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Despite the storms in our world right now, this morning’s gospel doesn’t deal with catastrophic disasters. Jesus rarely talks about cataclysmic events outside of our control. Jesus helps us see what is in our control – mustard seeds, small groups of people and one on one relationships - with God and in community. Patterning our lives after Christ in those places, through those people – is what has the potential to draw us closer to God – to open our eyes to the role we play in bringing in the kingdom.
Several weeks ago I was perusing cable channels – and came upon an episode of one of my favorite shows – Mad Men.
If you aren’t familiar – Mad Men is about advertising, the early days of the industry in the midst of a changing time in our society – late 50s and into the 1960s. The episode I happened upon had to do with a potential new client – foreign client from Japan. Pete Campbell – the young ad exec - wants to get Honda as a client. He’s learned the Japanese company is unhappy with their agency – and Pete wants to pitch and steal. The older partner – Roger Sterling – insists their agency will never take on any Japanese company as a client – because they are Japanese. And Roger served in WWII in the Pacific and he saw too many of his friends die – as he says, at their hands.
Pete thinks that is ridiculous. And so they engage in a classic back and forth – lightening fire argument that characterized the show. Roger arguing that young Pete will never understand the war and what loyalty means. And Pete firing back that Roger’s loyalty is meaningless – the war was 20 years ago – the episode is in 1963 - and these people, the Japanese executives they are courting are not the same people. Roger taken aback says – but how can that be? I’m the same people. And later in a more open-hearted moment (with his secretary Joan of course) Roger says, why do they have to move on, why do they have to accept this change - since when, he says, is forgiveness a better quality than loyalty?
When is forgiveness a better quality than loyalty? Always. For those of us who struggle with that question for different reasons than past wars - Forgiveness is the heart of the gospel – forgiveness IS the good news. And it is not a quality – it is a process – it is actionable – it creates a new thing. So much more than the words –I forgive you – it restores what has been broken inside. That is why forgiveness is the good news. As Christians – we believe God restored something that was broken inside – when God did something, sacrificing the power of divinity – through the humility of becoming human.
At first read this gospel sounds very straightforward. If someone wrongs you – go talk to them, if they don’t listen, get others involved – work it out. But as with much of Jesus’ straightforward instructions – like deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow me – forgiving someone is rarely straightforward or simple.
What do most of us do when someone does something that ticks us off? Few of us have the wherewithal to conscientiously engage who has hurt us. And examine our role in the situation (it takes two to tango). Speaking for myself – my knee-jerk response is to go and complain about it to someone else. Call a friend or send an email – can you believe that so and so did such and such! It feels good when we’re angry and hurt to get our side out, and to get it out to someone who will take our side and agree with how we were wronged. But Jesus says we’re called to more. We’re called to work towards restoration.
And restoration is rarely – if ever – about being vindicated. Does Jesus ever get vindication? Retribution? Does Jesus ever go and complain to someone about how he was wronged?
Thursday night I was at a play called The Christians. It’s at Center Stage downtown – and its playing through the month so go see it if you can. Because it wrestles with that perineal question of the Christian life – does God really love everyone – can’t some people get punished so we can feel vindicated?
It starts off in a worship service – as if the audience is the worshiping congregation – of a megachurch – an evangelical, fundamentalist church – where – you are in or you are out. You declare Christ is your Lord and Savior and get to go heaven – and if you don’t – you’re going somewhere else.
The opening monologue is the pastor’s sermon – and the conflict of the play is setup immediately. He shares an experience of his wrestling with seeing someone do something incredibly good who isn’t a Christian. And he decides he can’t believe God would punish someone for not claiming Jesus as their Savior. God is too big – God’s arms are too wide. And that cross – it is bigger than even Christianity. Because on it we see what hitting rock bottom looks like. And Jesus doesn’t spend time blaming – he asks God to forgive all our blindness to the hurt we inflict.
But that isn’t what his congregation wants. They work too hard at being Christian. If there’s no punishment – what’s the point? If we’re all forgiven no matter what – who cares what we do? How can everyone have a place – guaranteed – in that kingdom? We are people who want to believe in cause and effect – if this, then that. Do this – and get that. We want answers that make life make sense.
But life doesn’t work that way. Hurricanes happen. Heart attacks happen. Hurting people happens. And straightforward checklists do little in those situations to set everything right again.
When I was in 4th grade I stole the teacher’s answer key to a test we had (well stole might be harsh – I read the answer key) and it said something that blew my 9 year old mind – answers may vary. Jesus words are one thing, but his life shows us a process – and how we live into that process varies, big time.
How we come to forgiveness varies – but the pattern remains – letting go of one thing – so a new thing can come forth. Letting go of anger – not to pretend it doesn’t exist – but to work through the sadness and pain that is underneath it. When Roger Sterling says he is the same person as he was when he was in that war – its because he is! He hasn’t done the work of letting go. And entering into the reality of shared human suffering that every war creates. No matter the winner or the loser.
When Jesus teaches about forgiveness – his focus, is on the person who was hurt. What are you going to do with that hurt? Are you going to let it grow into resentment – are you going to let it strangle your heart in anger? Or are you going to enter into that process of letting go – knowing you will be changed, because you are opening your heart to God to help you do a new thing – scary as it may be because we don’t know where that journey will take us.
Our beliefs may radically change. The way we see a situation and a relationship might turn everything on its head. For some relationships to be reconciled – they need to end. Jesus says this – in this passage – let them be to you as a Gentile - not everyone stays in a church – or at a job. Not every friendship – or marriage – lasts.
Forgiveness is one more truth of following God that means letting go of our need to be right – and opening ourselves to work God is doing in and through us. It is another way whereby we are made new.
Put on the armor of light – that doesn’t sound very protective. That’s something that radiates out from us – when we have known reconciliation in our hearts. That’s something that shows the world we aren’t scared to be who God created us to be – children in God’s image – trusting in a power greater than ourselves. Realizing the Christian life isn’t about following rules or commandments, perfectly – which is impossible.
As Paul says – don’t get so literal about the law – you can sum it all up in Jesus’ teaching – love your neighbor, love your neighbor and then go love your neighbor.
How you do that is going to vary. How we do that – as a church is going to vary – that’s a good thing. That’s how we learn and grow and manifest the promise God assures us of this morning. When we do that work – when we struggle through that process – even when there are only 2 or 3 of us doing it – God – Almighty - All loving - All Powerful God – is literally – right there. Amen.