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Sunday, September 13, 2020

The Heart Expands



The Heart Expands

A Sermon for Pentecost XV - Proper19 A - September 13, 2020

Facebook Live Broadcast - Sirach 26:10: Headstrong Daughter


It’s hard to believe but it’s been nineteen years since that September morning when four planes were hijacked. Nineteen years since the beautiful autumn blue sky was marred with planes flying into the Twin Towers in New York City, into the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and into an open field in Shanksville, PA, about 60 minutes drive from Pittsburgh, 90 minutes to the Pentagon.


Just two days ago, we marked the 19th Anniversary of that awful tragedy when our country was attacked and almost 3,000 people were killed. At the time it seemed the whole world mourned with us. We had never known such unity, before or since. And, in many ways, we are still feeling the effects of what happened that day, almost two decades later.


I think there is a straight line between the chaos that is our current reality in our country and in the world and what happened on 9/11.


Into this time, comes Matthew’s Gospel on forgiveness. Peter came to Jesus, thinking that he knew the answer to his question. If someone sinned against him, he asked, how many times should he forgive him? Seven times? Seven sounds like a good number. It’s the number of wholeness and completion, isn’t it? So, I’m sure Peter figures that seven is a good guess.


No, says Jesus. Not seven times, but seventy times seven. Even before Peter can do the math and say, “What? 490 times?” Jesus launches into a parable about the Unmerciful Servant.


I’d like to share a story with you about forgiveness which came to me as a parable from a clergy colleague who was working, at the time, in Hoboken, NJ. Her name is Laurie Wurm and she is, in my estimation, one of the most perceptively pastoral priests I know – which leads her to her convictions on social justice which informs prophetic action.


She tells the story of that time after 9/11, in the city of Hoboken, NJ, where she lived and worked right across the river from what became known as Ground Zero. She helped to create a support group for people whose spouses, fiancés and children were killed during the September 11th attacks.


That first year, she heard stories that were unbelievable and shocking because they were the truth. People talked about having parts of their spouses arrive at local funeral homes and being asked if they wanted to be notified if more pieces were uncovered. 


One woman came to the group in tears after cancelling the reservation for her wedding venue. One man was in anguish as he talked about the decision by City Officials to remove the debris from the Towers to the Fresh Kills Landfill because his wife of over thirty years might be there.


The three-year old daughter of one of the group members drew a picture for her therapist of a flower, a tree and a butterfly. She asked the therapist if he liked it. When the therapist said, “Yes.” She took the picture back and scribbled all over it. No one had to help her understand what had happened.


I tell you these things which Laurie reported not to shock you or disturb you but to remind you that this is a sermon about forgiveness and healing.


Six months after they began, a woman named Julie came to speak to the 9/11 Support Group. Her fiancé had been killed in an explosion ten years earlier.   


Laurie reports: “The members stared at her in disbelief. She was like a being from another world because she was a whole person: engaged again, full of compassion and very much alive." "


When members of the support group asked her how this was possible, Julie gave one of the most profound testimonies to the presence of God I’ve ever heard. She said, ‘The heart expands.’”


The heart expands. 


At least, it can. And, it will, if we allow it.


Do you remember what caused the Grinch to be mean – so mean that he wanted to ruin Christmas for every Who in Whoville? Remember? Of course you do: 


His heart had grown two sizes too small.


I don’t remember what it was that caused Mr. Grinch’s heart to shrink. The story goes, “No one quiet knows the reason. It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right. It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.”


There’s no reason given for what it was that made his heart so small that he just can’t feel love and kindness like the regular Who down in Whoville.  But, you and I know people like this. Well, maybe not as bad as Mr. Grinch but we do know people who live and work among us who just seem to be naturally contrary and easily inspired to do and say mean things.


I have come to know the truth of the old saying that “Hurt people, hurt people.” That becomes the sad reality when hurt people do not have the opportunity – or do not take the opportunity – to heal their wounds.


I once had a Hospice patient – I’ll just call him Jack – who was almost always in constant pain. He refused any of the meds the nurses offered him – except once in a while he’d take a Tylenol. One. That’s it. Nothing more. He was in so much pain that he rarely slept more than an hour or so at a time.


As you might imagine, he was miserable and an exceedingly difficult patient. The nurses were at their wit’s end with him. One nurse finally convinced him to see the chaplain. I was asked to pay him a visit.


I asked her, other than the obvious distress of seeing the man in pain, what her biggest concern was for him. She said something I’ll never forget. She said, “As long as he’s in pain, he won’t be able to let go and die. He’s prolonging his own suffering and death. It makes me wonder if, somehow, he knows this. I wonder if he feels, as long as he’s feeling pain, he’s alive. I wonder if he’s afraid of dying.”


She wasn't far from the truth.


When I first met Jack, I was taken aback by his physical appearance. Being in constant horrific pain meant he had little to no appetite and whatever energy his body had went into feeding the pain and not his body. 


He was stick thin and as close as a person can get to being rude to me without actually being rude but not exactly being polite. 


It was clear he was meeting with me so he could check off a box for his nurse.


With his permission, I made a pot of tea and we settled in to “just talk”. I spotted some navy stuff in the kitchen and asked him about his military service. That opened the door enough to get my big toe in. Turns out, that was all I needed.


Turns out, Jack had been a Navy seal. Viet Nam. I thanked him for his service. He smiled. 


I figured, I had to make my move soon or lose my opportunity completely. 


I took a deep breath and said, “I have friends who served there. The ones who came back came home completely changed."


I paused for effect, looked him straight in the eye and then said, "I can’t imagine the horrors you saw there.”


He looked at me, long and hard, and then he looked through me. Studied me. Carefully. It was easy to see his military training. Then, his eyes filled with tears as he said, “You have no idea, chaplain. What I saw? Ha! That was nothing compared to what I DID,” adding softly, “You have no idea what I did, chaplain. “


He took a few deep breaths to stop himself from sobbing before he croaked out, “No absolution, chaplain. There’s no absolution for me. No forgiveness. No absolution.”


“And, is that why you’re afraid to die?” I asked. He laughed a sarcastic laugh. “Trust me, chaplain,” he said. “I know where I’m going after I die. Whatever pain I’m feeling here is nothing compared to what I’m going to feel after I meet my Maker.”


I let his truth sit in the room with us for a while before venturing to speak again. 


“Well, if I had your understanding of God, I guess I might feel the same way. Jack, I’d like the chance to tell you about the God of my understanding. The God I know. Would it be alright if I came back again and we could talk about that?”


And, wonder of wonder and miracles of miracles, Jack agreed. I guess everybody eventually gets to the point were "enough is enough".


And thus began one of the most important relationships I think I’ve ever had, before or since. There’s lots to say, but I’ll just say this: Jack never forgave himself for what he did, but he came to understand that God did. Or, would. 


Slowly, slowly, slowly, he began to avail himself of pain meds. He began to relax. 


Slowly, he began to allow himself permission to die.


I don’t know how many times Jack had to convince himself that God forgave him. Seven times? Nah, it was probably more like seventy times seven. I do know this much to be true: With each time, he was more loving to his family, more concerned about their reaction to his pain than he was to his pain. 


With each deeper meaning of understanding himself to be forgiven, he was able to be kinder and gentler with himself and then to be kinder and gentler with others.


Simply? Jack’s heart expanded. He knew himself to be loved by his family and friends. He came to understand that God’s love is unconditional and that nothing can separate him from the love of God in Christ Jesus. 


Not even himself.


“Well, in Whoville they say – that the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. And then – the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of ten Grinches, plus two!”


Of course, the true meaning of Christmas is that God’s love became incarnate, became flesh, and dwelt among us. In Christ Jesus, we know that God does not stand apart from us and keep order. Because of Jesus, we know that God walks with us into the chaos of human misery and sin. God’s love transforms our anxiety and pain. God’s grace transforms our sin into opportunities for love.


Seventy times seven, Jesus says. 


I know this much to be true: Each time we forgive, a part of ourselves is forgiven. Let me say that again: Each time we forgive, a part of ourselves is forgiven. We wouldn't be able to recognize the flaw in others if we didn't know it in ourselves.

Which is why, each time we forgive, the heart expands, and our faith finds the strength of ten Grinches, plus two.  


 Seventy times seven.



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