Monday, September 26, 2011

Meanwhile back in Texas

In the last couple of weeks, I have found myself struggling. I am decidedly and firmly against the death penalty – not a popular stance in Texas, mind you. Still I believe the state is not God, however often we tend to confuse the two. Only God should pronounce such judgment on a person, not the state. I have been very comfortable in my position for a number of years now, that is until the last few weeks.

Each month I receive a list of people the State of Texas intends to execute. Last week, I struggled; I admit it. While the nation was talking about Troy Davis in Georgia, Texas executed Lawrence Brewer. Brewer was convicted in the death and torture of James Byrd. This is the kind of crime that makes me sick to my stomach. When I received his name, I admit, I didn’t want to do my usual work. I didn’t want to pray for him, though obviously I prayed for the Byrd family. I didn’t want send a letter on his behalf to anyone. But am I against the death penalty for everyone, or just those who committed a crime that doesn't make me sick? or that I don't remember?

As I struggled with my own heart this week, I came across an article in the Huffington Post. I’m going to try to include a link for it here.

I don’t know how to resolve my own issue, but I think that I try, somehow pleases God, at least I hope so. That I try to find compassion for Brewer I think is pleasing to God; maybe not.

Monday, September 12, 2011

I normally wouldn't do this, but as I have been reading about what some preached yesterday, I feel compelled to share my sermon from 9/11/11. Yes, I preached about forgiveness, but what I believe is a more realistic, livable form of forgiveness.

Yes, I believe it is time for us to forgive our attackers. I have heard of others who preached that if we are not able to forgive those who have hurt us, we will not be forgiven. Hear this: our forgiveness (our salvation) does not come from our actions. We are forgiven (and saved) by God's grace. We cannot earn our forgiveness, we can only accept it.
That said, we need to forgive those who attacked us, not because they deserve, or even because we want to. We were hurt, terrorized, and that has held power over us -- violence has begotten violence. It's time to let our anger go.

So without further rambling, here is the sermon I wrote for Sunday, September 11, 2011. It's not exactly what I preached but it's close. It's a little strange that I'm letting others see my sermon manuscripts (they're usually only for my eyes).

Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?"


When I say the word forgiveness, what comes to mind?

Healing of a relationship, restoration of relationship, things going back to the way they were. Reconciliation. Forgive and forget, that’s what they say. I don’t know about you, but I’m still not ready to forgive and forget what happened to us on that bright sunny Tuesday morning.

When I tell people that I think Psalm 137 is one of the most beautiful and one of my favorite psalms, I get some strange looks.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we say and we wept. These words were written after the Babylonian exile, after the Israelites had returned to the promised land, and probably before reconstruction of the new temple had begun, that’s purely speculative on my part. By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept. On the willows, we hung our harps.

How can I sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? The psalmist asks. How can I sing the praises of God, when it seems to be that God is too far away? Does that sound familiar? I don’t know if any of you caught frontline this week on PBS. They had an amazing show about faith and doubt in 9/11. They interviews people from many faith traditions. I was moved by an Episcopalian priest who said, I lost my faith in the face of that evil, I lost my faith. God felt so far away, it was like God wasn’t there anymore.

You need to hear me as I say this, God was there. If it felt like God was absent on that day 10 years ago, it was because God grieved with us. God hurt with us. God was in the towers, in pentagon, in Pennsylvania. God sat with us by the rivers of Babylon and wept with us. And I think even God would have had trouble singing on that day.

Our psalmist gives us words to talk about real pain, pain that is indescribable. Horrors beyond what we can say out-loud. The psalmist has named our pain. And the thing about pain like this, about grief like this is that it tends to become anger.

Remember o Lord, against the edomites, on the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, tear it down, tear it down, down to her very foundations. Remember against the edomites o lord, those who conspired with our enemies to bring about our destruction. Remember Lord, what they did, as if God could ever forget.

Happy shall be they who pay you back. Happy shall be they who take your children and dash their heads against the cliffs.  We want blood. Not just the Babylonians, but the blood of anyone who had anything to do with it, even those who celebrated.

It should tell us something that we’re asking God to remember, to act against those who hurt us. It says to me, that maybe God isn’t acting the way we want. God is not bringing about the vengeance we feel we deserve in our timeline. If God is not acting against the edomites, perhaps it’s because God is the God of the edomites. Can it be true that one who created us also created them? Could it be that God is big enough to love me with all my pain and anger and the hatred that fills my heart, and sit by the rivers of Babylon and weep with me and still love those who hurt me, too? Is God that big? Is God’s forgiveness available for them, too?

I went to workshop a few months ago about forgiveness. Let me tell you, there’s a lot of things that forgiveness can mean and even more that does not mean. Forgiveness rarely means that everything goes back to the way it was. Forgiveness does not mean forget. It doesn’t even have to mean restoration of a relationship. I could spend hours talking all about the different kinds of forgiveness, but there’s one that I want to focus on today. The Hebrew word mechila is a forgiveness of debt, where there is no reconciliation, but the one who was hurt decides that the debt is no longer owed.

There’s not new relationship, but the debt is simply wiped away. There’s no amount of compensation, there’s nothing to be done that would heal the hurt we have experienced. There’s not payment big enough, there’s no act of contrition that will satisfy, and so we simply release it. Not for them, not for them, but for us. Because if we cannot release it, if we stay by the rivers of Babylon, weeping, sitting with our pain and anger and calls for vengeance, the temple will never be rebuilt.

In all of the destruction of 9/11, there was one church destroyed at ground zero. St. Nicolas Greek Orthodox church. Because of the red tape we put in place to block a mosque from being built near ground zero, we have also prevented a church from being rebuilt. We cannot be who God calls us to be with hatred in our hearts.  And when we think it’s too much, when we think we can’t do it, if we are even just willing to try, we will find that God with us, has removed our harps from the willows, and is ready to lead us in song. There’s another psalm written around the same time as 137 that may help.

Psalm 103