Sunday, September 17, 2017
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19, Year A
The Rev’d Richard Smith, Ph.D
A couple of weeks ago, I gathered with many neighbors up on 26th and Van Ness to remember 23-year-old Abel Esquivel. He had been shot and killed on that spot a few days before.
I had seen Abel over at CARECEN, one of our local non-profits. He had left gang life many years before, and was mentoring other young people who were also trying to leave the gangs.
Late one night, Abel was home with his mom. She hadn’t eaten, and the fridge was empty, so he headed up the street to buy her a burrito. On his way home, a car pulled up and fired several rounds into his body. He lay on the ground for several minutes, then managed to get up, pick up the burrito, and take it home to his mom. She immediately rushed him to the hospital where he died a short time later.
The evening I stood in remembrance at 26th and Van Ness, I watched the Danzantes perform their beautiful ancient indigenous dances, every step a prayer. And I watched Abel’s mom quietly sobbing. I couldn’t help but wonder how I might feel if I ever lost my son this way.
They asked me to say a few words. I was not prepared. I said, “Well, I know the cliche is that time heals all wounds, but I’m not so sure about that. Some wounds never heal. Losing a child like Abel may be one of them.” Then I tried to muster whatever words of comfort and hope I could–knowing, of course, that I would inevitably sound like one of Job’s well-intentioned but vapid friends. Anything I might say in that moment would inevitably be hollow, completely inadequate to the pain Abel’s mom and family were feeling in that moment.
Some wounds go so deep they’re beyond the reach of whatever feeble but well-intentioned words we can muster. In the end, something else is needed.
And sometimes, such wounds are also beyond the reach of any given judicial system–the laws and procedures by which a given community tries to resolve disputes and restore just and healthy relationships.
Years ago, another young man was savagely murdered. His family went through hell: enormous grief and pain and tears and rage. They rightly demanded justice. After many years, a jury found the murderer guilty and sentenced him to death. The family was relieved. At last they would see justice for the murder of their son and brother, bring closure to this unspeakable ordeal, find some healing.
The day of the execution arrived, and the family waited in the viewing room. Eventually, the drapes to the execution chamber opened. They could see their son’s killer strapped to the gurney, his arms attached to IVs, and a monitor recording his every heartbeat.
When offered a chance to make a statement, the condemned man said nothing. The warden gave the go ahead, and the executioners began injecting the three lethal drugs into the man’s body, one after the other. Seven minutes later, the condemned man’s body lay dead on the gurney. The drapes closed; it was time for the family to leave.
The family’s parish priest had been with them, and he walked them back to their car. As he said goodbye to the young man’s mom, he gave her a hug, and opened the car door for her. The mom looked at him, and said to him in tears, “I don’t understand, but even after all this–even after all this–I still don’t feel closure, I still have all this pain.”
Sometimes healing is beyond the reach of the various laws and procedures a given community might establish to ensure healthy and just relationships. Sometimes we need more than a judicial system can provide.
Which brings us to today’s gospel. It follows last Sunday’s gospel about what to do when someone in the church commits a very real injustice against you. That gospel laid out the rudiments of a judicial system for the Christian community for resolving disputes and restoring broken relationships.
In that gospel, Jesus said if someone in the church seriously sins against you, don’t just let it go by without comment, brushing everything under the rug as though nothing has happened. That would be what one of our great theologians calls “cheap grace”.
No, when an injustice has been done to you or someone else, you must speak up. First, speak to the person directly. If, after that, the other person continues the abusive behavior, then bring one or two other members of the church to listen in and provide their perspectives. If that doesn’t achieve reconciliation, then bring the issue before the larger church. If, after exhausting each of these three steps, the other person continues their bad behavior, then put some distance between you and them–”Let them be as the Gentiles and the tax collectors to you,” to use Jesus’ words–set them outside your usual circle of friends and acquaintances.
But then what? Is that it? What happens if, after all the well-intentioned words and all the community’s judicial processes, the abusive behavior continues? What then? That’s where today’s gospel comes in.
As Peter sees it, the question then becomes: “How many times must I forgive? Seven times?” He’s keeping score. He wants to know when the retaliation can finally begin, at what number can he finally strike back?
Peter seems to think seven might be the right outside number, which is pretty generous. Most people stop forgiving and start getting even at two.
But Jesus uses another number: seventy times seven. In other words, your willingness to forgive must be limitless. Jesus is getting at what must underlie all the judicial procedures and processes:
- That through all the words and necessary judicial processes, you never give up your willingness to forgive
- That you bring everything you have to the process of reconciliation
- That you never give up on the possibility that your sister or brother can redeem themselves. Each of us is more than our own worst moments. We can never give up on the possibility of redemption and reconciliation.
But Jesus goes even further. This commitment to forgiveness and redemption and reconciliation, as he sees it, is rooted in the very rhythm of life. He tells a simple story of a servant who was forgiven a staggering debt, one that no one could repay in a million years, but who then refused to forgive another servant for a much lesser amount. Don’t be like that servant, Jesus says. Because you, like him, are swimming in a sea of mercy. And this mercy that frees you from your past mistakes and allows you a new future–this same mercy is meant to flow through you to others. This is one of the rhythms of life: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
This is how it works for Jesus. After all the well-intentioned but inadequate words and all the necessary but inadequate judicial processes have taken us as far as they can, mercy gets the last word.
Songwriter Mary Gauthier puts it this way:
Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now
I know we don’t deserve it
But we need it anyhow
We hang in the balance
Dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground
Every single one of us could use some mercy now
Every single one of us could use some mercy now