Seventh Sunday after Epiphany 20 February 2011
(Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 Psalm 119:33-40 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 Matthew 5:38-48)
Growing up in Lebanon County, it was very natural to see Amish riding in their horse-drawn buggies, sometimes one or two, sometimes a long line. I never really knew any of them, but I’d love it when my Dad would get close enough for me to get a good look at the horses. The Amish people were all around me, but in reality, they existed largely in my imagination. I never saw much of them whenever we passed by their buggies. The men were always bearded, wore hats, and the women were covered from head to toe.
Many years later, when I lived in Lancaster County—“Amish country,” as it is known—nothing much had modified my imagination from my younger years. I still saw lots of Amish, often bought hex signs to give to friends, but still they were little more than anomalies.
All this changed for me 10 years ago when, one evening, as I was serving as the “chaplain on call” at Chambersburg Hospital and received a call that a young child had been struck by a car and killed. When I arrived at the Emergency Room, and saw a group of people gathered around a bed, I realize immediately the young girl who had been struck was Amish.
At that moment, the way Amish are treated as curiosities came home to me like a fist in the gut. Instantly, they became real. Immediately, these people had faces and voices and emotions.
That fateful evening has been re-lived in my mind time and time again, but in no more a vivid way that when less than five years ago ten Amish girls were shot in a one-room schoolhouse, in Lancaster County.
What was reported in newspapers throughout the country in the days immediately following those shootings, spoke of the force of the lives of the Amish families in that community of Nickel Mines. We were told that one Amish neighbor went within hours to comfort the family of the shooter. And their words, both individually and collectively, speak most profoundly to each of us, when they said: “We forgive.”
Those were exactly the words I heard that evening in the ER, as I stood around a bed with the parents and family of a seven-year-old girl. “We forgive the driver of the car.”
In both of these instances, from texts such as we heard this morning from Matthew’s gospel, the Christian Community is put on notice that the proof of what we believe is in the living of what we profess. Forgiveness may be the most difficult!
Two-thirds of Jesus’ teachings are about forgiveness. A good third of Jesus’ parables are about forgiveness, directly or indirectly. Forgiveness has nothing to do with logic, which is why it may be so difficult for us. Our need for forgiveness may be the single most important proof that we are all trapped by, suffering from and participating in sinfulness. Forgiveness is God’s entry into powerlessness and vulnerability, as we see on the cross.
One final note on the Nickel Mines story that I think was missed by the media. You may remember that following the shooting, the Amish took down the schoolhouse where the shooting took place and they built a new one. You may remember that the family of the shooter thanked the Amish people time and time again because of the love and forgiveness they had extended to their entire family.
Six month later the Amish children were once again walking down a path carrying lunchboxes, but they were going to a newly-constructed one-room schoolhouse. Two things stand out for me. They called the new school house, “New Hope; “ and this schoolhouse opened on Monday of Holy Week four years ago. I don’t know if there was any intention for it to happen that way, but as Christians we live out of the belief that we have been forgiven by the God who continues to love us. This belief is what gives us new hope every day. The events we remember during Holy Week each year serve to remind us and encourage us and ignite us into more loving relationship with each other because of the God who first loved and has forgiven us.
This is but one of many, many stories of forgiveness, non-retaliation, non-violent response, one that happened close to home. It speaks volumes of hope. The reason for hope is that our faith is ultimately a faith that does forgiveness, a faith that reconciles, even and perhaps especially in the face of injustice. Not every act of justice is an act of forgiveness; but be assured, every act of forgiveness is an act of justice.
In this Sermon on the Mount, which began with the Beatitudes, we hear the definition of those whose lives are blessed, godly, happy, and Jesus calls each and all of us to be a blessing to the world. Jesus brings us beyond and above the motives that drive a world bent on power and greed, on profit and control. Instead, Jesus draws for us a template of godly happiness that is based on humility, compassion, justice, mercy, singleness of heart, peacemaking, and the willingness to pour ourselves out, to spend ourselves to make it all happen. Forgiving love stands at the center of such a call.
I remember back to that evening, leaving the hospital several hours after I arrived, and I remember thinking that in my sorrow of that evening, I had come to know a little more deeply that forgiveness really is the final measure of our love for one another. And though it is sometimes said that the forgiveness asked of us is beyond the human, I think the opposite is really true: forgiveness is the most human act we can perform, for it springs from the truth of who we truly are: children created in the image of an all loving and forgiving God. Amen.