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Reign of Christ Sunday, November 20, 2016 | 4:00 p.m.

Father, Forgive Them?

Nanette Sawyer
Minister for Congregational Life

Psalm 46
Luke 23:33–43


Once every three years the story of the crucifixion comes up in the lectionary on this Sunday—the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the Sunday we call Reign of Christ Sunday or Christ the King Sunday.

On this Sunday we seek to remember who is the ruler of our existence—Christ, the King—and what is the realm in which we live: it is the realm of Christ, under the Reign of Christ. That’s today.

Next Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent, when we begin to call Jesus Emmanuel, a name that means God-with-us.

God came into the world as Jesus Christ, and God is with us still, now and always.

In some ways, it seems odd to focus on the crucifixion of Jesus on the week before we begin to think about the birth of Jesus.

But this is the cycle of life—birth and death—and new life, and this is the cycle of the church year. We remember that Jesus has already saved us; resurrection has already happened. But we are not yet finished with our salvation. Already and not yet: that’s what our spiritual life is like. It’s begun, but it’s not complete. We’re not complete. We have a long way yet to go. So we listen again to the story of the crucifixion.

It is a difficult story to hear. It has evil in it. It has injustice in it. An innocent man is killed.

This story has grief in it. The people who love him watch him die, powerless to stop the soldiers of the empire. They beat their breasts in grief. Earlier in the story, as Jesus was carrying his cross, the women wailed, knowing what was about to happen.

The other time we read this story is on Good Friday, a day that we devote to lamentation. That’s a good day to read this story, because in the face of evil and injustice the mind boggles. It stops. Lament and grief are appropriate.

How do we get beyond sorrow and find the power in this story on this Sunday, Reign of Christ Sunday? Where is the sovereignty of God in this?

The crucifixion threw the disciples into disarray. They huddled together in fear. They fled. They denied they knew Jesus. They locked themselves into an upper room and hid.

This does not seem like God is in charge. It doesn’t seem like God wins. It looks like evil wins. Jesus dies.

Sometimes evil seems to win in our world. But God has a few tricks up God’s sleeve. There’s a little thing called resurrection. And we know that after Friday, Sunday comes.

This is why we rely on God. This is why we say that Christ is king. In the end God wins. Love wins. Life wins.

But we can’t skip Friday. Friday happens. And before we get to Sunday, we still have Saturday, the day that Jesus stayed in his tomb, and God did whatever mysterious work that God did to turn things around.

As Christians, we don’t just mention only once that the crucifixion happened. We remember it every year, and we lament it. We acknowledge the cyclical nature of life and death. We recognize the truth of brokenness. We confess every single week at church; we ask for forgiveness every single week; we proclaim again and again, every single week, that God has the power to forgive and God has the power to turn things around.

So this week, I was planning to preach about forgiveness. I wanted to really dive into this radical thing that Jesus says: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

I wanted to remind us that to forgive someone is not to say that what they did is not wrong. To forgive is not to say what you did is OK, that it’s all right. No. It’s not that. People need to be forgiven because what they did is wrong. But forgiveness begins to heal a broken place.

That’s what we want to be about, right? Healing what is broken. Mending. Transforming. Making things right.

But then I started reading in the newspaper about things that I could not forgive this week. I’m not even going to name the things, because maybe for you it’s the same things or maybe for you it’s different things.

But we find these things and say, “I can’t forgive that!” I know I’m not the only one who has this experience. It’s those things that make me say, “That’s so wrong. That’s not just wrong, that’s so wrong.”

Forgiving people because “they know not what they do” felt like giving permission to them to carry on with doing it. I really struggled this week.

I saw that I didn’t believe in my heart what I wanted to believe with my mind and what I thought I would come here to talk to you about. I didn’t believe that forgiveness heals. I was thinking that forgiveness allows.

And I don’t want to allow. I want to resist the things that seem wrong. That is what Jesus did too. He resisted the wrongs. He defended the poor and the marginal. He protected widows and outcasts.

I realized that I still thought about forgiveness as a kind of “making nice,” saying everything is OK and let’s just move on.

But I really don’t think that Jesus was making nice from the cross, and that meant that I had missed something. I’d missed the point. There is a teaching here that I didn’t yet get, and I didn’t know if I’d be able to get it today. I still don’t know that I have it today, but I was looking for that teaching.

If forgiveness heals, if forgiveness really transforms anything about a gruesome, torturous death, a crucifixion, then forgiveness has to be a force that reaches deep into ugliness and grabs something there and pulls it out and shakes it and changes it.

If forgiveness is only on the surface, then it only covers up. But God’s forgiveness can’t be this. God’s forgiveness is not a superficial forgiveness. I think what scripture teaches and what Jesus is saying is that God’s forgiveness changes something deep inside.

One image I have for this comes from the imaginative and metaphorical Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Some of you might have read these children’s books, filled with images and metaphors for Christ and salvation.

In one of the books, there’s a boy Eustace, who betrays his cousins and steals from a dragon. Somehow in the process he becomes a dragon.

He wakes up in a dragon’s body, shocked. Shocked that his arm is now a dragon’s arm with a claw and gold bracelet cutting into his skin. Shocked that he can’t be a boy and act like a dragon. Acting like a dragon, he finds out, turns him into one. And that’s a great metaphor for our life, too: how we can become something we never meant to be. Suddenly we wake up and we see ourselves and realize we’ve been acting like a dragon in our life.

In the book, there comes a point when Eustace wants to be a boy again. Acting like a dragon, becoming a dragon, meant separating himself from all he loved and all the people who loved him. He wants to go back to the family he had before.

He wants to take off the dragon skin, but he can’t get it off by himself. He tries to scratch off his own dragon skin so he can become a human again. He scratches and pulls and scratches, but nothing he does can save himself.

And then the Christ figure intervenes: Aslan, the lion who loves and is lovable but who is fierce and strong and wise. Aslan sees the dragon, but he also sees Eustace, who is inside the dragon skin. Aslan knows the pain and suffering that Eustace is going through—the shame, the isolation, the guilt, the terrible loneliness.

And seeing that Eustace is trying to change, Aslan intercedes and helps. With his claws he cuts through the dragon skin and pulls it off the boy and puts him in a bath, a pool of water. It hurt more than anything Eustace could imagine. But when it was over, he was changed. He was not a dragon anymore. The boy inside came out. And he was whole. He was healed.

Aslan could do that because Aslan knew that there was a boy under that dragon skin. Aslan called out that inner truth and let the dragon skin fall away. That’s what God’s forgiveness can do.

Forgiveness redeems. It’s not superficial. It sees ugliness and reaches into and through it to pull out something beautiful.

When Jesus cries out, “Father, forgive them,” I think he’s saying “God, save them too; rescue them from themselves. Change them.”

Jesus is not saying, “Hey, it’s OK to do bad stuff.” He’s not allowing the evil to go on. He’s asking for a holy healing. He’s saying, “Even you, even you can be transformed. Even you can be saved.”

It hurts like crazy to be forgiven, because to be really forgiven we have to realize what we have done. We have to be willing to let go of our idea that we are already perfect, that we already know the answers, that we’re right and we’re righteous. We have to let go of that sense of righteousness and realize that we need help. We have to let our dragon skin be taken off, and we have to be exposed in all our vulnerability.

It feels weak. But it takes so much strength to enter that space of vulnerability where everything can be changed, everything can be cleaned, everything can be healed.

When the persons who killed Jesus did that, when they mocked him and cast lots for his clothing, in a way they separated themselves from him. In a very radical way they separated themselves from him.

He was that, there. And they were this, here. He was to be despised; they were to dominate. He was vulnerable; they were invulnerable. They thought.

But Jesus saw another reality. Jesus saw the boy inside the dragon skin. In a way, maybe he was saying I am incomplete without you; if I am separate from you, I am incomplete.

In Colossians it says that in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself. The whole world. That’s a complete healing. That’s what Jesus stands for and what Jesus is working for. And that’s power. That’s ruling with justice and mercy. Not to rule by domination and control, not to rule by impermeable invulnerability, no. But to rule by calling out the best in each of us. To rule, to save, to heal, by pulling off the dragon skin that we each put on like winter coats as we try to protect ourselves with hard skins and strong judgments.

Forgiveness that is deep and not superficial—that kind of forgiveness redeems. I’m not saying that I can do it. But I want to try. I want to reach out to the good in people and say, “Hey, I see this good quality in you. I hear this good idea you have. I admire that.” And after we have tea or a kind conversation or a shared meal, then maybe I can say, “Now about this dragon skin you’re wearing—tell me about that. Is that itchy?”

I don’t have to change people, and I don’t have to save them, because God can do that. I thank God that God can redeem. God saves souls, not me. I’m just a preacher. I’m just a follower, bumbling along behind Jesus like all the other ones. Just like Peter saying, “Lord, don’t wash me!” Just like James and John saying, “Can we sit at the head of the table? Can we drink from the cup you drink from?”

I don’t have to be God, but I want to try to follow God in the way of Jesus. And I want God in Christ to forgive me for all the bumbling I do. And I want God in Christ to forgive others. And I want God in Christ to help me forgive others. Not to let dragons steal and kill, but so that the image of God that’s in each of us can be found and set free from the dragons that we’re all in danger of becoming.

Our opening scripture came from the end of the Gospel of Luke. But it might be helpful to remember the beginning of Luke also, in which we just begin to hear of this Christ figure about to be born:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
    for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
     in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of
          all who hate us.
Thus [God] has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
     and has remembered [God’s] holy covenant,
the oath that [God] swore to our ancestor Abraham,
    to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve [God] without fear, in holiness and righteousness
    before [God] all our days.” (Luke 1:68–75)

That’s a blessing to remember. That’s something to reach for, to strive for.

God has already redeemed us and is redeeming us still. Already and not yet.

Can we call upon God to forgive when we can’t forgive? Can we believe in a deep forgiveness that transforms and heals?

In some moments I can; in other moments I flounder. Some moments I think I might be lost inside a dragon skin myself, wondering how that happened, and I need God to dig me out and help me to trust that Christ is the King of all kings and God’s power to redeem is very, very great.

For that power of healing and redemption I will certainly be giving thanks this Thanksgiving. May we all remember to thank God for that. Amen.