Honestly, I don’t believe this final sermon in the series on forgiveness could be preached without the other two. The first one laid a foundation for human forgiveness in the unconditional and illimitable love of God.
Last week, we explored how Divine love makes interpersonal forgiveness and restoration possible. Today, we widen the lens to inquire about community healing, how forgiveness may be extended for generational trauma, and the consequences of past injury, particularly through unjust and oppressive systems.
Without the assurance of God’s grace and the imperative made possible only through that grace, we could not hope even to try to forgive or even want to try.
And even so, we may struggle to understand how this is a spiritual matter. There’s so much resentment and defensiveness in this space. A number of years ago, a Westfall relative did a bunch of genealogical research on our family’s roots. Immigrating from Germany in the seventeenth century and eventually settling in southern Ohio, the Westfall generations unfurled in time.
Our relatives found plenty of proof that they became true children of the North and fought bravely for the Union during the Civil War. It used to be easy for me to dismiss talk of white guilt because my family never owned slaves. My physician ancestors treated Black patients as they did white ones. My dad used the power of pen and pulpit to advocate for civil rights.
Huh-uh, you’re not gonna pin this on me and my house.
….I’ve learned how far that attitude misses the mark. This kind of forgiveness isn’t concerned primarily about interpersonal acts of prejudice but about brutality endured by human beings that is authorized and defended by unjust systems.
The Doctrine of Discovery, religious sanction of land theft, and colonization of the people living on those lands. The near-genocide of indigenous peoples, as a result. Two hundred fifty years of Black slavery. Jim Crow laws. Though it does not justify it, the unthinkable violence carried out by Hamas upon Israel certainly boiled over from years of human rights violations delivered in the name of security.
The human costs of all this are incalculable. God’s dream of a beloved community where people flourish has never been fully realized in human history. And people of faith bear some responsibility, especially as we have benefitted—economically and socially—from the injustices.
The road to forgiveness begins in confession, an awareness of our participation even if we were not part of the original sin.
The morning text reinforces this notion through an example of people resistant to admitting their culpability for a religious structure that caused others to suffer. Perhaps of equal attention was the hypocrisy exhibited by these religious teachers and leaders in the gap between their righteous words and merciless actions.
Here, Jesus calls them out. But don’t hear it as damnation. These religious leaders were sons of the covenant. Jesus speaks to them the way a parent might to a beloved and brilliant son not living up to his potential. That it is not simply a rant is revealed in the final verses, a tearful plea to turn from the desolation their community has become and return to the Mothering One who loves and nurtures them.
A reading from Matthew selected verses from chapter 23. Listen for God’s word, both as judgment AND invitation leading to a repaired community. [Matthew 23:1-3, 23-28, 37-39]
Jesus’ lament in those final verses echoes across the millennia. He wept over the beloved peoples’ failed hopes and dashed dreams; the blessing bestowed and intended to be shared was crushed through fear and thwarted by distraction. Much the way we may experience community life in this divisive, broken time.
Yet, friends, God’s word calls us to more than grief or frustration and way more than resignation. We are called, in the evocative language of the prophet Isaiah, to become repairers, repairers of the breach. The breach between ideals and reality, the breach between our words and actions, breaches opened up by inequities among different groups of God’s beloved people. This isn’t about politics, friends. It’s about repairing human community, torn asunder in a hundred ways. No less than forgiveness extended to individuals, it is for giving in pursuit of a more just and flourishing future, together.
What, specifically, contributes to community repair?
To get a better understanding of this work, I turned to Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative addressing mass incarceration and criminal justice reform, voice of the voiceless, attorney who has worked with dozens of death row inmates to ensure fair treatment before the law.
He is clear-eyed about the necessity of engaging everyone in a process of truth-telling. You can’t jump to reconciliation. You can’t jump to reparation or restoration until you tell the truth. Until you know the nature of the injuries, you can’t actually speak to the kind of remedies that are going to be necessary. . . . when you start telling the truth, you recognize things. So, perhaps, for us, repair takes the form of searching conversations with people whose experiences and perspectives are different from ours.
We consciously choose to read (and don’t ban) books that broaden our exposure to voices from other communities. And be kind to one another. The work of repair requires a commitment to truth-telling to radical honesty that is also generous and tender with each other.
Let us keep the purpose of this spiritual work central. The repair of human community; the strengthening of our life together. Stevenson again: I’m not interested in punishing America. I want to liberate us. I really do believe there is something better waiting for us. I think there’s something that feels more like freedom – more like equality. There’s something more that we have yet to experience. Justice can be beautiful. Reconciliation can be beautiful. It’s powerful to actually experience redemption. And we deny ourselves that redemption when we insist on ignoring our broken past.
Stevenson’s words brought to mind the Japanese art of Kintsugi: repairing broken pottery with powdered gold. There’s an example of it on the bulletin cover. The breakage is part of the bowl’s history rather than something to disguise. Everyone breaks, and then some become stronger and more magnificent at the broken places. (Thank you, Charis, for finding this great photo)
Friends, forgiveness doesn’t change the past, but it does enlarge the future and make it more beautiful with possibility. We pray for this liberating gift in the words of the Lord’s Prayer….thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Stevenson is not giving up on this possibility, and in that persistence, he is following Jesus, who didn’t either. Jesus went “all in” to show that nothing: not selfish pride, not power exercised in fearful violence, not armies, not terrorism, not ignorance, not even death could obliterate the love that holds this world and every race and people upon it.
While there is no single work of reparation, we can all cite examples: museums promoting works by artists long ignored, emerging scholarship that centers unspoken histories, even some bold experimentation with financial reparations. Here’s one way the Presbyterian Church (USA) engaged in this holy work:
At the General Assembly 2016, an initiative was approved to seek healing and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, many of whom had become Christian through Presbyterian Church outreach or had been educated at Presbyterian schools and colleges established to offer more equitable opportunities for tribal and immigrant children. This is a brief excerpt of the “Apology” that was issued two years later:
Throughout this painful history, our Native American brothers and sisters shared their Vision with us and stories of suffering due to our church’s involvement in the operation of these Indian boarding schools and the removal of Native American children from their families, their communities, their language, and their culture. In addition, they shared the personal and historic pain that they still bear. Finally, they shared with us their strength and wisdom born of the life-giving dignity of their communities and traditions, and their stories of survival.
We acknowledge that we are poorer because we did not truly listen to them. The image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and misshapen, and we have fallen short of what God intends us to be.
In addition to the statement, the Assembly acted in subsequent years to invest financially in the repair of Native church buildings, initiatives to promote Indigenous leadership in the church’s worship, educational, and serving life, and collaborate with Indigenous-led environmental mission.
In 2020, Elona Street-Stewart, an enrolled member of the Delaware Nanticoke Tribe, was elected co-moderator of the Presbyterian Church General Assembly, the first Native American to serve in that position — such a tiny thing, really, in the grand scheme of things. And certainly not the last word in repairing the breaches in church and society. But it’s another step toward the blessing that is sure to come when we seek the answer to our prayer: Forgive us.
May it be so.
The quotes from Bryan Stevenson are from an interview on the blog Vox, hosted by Ezra Klein.