Honoring the Nestorian Christians

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


(Sermon by Rev. Dr. Fred Vergara at St. James Episcopal Church, Elmhurst, New York last Sunday, September 14, 2014)

 “To err is human; to forgive, divine” (Alexander Pope). Peter asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive my brother, seven times?” Jesus answered, “Not seven times but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21-22)

Forgiveness is one of the Christian values that is often easier said than done. Sunday after Sunday, during the mass, when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we include these words: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

We seek God’s forgiveness of our sins from the basis that we also forgive those who sinned against us. But we know in our hearts that there are some people in our lives whom we found hard to forgive.

When you factor in reconcilion into forgiveness, it would be even difficult. Jesus says in Matthew 5:23-24 :”If you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother (or sister) has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother (or sister), and then come and present your offering.” If we take this injunction very seriously, I wonder if there be enough people left in this congregation.

Forgiveness is not easy; in fact, it is difficult from a human point of view. For how can you forgive someone who hurt you, abused you, betrayed you, lied to you, utter all kinds of gossip about you, caused you all kinds of pain and suffering?.

A story tells about a man who went around the village slandering the wise man. One day he went to the wise man’s home and asked for forgiveness. The wise man, realizing that this man had not internalized the gravity of his transgressions, told him that he could forgive him on one condition: that he go home, take a feather pillow from his house, cut it up, and scatter the feathers to the wind. After he had done so, he should return to the wise man’s house.

Though puzzled by this strange request, the man was happy to be left off with so easy a penance. He quickly cut up the pillow, scattered the feathers and return to the house of the wise man.

“Am I now forgiven?” he asked. “Just one more thing,” the wise man said, ”Go now and gather up all the feathers.”

“But that’s impossible,”  the man protested, “the wind has already scattered them!”

“Precisely,” the wise man replied, “though you may truly wish to correct the evil you did,  it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it is to recover the feathers. Your words are out there in the marketplace, spreading hate, even as we speak.”

What makes forgiveness difficult is the damage that sin has done. Often, the degree of  difficulty depends on the gravity of the offense; the greater the sin, the more difficult it is for forgive.  It also assumes that the person who sinned, has repented and is seeking forgiveness and reconciliation.

The gospel this morning (Matthew 21:18-35), however, offers a different perspective. In the context of a community, the apostle Peter came to Jesus and asked, “how often should I forgive my brother? As many as seven times?”

In the Hebrew numerology, the number 7 is the number of completeness. God created the world and everything in it, including the human beings, in six days---and on the 7th day having completed everything---God  took a Sabbath rest.

So when Jesus answered, “Not seven times but seventy times seven,” he was talking over and beyond the final number. He was talking “infinitesimal.” The number of times one must forgive is beyond completeness. It defies numbers because it is limitless.

As there is no limit to how God has forgiven us, and so there is also no limit to how often should we also forgive others in our hearts. Just as we are to love God with all our hearts, our souls and our minds, so we also must love others as ourselves.

Even Christians of many shades and colors would find this “infinitesimal forgiveness” hard to understand, let alone to practice,  and so it is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can approximate this Christian value.  And there were some who did it!

This is one story in distant history (1915): During one of the persecutions of the Armenians by the Turks, an American girl and her brother were pursued by a blood-thirsty Turkish soldier. He finally trapped them at the end of a lane and killed the brother before the sister's eyes. The sister managed to escape by leaping over the wall and fleeing into the woods. Later she became a nurse.

One day a wounded soldier was brought into her hospital. She recognized him at once as the soldier who had killed her brother and had tried to kill her. His condition was such that the least neglect or carelessness on the part of the nurse would have cost him his life. But she gave him the most painstaking and constant care. When the soldier finally recovered, he recognized the nurse as the girl whose brother he had slain. He said to her, "Why have you done this for me who killed your brother?" She answered, "Because my religion teaches me to love and forgive my enemies."

This is another story in recent history (2006): Last October 2, 2006, a gunman entered an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. In front of horrified pupils, a crazed man, Charles Roberts ordered the boys and the teacher to leave while keeping ten other girls hostage. Roberts prepared to shoot the girls with an automatic rifle and four hundred rounds of ammunition that he brought for the task. The oldest hostage, a thirteen-year-old, begged Roberts to "shoot me first and let the little ones go." Refusing her offer, he opened fire on all of them, killing five and leaving the others critically wounded. He then shot himself as police stormed the building.  

The story captured the attention of broadcast and print media in the United States and around the world. By Tuesday morning some fifty television crews had clogged the small village of Nickel Mines, staying for five days until the killer and the killed were buried. The blood was barely dry on the schoolhouse floor when Amish parents brought words of forgiveness to the family of Charles Roberts, the man who had slain their children. 

The outside world was incredulous that such forgiveness could be offered so quickly for such a heinous crime. Of the hundreds of media queries that the authors received about the shooting, questions about forgiveness rose to the top. Forgiveness, in fact, eclipsed the tragic story, trumping the violence and arresting the world's attention. Instead of glorifying the violence, the media, on that instance, emphasized the power of forgiveness.
St. Paul said about his own conversion, “It’s no longer I that lives but Christ that lives in me.” This transformation was clearly evident in the nurse who cared for the enemy and the Amish community who forgave their children’s murderer.

Today, in light of terroristic acts that we see and learn around the world, particularly the savage killings and beheadings of some Christians and minorities by extreme elements of Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, it is a big question on how forgiveness can take place, without repentance. I could not presume how the families of the victims and the rest of the world can ever forgive such acts. And I could not discount the need to put an end to such evil.

But in the context of community, forgiveness has beneficial effects not only on the ones being forgiven but also to those who actually forgave. Medical studies have proven that there is a correlation between healing and forgiveness. According to a study done in Stanford University Hospital (Google Wikipedia),  the following wellness has been associated with forgiveness:
1. Lower heart rate and blood pressure
2. Greater relief from stress
3. Decrease in medication use
4. Improved sleep quality and decrease in fatigue
5. Decreased physical complaints such as aches and pains
6. Reduction in depressive symptoms
7. Strengthened spirituality
8. Better conflict management
9. Improved relationships (not just with the offending party but in other relationships as well)
10. Increase in purposeful, altruistic behaviors

In other words while anger, worry, resentment and desire for revenge, cause diseases, forgiveness offers a cure. When you are “punishing” someone by choosing not to forgive, it is in fact you, who will suffer in the end. So the logical thing to do is to let God be the avenger, let go of the bitterness and receive health and wellness but choosing to forgive. Incidentally, the Amish are some of the people who have better health and longer life span.

Forgiveness is a hard decision to make but it wins in the end. It may take a lot of prayers, efforts and letting-go, but it is well worth in the long run for the person who forgives---spiritually, psychologically and physically.  The message of this gospel is therefore: “Forgive and live.” Amen.

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