: Jesus says that we must forgive not seven but seventy-seven times. What does that mean, do you think? Someone is saying that it means that forgiveness sometimes takes a long time. Yes, I think that's true, depending on the offense.

Someone else is saying that it means that forgiveness is what all Christians have to do. That's true enough. Someone else is saying that forgiveness is hard work.  In my experience, that's also sometimes true. Sometimes, the offense is so minor as to almost be understandable and it's easy to "forgive and forget". Other times, it confounds us how someone could behave in that way towards us and so it takes a lot longer to forgive.

This weekend, I spent some time visiting a dear friend in New Jersey who is having some difficulty in his family which has been going on for the past year. Not surprisingly, with the conflict still ongoing, he's having difficulty finding forgiveness.

On the three and a half hour drive home (I have to stop a few times along the way), I listened to a few Public Radio Stations and heard two modern stories, seemingly unconnected, that shed a great deal of light on this morning's two ancient, seemingly unconnected stories.

The first story came as a surprise in the midst of an interview with Maureen Corrigan, about a book she has recently written: "So we read on: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures."

Corrigan just happen to mention that F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940, in his lover's apartment in LA. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Maryland would not allow his body to be buried in the family plot in the Roman Catholic cemetery, she said, because the Archbishop declared, in a great religious euphemism, that  he was "not a practicing Catholic at the time of his death."

Meaning, of course, that he was a heavy drinker and was unfaithful to his wife, Zelda.

He was buried in "a Protestant cemetery" - I don't know which one, which one would be your guess? Right! - until 1975 when his daughter convinced the Bishop that his body ought to be exhumed and allowed to lie at rest with the rest of his family.

I thought to myself, my goodness! Thirty-five years is a long time for a religious institution (and, trust me, it's not just the Roman Catholics) to hold a grudge! They are no better than the slave in today's Gospel who demanded mercy and forgiveness for himself, but would not provide the same for one who was in his debt.

I wondered if that's what Jesus meant by "seventy-seven times" of forgiveness, for surely, that's what the church needed to do in order to forgive Fitzgerald as well as their own rigidity.

I mused over this story about F. Scott Fitzgerald and then, about an hour and a half more down the road, came another story, seemingly disconnected to the one that continued to run through my head.

The second story involved four GIs during WWII who were, as they say, "a band of brothers". They were from all over the country and forged their relationship in the rigors of boot camp of Ft Dix and the fox holes of the European Front.

During a particularly fierce battle on a field in the countryside north of Paris, one of them took a bullet and died. The three remaining friends were bereft and did not want to leave their comrade on the battlefield. Looking up, they noticed that there was a small Roman Catholic church on the rise of the hill which was surrounded by a cemetery.

The three men gathered up their friend's body and carried him to the church. Knocking on the door, they begged the priest to buy their friend in their graveyard, for which they would pay the good cleric whatever he asked and promised that, after the war, would return to pay any outstanding debt as well as their final respects to their friend.

The priest only had one question: Had the soldier been baptized?

The three soldiers were confounded. They had talked long hours into the night about their childhood, their families, their homes, their dreams, even politics. But, never religion. They thought he was a Christian but had no idea if the man had been baptized, much less what particular religion he practiced, if any.

The priest said, sadly, that he could not bury the man in the consecrated ground of this cemetery.

The three soldiers were shocked and horrified. How could this be? How could this man of God, of whatever religion, make such a coldhearted decision? They pressed upon the priest to make some kind of accommodation, please, for the love of God!

The priest finally conceded that he would bury the American soldier - outside the fence that surrounded and enclosed the cemetery.

The soldiers gladly accepted the compromise, paid the priest, and said their goodbyes to their friend.

Five years later, the soldiers returned to the cemetery, looking to pay respects to their friend. Alas, they could not find the grave. They searched and searched but could not find a gravestone outside the parameter of the cemetery fence.

Trying hard not to let anger rise, they knocked on the door and asked for the priest. "Where is he?" they demanded, "What did you do with our friend? He's nowhere in the cemetery!"

The priest looked down at the floor, then looked up at the soldiers and said, "I thought a great deal about what you said. And, I considered carefully what you did for your friend. And," he added slowly, "I moved the fence."

I don't know when, in those five years, the priest moved that fence. I wondered how many shovels full of dirt - more than seventy-seven, no doubt - it took to accomplish the task.

I do know that the priest had to forgive the soldier for not letting anyone know whether or not he was baptized. And, he had to forgive himself for not assuming the best and bury him in the cemetery.

The two stories, years and continents apart, were, nonetheless connected to each other and the Gospel story about forgiveness.

And then, all of a sudden and from out of nowhere this morning, I "got" the connection with the story of the Parting of the Red Sea.

At least, I think there's a connection there, and I don't think I'm stretching the metaphor beyond credibility.

You see, many of the Israelites believed that their time of bondage in Egypt must have been because of something they did that was so very wrong, it displeased God so much, that God allowed them to be slaves to the Egyptians.

Indeed, many scholars see the Levitical Codes as the way the nation of Israel made absolutely certain that, not only would they would regain their identity as a people, but they also set a standard of life so "pure" that they would never again anger or disappoint God. Hence, "The Purity Codes" of Leviticus.

The story of the Parting of the Red Sea is evidence, proof-positive, that God loves us so much that God will go to any length to provide a pathway for us to find forgiveness and salvation for ourselves. God will even push back the waters of the Red Sea for the Israelites to pass into liberation and then, in those same waters of liberation, drown the Egyptians, the vehicles of their oppression.

Forgiveness does not just happen. It is a process. Sometimes a long process that takes hard work, shoveling through the dirt and very ground of our beliefs. Or, parting the baptismal waters of our faith and drowning the anger that has enslaved us in them.

It's something we do, not just for the one who hurt us, but mostly, in fact, for ourselves. For the health and well being of our own souls and hearts and minds and yes, bodies.

There's a saying in the 12-Step Program that, living with anger towards someone who has hurt us is like taking rat poison and expecting the other person to die.

That's certainly been my experience.

There is an unmistakable connection between our anger and our ability to forgive - but sometimes it as difficult to find as the connection between the stories of the Parting of the Red Sea and the Gospel Parable of the Unforgiving Debor. 

The thing to remember about these words of Jesus - that we must forgive seventy seven times - is that it's not an invitation or a suggestion.

It's a statement of reality.



8thday said...

Words to live by.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You know, so much of preaching is all about audience. St. Paul knew that. I knew I was going to be preaching to a small congregation of older folks, who are not as "plugged in" to the whole Ray and Janay Rice thing. In another setting, I would have preached a very different sermon - because this very gospel is one of the ones which has been used to keep women in situations of domestic violence.

It's not a coincidence that statistics reveal that it usually takes a battered woman 7 times of leaving her abuser before she finally leaves her abuser.

Just sayin'.

8thday said...

I have no doubt that the Bible has been used to keep women in many a horrendous situation. But I wonder about those folks who have sent women back to dangerous and violent settings - how do they ever forgive themselves?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

That's a great question, 8th Day.

Anonymous said...

In response to 8th day, I try not to make the same mistake. I cannot change my past actions, I can only hope the woman forgives me and that God forgives me for my unfortunate counsel. You see as a young attorney a woman in her early 20's came to me seeking a divorce. The woman had four young children, no job, lacking a college degree and no job prospects. She asked me to help her get a divorce. Her husband was sometimes violent. Being the good Catholic (What GOD joins together no man shall part), I suggested marriage counseling first. I stated if that fails and he does not change then I will represent you in the divorce. She agreed. The next week I was horrified to hear on the radio that a man was holding his wife hostage and threatening to kill her. At that point I decided the Catholic Church knew nothing about marriage or divorce and I would NEVER EVER give such stupid counsel. To this day I feel bad about my poor counsel. The only thing I can do is ask the woman, GOD, and you my brothers and sisters for forgiveness.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, No NAME. I hope, someday, you'll learn to forgive yourself. Because, you know, God already has.

8thday said...

No NAME - Personally, I no longer believe in a God that either blames or forgives. I think forgiveness can only occur in your own heart and is much easier to achieve with the help of the aggrieved person. And while I don't believe it is mine to offer forgiveness, I certainly feel the sorrow in your heart and pray that you will find peace.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

8th Day - First of all, thanks so much for coming back here and responding to NO NAME.

In terms of a theology of forgiveness, for me it's not either /or but both/and. Because I believe that God is love and that Jesus was Incarnate Love, I believe God does not blame, but if we ask God for forgiveness, God forgives.

And, I believe that the important work of forgiveness happens deep in the chambers of the human heart. Yes, it's easier to have the participation of the one who caused the pain, but it is not necessary. If asked for forgiveness, I do believe it is mine to give.

Not saying you are wrong and I am right. I'm saying I believe differently and that, in the mystery of God's love, our belief has to work in us but God's love is not dependent on whether or not we believe a certain way or whether forgive or not. God loves us, anyway. Saint or Sinner.

God is love. God forgives. That's what I believe. I strive to emulate God's ways as taught to me by Jesus and other Christ like people like Nelson Mandela whose quote about forgiveness I love. Look for it toward the end of the blog post.