Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Day of Pentecost: A Sermon on Pentecost

The reading can be found here...

Here is a poem by Wendell Berry. It’s called “The Wild Rose.”

Sometimes hidden from me
in daily custom and in trust,
so that I live by you unaware
as by the beating of my heart,

Suddenly you flare in my sight,
a wild rose blooming at the edge
of thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only shade,

and once again I am blessed, choosing
again what I chose before.

I love that line, “choosing again what I chose before.” Can you tell that this is a poem about marriage? I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage lately. Haven’t you? Hasn’t everybody? I’ve been thinking about the meaning of that long and intimate relationship in which two parties give themselves freely and without reserve to one another, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish all their days. That’s the ideal, anyway. And marriage is certainly all over the political news, these days, what with the recent vote in North Carolina as well as the interview given by our president in which he states that he supports marriage equality. And, of course, it’s almost June, the traditional marriage season.

But I’m thinking of marriage, on this particular morning, for other reasons. I’m thinking of marriage because it’s the day of Pentecost, that day on which Christians celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit—whatever that might mean—and there is a connection there, between Pentecost and marriage. But in order to understand it, we have to understand the Jewish roots of Pentecost, the roots of our very Jewish savior and his first followers.

Before there was a Christian celebration of Pentecost, there was a Jewish festival. “Pentecost” is its Greek name, from the root word meaning “fifty”: its Hebrew name is Shavuot, which means “weeks,” because that’s how it’s counted: seven weeks after Passover, plus one day. Pentecost/ Shavuot comes fifty days after Passover, and, like all really worthwhile and rich religious festivals, it commemorates many things, and contains layers of meaning to be unwrapped and savored. On one level—probably the original understanding, the most ancient—it is a harvest festival, a festival of the “first fruits,” the first beautiful and fragrant stalks of grain, and the sweet grapes that spring forth when the time is right, when the seasons have turned in precisely the necessary way, when it is just warm enough, just rainy enough and sunny enough. In ancient days the festival was commemorated with grain and bread offerings in the temple, bread being that necessary food, from ancient times, to sustain life.

And then another layer of meaning was added: the festival also commemorates that moment when the people of Israel stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah, the covenant, the first five books of what we know of as the “Old Testament.” They received it from God. And you can see the connection, if you turn these two things over in your mind and in your heart. The giving of the covenant is a kind of “first fruits” of the relationship between God and God’s people. The Torah, the covenant, is as necessary to life as bread, is as basic as food. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord,” says Rabbi Jesus, quoting Moses in the book of Deuteronomy. The Jewish festival Shavuot, also called Pentecost, stands in the tension between these very universal human needs: the need for bread, and the need for God. The need for sustenance of every kind if we are to live in this world.

And this is where marriage comes in. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, also known as the Velveteen Rabbi, writes most eloquently of yet another layer of the Jewish Pentecost celebration: it is the celebration of the “cosmic marriage.” She tells of “two classical ways of imagining Shavuot as our collective wedding anniversary. In one interpretation, at Shavuot we married the Torah (with God and Moses as witnesses) and in another, we married God (with Torah as our ketubah [or wedding contract], and heaven and earth as witnesses…).[i]

All these layers come together in the traditional Shavuot reading: the book of Ruth, a rather unusual love story whose main action takes place on a threshing floor, and in which we find this covenant language:

Where you go, I will go;
Where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”

~ Ruth 1:16-17

These words, often used by couples as a part of their wedding ceremony, are spoken by Ruth to another woman, Naomi, her beloved mother-in-law.

And that’s Pentecost as Jesus knew it, the Jewish festival, also known as Shavuot, which began last night at sunset, fifty days after Passover.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles begins, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place” [Acts 2:1]. On another Pentecost Sunday I shared with you that it was a tradition, from ancient times, to celebrate Shavuot by spending the night in study of the Torah. I read this morning on Facebook the reports of my Jewish friends who did just this last night! It makes perfect sense that the family, friends and followers of Jesus would have been together, studying scripture that long night. And this casts the “coming of the Holy Spirit” in another light entirely.

Think of the layers.

Shavuot/ Pentecost is a harvest festival; and the coming of the Spirit is the beginning—only the beginning—of what will blossom in the wake of the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth.

This is a festival of “first fruits,” and we know the fruits of the Spirit to be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control [Galatians 5:22-23].

This is a festival commemorating the receiving of the covenant between God and God’s people, and Jesus has described the Spirit as being a kind of advocate—one who stands beside us, who accompanies us.

This is a festival reminding the people of God’s ongoing involvement in their lives, a God described in the letter to the Romans as one who experiences life with us, walks alongside us, groans with us, and hopes with us.[ii]

And this is a festival celebrating a relationship sometimes imagined as a kind of marriage. Think with me, again, of the poem, “The Wild Rose.”

Sometimes hidden from me
in daily custom and in trust,
so that I live by you unaware
as by the beating of my heart…

This is a description of marriage, of that long and intimate relationship in which we covenant with another, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health… a relationship that requires absolute trust, living by one another “unaware.” And that is the way it is with God:

God, who is, sometimes, hidden from us.

God, with whom we live unaware, and yet, in the every-day-ness of deep trust…

God, with whom we dwell in an intimacy as profound and unselfconscious as the beating of our hearts. This is the Spirit as described in Romans… the one who accompanies us, breathing in us. And then, the second verse:

Suddenly you flare in my sight,
a wild rose blooming at the edge
of thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only shade…

This describes those seasons in marriage in which we rediscover our good fortune in being in this relationship, when our beloved is new again in our eyes and in our heart. And this is the Spirit as experienced in our reading from Acts.

The Spirit blooms in gusts of wind, quiet no more, but vibrant, bold, unmistakable…

The Spirit flares in flame, passionate, kindling in us God’s very “ardor flowing…”

The Spirit fills us with grace and light, like the speech that can bridge gaps that have felt like they were uncrossable… like the right words at the right time, words that mend and heal, words that bind together and give joy…

Writing nearly five hundred years ago, the Spanish mystic John of the Cross composed a “Spiritual Canticle” that picks up this same theme: the marriage between God and humanity. He speaks of the human soul as the bride, longing for Christ, the bridegroom.

In search of my Love
I will go over mountains and strands;
I will gather no flowers,
I will fear no wild beasts;
And pass by the mighty and the frontiers.

O groves and thickets,
Planted by the hand of the Beloved;
O verdant meads
Enameled with flowers,
Tell me, has He passed by you?[iii]

Scripture tells us, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” And then this group of Jesus-followers experienced God as a sudden wind, and tongues of flame, and the ability to speak and hear in many languages. And if we look beneath this scene, we see the other layers of God’s people experiencing God’s presence… in bread and grain and the fruits of the earth… in God’s covenant promise of loyalty, the God who says to us, “Where you go, I will go,”… in the promise of words when we are sure we can find none, and in the promise of understanding of our very groans, of agony and  ecstasy. It is a long and intimate relationship, like marriage, in which we are blessed by this God who chooses us again, as we have been chosen before. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, “Shavuot: anniversary of a cosmic marriage,” at The Velveteen Rabbi, June 10, 2008.

[ii] Karoline Lewis,
[iii] John of the Cross, “Spiritual Canticle” Stanzas III and IV,

Sunday, May 20, 2012

I Am Praying For You: Sermon on John 17:6-21

Scripture can be found  here.

“I am praying for you.”

How often have we heard that sentence spoken to us? How often have we said it ourselves? Or written it? Or posted it on a Facebook wall?

“I am praying for you.” What does that mean, exactly?

Almost 15 years ago I had some emergency surgery, the kind of situation where I didn’t show up for my weekly Bible study and that was how my friends found out I was in the hospital. This was the period just before I went to seminary, and the Bible study in question was heavily populated with pastors.

After the surgery, back in the recovery room, I had what was, for me, a very strange experience. I would open my eyes, and there would be a pastor, leaning over me, and offering to pray (which offer I gladly accepted). Then I’d drift off, only to awaken again, some undetermined amount of time later, to the vision of another, different pastor, also leaning in and asking whether we could pray. This happened four or five times… not sure how many, honestly, what with the drugs and all. But I am sure of one thing: in my state, which was one of fear and pain, I was moved nearly to tears by the praying presence of folks I’d considered “friends,” but whom I’d never quite envisioned in this particular role in my life: praying for me, in the recovery room. It was powerful.

And just to be clear, I have had equally overwhelming experiences of being prayed for in other contexts as well. You have prayed for me, many of you, and that experience, of knowing you are praying for me also moves me more than I can say. It moves me every time.

“I am praying for you.”

When we say those words, we may have all kinds of different intentions about them. It may be that we intend that the person or family or situation will be a part of our early morning or midday or late evening devotions, as we sit in a rocker in our living room, or a chair on our front porch, a candle lit, scriptures read. We intend to hold them in our hearts. At its best our prayers reflect the prayers described by Julian of Norwich, who said, simply, “I look at God, I look at you, and I keep on looking at God.”[i]

And what often happens is this: the moment after we say, “I am praying for you,” we shoot what some call an ‘arrow’ prayer to heaven: “God, help her.” “God, bless them.” Or, we may raise their names here, in church, during our prayers of the people, or in a small group, or with a prayer partner.

“I am praying for you.”

In our gospel passage it is Jesus who is praying. When we say “the prayer Jesus prayed,” most of us think of the one with its roots in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, that concise, perfect-for-every-day-prayer, that asks for daily bread and forgiveness and that God’s reign come among us: the one we know by heart (and will say together in a few minutes). That’s the one we know as “the Lord’s Prayer.”  This one is very different. This “other” Lord’s prayer is John’s presentation of what Jesus said to God on the night of his last supper with his disciples, the night he would be betrayed by his friends, the night he would be arrested. Jesus prayed this prayer on the night before he died.

“I am praying for you.”

The other gospels depict Jesus praying the night before he died—arrow prayers. Prayers that amount to “Help.” “Please.” “Don’t let this happen.” “Take this cup from me.” And, ultimately, “Your will be done.” This is a very different prayer. In this prayer, Jesus is praying for his disciples.

“They were yours, you gave them to me,” Jesus prays [John 17:6]. And “I came from you” [John 17:8]. And “All mine are yours, and yours are mine” [John 17:10]. This is not an easy prayer to follow at times, andI have to confess, when I was reading this on Monday, the first thing that came to mind was “I am the Walrus”; based on my reading this week, I was not alone in that.[ii] But if we stick with it, we realize that in this prayer, as he looks ahead to the time when he will not be physically present with them, Jesus is asking God for some very basic help for his disciples: He is asking that they might have strength, that they might have joy, and that they might be one: united. Together. [John 17:11,13, 21]

And if we read all the way to the end of the passage, we will find something startling. These “disciples” for whom Jesus is praying…? They are not limited to the twelve gathered around the table with him, or to the larger crowds who followed him as he preached, healed and taught. “I ask not only on behalf of these,” Jesus prays to God, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.” In other words, us. You and me. Those who believe, through the word of Jesus’ witnesses and followers—it worked like those old shampoo commercials. “I told two friends, and they told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on…” and then you and I were gathered together on an unseasonably hot day in May to learn that, on the night before he died, Jesus prayed for us.

“I am praying for you.”

Jesus prayed for us. He prayed that we might have strength, and that we might have joy, and that we might be united, together. That we might be one.

What does it mean, that Jesus prayed for us? Well, in the gospel of John have a Jesus who is very willing to talk about himself, to explain himself, unlike the other, more cryptic, even secretive Jesus of the synoptic gospels. Here Jesus is constantly telling us who he is. When the Samaritan woman at the well hints around that Jesus just might be the Messiah, he confirms, “I am.” He then proceeds to show and tell what that means, exactly. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says, while feeding the crowd of five thousand people. “I am the light of the world,” just before he gives sight to the blind man. “I am the gate of the sheep,” and also “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the true vine,” Jesus says. “I am the resurrection and the life,” and also, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

Jesus’ words, these “I am” sayings, are hearkening back to something ancient, and profound, and even a little shocking. They recall a conversation by a burning bush, long, long before Jesus’ time, when a refugee named Moses asks the voice that is speaking to him, “Whom shall I say sent me?” And the answer is, “I am; I am who I am” [Exodus 3:1-14].

“I am,” Jesus says, over and over and over throughout the gospel of John. “I am” one with the Father. “I am” the way, and the truth, and the life.

“I am praying for you.”

What does it mean that the one who claims such intimacy with God, whose life reveals such oneness with God, is praying for you, and for me? What does it mean that the one who says, “I am,” is praying for you?

What would you like it to mean?

I went to North Carolina in March for a continuing education event called “Sacred Listening.” It was about group spiritual discernment, listening together for God’s voice. The kind of thing we do together as followers of Jesus, or members of a church. One of the phrases used by our instructors stayed with me—haunted me, really. They talked about listening for “the prayer of God in us as God would have us care for ourselves, [and one] another…”[iii]

What is the prayer of God in us? What is the prayer of God for us?

I would like you to try something. I would like you to close your eyes, if you feel comfortable doing so, and I would like you to let your breath become quiet and regular. Know that God is present, active, and loving. Rest in the love of God. Breathe in the love of God. Know that you are God’s precious and beloved child.

Now, in the quietest and deepest place in your heart, hear God’s voice calling you by name, asking, “[Your name], what do you want?” And listen for what bubbles up, from that deep place within you. What is your deepest longing? What is God’s deepest longing for you?

Does your deepest longing have to do with your body, with your health? Does it have to do with someone you love, or with someone whose relationship with you is broken? Is your deepest longing on behalf of someone who is suffering—whether you, or a loved one, or a whole country, or population? The poor, the lost, the lonely? Is your deepest longing something you fear to admit, something you are afraid to bring into the light for the changes it will make, for the upheaval it will cause? Let it come up and let it come out. Share it with God, with the “I am,” who is praying for you, and who, we must believe, already knows it anyway.

This is the tricky thing about relationship, real relationship with God—or, with anyone, for that matter. There is God’s longing for us, God’s prayer in us. And there is our prayer, the deep desires of our own hearts. And the only way to be in real relationship—with anyone—is for both sets of desires to be made known. It is just as important for us to be listening to the prayer of God in us, to let ourselves be what one of my teachers called “a sufficiently large, open and vulnerable container for God,” as it is for us to reveal to God (and to ourselves) the things that matter the most to us, the cries that rush to the surface when we allow ourselves the stillness to hear them.

“I am praying for you.”

Jesus prayed for us, and is praying for us still. The one who says, “I am the light of the world,” prays that light in us and for us. The one who says, “I am the bread of life,” still seeks to nourish us with himself. The one who says, “I am the good shepherd,” does not leave us alone, and knows our voices, and listens for our prayers, even as we listen for his.  Rest in the knowledge of this. Bask in the joy of this! Jesus prays for us still, that we might have strength, and that we might have joy, and that we might be one. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i]  Rose Mary Dougherty, Group Spiritual Formation
[ii] David Lose, “The OTHER Lord’s Prayer,” Working Preacher at Luther Seminary, May 13, 2012.
[iii] Dougherty, 20-21.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Loving One Another: Sermon on Acts 10

Scripture can be found here and here.... 

'Holy Spirit Coming' by He-Qi

There is nothing harder on God’s green earth than changing your mind.

Unless, perhaps, you’ve decided you want to try to change someone else’s mind.

And the one exception to both the above seems to occur when the Holy Spirit gets involved.

The entire book of the Acts of the Apostles might be understood as a continuous narrative of people changing their minds. It begins after the resurrection, with Jesus ascending into heaven, and continues with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Ask anyone in our Monday evening Bible Study: we immersed ourselves in the book of Acts for the better part of a year. Anyone who was part of that immersion experience will tell you: the Holy Spirit is really the main character in the book of Acts, and the Spirit goes about changing hearts and minds beginning in Jerusalem, and all throughout Judea, to what was known, in the first century, as the ends of the earth.

Today’s story from Acts occurs roughly a third of the way into the book, but it is a turning point, on which all the rest of it depends. It actually begins at verse 1 of chapter 10. And it reads like a film script.

Scene 1: Close up on Cornelius: a Centurion, an officer in the Roman army. He’s not a Jew, though he respects and worships God, prays with passion and conviction, and is generous towards the poor and needy. Through the magic of special effects we see that he has a vision: an angel of God tells him to send for Simon Peter, Jesus’ disciple and follower. Cornelius sends two slaves and another religious soldier from his cohort off on the mission: bring back Simon Peter.

Scene 2: Meanwhile, Simon Peter is off having a vision of his own, though it is decidedly more trippy than Cornelius’. Simon sees a sheet being lowered from heaven, and it contains all kinds of animals, birds and reptiles. It comes with a command, also from heaven: “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” And Peter, who is a Jew, and was raised a Jew, and knows perfectly well what both scripture and tradition have to say about all the non-kosher foods in front of him on that sheet, says, “No. Way. I know what’s clean and what’s unclean. I know what’s Godly and un-Godly. I will NOT eat them, God-I-Am.” To which the angel replies: “You are not the boss-of-God. You do not get to tell God what is clean and what is unclean. Now, knock it off.” I’m paraphrasing, of course.

Scene 3: The people sent by Cornelius arrive—we can see them out the window, even as Peter is trying for a third time not to eat those non-kosher foods—and  Peter gets a heads up from the Holy Spirit that they are there, and that he should go with them. He offers them hospitality and they spend the night. The next day he goes with them: they journey to the home of Cornelius. Traveling montage, as the scene goes back and forth from the travelers to the eager Cornelius, waiting at home in Caesarea.

Scene 4: This is where a little comic relief gets thrown in, as Cornelius, overcome with joy to see Peter, starts out by falling at his feet to worship him. Peter quickly puts an end to that. Then they have one of those exchanges people sometimes have in the movies when they’re falling in love. “I swear I had a dream about you.” “Really? Well guess what. I had a dream about you!” Only they’re not falling in love with one another, but with this new thing that the Holy Spirit is doing in and through them both.

Scene 5. Peter preaches one of the most important sermons in Christian history.

When I studied preaching in seminary, it became clear to me that sermons can serve many functions. There are sermons that are meant to encourage, and sermons that are meant to instruct. There are sermons to inspire and sermons to motivate and sermons to console. But at the heart of each and every sermon there is one fundamental purpose: conversion. That word, “conversion,” comes from a Greek word that literally means, ‘turning around.’ Every sermon seeks to persuade the listeners, in some way, to turn around—to see things differently, to get a new vision, a new view, however subtle or dramatic. Every sermon in the book of Acts seeks to convert its listeners, to turn them around so that they are ready to receive the gospel, the message of Jesus.

Peter begins, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” [Acts 10:34-35]. As it is presented in the book of Acts, this is one of the most important sermons in history. This is the sermon that makes the difference between a world in which Christianity remained only a small minority sect of first century Mediterranean Judaism, and a world in which Christianity flourished, growing like one of those mustard seeds described in the gospels.

A seminary friend wrote about this sermon this week.  

“I now know that God shows no partiality.”  It was a shocking declaration then.  Truthfully, it may be just as shocking today for those who have been on the business end of Christianity’s judgment stick—and for those who have wielded it.[i]

 “I know now that God shows no partiality,” said Simon Peter, the Jewish fisherman from Galilee—thus declaring a departure from his religious training and tradition and the scripture that had formed his faith.

There is nothing harder on God’s green earth than changing minds, unless, of course, the Holy Spirit is involved. And then, as now, all bets are off.

This week a sister denomination of Christians gathered for its perioding ‘big meeting,’ akin to our Presbyterian General Assembly, which meets this summer in Pittsburgh. At their meeting our brothers and sisters in Christ debated the following amendment to their constitution:

“We affirm our unity in Jesus Christ while acknowledging differences in applying our faith in different cultural contexts as we live out the Gospel. We stand united in declaring our faith that God’s love is available to all, that nothing can separate us from the love of God.”

One writer explained, “After some very lively debate, this legislation passed, but not by much. In the end, only 53 percent of delegates agreed to add this very basic, very obvious, very scriptural [Romans 8:38-39]… affirmation of God’s love.” [ii]

I bring this up, not to single out our brothers and sisters in that denomination, not to say, Oh, aren’t they terrible, that 47%, and aren’t we great, who know better, but rather, to say this: what Peter said was shocking then, and it’s shocking now, deeply shocking to our sense of who and what God is. God’s love is bigger than we are comfortable with, and God calls us to ways of loving one another that live into that love.

And so thanks be to God for Scene 6 in our movie: The Holy Spirit comes down. Falls on all who are present. This includes Cornelius, and the members of his household: his family, his servants and his soldiers. This also includes the “circumcised believers” who had accompanied Simon Peter—those who have, you might say, their own opinions and expectations here, those who are, like Simon Peter, predisposed to believe that the received tradition and scripture are to be adhered to no matter what. But the Holy Spirit comes down.

Scripture gives us some vivid descriptions as to what occurs when the Holy Spirit comes down. One memorable account is at the beginning of the book of Acts, and it involves nothing less than violent wind, and flames of fire, and the ability to speak in new and unexpected languages. In the book of the prophet Ezekiel, the falling of the Spirit causes bones bleached dry in the desert to come together and be covered with flesh and sinew and be filled once again with the breath of life. Another memorable but perhaps more subtle account the one we read just a couple of weeks ago, in John’s gospel: Jesus breathing the Holy Spirit upon his disciples and giving them the gift and commission of forgiveness.

The Holy Spirit comes down, and all bets are off. The Holy Spirit comes down, and nothing is the same. The Holy Spirit comes down, and instructions from Jesus—like, “Love one another, as I have loved you”—take on new shape and vibrancy and urgency. The Holy Spirit comes down, and minds are changed. Conversion happens. Things, and people, turn around.

Our popular culture, the culture of attack ads and highly politicized news reporting, has a phrase for changing one’s mind. They call it the “flip-flop.” You could say, Simon Peter flip-flops on the issue of whether non-Jews may be welcomed unconditionally into the body of Christ. He flip-flops on the restrictions he puts on Jesus’ commandment of love. Of course, he has the Holy Spirit to blame for his change of mind and change of heart. The Holy Spirit comes down, and all bets are off.

My seminary friend has this to say on this game-changing moment in our reading:

What Peter did changed the course of Christianity forever.  He opened it to the whole world—to you and me, who would never have been welcome if this vision of God’s impartiality had not worked its way through Peter’s—and Cornelius’—active imaginations.

When Peter declared, “God shows no partiality,” he opened the possibility that anyone—everyone—is welcome in the family of faith.  He also put us on warning:  the rules were changed for you, so that you could come in—who are you, then, to prevent God from blessing the whole human family?  Who are you to stand in the way of God’s love?

God changed the rules for us so that we could come in. God through the Holy Spirit—through trippy dreams and night visions—changed the game so that you and I could be part of the family of faith. God changed hearts and minds in order that the family of God, the body of Christ, could be ever more hospitable, more opening and welcoming, to all God’s children. God turns us all around, so that we can see and live and participate in Scene 7—in which, babies and adults are baptized and welcomed. In which the Presbytery of San Francisco finally ordains Lisa Larges, after more than 20 years of her faithful participation in the ordination process. In which we grow in ways we can only begin to imagine, in loving one another, according to our God’s gracious plan. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Rev. David Lewicki, “Holy Calamity: Acts 10:44-48, ON Scripture,
[ii] Matt Algren, “United Methodist Church Divided on God’s Unconditional Love,”

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Abiding and Forgiveness: Sermon on John 15:1-8

Scripture can be found here....

It is not often that forgiveness makes the news.

This week our local paper carried stories about hydraulic fracturing, the honoring of local police officers, our state school and property taxes, and ongoing stories of recovery from our historic September flood.

National news continued its (already interminable) coverage of the 2012 presidential election, a Chinese dissident who escaped house arrest and is seeking to come to the United States, a family fight over a television ministry, and the shutting down of Japan’s last operating nuclear reactor, following last year’s earthquake and tsunami disaster.

Nothing about forgiveness, though.

I can recall just two stories about forgiveness that made the news in the past several years, though there were probably others. Both stories that come to mind involved the Amish, a Christian sect whose followers are recognizable by their plain clothing and their tendency to drive the horse-and-buggy rather than automobile. They are recognizable for their actions, too, most recently, for their radical, almost unbelievable acts of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The most famous of these stories had to do with a shooting that took place more than five years ago, in Nickel Mines, PA. A man with a gun took children and adults hostage in an Amish one-room schoolhouse, and eventually killed five girls and himself. Of course, the shooting made the news, just like the shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech and Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. These things often result in what is called “wall-to-wall” coverage on the news. We’re in the age of “if it bleeds, it leads.”

However, in the aftermath of the terrible, tragic crime, something unexpected took over the coverage: the immediate and continuing actions and words of the Amish community were all about forgiveness. On the very day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls was overheard warning some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, “We must not think evil of this man.” A community leader told the reporters covering the story, “I don't think there's anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.”

The community did reach out to the family of the killer, setting up a charitable fund for his widow and children, and attending his funeral. One Amish farmer held the sobbing father of the killer in his arms for an hour.

Outsiders were quick to criticize all this forgiveness and reconciliation. One journalist wrote, “… this story disturbs me deeply — because there can be no question that anger can be as righteous as forgiveness. I’m not sure I would want to be someone who succeeded in rising above hatred of those who murder children.”[i]

Much as my purpose today is to invite us all into Jesus’ ethic of forgiveness, I recognize the emotion behind what that writer says. Maybe this story is too much for us to ponder, too herculean an act of forgiveness for beginners like me. After all, the actions of the Amish don’t spring from a vacuum, but from a deeply entrenched ethic of forgiveness and reconciliation that becomes, for them, an instinct—much as the tendency to righteous indignation becomes an instinct for those of us who are soaked, not in scripture, but in the coverage of presidential campaigns and debates over hydraulic fracturing.

So, let’s start with another story of Amish forgiveness, one that doesn’t make our hair stand on end. Because, as it turns out, the Amish are like most communities, in that, it takes all kinds. There are saints who are also sinners in their midst.  And in the community of Sugarcreek, Ohio, there lives an Amish  Bernie Madoff, only his name is Monroe Beachy. Like Mr. Madoff, Mr. Beachy ran a successful investment firm, with many clients who were friends, neighbors, relatives, and even charitable organizations, all trusting for many years in his advice and services. And like Mr. Madoff’s clients, those of Mr. Beachy were stunned to learn, last September, that it had all been a Ponzi scheme, and their money was gone.

At this point, though, the stories diverge, because of the way in which the community of Sugarcreek responded. While the owners of the Mets and other famous and prominent Madoff clients fight it out in court to see who will be able to recover invested principle and fictional profits, the people of Sugarcreek have insisted that the neediest among them are cared for first, even if it means they don’t get their share. While Bernie Madoff’s wife and sons can’t go out for a hamburger or a haircut in Manhattan without being dogged and attacked by a public that simply hates their guts, the Beachy family still lives quietly in a farmhouse, and are welcomed by their church and neighbors. And in the most fascinating aspect of the Beachy case, the church leadership petitioned the court to place the case in the hands of the church’s judicial system, for the following reasons:

That would accomplish three worthy goals, they said. It would allow a less expensive, more advantageous financial workout “based on Christian principles of love and care for the poor and needy.” It would create a setting in which “Biblical forgiveness and restoration can be found between Monroe Beachy” and those he is accused of betraying. And it would repair “the tarnished testimony and integrity of the Plain Community.”[ii] That’s what the Amish call themselves: the Plain Community.

In today’s reading from John’s gospel, Jesus says to his followers, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” [John 15:4]. Jesus is speaking here of connectedness, and of the death that occurs when connection is severed, much as the branches that have been cut away from the trunk cannot leaf out or flower or bear fruit. To “abide” is to remain connected.

Forgiveness is lived out by the Amish in an instinctive way that comes from a lifetime of being steeped in scripture, as well as a lifetime of practice through regular forgiveness of lesser offenses such as, say, being cut off by an impatient car when you’re out driving your buggy. No one who experiences trauma on the level of losing a loved one violently, or losing one’s life savings through duplicity, should expect to learn forgiveness at such a moment. It takes practice. Practice in small ways, every day, building up the lifelong habit of forgiveness the way we build up habits such as brushing our teeth or doing the dishes after dinner.

In the name of abiding, being connected, it might be worth practicing forgiveness. Of course, we tend to think we need most to stay connected with those we already know and love. But I believe we also need to open ourselves to a connection with those we don’t know, we may never know, but who are God’s children nevertheless. And so, in the name of abiding, and being connected, here are three things for which I regularly don’t forgive people, but which, this week, I promise I will try:

I will try to forgive the driver who is overly aggressive and/or cuts me off.

I will try to forgive the person who sends text messages during the movie.

I will try to forgive the stranger who interrupts my well-planned day with something unexpected.

I know it all sounds pretty small and pathetic. I am a beginner at forgiveness, not an Olympic marathoner on the level of the Plain folk. And you may be ready to start at a much higher level than me—forgiving a family member for a real hurt, for example. As for me, beginner that I am, that’s my list of three. What’s yours?

 To abide is to be connected, to Jesus and to one another. We cannot abide, we cannot be connected, unless we cultivate in ourselves the habit, the instinct, of forgiveness. But we have to start small. We have to start where we are. In celebration of baby steps, tiny, halting movements toward forgiveness, we gather at this table where we know ourselves to be forgiven and made free. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] John Podhoretz, “Hating a Child Killer,” The National Review, October 5, 2006.
[ii] Diana B. Henriques, “Broken Trust in God’s Country,” New York Times, February 26, 2012, Business Section p. 1.