Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 26, 2017
Dr. Robert Coles while serving as chief of neuropsychiatric services at Keesler Air Force base in Biloxi, Mississippi, made frequent trips into New Orleans. During these trips, he witnessed many scenes of racial conflict, most of them related to the desegregation of the public schools. He wrote a series of articles for The Atlantic Monthly, profiling six year old Ruby Bridges, one of the first black children to desegregate a public elementary school in New Orleans. Every day, Ruby was a target of daily public protests, intimidation, and even death threats. As a child psychiatrist, Dr. Coles had volunteered to support and counsel Ruby and her family during this difficult period.
Ruby was walked to school every day by federal marshals. She would run a gauntlet of angry white people who would scream at and threaten her. She would hurry through the crowd and not say a word. She was in a classroom all by herself, with no other children to play with. Her teacher Mrs. Henry described Ruby as the “most normal and relaxed child that she had ever taught.”
Robert Coles tells a story recounted to him by Ruby’s teacher: “One morning, something happened. Mrs. Henry stood by a window in her classroom as she usually did, watching Ruby walk toward the school. Suddenly, Ruby stopped — right in front of the mob of howling and screaming people. She stood there facing all those men and women. She seemed to be talking to them. Mrs. Henry saw Ruby’s lips moving and wondered what Ruby could be saying. The crowd seemed ready to kill her. The marshals were frightened. They tried to persuade Ruby to move along. They tried to hurry her into the school, but Ruby wouldn’t budge. Then Ruby stopped talking and walked into the school. When she went into the classroom, Mrs. Henry asked her what happened. Mrs. Henry told Ruby that she’d been watching and that she was surprised when Ruby stopped and talked with the people in the mob. Ruby became irritated. “I didn’t stop and talk with them,” she said. “Ruby, I saw you talking,” Mrs. Henry said. “I saw your lips moving.” “I wasn’t talking,” said Ruby “I was praying. I was praying for them.” Every morning, Ruby had stopped a few blocks away from school to say a prayer for the people who hated her. This morning she forgot until she was already in the middle of the angry mob. When school was over for the day, Ruby hurried through the mob as usual. After she walked a few blocks and the crowd was behind her, Ruby said the prayer she repeated twice a day — before and after school: Please, God, try to forgive those people. Because even if they say those bad things, They don’t know what they’re doing. So You could forgive them, Just like You did those folks a long time ago When they said terrible things about You.”
Please God, Forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing. We are familiar with that line. In our reading from Luke these words are among the last of Jesus. “Father, Forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” The gospel of Luke is the only gospel that records these words of Jesus. In Matthew and Mark when Jesus dies, he cries out about being abandoned by God. In the gospel of John his major concern is that someone will continue to care for his mother.
The words: “Father forgive them” coming out of the mouth of Jesus while he hangs on a cross are stunning. They are so far fetched that the only way they make the smallest amount of sense to us is to hear them out of the mouth of six year old Ruby Bridges while she is being screamed at and threatened by hordes of white folks on her way to school. How could anyone speak for, or grant forgiveness in such a traumatic and heinous situation? For Ruby, that was what she had been taught in Sunday school. Though neither of her parents could read or write, her whole family, along with other members of her church had memorized huge portions of the Bible. Because of their life circumstances in the segregated south, they thought a lot about forgiveness.
In Luke, there is no connection between the death of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins in an “atonement, blood sacrifice” sort of way. Forgiveness of sins flows from the earthly Jesus. For instance, you might remember the story of Zacchaeus the Tax-collector that was oppressing the people through over collecting taxes. He seeks Jesus’ forgiveness over dinner and makes restitution to all of those that he has cheated.
Jesus goes to the cross and is crucified with other criminals because he stood up to the powers of Rome and the power of the Jewish leadership. He is condemned for sedition and suffers torture and capital punishment. This unjust death of the innocent parallels the prophets of old. While on the cross, he also faces the threefold temptation that he faced in the wilderness following his baptism. Three times in three different ways he is told to use his divine power to save himself. By the power of the spirit, Jesus is able to resist using his power to save himself. He uses his power to change the world. He dies the death of a martyr, granting mercy to the one criminal who acknowledges his sins and failing. “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Jesus speaks these words as an act of faith and hope. I don’t think that he was feeling it right then. He speaks these words to power as a promise. He speaks these words as belief. He speaks these words because he, as the martyr, is the only person that can speak these words.
I want to acknowledge that this is VERY TRICKY TERRITORY HERE! I’m going to talk about forgiveness in general terms and then forgiveness from oppressed or traumatized people. First of all, most all of us here, don’t deal with too much oppression and it is likely that we all need to work harder at forgiving one another. At our baptism, we make a covenant with one another to be a community of love and forgiveness. Sometimes, we nurse our own wounds to the point that they become our focus and we can’t open our heart to one another to give and receive forgiveness. Sometimes, we hold grudges to the end of time, because that at least gives us something familiar to hang on to. Sometimes, we would rather take the quick way out of an uncomfortable situation, rather than the harder way in that involves acknowledging our wrongdoing, repentance and receiving forgiveness. If you can’t think of a time that you have been genuinely forgiven for something that you have done, then my guess is that you are probably holding a grudge against another. When we acknowledge the depth of grace that we have received from others, we are more motivated to forgive.
For those who are oppressed and those who are deeply traumatized by abuse, war or terror, our faith does not obligate you to forgive your oppressor. Throughout the New Testament forgiveness can only be given by those who have more power, or those who are equal. For instance in Matthew 18 when Jesus us teaching Peter about forgiveness, he tells the story of a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servant. The first one that he met with owed him 10,000 talents which is essentially several million dollars. The king was going to sell this servant and the members of his family for the debt, but he fell to his knees and begged for forgiveness and the King released him from his debt. He forgave the debt. This particular servant then went to fellow servants who owed him essentially a day’s wage, seeking to collect the debt. That servant begged for forgiveness, but the first servant wouldn’t grant it and threw him into prison. Of course the other servants were distressed by all of this and told the king. The king was furious and withdrew his forgiveness and handed him over to the guard responsible for punishing prisoners. The king had mercy on the servant. The servant did not have mercy on his fellow servants. In the New Testament, forgiveness is often portrayed as a release of debts. Forgiveness flows down from the more powerful to the less powerful. Even, Jesus powerless on the cross in Luke’s gospel does not offer forgiveness himself, but instead asks God to forgive those who executed him. Little Ruby who is powerless because she is a small child, and because she is black in white-dominate culture asks God to forgive the people. She is not obligated to do so. The powerless are not expected to forgive the powerful.
The song that we are singing by Mark Miller “I Choose Love” was written by Lindy Thompson in response to the murder of nine black people by Dylan Roof at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. I don’t believe that the surviving family members of this horrific hate crime need to offer forgiveness to Dylan Roof, but some have. I think the words: “I choose love” in the midst of pain, war and degradation is a powerful choice. Choosing love is not easy, choosing love is powerful.
How can we choose love every day?