Going the Extra Mile
Christian Practices VI: Forgiveness
text: “…go also the second mile.” (Matthew 5:41)
This morning shortly before noon N begins a new life, and we too begin, again, with him. This morning N will walk into the waters to be baptized; our ultimate symbol (but never more than a symbol) of his decision to follow Jesus. Over the last few weeks N and I have met for several sessions for his baptism class. Yes, if you want to be baptized you have to attend sessions and you have to be of proper age 12 or 13, or the age when you don’t whine after your parents put some kind of new green vegetable on your plate for dinner. Each pastor has his or her own feeling on this – mine is baptism that baptism is our version of a confirmation class, we are re-creating the promises our parents and our church made when we were dedicated. After these few sessions I can say with upmost confidence that N is ready, maybe even more than any other person I’ve baptized. Why? Because he asks questions, serious questions, deep questions. Baptism is not an ascent to ideas but the greatest act of protest you and I can undertake. Protest – because the world aint right, because we aint right! With our baptism we are saying yes to the way of Jesus and no to the way, or direction, of the world here and now.
N as a Christian in the western world, as a Christian in this postmodern world you will need three things to make it: One, the finest bible on the market. You got it, the NRSV New Interpreter’s Study Bible; it’s the best on the market. Ask your questions when you read it and do not give a second thought to orthodoxy or hersey – in the end they don’t matter anyway. Read the contents of this book like old Abe Lincoln: aloud. Notice its rhythms, its worldviews, its peculiarities, its idioms, its bizarreness. Two, you will need to the ability to forgive and to nurture deep reservoirs of forgiveness. Forgiveness more than any other practice or virtue will define your Christianity, your decision to follow God in this world. More on this in a moment. And lastly, N you’re going to need to develop an all consuming love for classic country music! You’ll need to embrace the twang of Loretta Lynn, the lonesome sound of Hank Williams, the harmony of Lester Flat and Earl Scruggs, the nasal sideburns of George Jones, the guttural backbeat of Waylon Jennings, without a doubt the genius of Johnny Cash, the ingenuity of the Carter Family, along with the humor/irony of John Prine and how about a sweet helpin’ of Emmylou Harris. Stories of heartbreak and redemption, sin and salvation, separation and reconciliation, winning and losing, lying and truthing, and then some. Trust me…you’ll need ‘em and don’t let anyone tell you different.
I given you the Bible off my shelf, and I can now give you a classic country mixed tape (even if you don’t know what that is) but the ability and capacity to forgive…well that’s our job as a congregation to teach and model for you and for you to teach and model to us the way of forgiveness. Trust me on this one too…aint no one going to teach you how to do this. If we can accomplish this task together and if you can carry the Good Book with you, and if you can sing along with classic country song, then you’ll make it and we’ll make in this world as followers of Jesus the Christ.
I have waited for a good bit before revealing this simple fact, forgiveness like the other Christian practices we have explored lately are not alternatives or maybes of our religion instead they are requirements for the faithful. Christianity has plenty of room for differing beliefs (for the record there are 280 differing Protestant bodies in North America of that number 83 are different kinds of Baptists), at minimum all you have to confess is that Jesus is Lord, that’s it nothing more, nothing less. But practices we cannot take for granted or overlook! From the simple confession Jesus is Lord flows a way of life calling for the practice of forgiveness, honoring the body, observing the Sabbath, singing our lives, saying yes and saying no, discernment, and next Sunday testimony. This list is neither exhaustive nor unabridged instead it is representative of a long list of practices that have emerged from two millennia of distillative experiences of Christianity.
Lists or requirements may cause your Baptist bones to ache and recoil, you may grimace at the thought of non-negociables. Then let us tease out an analogy. Whey I talk to jazz musicians or music historians in the city I always inquire if there are specific any New Orleans hymns. They ponder it for a moment then say no. Instead of a repertoire or body of New Orleans hymns there is the New Orleans jazz approach to hymns. So when you hear requirements replace it with approach. Think of Christian practices as an approach to Christianity.
I’ve only got this week and next Sunday to entice, wrangle, tempt, beg, and yes guilt you into a small group during Lent so you can experiment with one of these Christian practices. Allow me a moment to provide some possibilities: the discernment group may meet at someone’s home over wine and cheese to talk about how they are experiencing what God is calling them to do. (May I suggest a box of wine, not only is it cheaper and can provide enough for a small gathering but it is also the more ecological choice.) The saying yes and saying no group may simply email back and forth how they said no to some things so they could say yes to God. The singing group may join around a piano and sing all of those blood and guts Baptist classics, or maybe you will learn some new hymns, or maybe you will get together and plan what hymns you want sung at your funeral. The observing the Sabbath group may meet together for Sunday supper, or go visit our shut-ins, or play a game of kickball or spend a few hours playing and having fun at Rock-n-Bowl. The honoring the body group may meet for yoga at Audubon Park (I know instructors who would love this). And the forgiveness group may sit down somewhere and honestly share why they are unwilling or incapable of forgiveness, how difficult it is to forgive. Why? Because when we gather on Easter morn and sing Alleluia let us sing it with purpose and meaning because all of us will have a new and deeper appreciation of why God’s mighty act of raising Jesus is transforming us and our world. I believe we are going to change the world through these practices and let us not settle for anything less.
I invite everyone here to make a fist as tight as you can, then press this tight fist onto your knees, all the while gnashing your teeth. Now release your fist, place your hands palms up on your knees and exhale that is forgiveness. Imagine a balloon falling to the ground then exploding when it hits a blade of grass, that is forgiveness. Imagine a hug that you fall and sink into while you sob uncontrollably in the arms of another, that is forgiveness.
Forgiveness is never fast, never easy, and never without consequences. N, rest assured some people will wilt with appreciation when you forgive them but most wont give a damn. They will take advantage of you, will walk all over you, and take advantage of your forgiving spirit. Forgive anyway. Forgiveness, when it is beautiful and proper is a two way street but most times it is a wrong way on a one way street. Forgive anyway. It is our job to help you learn how to deal with an unaccepting world, with a sarcastic and self-serving world. It is our job to help you see past the current circumstances and develop a deep sense of Christian hope; it is our job to help you forgive anyway. Trust me you and all of us will change the world with our forgiveness.
We have to model for you the capacity to keep forgiving even though the world is replete with examples. In the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement America had a chance not only for forgiveness for its original sin of slavery but true transformation for race relations, the American church had a chance to offer genuine Christian metanoia but it didn’t, it failed. And we are living with the consequences, we are left waiting for another chance. Amidst all of the beatings, brutality, killing, derogatory behavior, racism, ugly actions, and unabashed sin that took place during the Civil Rights Movement there are scant and almost non-existent examples of perpetrators seeking forgiveness.
In the summer of 1961 John Lewis, a 21 year old civil rights activist and Baptist minister got off a bus in Rock Hill, SC and attempted to enter the “Whites Only” door to the bus terminal. At that moment the mob unleashed their violence onto Lewis and the others. 50 years later Elwin Wilson looked at a photograph of the event and realized that the man he was beating with all of his might was John Lewis. 50 years later Elwin Wilson found John Lewis and apologized. The story on NPR recorded Lewis’s recollection of the conversation this way,
"I said to him, 'I forgive you.' I don't have any ill feelings, any bitterness, any malice. He gave me a hug. I hugged him back. He cried a little, and I cried." "Well, it was a moment of grace, a moment of forgiveness and a moment of reconciliation, and that's what the movement, that's what the struggle was all about," Lewis says.
Wilson says he found the Lord and realized he was wrong.
"If I can just get one person not to hate, it's worth it," Wilson says.
The forgiveness of Lewis and the repentance of Wilson is an amazing story but here is the kicker. Rock Hill is a city of 70,000 residents and only one has sought forgiveness. I am sure there are plenty of pews packed on Sunday mornings of folk who were a part of that mob or who were the silent majority that approved of their action, silence is an act. N it is my prayer that through your life you are the forgiving one, that we are the forgiving community, N it is my prayer that you are the one who seeks forgiveness, that we are the seekers of forgiveness, N it is my prayer that you are the one who brings the word of peace, that we are the peacemakers, N it is my prayer that you are the one who offers transformation, the community that offers transformation.
Brothers and Sisters let us commit and recommit ourselves to the ministry of forgiveness and reconciliation. In the waters of N’s baptism may we all recommit our vow to follow Jesus, to practice forgiveness, and to live as if the kingdom of God is here and now. Amen & Amen.