Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Breath of Forgiveness

This sermon was given by Laura Shatzer on Sunday, April 6 at Church of the Covenant in Boston. Laura is a Life Together fellow living in our shared space at 2 Garden Street and working with Massachusetts Council of Churches.

By the end of July 1994, the country of Rwanda was a valley of dry bones. Driven by government propaganda, many Hutus slaughtered their neighbors, the Tutsis.

More than 1 million people lost their lives, and millions more lost their loved ones and homes.

Limbs were brutally severed and other people were buried alive. Their bodies were not discovered for months, and what remained were bones.

This April marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide. The official commemoration in Rwanda begins tomorrow.

In some ways, Rwanda today is prospering, at least according to government officials. There are more than four million Rwandans today that weren’t alive during the genocide, there is a growing business sector in the country, and healthcare is improving, especially with aid from organizations like the Boston-based Partners in Health.

However, there are still dry valleys: deserts of poverty, unemployment, poor education, and lack of land. And the bones remain.

One image from the Internet struck me in particular: a genocide survivor stands in a church next to rows and rows of skulls and femurs, praying.

At genocide memorials around the country, coffins and display cases are filled with bones. They are open graves, and they speak for themselves.

In Ezekiel’s prophecy, the people of Israel lament: our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely. And the Lord God tells Ezekiel to prophecy: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from them. I am going to give you new life, new spirit, and new breath.

Ezekiel writes from exile in Babylon, imagining secondhand the destruction of Jerusalem. Dry bones name the desolation he and his people are feeling. Ezekiel, a priest, understands this temporary desolation as punishment for the Israelites’ idolatry and ritual impurity.

In this prophecy, however, the bones are re-membered. The people of Israel are put back together.

God forgives them.

They will always carry the memory of displacement and destruction with them, but they will also carry the reminder of God’s restoration and healing in their very breath.

Ezekiel’s dry bones prophecy is a story of forgiveness, and of resurrection. As you know, Easter is not here yet.

And yet, what I love about this passage, and what makes it fitting for this last leg of our Lenten journey, is that the resurrection of the body of Israel is not immediate. It is gradual, a process.

First, the bones come together, forming a skeleton of rebirth. Then, Ezekiel observes, there were muscles, and then flesh, and then skin. But still: no breath.

Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they MAY LIVE.

It is only after this second prophesy that breath reanimates the dry bones. And it’s only after they’ve received this gift of breath that these bones are able to stand, ready to live again. 

The dry bones have heard the word of the Lord, and now they can speak for themselves. They are ready to tell the story of a forgiven people, a people who have been given new life.

Forgiveness is a process. The process of forgiveness is about re-membering, in both senses of the word.

It requires recalling past pain and grievances in order to let go of them. And it requires the coming together of individuals and groups to hear one another.

One of the most amazing things that has happened in Rwanda is that perpetrators and survivors are now, years later, coming together to seek forgiveness and to forgive. Genocide itself is unforgiveable. And yet, some Rwandans have been able to individually forgive perpetrators.

In today’s New York Times magazine, the feature is titled “Portraits of Reconciliation.”[1] Genocide survivors and perpetrators stand or sit side by side in each photograph.

I wish I could show you these photos now, and I implore you to look them up. They are incredible…haunting…hopeful.

In one photo, a woman rests her hand on the shoulder of the man who killed her father and her brothers. In another, a perpetrator and survivor stand side by side with arms folded across their chests. Their faces are worn by struggle, and yet there they are, together.

In a third photo, Dominique Ndahimana and Cansilde Munganyinka, stand up straight and clasp hands, as if they are walking into the future together. 

With each photo, the Rwandans tell their story of forgiveness.

Dominique, who looted Cansilde’s village, said: “The day I thought of asking pardon, I felt unburdened and relieved. I had lost my humanity because of the crime I committed, but now I am like any human being.”

Cansilde shared this: “After I was chased from my village and Dominique and others looted it, I became homeless and insane. Later, when he asked my pardon, I said: ‘I have nothing to feed my children. Are you going to help raise my children? Are you going to build a house for them?’

The next week, Dominique came with some survivors and former prisoners who perpetrated genocide. There were more than 50 of them, and they built my family a house. Ever since then, I have started to feel better. I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbors.”

Forgiveness is not the same as excusing or rationalizing behavior. It does not mean ignoring or denying real pain and harm.

Forgiveness is possible only when are able to see ourselves reflected in another human being, each bearing the image of God. Forgiveness is possible only when we see our own capacity to do what we cannot imagine ourselves doing. Forgiveness is possible only when we remember that we all fall short of the fullness of life that God intends for us.

This is the message of the Gospel we heard this morning: we are all sinners, and we are all forgiven. Jesus proclaims to the crowd who accuses a woman of adultery: Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.

And no stones are thrown.  

We are given only the bare bones of this nameless accused woman’s story. We don’t hear from her; she never shares her perspective or confesses her guilt or innocence. We can only imagine what Jesus might have written in the dust with his finger while the Pharisees and scribes tested his legal knowledge. 

But perhaps all of this is not important. Perhaps the story does not need to be fleshed out. What is important is that Jesus forgives the woman.

In the midst of a crowd of dry bones and stony hearts, Jesus breathes forgiveness and gives the woman a chance to start anew. He does not accuse or condemn the woman. He simply tells her not to sin again, from that point forward.

Flesh is often used as a symbol of human weakness. It is a catch-all metaphor used to describe human sins –as in sins of the flesh. And yet, I think that it’s our very vulnerability – the warmth and softness our flesh represents – that catalyzes forgiveness. God replaces of hearts of stone with hearts of flesh.

Forgiveness asks us to become vulnerable. It asks us to get in touch with the skeletons deep in the closets of our souls: Those things we have never forgiven ourselves for from the past, those people whom we have not forgiven, and those parts of ourselves we would rather forget.

First we have to greet those skeletons, and then we have to be willing to expose them for what they are: dry bones.

In this moment on our Lenten journey, what are the skeletons in the valleys of your soul?

Where are the dry bones in your life and in your relationships?

Have you fallen into the pattern of casting stones, either in your mind or through your actions?

Who do you need to forgive? 

Whom do you need to ask for forgiveness?

Sometimes, it is harder to forgive those closest to us than strangers. We can shrug off the driver who merged right in front of us or tail-gated us too closely, maybe after uttering a few choice words, but we might carry a grudge against an old friend for years.

It might take a few minutes for us to forgive the barista for making us the wrong beverage, but it takes a lifetime to come to terms with the baggage our parents passed on to their children.

For me personally, the most challenging thing of all is to forgive myself.

In this season of Lent, it is all too easy for Christians to become less forgiving of self. If you’ve taken on a practice of self-discipline this Lent, and, like me, you’ve struggling to keep it up or have decidedly failed – you might be feeling guilty or frustrated with yourself. You might even devise a new practice to punish yourself, or compensate for messing up the first one.

Take it from me: this doesn’t really work. And this striving mentality is so far from the point of Lent. It is so far from the breath of forgiveness that the Holy Spirit is constantly moving through us.

The next time you find yourself self-blaming and shaming, try this: take a deep breath. And know that breath is a gift from God. That in that breath, God gives you a new heart, and a new spirit, and a chance to begin again.

This is how it is, when dry bones are restored to new life.

Tomorrow, Rwanda will begin commemorating 20 years of healing. Next week, during Holy Week, the city of Boston will commemorate the one-year anniversary of the marathon bombings.

Since then, new runners have been born, inspired by the courage of first-responders and law-enforcement. Survivors who lost legs have learned to stand again on prosthetic limbs. Runners are preparing to race again.

For some, it is still too soon and too difficult to forgive the Tsarnaev brothers.

And yet, we have good news: that God’s mercy is wide enough, and deep enough and vast enough fill up all of the times we struggle to forgive others, or ourselves.

Thanks be to God for the gentle breath that enters us and reminds us again and again, you shall live.  Amen.


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