Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World: We Know Not 3/24/13

We’ve been focused on Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World all through our Lenten journey. It’s about to come to an end, but in Holy week, we gain an even deeper perspective on our need for forgiveness and the possibilities of God’s grace. In our second reading today, we shift from Palm Sunday to remembering the events later in Holy Week, with the crowd turning on Jesus. I’m not making you yell “Crucify, crucify him” today, but you know that we would and that we do. Today we listen to Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness from the cross.

Luke 23:26-34 As they led him off, they made Simon, a man from Cyrene who happened to be coming in from the countryside, carry the cross behind Jesus. A huge crowd of people followed, along with women weeping and carrying on. At one point Jesus turned to the women and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, don’t cry for me. Cry for yourselves and for your children. The time is coming when they’ll say, ‘Lucky the women who never conceived! Lucky the wombs that never gave birth! Lucky the breasts that never gave milk!’ Then they’ll start calling to the mountains, ‘Fall down on us!’ calling to the hills, ‘Cover us up!’ If people do these things to a live, green tree, can you imagine what they’ll do with deadwood?” 32 Two others, both criminals, were taken along with him for execution. 33 When they got to the place called Skull Hill, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right, the other on his left. 34-35 Jesus prayed, “Abba, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.” Dividing up his clothes, they threw dice for them. The people stood there staring at Jesus, and the ringleaders made faces, taunting, “He saved others. Let’s see him save himself! The Messiah of God—ha! The Chosen—ha!”

March 24, 2013

Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World: We Know Not

I am not aware of anything I did wrong this week. Are you? I’m sure if we thought about it for a moment, we could come up with something wrong – that somebody else did to us. We don’t usually have trouble with that part. And actually, if we meditated for a just a while, we would be able to confess, only to God, that we have not been everything God wanted us to be this week.  When we put it that way, we could come up with some places where we fall short.
But for the most part, Jesus’ prayer “Abba, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing,” is a prayer that applies to down the ages as much as it did to the soldiers who crucified him, the political and religious authorities who made the decisions, the crowd that lusted for blood, and the disciples who betrayed, denied, or ran.
Books have been written about the effects of self-serving biases and blindness.  One is titled “Mistakes were Made, but not by Me.” Another is titled “Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite” Nobody thinks that they are doing anything wrong, really. All the children are above average as they say in Lake Wobegon.
I read this week about a study social psychologists did to try to uncover how this works. They asked a group of people about times they had been angry at someone in the past week and a time when someone had been angry at them. Folks did not have trouble when you put it that way. Then they coded all the answers. People reported lies, broken promises, violated rules and obligations, betrayed secrets, unfair acts, and conflicts over money. Everybody agreed on the subjects of things they got angry about.
But when they separated out the perpetrators and victims, the stories sounded so different.  Perpetrators’ narratives could be summarized as going something like this: “The story begins with the harmful act. At the time I had good reasons for doing it. Perhaps, I was responding to an immediate provocation or I was reacting the way any reasonable person would. I had a perfect right to do what I did and its unfair to blame me for it. The harm was minor and easily repaired and I apologized. It’s time to get over it, put it behind us, let bygones be bygones
The victims’ narrative (remember these are the same people, just on the other side now) could be summarized sounding a little differently: “The story begins long before the harmful act, which was just the latest incident of a long history of mistreatment. The perpetrators act was senseless, incomprehensible. Either that or he was an abnormal sadist, just desiring to see me suffer, though I was completely innocent. The harm he did is grievous and irreparable with effects that will last forever. None of us should ever forget it.”
They can’t both be right. Something in human psychology distorts our memory and interpretation of hurtful events.  Does our inner perpetrator whitewash our crimes in a campaign to exonerate ourselves or does our inner victim nurse our grievances in a campaign to claim the world’s sympathy? It seems we do both.  We are biased in whatever direction serves us or our group – our family, our team, our community, or our nation.
People try to look good and try to present themselves in a good light. We do this unconsciously without even knowing how we are doing it or when we are doing it. Jesus said, “Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Even that prayer, we want to apply to the soldiers back in Jesus time. We want to think that we know better. We would not have shouted “Crucify him, crucify him!” We would not have followed orders to nail him up to the cross. We would have been different.
Jesus’ prayer is for us. “Forgive them.” Jesus’ prayer is for you. “Abba, forgive them.” Jesus’ prayer is for me. “Forgive them.” Somebody said it this way, “Our worst days are never so bad that we are beyond the reach of God’s grace, and our best days are never so good that we are beyond the need of God’s grace.”

When I was in seminary, we had to preach sermons on videotape and look at them and give ourselves feedback. It was kind of excruciating to watch oneself. The illusions get stripped away when you watch and hear yourself preach.
Asking for forgiveness can be a similar kind of exercise in facing the way you really are instead of going by your own image of yourself in your head. Asking for forgiveness means realizing who you really are, knowing what you do, rather than just assuming forgiveness. That’s what I usually do. I assume God has forgiven me, so I don’t have to do anything to make things right. But forgiveness does not mean there are no consequences. Forgiveness means you get to make amends and start over. Forgiveness means you get to know what you did, how you act, and you get to try it a different way.  That’s what God’s grace means to us – freely offered, even from the cross. That’s what God’s grace gifts to us – to have the strength to know who we are and to offer forgiveness to others as well. Such a gift!  To be aware. To be awake. To be alive!
This is God’s good news.
Responsive Hymn    3043 You, Lord, Are Both Lamb & Shepherd