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.

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