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NATIONALISM and the CALL to FORGIVE

A Sermon preached by Elle Morgan

Sunday of the Passion – March 24, 2024


Good morning on this beautiful Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday. What a special way to start this day with our sisters and brothers next door.


In many ways, the closure of Lent reminds me of a great deal of Advent.  Both parts of our liturgical year center around anticipation, reflection, hope, and, for us, a knowledge of things to come.  Lent leads us to Holy Week, an essential devotional and liturgical occasion for Christians, which will culminate with Jesus’ resurrection.  During this coming week, we travel a painful journey of betrayal and death.  What strikes me is that despite these differences, we find ourselves strengthened by hope and promise in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


Today, we find ourselves walking with Jesus through, perhaps through his most profound period of betrayal and pain.  I’ve been thinking a lot about how those events correlate with our own experiences of being outsiders.  Jesus was an outsider to the Romans and perceived as a threat – outsiders often are.  But even as an ostensible  insider to his own people – the people with whom he was raised, the people who knew him, he remained an outsider who challenged the status quo.  And the response to the perceived threat culminated in terrible violence when they chose to designate Jesus as “other.”  A person who was different, a person who challenged authority, the politics of the times, and conventional ways of thinking.  History has shown us that those who challenge authority and traditional ways of thinking are often not rewarded.  Passion Sunday is, in many ways, a confrontation – not a celebration.


This identification of “otherness” is not an attempt to villanize first-century Judeans or engage in a centuries-long twist into weapons of antisemitism.  But if we refuse to see God in every person and choose to deem them as “others," it doesn't end well for anyone.

When reflecting on biblical and world history, I'm not sure we've made much progress recognizing each other as children of a loving God. Even today, designating those as others continues to result in violence and exclusion. We continue to believe that those who look differently, act differently, live elsewhere, love differently, or believe things that we do not are “others.”  Even those who identify as Americans are currently embroiled in profound and often violent disagreement about what the definition of what the word "American" even means.


We’ve been reading a lot lately about nationalism – a chronic and ongoing issue worldwide and in our communities.  Depending upon your definition of the word, like most "isms," nationalism carries good and bad characteristics.  It can be used to define a sense of hope about the future can build personal and collective identities of selfhood in the modern world.   On the other hand, nationalism can encourage fear of all kinds of people: fear of those who share other faiths or members of the BIPOC or LGBTQ communities. This fear can be mobilized for violence and scapegoating.  It can leave people to feel aggrieved and constantly at risk.


In the Gospel, we see two groups who feel challenged and aggrieved by the otherness of Jesus and his threat to their individual and collective identities – people who resort to violence as a way to remove the threat to their status quo.  Today, we see the same thing: people who solve the issue of fear of change by harming those different from them.   For God so loved the world (not just America, or Canada, or Italy) that God gave an only begotten Son.


But what was and is Jesus’ response to this?  Jesus Christ, a child of God, encourages us to act like children of God by modeling forgiveness and pressing back against injustice and discrimination at every opportunity – even in the face of being denied by one of his dearest friends and betrayed by a disciple, he chose forgiveness.

    

The New Testament is full of Jesus' unequivocal position on this subject:  All four Gospels, Acts, Ephesians, and Colossians, emphasize Jesus' teachings on forgiveness, the importance of forgiving others as God has forgiven us, and the role of Jesus in bringing about forgiveness through his sacrifice.


Often, the world teaches that acknowledging wrongdoing and asking for forgiveness are signs of weakness.  This idea directly opposes the teachings of Jesus, who highlights forgiveness as an integral part of our responsibilities as Christians.  Seeking and giving forgiveness are signs of strength and honest humility.


In this week, we reflect on the sin of complacency regarding standing up to injustice.  We may ask if would deny or betray our beliefs due to fear or expediency?  It’s easy to say that we would never engage in betrayal or complacency related to Jesus, but where do we show up for those deemed as others today?  On April 4, we will mark the 56th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination and we will mark the first anniversary of the death of Nex Benedict, a student in Oklahoma, one of many Americans who are killed because of transphobia. We will soon mark anniversaries to the end of world wars  fought over “otherness” or “injustice.”  Sometimes, we show up as God’s hands on earth in matters of grave injustice, but can we subsequently offer forgiveness for the perpetrators of those unjust acts?


I know a very good man – a war hero who enlisted to fight injustice in World War II.  He was fighting in Germany when the world celebrated VE day on May 8, 1945.  Regrettably, the ability to communicate is not what it is now, and a German soldier who didn't get the word that the war was over lobbed a grenade at Abby's unit on May 16.  Abby caught the grenade and ran with it away from his unit.  When the grenade exploded, it blew off both of his arms and blinded him.  Through what must have been a miracle, he was med evacuated five hours to Italy, survived, and eventually regained his sight.  He lived a full life, raising four children and holding a full-time job.  A truly good person.  Fifty years later, when his new daughter-in-law excitedly told him about her upcoming trip to Nuremberg, he responded viscerally, "I HATE the Germans; how could you go there?"  His DIL responded, "But I'm German; do you hate me?"  He hesitated only for a second before saying, “I don’t hate you; I love you!"  But the tension between grievous acts of evil and wrong and the charge to forgive is strong.  The tendency to lump innocent people of certain groups with the evil actions of others is also strong.  In this week, Jesus models for us the importance of his beliefs around forgiveness.


The writer Vicki Garvey says, "We embrace our self-righteous non-forgiveness at our peril.  She continues, I cringe when I think of the times that I haven't dared to stand against injustice, when I've stayed safely hidden in the crowd, afraid to rally to the support of others who are being unjustly treated or condemned or dismissed as less than worthy."


I share her concern for me over this and the significant challenges around granting forgiveness, asking for forgiveness, and standing up to injustice.  Forgiveness may be easy for some and more difficult for others, but it is undoubtedly a challenge for those who understand Jesus’ call to forgive. Sometimes, the idea of shaking the dust off our feet and moving on can have tremendous appeal. It is difficult to forgive and costly not to.


Asserting forgiveness and fighting injustice can be complicated issues. The war changed the entire course of Abby’s future. However, a current theologian reminds us that "forgiveness does not hinge on whether we gain the response we seek.  Forgiveness is a healing act, releasing the pain that comes from anger or fear.  It allows us to refocus our anger on injustice rather than the perpetrators of injustice (Hamman, 438). To conflate Christ's work with worldly politics is to miss its meaning altogether.


Jesus’ call to forgive is a gift to us – even if it doesn’t always feel like it.  But if we live into the charge of Jesus Christ, who suffered and died for us, and forgave those who acted so cruelly against him, we can incrementally make changes that will better serve others and allow us to grow as members of the Body of Christ in a modern world.  Jesus’ life and the circumstances of his death remind us of this time and time again.


It would be easy to preach a whole series of sermons on forgiveness, but today, let us be reminded of some of Jesus' final words: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."   As we move forward into Holy Week and honor the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, let us join the Congregationalists next door and Christians or admirers of Christ across the world who celebrate his journey to the cross with acts of pure love and forgiveness.


In the name of Jesus, who loves and forgives us all.  Amen.


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