The Way of Suffering Love – Easter 2017, preached by Winton Boyd on April 16, 2017

Late in the summer of 2015, on an evening when there was a spectacular total lunar eclipse, a couple of neighbors joined us at the edge of our driveway to watch as it slowly began. We had to sit on the lip where our driveway meets the street because this was the only place where trees did not obstruct our view.

As the four of us sat there, another neighbor drove into our circle towards home, saw us sitting in the dark and asked what we were doing. She quickly parked her car and joined us. A second woman came out to put her trash can on the curb, asked what we were doing and joined us.

We sat with anticipation and wonder as the earth gradually blocked more and more of the light of the sun from reaching the moon.

Finally, Pat, the matriarch the street who had lived in her house since the early 1950’s marched her 88 year old self out her front door, across the street to see what was happening. She had seen and heard us talking and laughing together from her living room, but given the location of her house and her trees, she had no idea what we were looking at.

Most of us recognized this quality of curiosity had kept her vibrant and engaged; and we welcomed her as she shuffled up to say, ‘what am I missing, what are you looking at? I want to be part of whatever it is.’ Even as we then watched the eclipse come and go, we recognized there was great mystery in the whole event. It elicited awe and wonder, and made me, for one, feel small and insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe.

Our Christian celebration of Easter evokes some of this same wonder, awe and mystery. Theologian Karl Barth was quoted as saying that understanding resurrection is like looking out your study window, watching people who are excited about something. They are running and jumping about, urgently pointing upward. You see their enthusiasm and you can hear their cries, but sitting where you sit, you cannot see what they see.

At one level, we read the gospel stories with their varying accounts of Easter morning, and we know something happened. One the other hand, the details of it, even the mood of it seem allusive. We read that whatever happened transformed the disciples. We know they went from being a scared group to a powerful, bold and courageous group. And yet, at its core, there is a great deal of mystery for us. What actually happened, what about the story is most important, what impact does it really have on our lives beyond a vague sense of hope on a spring day? Many claims have been laid at the feet of these Easter stories, but most of us know the ‘there that is there’ is more complex and more inexplicable. We come to worship, because in some way, I suspect we also hope it will provide some guidance and liberation for our lives.

In a recent book, Into Your Hands, author Walter Bruggemann reminds us to remember how we got to this early Easter morning. Why where these women at the tomb and in a position to hear the news that Jesus was raised up and no longer in the tomb? What is the context for their grief, their surprise, their fear and indeed, their faith?

Of course, the context is crucifixion, but what is happening spiritually, below the surface, in that often reported death of the teacher from Galilee? In Luke’s version, the very first thing Jesus says when he arrives at the place of execution is ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ (Luke 23:24). It is as though, early on, he seizes the initiative and wants to frame his execution in a specific way by making this prayer at the outset.

‘Before you doing anything to me, I want you to know how I am framing this, what my attitude towards you is, and will remain. I will not hold a grudge; I will forgive you who do the actual killing. I will forgive the authorities that have orchestrated my death. I will forgive you because it is my most core principle – to forgive.

In fact, though, Jesus doesn’t offer his own forgiveness, but turns to his Creator, asking that the Creator forgive them. It is a poignant moment, in which the particular becomes the cosmic. In a somewhat outrageous and counter cultural act, he asks his beloved parent to forgive those who would kill the child. (Into Your Hands: Confronting Good Friday, Walter Bruggemann, 2014.)

One of the phrases from this morning’s benediction from Reinhold Niebuhr reads – No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

In trusting that God will forgive, Jesus is signaling the desire of God to correct the deficiencies of the world, offering the first instance of that final form of love. Jesus points to the one who does not retain anger, does not hold grudges, and does not keep score. He points to the God of compassion, and in so doing stands in stark contrast to those who would kill him. God is not cynical, violent or greedy; rather is an agent of non-violence, revealing the contrast between two ways in the world.

The way of suffering love or the way of anxious violence.

Jesus’ prayer, ‘Father forgive them,’ is not answered immediately. The answer – the radical world changing answer – is Easter. God’s forgiveness, Bruggemann notes, makes Easter a decisive moment in the history of the world. No vengeance, no grudge, no retaliation, only a reach into the world of hate and death with a hope to make all things new. (Bruggemann, p.4)

We live, like the disciples, in the wake of that sweeping action. Our shared worship seeks to make that God action real in our very human lives.

When we hear the liturgy, Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed – we can note this as an answer to Jesus’ prayer, the answer of forgiveness.

  • This liturgy is not the taunting chant of the victorious.
  • It is the message of strength and possibility to the faithful – love prevails.
  • It is an invitation to the way forward. In the wake of belittlement, hatred, confusion and cowardice, compassion and the embracing of love will guide us.

“Christ is risen,” the young man said to the faithful women. Of course their hearts were racing; understandably they lived with fear that maybe it would not be true. Laudably, they faced their beating hearts and their uncertain spirits and started to make their way towards Galilee.

The power of this Easter moment, this acknowledgment of the way of Jesus recited in this simple Easter greeting, is not ancient history. It’s power is the opportunity we have to repeat this claim to the way of compassion love each and every day we are tempted, seduced or overcome with the way of anxious violence.

It’s power lies in our ability to name hope in the depths of uncertain despair. The movement away from despair or violence begins in very small ways. It seems fitting that one of the more gifted reflections on resurrection comes in a book about grieving. Who among us has not faced the grief, anger or confusion of death in our lives – death of a loved one, death of a grand idea, death of our dreams or the breaking of a significant relationship.

In a piece read this morning at the sunrise service, Molly Fumia writes,

“Resurrection. The reversal of what was thought to be absolute. The turning of midnight into dawn, hatred into love, dying into living anew. If we look more closely into life, will find that resurrection is more than hope, it is our experience. The return of life from death is something we understand at our innermost depths, something we feel on the surface of our tender skin. We have come back to life, not only when we start to shake off a shroud of sorrow that has bound us, but when we begin to believe in all that is still endlessly possible.” (Safe Passage: Words to Help the Grieving, Molly Fumia, 2012.)

When the poets suggest that we ‘practice resurrection’ – they are suggesting that we choose resurrection. In the face of those things that seek to sink us, cripple us with fear, invite us into revenge or hated – we claim the ancient truth – Christ is Risen. We name it in order that we can live into it. Maybe we believe it in the moment, and maybe we don’t. Nonetheless we name it, trusting as the first women did, that the way will be made clear in due time. We name it, knowing that each time we do we will increase our capacity for forgiveness and compassion.

I’d like to share a quote from Bishop Desmand Tutu and his daughter Mpho from their book, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World.

I do so, first of all, because these words are born not in some New Age la la land of detached living. They emerged through a lifetime of facing some of the world’s most hateful rhetoric and violence. They emerge as a faith filled response to the life sucking actions over decades of legalized racism.

As I do, secondly, I invite you to consider replacing ‘forgiveness’ with compassion or love or gratitude…whatever value helps you lean into the power of the Jesus Way. I encourage you to ground you hearing of this quote in the hard truths of your life and hear it not as a word of judgment for those who cannot forgive, but as a word of encouragement that the way forgiveness is possible no matter the situation. I invite us to hear it as a prayer of longing from a wise elder to those of us who are young and struggling. I invite us to hear it as a restatement of the simple but profound Easter greeting.

When I develop a mindset of forgiveness, rather than a mindset of grievance, I don’t just forgive a particular act; I become a more forgiving person. With a grievance mindset, I look at the world and see all that is wrong. When I have a forgiveness mindset, I start to see the world not through grievance but through gratitude. In other words, I look at the world and start to see what is right. There is a special kind of magic that happens when I become a more forgiving person, it is quite remarkable. What was once a grave affront melts into nothing more than a thoughtless or careless act. What was once a reason for rupture or alienation becomes an opportunity for repair and greater intimacy. A life that seemed littered with obstacles and antagonism is suddenly filled with opportunity and love.

These words, born of hardship, invite us to reflect on our own lives. Where, or with whom, do we live with a grievance mindset? What would a gratitude mindset look like for us?

What would be our first step into more gratitude; more appreciation of the ‘magic’ possible within us?

Where have we turned cynical in suggesting the forces of grievance and arrogant violence cannot be stopped? Are they more forceful that systemic apartheid? What transformation would we like in our lives to embrace the power of suffering love to guide us?

These are not rhetorical questions – but invitations from those living as resurrection people. Do we have the capacity to hear this invitation?

Our world needs healing, this we know.

Healing in the world around each of us – however small or large that world is – begins with our decision. It begins with our decision to turn to the author of love with the honest but humble prayer:

“Lord, forgive them; and as you do, transform me. They think they know what they are doing, but they don’t. Their intent is hateful or harmful, but I’m looking for another way.

Guide me.

Their way is intimidation and anger, but I want to counter that with something more resilient, more sustainable, and more powerful – the way of your love.

Strengthen me.

And so I say, with all the saints who’ve gone before me and all the saints who will come after me, Christ is Risen.

For me to say it is the first step, help me to trust that I’ll find the next step after that, and the next step, and the next step…Regardless of how ineffective or insignificant any of my steps feels, help me never to stop walking, marching, living into the light of your love.”