The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday
March 20, 2016
On the night of November 14, 1940, the Germans bombed the English city of Coventry. The attack was deviously planned. The first wave of German bombers dropped high explosive bombs to knock out the utilities and damage the roads. That way, when the second wave of bombers dropped fire bombs, the firefighters would not be able to reach the flames. The Germans knew precisely what they were doing to cause the maximum amount of damage. And the bombing was indiscriminate. The city center burned. Houses burned. Hospitals burned. And in the middle of it all, Coventry Cathedral burned.
The next morning, the Dean, the head priest of Coventry Cathedral went to his ruined church. Just a few walls remained standing. The roof had collapsed in the firestorm and the church was all rubble. As that priest surveyed the wild and hellish scene before him, he approached the altar, and he called for a stonemason. And when the stonemason arrived, the priest told him to inscribe two words in the stone in the burned out wall behind the great altar. Just two words. In the midst of a wrecked and burning city; with hundreds of dead civilians; with the smell of smoke and fire still in his nose; with the hum of the German bombers barely departed, the priest told the stonemason to inscribe just two words: “Father, Forgive.” Father, Forgive.
Two simple words. For in those words there is no room for vengeance, or anger, or retribution. There is no room for power. Standing in the rubble of his ruined church, that priest could have called for a stonemason to inscribe other words: words like “Never Again,” or, “Fight Back.” That priest did not take the path that we so willingly take. That priest followed in the way of Jesus. Father, Forgive.
Jesus hangs upon the cross, in the rubble and the ruins of his life and ministry, the crowds mock him, the leaders of the day sneer, even another criminal hurls taunts, Jesus simply utters those words, “Father, forgive them.” Father, forgive them. With his arms stretched wide, in perfect vulnerability, as he smelled his own blood and sweat, as he heard the nails being pounded in, Jesus does not seek vengeance. But remains perfectly rooted in love. Father, forgive them.
Now, the disciples, they think it’s all about swords. They want to fight for Jesus. They want to stab and slash and murder their way through life. But that is not the way of Jesus. Jesus opens himself, allows violence to be done unto him, and says those simple words, “Father, forgive them.”
I know. I know. This seems ridiculous. In all seriousness, how can we forgive those who have bombed our cities? How can we forgive those who killed our neighbors? How can we forgive those who take everything we have? How can we forgive those who do not do as we wish? How can we forgive those who spread lies and gossip about us? How can we forgive our ungrateful children, our parents who kick us out of the house, the jerk who fires us? How can we forgive?
Actually, the how is easy. We open wide our arms in the rubble and in the ruins and we say, “Father, Forgive.” And we mean it. This is no cheap forgiveness, in which you speak it with your lips but harbor the bitterness in your heart. It is true forgiveness, when you stretch wide your arms and lay it all down.
But more importantly – why should we forgive? Why? Why not take the path of anger, the path of the sword-bearing disciples, the path of the world? Why not take vengeance, retribution, why not kill in return for killing? Because forgiveness is the path to wholeness. It’s the path to healing. It’s the path to salvation. Ann LaMotte says, “not forgiving someone is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.” Harboring anger, and resentment, and bitterness, it does not do anything to the one who has wronged us. Not forgiving only hurts us.
Now, I am not saying that forgiveness means going back into old patterns of sickness or dysfunction. I am not telling you to go back into marriages that were abusive, or into relationships that were destructive. I’m sure that, at the end of the day, the Dean of Coventry Cathedral would have preferred for his Cathedral not to be bombed. What I am saying, is that without forgiveness our hearts are weighed down with a record of sorrow, of wrongs done to us, of pain and resentment that we keep. Not forgiving means that we cherish that pain and those resentments.
And herein lies the great spiritual danger. When we hold those resentments close to our hearts, they begin to shape our lives. We no longer see joy, but only remember pain. We no longer give thanks, because all we can do is remember our anger.
On this Palm Sunday, when we hear of Jesus opening wide his arms of mercy, we see the model of true forgiveness. And I know – forgiveness looks like weakness. And in our world, weakness is no virtue. We prefer those who are strong, who are mighty, who are wealthy, who are bombastic and pompous and self-aggrandizing. We follow those who don’t back down, who don’t settle. We want winners. But I tell you, that is not the way to life.
So sure, if you want a life of resentment, and hardness of heart, a life of bitterness, by all means, pick up the sword; both physical and emotional. Strike back when you are struck. Lash out when you are offended. Call the stonemason, and have him inscribe words on your heart like, “just me,” “all mine,” or perhaps what we all wish, “I’m god.” But I tell you – that life will be nasty, short, and brutish.
Or the other path is open to you. It won’t be easy. As you stand in ruins and in the rubble. As the insults are being hurled, while the sneers still ring in your ears; as the con man is walking off with your credit card number, as that liar spreads rumors about you, as that no good punk is walking away from your marriage; call the stonemason and write these words on your heart, “Father, Forgive.” And, perhaps most liberating of all, forgive yourself, just as Christ has forgiven you. True life is standing in the rubble and in the ruins and summoning the courage, and the love to say, “Father, Forgive.”