There are times when the Gospel seems to ask too much. That is the case for me with today’s words about forgiving “seventy times seven.”
So far, at least, I have not been able to forgive my father. He died years ago so it’s not that I would forgive him to keep the relationship alive—as is often the case. It’s just that I can’t say I forgive him without lying. At St. John’s this year one of our themes is to “share our stories” and this is one of mine. I also hope that it will lay the groundwork for the the rest of the sermon.
He was a man of his generation, coming of age during the Depression of the Thirties, the son of first-generation German immigrant farmers. Of three children, my father was the only son.
The family had left the farm and moved to St. Paul where my father went to school through eighth grade, and though he wanted to be trained as an electrician, he couldn’t be, because he was needed to help support the family. He was fourteen.
He and his father had an agricultural produce business, selling to small country stores throughout southern Minnesota. He married at 31, built a house in West St Paul where he would live for almost sixty years, and had two children. I am the older, the only daughter.
Unlike my brother. who was bound to my father by gender, temperament and interests, I was invisible to him except when he would arbitrarily restrict privileges or opportunities. This seemed to have no connection to my behavior. Grades, awards and events important to me didn’t register on his radar. My fervent protests about fairness just made it worse.
Although the antics of my younger brother were tolerated and even encouraged (“Sure, you can have a motorcycle”), my possibilities were shut down early: Learning to ride a two-wheel bike? Too dangerous. To swim? No – your mother’s afraid of water. Living away during college? Ridiculous, when I had “a perfectly good roof over my head” at home.
The drinking didn’t help, but it was more than that.
While I grew up in a physically safe space, the effect of my father’s actions was to erode my confidence, especially in taking risks, embracing new challenges, and in trusting life. Although I knew she loved me, my mother had little power, and as someone of Norwegian heritage, had her own challenges in displaying any kind of physical or verbal affection.
It wasn’t until I was 22 that I could act, and I did. I got a full-time job, made a physical escape to an apartment in Roseville, became a committed feminist, and commenced teaching students to speak so that they would win arguments and they would be listened to. Later, I raised my daughters this same way, and with an abundance of verbal and physical affection.
The Native American writer Sherman Alexie has a new book about his mother with a title that kind of breaks my heart: You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. It reminded me of an earlier movie based on his work called “Smoke Signals,” the first film made by and about Native Americans. (I referred to this in the blog sent out on Friday: [email protected].com)
Set on the Coer d’Alene reservation in Idaho, the story is about Victor, whose father abandoned his family when Victor was ten. After his father’s death and some surprising realizations, at the end of the film, Victor, now in his twenties, scatters the ashes on a bridge over Spokane Falls, to the sound of pounding drums and a Native chant of grieving. Victor’s tears blend with the raging waters of the Falls below as he collapses on the bridge. All the while we hear this in the voice of his friend Thomas:
“How do we forgive our fathers?
Maybe in a dream?
Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too
often — or forever — when we were little?
Maybe in a dream?
Do we forgive our fathers for scaring us with unexpected rage, or making us nervous because there never seemed to be any rage at all?
Do we forgive our fathers for marrying — or not marrying — our mothers?
For divorcing —or not divorcing — our mothers?
And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth
For shutting doors, or speaking through walls, or never speaking?
Or never being silent?
Do we forgive our fathers in our age, or theirs?
Or in their deaths —
saying it to them, or not saying it?
If we forgive our fathers, what is left?”
What is left is ourselves, and it wasn’t until I wrote this sermon that I understood how the act of forgiveness is as much about us as it is the forgiven, as much about me as my father. I’ll return to these ideas in a minute but first a look at today’s challenging lessons.
In the Parable in Matthew, a servant is forgiven his massive debts by his master. Then this same servant refuses to forgive the debts of someone who works for him and throws the person into jail until he can pay. The master hears of this and is outraged and has the Ungrateful Servant beaten until he can pay. He is NOT forgiven 70 times seven. Then we are told that God will do the same thing to us if we do not sincerely forgive each other.
Does this sound like the God who Jesus talks about as loving mercy and is defined by compassion? Not to me.
The Old Testament lesson is also problematic. The Jews are being pursued by the Egyptians in their chariots when Moses parts the waters so that the Israelites can escape by passing through the Sea of Reeds. The the water closes upon the Egyptians and they drown. Good guys win; Bad guys lose. But in the Talmud – the rabbinic commentary on the Scriptures—we read that as the Egyptians were drowning and as the people were cheering and even angels were singing, God stilled the choirs because his people were dying.
Neither of these lessons offers a pat answer. And — Vegan alert: I can’t resist mentioning that in the reading from Romans is this: “Some believe in eating anything while the weak eat only vegetables.”
So consider three questions: first, should everyone be forgiven?
Secondly, what do you need forgiveness for? Thirdly, how do you move closer to the compassion and mercy that is at the heart of what God calls us to do?
So should everyone be forgiven? What about those people who are causing irreparable damage to the climate out of their ignorance and refusal to recognize the conclusions of 97 % of scientists who have studied these issue? What about those who kill again and again, and hurt the helpless out of ignorance or intention?
Simon Wiesenthal’s true story, “The Sunflower” is set in the Lemberg Concentration Camp in 1943 where Wiesenthal is imprisoned for being Jewish. One day he is chosen at random and summoned to the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier. The soldier tells him he is seeking forgiveness from “a Jew” for a crime that has haunted him since it was committed one year prior. The man confesses to him having destroyed a house full of 300 Jews, gunning them down when they tried to escape. After he finishes his story, in tears he begs Wiesenthal to forgive him. The story ends as Wiesenthal poses the ethical dilemma of whether or not to forgive him to the reader.
Whole books have been written containing possible responses. Was it Wiesenthal’s place to forgive on behalf of all Jews? Is the repentance sincere or just desperation? Is God the only one can forgive such a heinous act?
What do you need forgiveness for? From whom?
Looking at the newspaper early last week, I saw front page stories about hurricanes in Florida and Texas, and fires raging in six states in the Northwest, flipped to the inside, learning there had been an earthquake in Mexico, then I calmly moved on to the Metro section. The Benedictine writer Joan Chititser calls this “the sin of disregard,” ignoring what is happening to my fellow human beings in different parts of the world. I do self-censor my reading out of “compassion fatigue” but the least I should be responding with is with gratitude for what I have been given.
Some times we don’t know what to do. I want to have an honest discussion about racism but can’t keep asking the same two black men I know to field my endless questions. Do I risk a Wiesenthal situation when I say I just want to get to know more black people a people – or this an unconscious impulse to let myself off the hook of my own entitlement and unacknowledged racism?
Two weeks ago I met a young clergyman who happened to be black and after a good discussion with him where race was not specifically mentioned but permeated the conversation subtly, both by his references and what he had in his office.
So I thought that was nice and sent him the little book I had written quite a while ago called Finding Faith at the Movies.
A few days later I woke up in the middle of the night with this realization: That book is so white. Out of ten movies, there is only one in it — “Smoke Signals” —that is not white white white. And suddenly I realized the limits of my own vision.
If you go deep enough and listen to the stories, most people have deeply-rooted fear and hurt that in some ways account for what they do or don’t do. This is the understanding I came to with my father. The ongoing economic pressure, the responsibilities placed on him as the so early, the dreams deferred, and being one of those many men who could never find a way to express the deep emotions boiling within him.
In his later years, we found some common ground: gardening, house projects; the city. I know he would have supported Donald Trump and would not listen to why I didn’t. I still could never be who I really was in his house. Nothing forced him to change, and it wasn’t just him, but so many of the white men of his generation who had the power to get away with a lot. And they did.
This explains how I think about it now: Late Poem to My Father by Sharon Olds
When apartheid laws were outlawed in South Africa, inspired by Desmond Tutu the new government formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the crimes previously committed. Instead of handing out punishment, the whole purpose was to give victims the chance to tell their stories, to have their suffering acknowledged, and to confront their oppressors in person. Also to give the oppressors a chance to tell the truth about their crime and seek forgiveness and clemency. Many times, opened sand oppressor came together and experience genuine reconciliation.
I have told you my story with the hope that in it you will find some perspectives on forgiveness or maybe a perspective on part of your own story.
When my father became ill, my brother and I did what had to be done, as we also did with my mother but with him there was no deathbed reconciliation, no repentance or apologies from either of us.
But I have since owned part of my piece in the situation: I never sought him out, never asked for the stories, never asked the questions, and who knows what he would have said anyway? Ironically I am like him far more like him than than my brother is: outspoken, fairly resilient, opinionated, with a fondness for gardening and house projects, and some kind of unexplained fascination with Hawaii (and I’ve never even been there!).
In spite of him – maybe partly because of him, I have gone on to a pretty happy life.
That may be one form of forgiveness.