Matthew 18:21-22

International Peace Day Sunday

“Long live absolute world peace.” So reads the inscription on the United Nations Peace bell which will be rung on the 30th anniversary of the International Day of Peace this coming Wednesday, yet again sounding as an ominous reminder of “the human cost of war.” Why is it that something so universally desired as world peace remains so stubbornly elusive for us to attain? I suspect that the answer to this conundrum has much to do with Peter’s frustration with Jesus in this morning’s Gospel reading. For when Peter went to Jesus to ask him how many times we should forgive those who do us wrong, Peter figured he was already way ahead of Jesus when he suggested that the answer might be seven times. Having hung out with Jesus for a while by this time, Peter believed he was beginning to get it that Jesus had a way of asking more of us than most of would ever dream of asking of ourselves. And since his experience, perhaps not unlike most of ours, was that even to forgive once was a big deal, Peter was proud of suggesting something so unheard of as forgiving others up to seven times. Just imagine, then, Peter’s amazement and dismay when Jesus responded, well, that’s close, Peter, but how about 70 times 7? Can’t we hear Peter even today exclaiming, “you gotta be kidding, Jesus! 70 times 7! How could anyone keep track of that many times of forgiving? It sounds like there’s no limit to how many times we should forgive those who hurt us!”

Hm, yep, that what it sounds like all right, and it sure doesn’t sound any easier for us today than it did then for Peter. Indeed, to listen to today’s political rhetoric and un-civil discourse, is to get the sense that far from forgiving those with whom we differ, our goal should be to obliterate them altogether. Something there seems to be deep within us which likes to hold onto our grudges, which insists that forgiveness needs to be earned in order to be deserved, and which too easily dismisses those whom we fear as somehow being unforgivable, and therefore even expendable. And herein may well lie the greatest obstacle to our ever attaining world peace, or at least the greatest danger to our living peaceably with each other. For we are so easily made afraid of each other, and thus vulnerable to manipulation by those claiming to defend and protect us. Whether in today’s international language of so-called anti-terrorism, or even in the intranational language of intensely partisan politics, how eerily prophetic is this warning from Julius Caesar:

“Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervor, for patriotism is indeed a double-edged sword. It both emboldens the blood, just as it narrows the mind…And when the drums of war have reached a fever pitch and the blood boils with hate and the mind has closed, the leader will have no need in seizing the right of the citizenry. Rather, the citizenry, infused with fear and blinded with patriotism, will offer up all of their rights unto the leader, and gladly so. How do I know? For all this I have done. And I am Caesar.”

And yet more recently, at the Nuremberg Trials, Nazi leader Hermann Goering shared this uncannily similar assessment:

“Naturally the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

Youch—are we so adroitly led into acting against not only our fellow human beings, but even our own interests as well? Our faith assures us that “perfect love casts out all fear,” but lately it feels more true that great fear casts out all love. Little wonder, then, that the Native Americans spoke of fear as the doorway through which evil enters our souls. That’s the bad news, and there’s plenty of it these days.

But the Good News is that, as people created in the image of a God whose essence is love, we too can choose love and life over hatred and death. It may often not be easy to do so, but it is always transformative, liberating, and healing, at least for us, and potentially for others as well. A significant challenge for us in this regard is to get beyond the pernicious notion that forgiveness needs to be earned before it can be granted. Of course, it’s much easier to forgive someone who is remorseful and solicitous of our forgiveness. But has not each of us known times when we needed forgiveness and love so badly that we couldn’t ask for it? In a recent episode [July 3, 2011] of the For Better or For Worse comic strip, 6 year old Michael is having a really bad night, so much so that his mother decides he just needs to go to bed, now, which of course he does not wish to do. As his completely depleted mom goes to turn off the light, Michael asks, “Mom, aren’t you going to kiss me good night?” “To tell you the truth, Mike” his mother replies, “when you act like that, I just don’t feel like kissing you!” Ouch! “But Mom, “Michael pleads, “that’s when I need it the most!”

Thank you, Michael, for reminding us of the other side of forgiveness. When we focus only on the wrong we have experienced, and dwell upon our justifiable anger and outrage at the injustice waged against us, we close ourselves off to the humanity and the perspective of the one who has hurt us. I think it was Abraham Lincoln who suggested that if we truly knew the life story of others, we could not help but be moved to empathy and compassion for them. And surely the only hope for reconciliation and rebuilding a broken relationship lies in someone being willing to take that first step toward healing even and maybe especially when we would rather have the other make the first move. Indeed, perhaps forgiveness is most transformative precisely when it is offered before it is requested.

But herein lies another irony about forgiveness. When we hold onto our pain as if doing so will somehow hurt the one who has hurt us, we are actually only keeping ourselves in bondage to the pain they have caused us. Hence the wisdom of endless forgiveness, whether as the first span in a bridge to mutual understanding, or simply as a way of freeing ourselves to move on with our lives. Either way, when Jesus admonishes us always to practice forgiveness he does so by way of reminding us of the essential belovedness within God’s heart of the one who has hurt us, and of we ourselves, dearly desiring us to be free of all that might keep us from fully loving God, ourselves, and everyone else to whom we are related within the all-encompassing circle of God’s love.

So let’s try an exercise. For just a moment, try to get in touch with a time when you have felt deeply hurt by someone else, really angry at, or afraid of them, whether someone you know well, or some other out there who represents evil and danger for you. Now imagine that they are at your mercy, that you now have the power to wreak upon them whatever vengeance, or justice, you wish. See this person before you, not necessarily repentant nor remorseful, but powerless to resist whatever remedial action you might choose to take. Feel your pain, your fear, and your anger, feel how these feelings make you feel, and imagine what actions you might take in order to experience some form of healing and redress for the wrong you have experienced. Who are you seeing in your mind’s eye? Do you see someone equally beloved of God as you, your sister or brother, of do you see a monster, a fiend, someone to be punished, someone perhaps no longer fully human or at least no longer deserving of humane treatment?

Perhaps many of us have actually had such an experience, and it would be fascinating to hear how we chose to respond and how we felt as a result. Although most of us might never find ourselves in quite so stark a situation as this, I was deeply moved to read recently of an Iranian woman blinded and severely disfigured by a man who threw acid in her face when she spurned his advances. In this case, the Iranian court did convict the man of his offense, and in gruesome accordance with its literal “eye for an eye” interpretation of justice, the man was sentenced to have acid poured on his face and in his eyes. As the man waited on his knees and wept in the operating room while the doctor prepared the acid, this amazing woman whose life will never be the same again forgave her offender. The story does not indicate either whether the man apologized or asked for forgiveness, nor how he responded to such amazing grace and generosity on her behalf, but it does indicate that she was moved by Islam’s teaching of mercy as the most noble spiritual value to live by. And get this. Explaining that she did not desire revenge, she observed “it is best to pardon when you are in a position of power.”

Wow! As we gather here just after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and just before the 30th anniversary of the International Day of Peace, wonder with me if you will how different our world might be today if we as a nation had chosen to live by such wisdom and grace in response the horror inflicted upon us back then. In the immediate aftermath of that terrible day, nearly the whole world identified with us, sympathized with us, even suggested that “we are all Americans today.” Many of those who offered us their prayers and consolation knew what we were going through, as such terror had already been so familiar to them. Yet rather than accepting their invitation to be in solidarity with them, both in terms of our shared experiences, and our shared efforts to build a world free of such terror, we chose to see ourselves as exceptional, as people to whom this sort of thing must not happen, and thus to respond with as much military furor and might as we could muster, determined to make someone pay for what had been done to us, and “to bring them to justice.”

Ten years and two long wars later, more Americans have died than perished on that fateful day, as well as countless other Iraqi and Afghan sisters and brothers, and it’s not at all clear that we are any safer now as a result of having squandered so much to accomplish so little. Imagine if instead we had sought to use our vast resources to build up rather than tear down those same places in our world, seeking instead of defeating and dominating them, rather to befriend and empower them. For in the chilling words of the German poet and novelist Hermann Hesse, is it not painfully true that “we kill at every step, not only in wars, riots, and executions, but when we close our eyes to poverty, suffering, and shame?” Hesse argues further that “all disrespect for life, all hard-heartedness, all indifference, all contempt is nothing else than killing,” an especially disturbing assessment in light of how willing we seem to be of late as a nation to disregard and dismantle our shared commitment to the common good and well being of our all citizens, especially those most vulnerable among us.

Especially in light of our increasing tendency to focus on the ways in which we are different or better or worth more than those whom we deem to be worth less, how dearly we need the grace-filled corrective of the challenging admonition to endless forgiveness in this morning’s Gospel reading. As our friend and former pastor of this church, the Rev. Greg Marshall, likes to remind us, when Jesus urged us to
“love our enemies,” he most certainly did not mean to kill them. To be sure, this is profoundly countercultural stuff we’re talking about here, but is it really that different than the great hope and vision expressed in the Farewell address of President Dwight De. Eisenhower back in 196O?

“Together we must learn how to compose differences—not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose….To all the peoples of the world, I once more give expression to America’s prayerful and continuing aspiration: We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibility; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others, will learn charity, and that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth; and that in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”

Of course, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that despite Eisenhower’s impeccable military credentials, the moment he began expressing sentiments such as these was likewise the moment he began to be dismissed as somehow having become naive and irrelevant.

Nevertheless, those of us who still seek to take seriously the teaching, life, and ministry of the itinerant rabbi from Nazareth, are called anew each day to imagine, in the timeless words of our brother John Lennon, “all the people living life in peace,” and faithfully to work toward co-creating a world wherein we forgive as we have been forgiven, so that God’s eternal will for peace may be done on earth as it is in heaven. When Jesus invites to forgive always and forever, without condition or reservation, he does so out of his conviction that within God’s heart we truly are all one, without any “us” or “them,” but rather, in the visionary words of our brother Michael Jackson, “we are all a part of God’s great big family.”

Thus, as members of this compassionate community of hospitality, let us continue to build and deepen relationships with our neighbors near and far through recommitting ourselves in observance of this International Day of Peace to the transformative affirmation that “we are the world” and the ones who can make a brighter day. Seeking to let peace begin here and now, with each and every act of forgiveness and mercy, “let’s start (and continue) giving” for “there’s a choice we’re making,” a choice to save our own lives as well as all those with whom God has blessed us to share this planet we call our home. Amen.

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