Timothy C. Ahrens
The First Congregational Church
United Church of Christ
March 19, 2000
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Two questions simply asked by a lawyer and rabbinically answered by Jesus set the stage for our conversation on grace today. The first question is the source of much consternation in our spiritual lives: "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Who among us that has walked on the journey of faith has not wondered about this at some time. Who among us does not want life with no end, life without death? For some people eternal life means heaven, the jackpot at the end of the rainbow, but to hear Jesus talk it means hitting the jackpot now. It means the depth and breath and sweetness that is available in this minute and not only after we have breathed our last. But even if you believe it, you must do something. And what is it you must do?
In good rabbinic fashion, Jesus does not answer him. While the lawyer wants the answer to come from outside of himself, in other words, he wants someone else (in this case "Jesus") to hand him the key, Jesus wants him to discover the answer from inside himself so he answers the question with a question. "What has been written in the law? What do you read there?" Jesus asks. The lawyer answers beautifully "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." The answer is profound. The answer is complete. The lawyer has spoken well. But, this is not about answers, it is about doing love. So Jesus says, "You have answered right. Do this and you will live."
The crush of his mind brings the lawyer back to earth. Like you and me, he must think, "It's all over. The man by the exit ramp on 71 at Broad, have I given to him? The Central American refugees who hunger for bread, have I done right by them? My family, my next door neighbors, have I done what is right for them?"
So he explodes with question number two: "And who is my neighbor?" Or is he really asking, "Who is not my neighbor?" He is hoping for a little help from Jesus. He is hoping Jesus can cut his liability and guide him to legitimately set out on a course of concern that will allow him to feel good about himself. Have you ever done this? Have you ever taken simple things and made them so complicated that you can finally throw up your hands and blame your failure to act on bad directions?
For example, you go to lunch with a friend and begin to talk about hunger and homelessness. Together you look east of 71 and south of 70 and say, there is no way the two of us can solve hunger and homelessness. The problem is too big and so much of the problem is related to addiction, mental illness, illiteracy, and bad families. What chance do we have against the real enemies of social, political, and familial discord?
Closer to home, you look around the church family. You look around the sanctuary. You see people whom you've disagreed with and been on opposite sides of real life struggles with and you say, too many years, too much bad blood, too many mumbling words have been spoken for me to get along with that neighbor.
But Jesus won't allow the lawyer, you or me to complicate what is simple. He won't allow us to get inside our own heads and redefine the terms of what is an acceptable response and what is not. Jesus stops the game of complicating what God has made simple. He stops the mess which we create based on blame for bad directions.
Jesus tells a story. He tells of a man who falls among robbers and is beaten to near death. He tells how three people walking that same road deal with the dying man. Two of the people are deeply religious. They are not evil. In fact, the lawyer would consider them good. But they make unacceptable excuses for failing to care for the man. The third person traveling the road is considered "bad" by Jesus' culture. They would call him a "bad" Samaritan, not a good one! Yet, this man shows mercy. This man offers compassion. This man understands God's directions to do love. This man keeps things simple and uncomplicated.
You may notice that Jesus doesn't really an answer the question the lawyer asks. The question he asks is "Who is my neighbor?" But the question Jesus answers is: "Whose neighbor are you?" The answer is Anyone's. Everyone's. Jesus will not allow people to limit God's commandment to love. He will not allow questions which carry people away from love to take root in the soul of any questioner - including you and me. He is not sure how the lawyer will choose to act. But he is sure that action is the choice.
You see, like love, grace is not a theoretical or theological concept to be bantered about. In fact, grace is love in action. Grace happens. Grace happens when the hearers of God's word become doers also. They may do what is obvious and thus become authentically human and therein find the meaning of their lives. They may accept themselves as they are and thus be set free to love others. This is not the burden but the liberation of God's grace which takes form in life. Acceptance of self and others through the action of love is at the root of healing and forms the nucleus of God's amazing grace.
We get all worried about what to do. Will it be enough? Will the other person consider it sincere? Will they accept what I offer? How will it be perceived? And when we get caught up and wrought up in this type of complication of the simple, we miss the point again. To act. To love. To reach out as sincerely as we can. This is what God is calling us to do.
W. H. Auden writes, "In the desert of the heart, let the healing fountain start, in the prison of his days, teach the free man how to praise." It has to begin somewhere. It has to begin sometime. In his book entitled, What's So Amazing About Grace?, Phillip Yancey writes:
The scandal of forgiveness confronts anyone who agrees to a moral cease-fire just because someone says, "I'm sorry." When I feel wronged, I can contrive a hundred reasons against forgiveness . . . I marshal my arguments until something happens to wear down my resistance. When I finally soften to the point of granting forgiveness, it seems a capitulation, a leap from hard logic to mushy sentiment. Why do I ever make such a leap? ...I can identify three pragmatic reasons for forgiveness . . . (Yancey, p. 96).
He offers these three reasons. First, forgiveness alone can halt the cycle of blame and pain, breaking the chain of ungrace. Second, forgiveness can loosen the stranglehold of guilt in the perpetrator. Third, as forgiveness breaks the cycle of blame and loosens the stranglehold of guilt, it remarkably accomplishes these two things by placing the forgiver on the same side as the party who did the wrong. Through this action we come to realize that we are as different from the wrongdoer as we would like to think. As Simon Weil in Gravity and Grace, writes "I also am other than what I imagine myself to be. To know this is forgiveness." (Simon Weil, Gravity and Grace, New York: Routledge, 1972, p. 9). Let's look more closely at forgiveness halting the cycle of blame and pain.
In the New Testament, the most common Greek word for forgiveness means, literally, "to release, to hurl away, to free yourself." On the other hand, the word resentment means, literally, "to feel again." Forgiveness releases the past. Resentment clings to the past. Resentment lives over and over and over picking each scab so that the wound never heals.
In Love in the Time of Cholera, Nobel Laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez portrays a marriage that disintegrates over a bar of soap. It is the wife's job to keep the house in order, including soap as a provision for the bathroom. One day she forgets to replace a bar of soap. Her husband is unkind as he reproaches her and they end up spending the next seven months eating in silence and sleeping in separate rooms. Marquez writes, "Even when they were old and placid, they were very careful about bringing it up, for the barely healed wounds could begin to bleed again as if they had been inflicted yesterday." (Marquez, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988, pp.28-30). How can a bar of soap ruin a marriage? Because neither partner would say, "Stop. This cannot go on. I'm sorry. Forgive me."
Not to forgive imprisons each one of us in the past and locks out our potential for change. By not forgiving I yield control to another, my adversary, and doom myself and my generation to suffer the consequences of the wrong. An immigrant rabbi was heard to say after the Holocaust, "Before coming to America, I had to forgive Adolph Hitler. I did not want to bring Hitler inside of me to my new country." (Quoted in What's So Amazing About Grace?, p. 99). We forgive not only to fulfill a higher law of morality. We forgive to heal ourselves. "The first often the only person to be healed by forgiveness is the person who does the forgiveness . . . When we genuinely forgive, we set a prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner we set free was us." (Lewis Smedes, Shame, pp. 136, 141).
There is so much more I can say today about how forgiveness loosens the stranglehold of guilt in the perpetrator and how forgiveness places the forgiver on the same side as the party who did the wrong. But, for now I must bring to close my reflections on healing grace.
I must confess to you today, as I have listened to many of your stories for the first two months at First Church, I have several thoughts. First, I hold these stories as sacred and hold them in confidence. Second, I have heard many stories laden with pain and blame and un-forgiveness. I ache from hearing the pain. And it is not that I want you to stop sharing the stories, it's just that I am deeply, deeply concerned about the source of the pain. I am deeply concerned for each of you and the places of your hearts where resentments - some generations old - have taken root. I have seen and heard so much pain.
Like the immigrant rabbi, if you and I are to enter our new country we call the future of First Church, you need to find ways to forgive whoever and whatever has a grip on you. If you and I (and all of us together) are to move across waters of pain, forward into a future of hope, the haunting stories (not the beloved stories but the haunting ones) and your clinging resentments need to be left behind. The only way to do this is to forgive and ask for God's healing balm to heal all the wounds - wounds that are personal and wounds that are institutional. You need to seek out those with whom you have coexisted in a state of un-forgiveness - and you need to forgive and move on.
I am not a miracle worker. But the miracle worker of Nazareth won't allow you or me to complicate the simple. He is calling us to do love. He is calling us to live as people of grace not people of ungrace. He is calling us to do the acts of love and to be amazed by God's grace. He is calling us to forgive and to move on. Because, "When we genuinely forgive, we set a prisoner free and then discover that the prisoner we set free was us." Amen.
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