March 27, 2005 - Easter Sunday
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Lessons

Luke 23:26, 32-43
As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

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Sermon: The Full Force of Forgiveness

Two weeks ago as part of a children’s sermon we put an empty chair here in the front of the sanctuary – does anyone remember why we did that?

During the Passover Seder some Jewish families will have an empty chair at their table to show that they are ready to welcome the prophet Elijah should he join them at their meal. This idea has been broadened in some households to show that there is ready hospitality for any guest, whether that guest be rich or poor, familiar or a stranger.

I was reminded in a Deacons meeting the day after that this was not the first time we had put an empty chair in front of our congregation.

On Friday after September 11 we held a noontime prayer service and placed a single empty chair in front of the congregation. We all imagined that everyone who had been killed in the planes, in the blasts, in the aftermath and rescue operations was sitting in that empty chair, and that around them was all the people who loved them and grieved for them, and that around all of them we gathered to offer our prayers for their healing, peace, and comfort.

It was an idea we had borrowed from New Brunswick Theological Seminary. They had a similar service the day before and sent out copies to all their graduates. But we only borrowed half their idea. They had put two chairs in front of the chapel, and in the second chair they asked the congregation to envision all of those who planned, or paid for, or encouraged, or carried out the attacks to surround them, as well, in prayer.

At the time I had said that I didn’t think we were ready yet for the second chair; the question at the Deacon’s meeting was – when are we going to revisit the issue.

Jesus, from the cross, says, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Easter is a story of the full force of forgiveness. Even as his executioners stand by and torment him, Jesus speaks a word of forgiveness. But even more, the offering of his sacrifice is said to be the effective action of God’s forgiveness for the sake of our salvation.

I say effective action because in the understanding of the Bible, forgiveness is what you do to remove the barriers that separate you from another. Forgiveness is the action you take to mend a broken relationship – forgiveness is taking the necessary steps to bring you from estrangement to fellowship, from hatred to love, from hostility to peace. God took those steps in the cross of Christ.

Jesus spoke often of the nature and necessity of forgiveness either directly or indirectly. He ratcheted up the intensity of his teaching on forgiveness in the course of his ministry. From the beginning he says: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Then he ties receiving the forgiveness of God to our own willingness to forgive. He does this in preaching, parables, and most familiar, in prayer: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Finally, right before his crucifixion, he says to the disciples: love one another as I have loved you.

The fact that God finds the mercy, strength, and the courage to forgive should not surprise us, but where do we find that same capacity when we have been wronged, betrayed, violated, or damaged? If you listen to some amazing stories of forgiveness, I think you will find that the full force of forgiveness is often rooted in faith.

Are any of you here familiar with the story of Steven McDonald?

Let me read you a little of his story, as he tells it in an anthology entitled “Why Forgive?” published in 2003:

I am a New York City Police Officer. On July 12, 1986, I was on patrol in Central Park and stopped to question three teenagers. While I was questioning them, the oldest, a fifteen-year-old, took out a gun and shot me in the head and neck.

I was rushed to a hospital. A few days later a surgeon came into my room and told my wife, Patti Ann, and me that I would be paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of my life. I was married just eight months, and my wife was three months pregnant. Patti Ann was crying uncontrollably and I cried too, locked in my body, unable to move or to reach out to her.

Our faith suddenly became very important to us: the Catholic mass, prayers, our need for God. It was God's love that put me back together. And it came from many different corners. Christians of every orientation, Jews, Muslims, and people of no faith at all were rooting for me.

I spent the next eighteen months in the hospital. While I was there my wife gave birth to our son, Connor. At his baptism I told everyone I forgave the young teen who shot me. I wanted to free myself of all the negative, destructive emotions that this act of violence awoke in me-the anger, the bitterness, the hatred. I needed to free myself of those so I could be free to love my wife and our child and those around us.

I often tell people that the only thing worse than a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart. Such an attitude would have extended my tragic injury into my soul, hurting my wife, son, and others even more. It is bad enough that the physical effects are permanent, but at least I can choose to prevent spiritual injury.

Right now the towns around me are filled with families who lost loved ones on September 11. There are broken hearts all over the place. I myself lost many dear friends. They are part of us, but through our pain we feel God reaching out to us. Even in this difficult time - especially in this difficult time - he is offering us the peace of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a topic that people need to hear about today more than ever. As human beings we need forgiveness, whether we are giving it or asking for it. And people make up countries. So that means countries need forgiveness, can offer forgiveness. Forgiveness is really about our own healing. We may experience slight offenses, or they may be profound. But in the end it is our choice, and it is the survival of our own souls that is at stake.

Dr. Christiana Northup has said that holding onto anger and refusing to forgive is like swallowing a poison and waiting for the other person to die. Christ forgave on the cross because his suffering was not tainted by any evil intent. His suffering was for the purpose of forgiveness, for the purpose of taking down the barriers between humanity and God, between people and people, between nation and nation.

Perhaps the most important gift we can unwrap in this celebration of Easter is the hope of forgiveness, for in it we find the hope of peace on earth and eternal life with God in paradise. The Alleluias we sing on Easter Sunday can find room in our hearts only if we have emptied them of anger by praying with Christ on Good Friday those most powerful words: Father, forgive them.

It well may be that our anger will not be removed in the first prayers of forgiveness. At first our words may need to be forced and be expressive more of our faith than of our gut emotional response. But faith can heal and transform, and in the end, as Steven McDonald says, it is the survival of our own souls that is at stake.

In our homes and hearts and prayers then, let us make room not only for a chair of love, not only for a chair of hospitality, but also for a chair of forgiveness, for God has forgiven us, and to receive if fully, we must forgive one another.  Amen.

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