The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
Please pray with me. Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our collective hearts be always acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Simon Peter is one of my favorite people in the Bible. We know from the biblical narrative that sometimes he is bold, even brash. We also know that in his heart of hearts he always wants to get it right; but, you know, there are those times when he just sort of misses it and it is those very qualities in Peter that make him fully human. He’s one of my favorites because, despite his failings, Jesus chose Peter to be the rock upon which he would build the Church. And when I think about that, and I think about my own faults and failings, it gives me hope that God might be able to use me, too.
In our gospel lesson today, Peter’s question reminds me of that wonderful adage, often wrong, never in doubt. It’s important to know the context of the question he asks because, in that day, the rabbinic tradition was that you were required to forgive three times. You can just imagine Peter trying to get it right: that he’s been with Jesus, he heard the Sermon on the Mount, that Jesus is wont to turn tradition on its head. You remember, “You’ve heard it said, an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth, but I say to you turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love your enemies.” Peter must be thinking, how much is enough? So, he doubles the number and adds a little extra for good measure. And he asks Jesus, how many times, Lord, are we to forgive, as many as seven? Jesus: No, Peter; then gives him an answer that essentially means infinity.
Jesus tells Peter and you and me that he’s asking the wrong question. It’s not a quantity question, it is a quality question. It is about how we live our lives. And we know, do we not, that forgiveness is a big issue. It is something we all struggle with. In the New Testament alone, there are over 75 references to forgiveness. It seems to be a part of our human condition: that we hurt one another and we are hurt. Extending forgiveness, receiving forgiveness, is hard work, but imperative work, easier said than done.
Now please know that when I speak about forgiveness this morning, I’m not speaking about those who are in an abusive relationship— that’s a wholly different matter. But we are called each day of our lives to work on this issue of forgiveness. Soon you will pray the Lord’s Prayer—forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Jean Vanier wrote a book called Becoming Human that I think offers a helpful lens, a way to think about and frame this notion of forgiveness and forgiving.
Jean Vanier, over 50 years ago, began a community of people who choose to live with people with intellectual disabilities. You may know of it. It’s called L’Arche, named after Noah’s Ark, a place of refuge and new beginnings. There are over 100 communities around the world including two communities here in Washington, D.C. And Vanier makes the observation that it is in these decades of living with people with intellectual disabilities that he has come to learn more about what it means to be fully human; that they have taught him to recognize and accept his own weaknesses, his own vulnerability; and through that he no longer has to pretend that he is strong or he is clever or he is better than anyone else or everybody else. He recognizes and accepts his own fragilities and his own gifts; that people with intellectual disabilities are all about heart and trust. They aren’t able to present anything other than who they are: fully human, no mask, no pretense.
Vanier offers three basic principles to the notion of being on the road to forgiveness. The first principle is that each and every person, no exceptions, has value. That we share a common humanity. I think that sense of sharing a common humanity was on full display in the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma. We saw the horrendous need and people responded, heart-to-heart, neighbor to neighbor, white, black, brown, every color on the human rainbow’s spectrum; rich, poor; young, old. No one asked first what anyone’s political party affiliation was, their religious affiliation or lack thereof. The labels that society would place on each one of us fell away when people were in tangible touch with our common shared humanity. Each person has value and we share a common humanity.
Principle two. We have to believe that each person is capable of change. And in the possibility of human redemption, I’m reminded of an incredible story of forgiveness and redemption that one of our Cathedral congregation members shared with me. This is a man who’s been engaged in prison ministry for many years and he tells the true story of a group of men, male inmates, that he’s been praying with for some years.
One day, when he gathered with this group, one of the most hardened tough guys in the group walked in holding an envelope and he said. “I wrote to her.” This man had been on death row virtually all of his adult life. He brutally murdered a man and twice, when he was scheduled for execution, his execution was stayed. The third time he was scheduled, he was told there won’t be a stay this time and he had written to the widow of the man he had murdered and asked for her forgiveness. Knowing that he didn’t deserve it, knowing he’d done nothing to merit it; but he dared enough to ask.
As he was about to be executed, a miracle happened and his sentence was commuted. He was going to live. And now he had the response to that letter, to that request, and he was terrified to open the letter and see what she would say in response. So someone else had to open it up and read it. And she wrote, “I forgave you 20 years ago and I’ve been praying for you every day since.” Mercy, forgiveness, redemption. It is possible with God’s help.
Third principle: that at our very core, we long for unity and peace. Don’t we know that to be true in our own experience? Who wants to live with broken relationships, broken hearts, a broken world? We all long for healing and wholeness and reconciliation and peace and unity. Think of the miracle in South Africa with Archbishop Desmond Tutu leading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Who could have believed that country could reconcile? Currently we look at Colombia and their embryonic efforts of unity and peace and how Pope Francis went to that country to help pray and encourage the hopeful signs of new beginnings; and the leader of FARC asking Pope Francis to forgive him.
Peace and unity at our core, are our deepest longings. Samuel Chadwick wrote that “It is wonderful what God can do with a broken heart if God gets all the pieces.” Toward the end of his book Jean Vanier quotes a German theologian Geiko Muller-Fahrenholz who speaks about forgiveness. He says that as we work toward forgiveness, let us reflect that each one of us is created in the image of God: God, the most merciful. And as such, our calling, our ministry, is to be mirrors of mercy. It’s hard, I know, but that is what we are called to do, each and every day, to strive toward healing, wholeness, restoration, reconciliation.
On this day, if you’ve come with a broken heart, pray about joining with our healing ministers later in the service and let them pray with you, giving God all of those broken pieces and bits. And if you are in a position to offer mercy and forgiveness, pray to be a mirror of mercy. We’re all here, one for another; your clergy, always prepared to meet with you, to pray with you, to help you on that journey. It’s important work. It’s imperative work. How many times are we to forgive, Lord? As many and as long as it takes until we take our last breath. Amen