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Joy in Forgiveness

Sermon - 3/14/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 32

The text this morning is from the Psalms. It's been a while since I preached on the Psalms, so just as a general word of introduction: most scholars understand the Psalms to be a collection assembled over several centuries, written by a number of different authors, not just David. Primarily for the purpose of using them in worship. And specifically worship in the Temple in Jerusalem.

So the Psalms are in essence the hymn-book of ancient Israel. And it was used as the hymn-book by the early church as well. Many of the Psalms, including the one this morning as a classic example, are quite personal. They reflect the experience of a single person, which, because of that spiritual insight and wisdom that enables many people to relate to, and became incorporated into the liturgy of the people of God, and hence our Scripture.

So then, this Psalm, 32:

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
   whose sin is covered.
2Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
   and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

3While I kept silence, my body wasted away
   through my groaning all day long.
4For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
   my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

5Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
   and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,
   and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

6Therefore let all who are faithful
   offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress,
the rush of mighty waters
   shall not reach them.
7You are a hiding-place for me;
   you preserve me from trouble;
   you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.

8I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
   I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
9Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
   whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
   else it will not stay near you.

10Many are the torments of the wicked,
   but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
11Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous,
   and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.


If ever there were ever a 'theme' Psalm for the Oregon football team, this would be it, right? I mean, what are the odds? I know many of you know that I pick my passages early in January for the year. So I picked this Psalm of forgiveness for this Sunday, and Friday, what do we see? The star quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, and the star running back LaMichael James, both on the same day in effect confessing to their sin, pleading guilty to the charges against them.  Masoli for theft, James for the harassment in a physical altercation with his now very former girlfriend. And so now the debate begins.

The coach suspending James for the opening game, and Masoli for the entire season. Did he do the right thing?

Was he too hard? Was he too soft? What kind of signal has he given, not only to the rest of the team but to our community? About role models and consequences for bad behavior, and absence of certain moral standards. And for the most part, I'm not going to weigh in on such things, because I never do :).

Except to make a couple of general observations. First of all, all of us need to be careful about rushing to judgment in any case like this, because we don't have all the facts. We don't know what coaches, we don't know what the players know, we don't know what the victims know. And secondly, those two players in particular are very fortunate to still be on the team. It's not to say their suspensions were not sufficient, but it could have been much more severe.

And thirdly, particularly in the case of James, a case of domestic violence, it is especially important that in football a very high standard be kept for players, that it is made abundantly clear that domestic violence is never acceptable by anyone, anywhere. And to the credit of James, we have to acknowledge that he has accepted full responsibility for his actions, apologized not just to his team and the school but most importantly to his former girlfriend.

But lets be clear: that he is not the end of his responsibility. It is but the beginning. This young man has a unique opportunity to be a star off the field as well as on. To show by his actions and that he gets it. And become a role model for other men who also have problems controlling their anger, taking anger management classes, listening to stories of other victims, speaking out precisely as someone who has now been given a second chance and using that chance not just to score touchdowns, but more importantly to touch the hearts of other men who also struggle with anger issues.

And given what we know about the horrible statistics of domestic violence in this country and the consequences that it has mostly for women and children, what those Ducks now do or do not accomplish on the football field pales in comparison to what these young athletes can do off the field to to send a different message about respect for women and standards of decency and civility in our society. And I pray that will indeed be the case.

So, as I reflect on the fate of these young men, and I read this text: "happy are those those whose transgressions are forgiven". Indeed.

But such forgiveness does not happen overnight, does it? God may be quick to forgive, but we humans, you know, it takes awhile. We need to see some sign of a change of heart.

A note on that story of the prodigal son -- the son has a change of heart, but the father doesn't wait to hear it. As soon as he sees his son, he gets all excited. Just imagine that father going through that long period of 'what will I say when my son appears? How will I hold him accountable? How will I welcome him?'. Well, going back and forth, when that moment comes, his heart opens and he welcomes him.

Martin Marty, former columnist for the Christian Century that I subscribe to, writes of a Sunday in his Lutheran congregation when an intern was speaking with the children. And he brought two signs with him -- one said "Welcome", and the other said "Keep Out". And he said to his kids: "which sign to we want out in front of the church?" They said "We want 'welcome' out in front of the church. Well, what about when someone different-looking than you comes, different background, different heritage, different language? "Welcome, we want to welcome everybody.

What about someone poor off the streets, someone who spent the night on the street? "Welcome, we want to welcome them". Let's make it a little harder: what about someone who stole your bike? And I imagine the intern was thinking of someone who was caught, restitution was made, forgiveness is sought, but he didn't tell them all that -- it was just someone who had stolen his bike. For all they knew, it may have just happened. Anyone can relate to that? How many have had their bike stolen? Purses stolen in church? We had one last Sunday. Cars? I know of at least two out of this parking lot -- one of them was mine on Christmas Eve of all times. Came back the day after Christmas, and it is really strange, we discovered it had exactly the mileage that it takes from here to Bethlehem :).

Would you be ready to forgive that person? The kids said "no" - keep out, we don't want those people here. And the intern said: "Do you remember the sermon or pastor gave last Sunday? His message about forgiveness? How Jesus wants you to think differently? Remember, it's all about forgiveness.

And one of the kids piped up, the wisdom of children, said "No it's not, it's all about the bike!". And, yeah, he's right, it is about the bike too.

Frankly, I'm not so sure that God is any different. The experience of the Psalmist, in fact, was that it was not until he acknowledged his sin that he found that forgiveness from God. And then and only then did he discover the joy of forgiveness as the weight of that burden was lifted from him. And what this ancient worshiper of God discovered was the power of forgiveness to transform the human heart.

It's a power known in every culture. In that great movie Invictus, Morgan Freeman plays the role of Nelson Mandela. He was of course elected as the Prime Minister of South Africa. And there was one telling moment in the movie when his head of security comes to his office and finds there some of the white men, the previous occupants of that office, who are responsible for much of the violence against the black majority during the days of apartheid. And are now reporting to duty, to their new boss. And so the head of security marches into the president's office, demands that these doers of evil be removed, and President Mandela, firmly but with compassion, says 'no', how can he expect the nation to follow him if he does not demonstrate the very thing he is asking of them: to forgive the perpetrators of apartheid, and work for a new South Africa, black and white together, as citizens of a united nation.

Jack Cornfield went to Cambodia shortly after the Holocaust by the Khmer Rouge that killed over a million citizens of that country to study under a Buddhist teacher. And they went to a refugee camp, against the wishes of the Khmer Rouge, to setup a Buddhist temple. And though the people were warned against going to it, when they opened the Temple, rang it's bell, 25,000 people came. And Cornfield writes: "My teacher began the ancient chanting that had informed everyone's spiritual life in Cambodia before the revolution. And people sat down and began to weep. Why? All he did was recite a simple phrase from the time of Buddha, which goes:

"Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is the ancient and eternal law".

He recited it over and over, and as the people heard it, they began to chant with him: "Hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed". And Cornfield says those people knew as much or more about pain and suffering and injustice as any people anywhere. But somehow as they chanted, you could feel the truth in their words was even greater than their sorrow.

And from that experience he concluded forgiveness is one of the key acts of spiritual practice because it allows us to release the past, renew life. Without forgiveness it's always the Bosnians versus the Croats vs the Serbs, killing each other, repeating the cycle over and over and over. Without forgiveness, it never ends.

Actress Emma Thompson, like many actors, does a lot of charity work, specifically in Chile and Argentina, working with the victims of torture and murder perpetrated by former governments in those two countries. She says: "Out of that experience, I have never heard a single one desire revenge. There is no more important undertaking than forgiveness. It is the most powerful weapon we have against terrorism and atrocity".

Many of you, I know, read Bob Welch. He had a column in December about the story of a 7th grader here in town, who was doing a report on the bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963 that killed four young African-American children, and was one of the turning moments in in the civil rights movement. And this young gal had found the name of the Pastor, John Cross, and his phone number. Had the wherewithal to call him up, out of the blue. Well, she found that he had died two years before. But the woman answering the phone said she was his daughter, I'm a survivor of that bombing (was about the same age as those four young girls, was injured herself in the bombing). They spoke for 25 minutes. She asked Barbara Cross: did you, or do you now, hate those men who bombed the church? And Barbara said "no". Her father's sermon that morning, that he did not get to deliver, was "The love that forgives". And she said "I learned from my father never to hate because hating so severely is like having a cancer inside. It slowly eats you up".

That phone call is something the 7th grader says she will never forget the rest of her life. And those four girls who died that day did not die in vain.

Journalist Marina Cantacuzino, has collected stories like this, for the Forgiveness Project. Some may remember the exhibit we had here in our alcove just a little under two years ago, pictures of people (some very famous like a Archbishop Tutu) and everyday people and their stories (along with their pictures). It's available on on the Web too, the Forgiveness Project, if you Google that. She said she collected those stories as a journalist because she is far more moved by stories of forgiveness than stories of revenge. And she shared those stories not because she wants to tell other people what they should do -- we who are not in someone else's shoes cannot say to them 'you have to forgive'. That's the choice each individual has to make, it's not our role to tell them that. But rather, she says simply that she shares those stories because they give her hope. A way out of the darkness that is so prevalent in the world.

So let me end with one more story of forgiveness that touched my heart. Also from the pages of the Register Guard. It began with alcohol, as so many stories of tragedy do. A car race, and then a hit-and-run.

Left seriously injured on the street was Hart Godbold, a graduate student at the University of Oregon. The investigation quickly lead to Joshua Clifton, a 23-year-old man who was driving with a suspended license, who filed a false police report that his car had been stolen as a way to cover up his crime, and then claimed that he didn't know that he had hit anyone. Pretty hard to feel any sympathy for the guy.

Informed that a suspect had been apprehended, after Jim Godbold, his father, brought his son home from the hospital for a long period of recovery, Jim said "The first thing that came to my mind is that the suspect is just three years younger than my son. My heart goes out to his parents and the people who love him for the ordeal they are about to begin".

Here is this father, his injured son that he is caring for, and his heart goes out to the family of the perpetrator.

That ordeal came to a head last week, as many of you know, Joshua Clifton was sentenced to seven years in prison for his multitude of crimes in that single act. Jim, the father, didn't go to the trial, but his son did. In part, he said, to learn what happened because he has no memory of it.

And he told a reporter afterwards that he thought it was a fair verdict, but it also made him sad. He said: "It's something that happened in an instant that will have lasting repercussions for me and for him. I forgive him. I have no animosity toward him".

Well, I know Jim, the father, from his days as the editor for the Register Guard. He now works at PeaceHealth. So I called him up. I said "Jim, you've got to tell me about this". I was so touched. I didn't know about his son's statement, I was just touched by what Jim had said. And I asked him: "So where does that come from"". Jim did not hesitate -- he says it came for him from 22 years of living in sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous. He gave me permission to share this story. And he said that taught him that forgiveness is the act which provides the greatest mutual benefit. Because of the forgiveness he had experienced in his own life, working through those 12 steps of AA, he does not hesitate to offer it to others. And so too, now the son, learning from his father.

To forgive, as we are forgiven, have you heard that before? It doesn't make it easy, or quick. Sometimes it may not even be possible, or perhaps not even the right thing to do. But I can tell you this: without forgiveness, we are all in a heap of trouble. With forgiveness, this world is a better, gentler, kinder place.

Glory be to God. And joy, that we have in the forgiveness of the Lord.


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