Texts: Matthew 18:21-22; Genesis 50:15-21
On Thursday I was part of a group of clergy who got together at First Congregational Church downtown to meet with four leaders from the Sandy Hook Promise organization. There have been enough violent events in the last couple years to lose track of which was which, but you may remember that Sandy Hook is the name of the Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut where an awful and senseless act of violence was committed in December of 2012 by a troubled 20 year old young man. To date, it remains the deadliest of all the school shootings in our country, and was targeted at the youngest kids. From that tragedy formed the Sandy Hook Promise, a group of parents and concerned people who are mounting a national campaign to help prevent gun violence. The executive director is a former employee of Proctor and Gamble. He had a child at Sandy Hook who was not injured, but he personally felt a draw to redirect his vocation toward this work. Their advocacy director told us briefly about his son Daniel, a first grader, who was killed that day – a compassionate little boy who would go sit by kids at lunch who were by themselves and who would pick up worms from the sidewalk and put them back in the grass. The pain of the loss filled his voice as he spoke.
They are attempting to help lead a national conversation with what they call “the sensible center,” telling their stories and listening to others; taking a holistic, even generational approach addressing awareness and education, mental health, community connections, and ultimately, some policy changes. In their research on social change, from civil rights to marriage equality, the common factor they have found is what they call “mainstream engagement.” They believe policy is important but it starts with changes in mindset. They noted that the biggest obstacle they face is people’s feeling of being “hopeless and helpless” in how to respond, something they openly admit they felt when they observed this happening in other communities, before it happened to their own.
They plan to have organizers based in Ohio for the next number of years. The Sandy Hook Promise itself, which you can go online and sign is simply, “I promise to join other parents to encourage and support sensible solutions that help prevent gun violence in our communities and our country.” One small thing they will be promoting that caught my attention, to give you an idea of how sensible their approach is, is a program they learned about in a Los Angeles neighborhood called “Know me, know my name.” The idea is that when kids are surrounded by a community of people who know and call them by name it promotes community cohesion and mental wellness. Pre-empting social isolation also pre-empts violence. I know that the congregation where our Conference Minister, Lois Kaufmann attends, Assembly Mennonite, in Goshen, made a commitment many years ago that children deserve to be called by name and that adults would be intentional about learning the names of all the children in the congregation. They have over 100 youth and children. Maybe there’s someone here who wants to champion that at Columbus Mennonite. Perhaps we’ve never thought of calling a child by name as an act of peacemaking, but the folks of Sandy Hook Promise would have us believe it is.
There’s a phrase one of my undergrad sociology professors introduced me to that has stayed with me: “Soul work.” Soul work is the work we do within the lively ecosphere of our inner selves. Soul work is what we do with our desires, our aspirations, our disappointments. What we do with our pain. Soul work is how our fears and our grief are transformed into something that is ultimately life-affirming. Soul work takes place over a life-time. It is good work and sometimes it feels like play and sometimes it feels like work. It is the kind of work I observed in Daniel’s father and these folks of the Sandy Hook Promise.
Peter once came to Jesus and offered what he most likely believed to be a generous proposal. “Master, if a brother or sister sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Occasionally we have a worship service focused on healing, with the opportunity to receive prayer and anointing with oil for yourself or on behalf of another person. Our texts, drawn from the lectionary, speak specifically about forgiveness, but I invite us to consider this in the broadest sense as it relates to healing. Forgiveness can include a situation of being wronged by another person, but forgiveness is also closely related to all the soul work we must do with what life brings our way in order to face others and ourselves in a way that is ultimately life-affirming. Forgiveness has a similar pattern as grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. They both loop around among all these responses. Forgiveness and grieving arise in situations as basic as life simply not working out the way we imagined it.
“Master, if a brother or sister sins against me, if life disappoints me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Let’s acknowledge up front that the concept of forgiveness comes with some baggage, an example being that most unhelpful phrase, “Forgive and forget.’ If forgiveness is equal to forgetting, then the degree to which we have successfully stopped remembering a painful incident is the degree to which we have forgiven. The stronger that deadbolt is holding up in the compartment of our brain where we have put up a sign “Do not enter,” then the stronger our forgiveness. Whenever we have thoughts of anger or depression or a sense of injustice about the situation then we have relapsed in our forgiveness. If this were what forgiveness were all about it could be easily calculated and measured.
But if forgiveness has more to do with a new way of remembering, a different way of seeing a person or a situation, it puts it in a new light. Rather than trying to forget, or focusing all our energy on changing the other, we first focus on changing our relationship to the situation. This is soul work. Our congregational Reconciliation Covenant has some helpful language here: “Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, it simply means letting go of the desire that the person who has harmed us suffers. This is the pathway to reconciliation, healing and return to right relationship.” By the way, the Reconciliation Covenant can be found on our new church website.
Peter appears to be trying to quantify forgiveness. How many times should I let a person off the hook before I really start counting it against them? He has a pretty generous offer. Seven times! This is far more lenient than the three- strikes- and- you’re- out rule. If we would take the three strikes, then double that, and then add one more for good measure then surely we are being merciful people. Jesus answers with another figure. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” There’s a translation issue where this could just as easily read seven times seventy, but the point isn’t to try and figure about whether Jesus meant we should forgive 77 or 490 times. The point is to stop counting. The problem isn’t that Peter has selected too low of a number, it’s that he’s chosen a number in the first place. Forgiveness, Jesus seems to be saying, is not a calculation. It’s not a matter of quantifying mercy. It has no end. Soul work goes on and on.
There is another story behind Peter’s seven and Jesus’ seventy seven that gives this conversation greater weight. The story behind the story that Jesus might have been referencing here helps fill out how big a role forgiveness plays in the way that Jesus is offering. Something fundamental to the coming about of a new creation, a new way of being human that begins to unwind the tangle of sin and wrongs that have accumulated over the millennia. The story behind this story happens just after the creation and sets the stage for human history and putting it on a certain trajectory. It’s a story we could call, “A brief introduction to vengeance, according to Genesis.”
Here’s how it goes: After the human creatures leave the garden of Eden, there is immediate conflict between the two brothers Cain and Abel. In Genesis 4, Cain, the older, brings his younger brother Abel out into a field, and murders him. The portrayal of the first murder as a brother killing a brother is a way of showing that all murder is fratricide. To kill another human being is to kill a brother or a sister. God hears the innocent blood of Abel crying out from the ground and comes down to have a talk with Cain. God asks, “Where is your brother Abel?” to which Cain answers, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” to which God could have answered, “Uhh..Yeah!”
At the beginning of Genesis, God seems to be learning right along with humanity about how all of this is going to work out. These creatures God has created are turning on each other. Now that Abel is gone and Cain is a known murderer, how can Cain be protected against those who want to take his life in avenging Abel’s death? God’s idea is that Cain will be protected through the mark of increased vengeance. God says, “Whoever kills Cain will suffer a seven-fold vengeance.” So now the person who would kill Cain must recognize that the stakes have been raised. None of this one life for one life business. Cain’s potential murderer is putting himself and seven of his family members at risk of being avenged. At first it appears that this deterent is working well. Maybe the humans will realize that the cost of violence is too great and will live peacefully. Cain marries, has children, and grandchildren, and there is no report of his life being sought by others. But several generations down the road, just several verses after the declaration of seven-fold vengeance for Cain, we get an update on the direction things are going. A descendent of Cain’s named Lamech, says this. This is 4:23-24, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me, If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-seven fold.” Not seven I tell you, but seventy-seven times. The logic of vengeance gets taken one step further in Lamech seeking to protect his own life. If anyone were to seek his life, he essentially declares all out war on their family. If seven-fold vengeance wasn’t enough of a deterent, then surely vengeance times seventy-seven is. But as the story goes, soon the whole earth is filled with violence and God is sorry to have begun this whole humanity project in the first place. The mark of Cain has failed to protect the human family from each other and has actually served to exponentially increase violence. The story of vengeance seven times and then seventy seven times sets in motion one trajectory of human history. A trajectory that is inherently self-destructive. Soon enough God starts a parallel story with the calling of Abraham and Sarah. Their mark, their mission, is to be one of exponential blessing. Through this one family, all peoples of the earth will be blessed. The story that was read about Joseph and his brothers, the last words of Genesis, provides something of an alternative ending to the logic of Cain and Lamech. Despite the harm that has been done against him, Joseph releases any wish to harm his brothers, and instead accepts that he is his brothers and sisters keeper, inviting them to stay with him in Egypt.
So when Peter and Jesus converse about forgiveness seven times and then seventy seven times, we could read it as a commentary on Cain and Lamech. One that stands in direct contrast to the logic of vengeance. As if Jesus would like us to think of forgiveness as revenge in reverse. One unending practice of seventy seven to undo the other seemingly unending practice of seventy-seven that has been passed down through generations.
We can think of what these parents of Sandy Hook are doing also as an act of reverse revenge. It’s noble and incredibly brave, but my guess is that there’s also an element of them doing this for their own well-being and sanity, for the survival and healing of their own souls. This is what their soul work looks like. They are not forgetting, but just the opposite. They are using the moral energy built up from a tragic event to respond in a way that is life affirming.
When I was looking ahead to this Sunday a few weeks ago I had no intention of it being so violent. Sandy Hook and Cain and Lamech are extreme examples of the depths of pain humanity can inflict on itself. I don’t share these to try and be overly dramatic or seek a cheap emotional response. It was what this past week held, and it fit with the texts.
As we ponder our own soul work and the pains that we carry, and our desire for healing, I encourage us to consider these two different paths of 77 times. Pain can have a way of compiling, accumulating, multiplying itself. For some it builds up and explodes out as rage. For others it builds up and gets smothered in as a form of depression. Either way it can get passed along to others, even passed along generationally. But there is another way. It is the way of living Christ, Jesus alive as a healing presence who brings an entirely different kind of energy to our pain and disappointments and grief. Christians have called it the power of resurrection, life springing up from death, and it a most holy Divine gift. It is soul work, but it’s not the kind of work where you just grit your teeth and be stronger and try harder. It’s much more akin to accepting that something dear to you has died, and then, when you are ready, being open to whatever new life comes your way. The site of resurrection is not just a grave in Jerusalem. Our lives, and our hearts become a site of resurrection. This is a hope we carry with us, even if we only see it dimly.