Message from Our Pastor
St. Mark Pastor Cheryl Hoffman's sermon for September 13, 2020. Relevant text: Genesis 50:15-21, Psalm 103:1-13, Matthew 18:21-35.
The theme set forth by today’s readings is obviously forgiveness.
When this topic comes up, I often think about the Amish schoolhouse shooting that happened in 2006 in Lancaster, PA. Here in Connecticut, the Sandy Hook shooting occurred in 2012. I don’t need to remark on the devastation such a traumatic event leaves behind, not just on the immediate families, but on whole communities.
In the Pennsylvania Nickel Mines tragedy, it is not only the deaths most people remember, but the Amish community’s ability to forgive. By the end of that October day, a grandfather of one of the deceased children had already expressed his forgiveness and several Amish neighbors visited the family of the man who killed the children, offering them comfort and support.
You see, the shooter was known to the Amish community. He was the driver of the truck that picked up their milk. His parents were literally the neighbors of those who died. Yet instead of being shunned, they were invited to the funeral of one of the girls killed by their son, and there were more Amish than non-Amish mourners at their own son’s funeral.
How do you forgive such great a debt? Five young girls, dead, another five wounded, a community of children and adults needing years to work through their nightmares, shock and grief. How do you not strike back? How do you not hate? How do grieve for your child and yet be able to say to the killer’s widow, “You know, at the end of the day, we have our spouse, we have each other to hold in our arms and cry with, but you don't have anyone. And, we think about you, when you go to bed at night, and you're all alone."
I also found myself thinking this week about September 11, 2001. I remember walking out of the church with my home communion basket. On my way out I met the church secretary and she told me about the first plane. I remember looking up to the sky and saying, “There’s not a cloud in the sky, how could they not see the building?”
By the time I arrived at my destination, the second plane had hit, and we were glued to the TV for quite a while before turning to the real reason for my visit, receiving communion for the forgiveness of sins.
I don’t remember much more about that day beyond the replaying of those moments over and over again on every television station. I certainly don’t remember much, if any, talk about forgiveness or even peace for that matter. I do remember that we struck back.
When I read today’s parable and consider Joseph’s story, I wonder where and how forgiveness fits into our current world of protests: Black Lives Matter, institutionalized racism, white privilege, food insecurity, homelessness, partisan politics, the me-too movement, the me-first mentality, even the Corona virus, wildfires, and ways in which we have failed to watch over and care for the world God entrusted to us.
What does forgiveness look like in the real world of today? Is forgiveness even possible for such ingrained and long-term issues?
Now to be fair to the texts, Peter asks about forgiving a brother or sister in the church, not a thief, or terrorist, or murderer of children or oppressed people.
Jesus’s parable addresses how we should be generous in our relationships with each other as a community of believers. Forgiveness is, after all, at the root of our faith. Without God’s forgiveness, death would be the sure and certain end for all of us. And if God can so generously forgive us our multitude of sins, can we not find ways to forgive the sins of our brothers and sisters.
But therein is the conundrum of forgiveness. Not all sins are small and easily forgiven. Are the sins of the 9/11 terrorists even worthy of forgiveness? How do you forgive decades of oppression and abuse? How is forgiveness different from justice? Can you have one without the other? Can there be forgiveness without repentance?
Not all people are as capable of such profound forgiveness as the Amish community of Nickle Mines, PA. What does forgiveness look like on the larger scale of life? I continue to struggle with these questions. Where do we, in the various groups to which we belong (including the church), need to forgive and need to ask for forgiveness?
As the world becomes more deeply divided, it is a question with which we all need to struggle. That is the purpose of Jesus’s parables, to challenge and encourage us to think and act beyond the status quo.
But there is one sure thing of which there is no doubt. While we wrestle with forgiving each other, God’s forgiveness toward us is sure and certain.
- Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all God’s benefits — who forgives all your sins… ;
- …who redeems your life from the grave…
- Lord, you are full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love;
- …You have not dealt with us according to our sins,…
- For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is your steadfast love for those who fear you.
- As far as the east is from the west, so far have you removed our transgressions from us.
- As a father has compassion for his children, so you have compassion for those who fear you, O Lord.
Let us indeed bless the Lord, and forget not all God’s benefits, who forgives all our sins, who redeems our lives from the grave. Amen.