Pentecost 10, Year C
Readings: Hosea 1:2–10; Psalm 85; (Colossians 2:6–19); Luke 11:1–13
“Leave me in peace,” shouts the old man in an empty church. He’s upset at an old woman who has followed him in. Reg has been living in a retirement home for musicians. Now the only woman he ever loved has turned up to live there, too, as if to torment him. Jean is aware she hurt him all those years ago, but she wants to at least be on speaking terms. “Leave me in peace!,” he bellows again. But, of course, even if she walks out, even if they can somehow co-exist at Beecham House, he won’t have peace. She has tried to apologize, but she has misjudged the depth of his heartache, and how long he has kept it going. Her effort comes off as too little, too late, especially when she repeats it, and admits she has practiced what to say. He’s holding on to his hurt, letting it shape his life. He’s turned down singing jobs, for instance, where he would have to appear with her. He has never remarried, all these years. A scene in the movie, Quartet.
Forgiveness. The heart of the famous prayer: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Really? That’s a pretty low bar. Forgive us our sins as we would like to be forgiven, as we imagine we might forgive others when we are taking a rosy view of ourselves. Why forgive? Why seek forgiveness? Shame and guilt won’t let us be in peace. If we have a conscience. If we are capable of imaging the effect we have on others. Holding a grudge is just the same—disruptive of inner peace.
The crowd who went to see Quartet discussed forgiveness. There are some things that are unforgivable, we agreed. And you can probably think of some of the same examples. Horrendous crimes against humanity that are so evil they hurt just to think about. Shy of those, however, where is the line, we wondered. How to know what’s forgivable? What’s the right timing?
Forgiveness is supposed to go along with a change of heart. A person isn’t supposed to be forgiven then go right back to their same old tricks. It’s an issue for everyone. We all sin, and we’re all sinned against. We want to be forgiven our sins. We want to have some kind of spiritual peace. But do we seek to change our ways, do differently?
Hosea the prophet is hunting bigger game. He wants a whole nation to repent. The discussion group struggled with this passage. They didn’t like it. Like Amos, like the other prophets, Hosea measures Israel against a high bar. You were meant for better than this. You were plucked out of Egypt and given a chance here to live differently than the others. Now look at you: sending your oil, your wool, your figs and dates off to your lovers, Assyria, and, of all places, Egypt. Trying to make nice with the big boys, the bullies, in the hopes that they might smile on you, be your sugar daddy. And selling out your soul along the way.
So Hosea does a kind of performance art thing with his life. I will marry a prostitute. Get it, Israel. I am like God and you are the prostitute. You have forgotten about faithfulness. Along comes a child, a boy. Who’s the daddy? I have not. Then a girl, then another girl, more evidence of unfaithfulness. I could be furious. I am furious. I could strike you in my fury, do you serious harm. But I won’t. I want you to change your ways. Take the offer of forgiveness, and come back to me, to God.
Did it work? Apparently not. What’s so bad about having rich, powerful friends? Or trying to have them? It seems as if the effort to curry favour with nearby empires means that values at home have to be ditched. In the winter, Evans Rubara came to speak to us about Tanzania and gold and values. Evans and people like him are modern day Hoseas. They say to their country, Pandering to the multi-nationals who want your gold is a lose-lose proposition. You will lose the gold, for almost no return, and you will lose your soul, your values, your environment along the way. Then when the gold is all gone, you will have nothing. Less than nothing: no gold, environmental ruin left behind, corruption in government, rural communities scattered, decent society savaged. All very predictable. But we don’t have to look as far as Africa to find evidence of what happens when we sneak out on ethical behavior when we think no one’s looking, and go for a little fling with some other partner—big oil, big returns, big name for ourselves.
In Israel’s case, those friends it was trying to curry came and took over anyway, and not nicely. So much for trying to make nice. But the book of Hosea remains, and this sense that God is eager to forgive, longing to redeem. Long after those predator societies became dust this image of God persists. God the patient lover. God who is jealous, but not vengeful. God who waits for us, for humankind to wake up to the error of its ways, and come back, and change our ways.
How important is it to have forgiveness offered from some external source, some God? What are shame and guilt, really? What do we do with them, and how to we work through them, or get over them? Where do acceptance, forgiveness, redemption come from?
If a nation apologizes after the fact for the way it has treated some person or group, how does that help? What changes? Canada has apologized to First Nations, Ukrainians, Japanese, Maher Arar and others. The United Church of Canada has apologized to First Nations and to the family of Jim Endicott for de-frocking him in the fifties when he spoke up for the Chinese revolution. Mediators often work with offenders these days in our justice system to have them meet with their victims if the victims are willing, so that reconciliation can take place. It matters to us that the person (or government) who did us harm now feels sorry about it. That does something for our souls.
Even better if the offender really does see the error of their ways and pledge to behave better. When the church apologized to the survivors of Residential Schools, I was there, at General Council in Sudbury. It was a deeply moving experience to gather in the dusk around a big fire, dance in a slow circle, hear the Moderator utter the heartfelt apology and see him go into a big teepee with the elders to present it to them in person. Then a spokesperson emerged from the tent. Alberta Billy, I think it was. The woman who had spontaneously asked for the apology in the first place, when she was sitting at the General Council Executive.
We don’t really do forgiveness, she said. We can’t tell you it’s all better now. We’ll get back to you at the next Council with our response. Two years later in Victoria the elders said, it still hurts. What we want from you is change. Show us you mean it. Words are not enough. You may remember the bitter, racist letters to the editor of The Observer around the time of the apology. Clearly we weren’t all on side in 1986. Are we now? Have dominant culture members of the church gotten over our cultural superiority, grown into solidarity with the people we marginalized and tried to eradicate? Will we ever?
Forgiveness. Such a big topic. Listen to the psalm for a bit:
You forgave the people back in the day, there, God. How about now? Are you gonna stay mad, or maybe give us a break now? And then the answer.
Let me hear what you will say, O God,
for you will speak peace to your people,
to the faithful who turn their hearts to you.
Surely salvation is near those who fear you,
and your glory will dwell in our land.
Mercy and faithfulness will meet,
justice and peace will embrace.
Faithfulness will spring up from the earth,
and righteousness look down from heaven.
You, O God, will give what is good,
and our land will yield its harvest.
Righteousness will go before you,
and the paths of your feet will be peace.
Peace is all tied up with salvation, and salvation is all tied up with mercy, faithfulness and justice. Mercy and faithfulness will meet. Nice image. Justice and peace will embrace. Or kiss, actually, in the Hebrew text. Very intimate.
But the implication is clear: no justice, no peace, as the demonstration chant goes. They go together. Peace isn’t just a big lovey bandage stuck on a grievance. When justice shows up at the site of the offence, then peace is possible. And then comes healing for the crops, too, all earth.
You don’t need a preacher to tell you about the insults we have been giving the earth recently. It doesn’t take deep insight or special knowledge to be aware of the way people treat each other, individually and collectively. But we’re in the love and forgiveness biz. We’re the people who think hard about this kind of stuff. We have faith that insults and hurt are not the end of the story.
The call today is to pray and reflect individually and collectively. Every week we say a prayer of confession. The challenge is to truly enter into confession, to make it a time for soul searching. Then to truly hear the words of assurance. To feel assurance that you are forgivable, that you are forgiven, that you can forgive.
François de la Rochefoucauld, French writer, three hundred and fifty years ago: “Almost all of our faults are more pardonable than the methods we resort to to hide them.” Thomas Carlyle, Scottish writer and historian, one hundred and fifty years ago: “The greatest of faults, I should say, is to be conscious of none.”
Can I tell you how the movie ends? I don’t want to wreck it for you if you haven’t seen it, so start humming for a few moments. Reg is softens toward Jean. He and the others persuade her to star in the fund raising gala, to do a reprise with them of the famous quartet from Rigoletto, Verdi’s opera all about seduction, betrayal and revenge. Then backstage, he overhears Jean telling a mutual friend that she felt she had to be honest with her brand new husband about her slip, her affair just before their wedding, that she had always loved him, that she felt terrible about it. Just as they are about to go onstage to sing, he proposes again. When they get onstage, and just before they start to sing, she accepts. Final shot, not a kiss: their two hands touching, then fingers interlocking. Cue the gorgeous music.