Following is the manuscript Rev. KJ Norris wrote for preaching. It is not an exact transcription of the audio file, but the intent and preacher are the same.
Are some of you familiar with Nik Wallenda? Anyone know that name? He is a part of 7 generations of tightrope walkers. The family is known for breaking world records and preforming amazing stunts. A couple years ago he walked on a tight rope which had a width no bigger than a penny. He did this in Chicago, the windy city, from one sky scraper to another. And not only that, he hung the tight rope in such a way that he had to walk up hill from one building to the next.
Every time I watch Willenda step onto that tightrope my palms grow sweaty and my heart races. I feel that familiar sense of adrenaline wash over my body. Fears takes hold of me as I think of him walking 600 feet in the air or, sadly, of his grandfather falling to his death preforming the same kind of stunts.
I think it is a good thing that fear takes a hold of me when I think about this. I should not be on a tightrope above Chicago. Fear can be a gift from God. It reminds us to WATCH OUT! To notice our surroundings. It keeps us from making mistakes which could prove deadly.
And there are times when the Bible even speaks of fear as a kind of awe. That feeling of adrenaline washing over us is said to be the same feeling many people experienced when they heard a voice from the Lord or encountered an angel. When Mary, the mother of Jesus, is first visited by an angel his words of greeting are, “Do not be afraid.” Something deep within Mary recognized at first sight that she was in the presence of a spiritual being. Fear as awe is a good emotion which allows us to recognize God, the one who is all Holy and all powerful.
Fear can be a gift from God.
But I think that for many of us, fear can become a controlling factor in our lives. Fear can indeed block our concentration. It can keep us from fully living.
For some a fear of tight spaces may keep them from traveling in elevators or being able to experience the inside of a submarine with their family at the Carnegie Science Center. For others a fear of snakes might prevent them from gardening or hiking. There are specific fears that people have.
But I think that the kind of fear the disciples in our Scripture today were facing may have come from a different source. It seems that they are not only afraid of what is outside, but what is inside of themselves.
Did you notice that Jesus says some odd things when he appears among them. First, Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” Now that one is not actually strange at all. “Peace” or “Shalom” was a common greeting in Jesus’ day.
But what is odd is that Jesus repeats it later. “Peace be with you.” Jesus says after they have had time to see his scars and know that this really is Jesus. The one who died truly has been risen from the grave. “Peace be with you.” Jesus says it not just as a common greeting, but with the full weight of the word “Shalom.”
We don’t have a word in English that quite has the same sense. It means more than just wishing one an absence of violence as our peace usually indicates. Instead it is a weighty word which is a blessing to ones family and community and world. A blessing even to one’s own heart where there would be calm and rest. Where love and justice would reign. Shalom is pictured in the Bible as a place where the lion and the lamb lay down together. Where children play freely in the streets. Where there is no division between people.
And then after emphasizing this blessing of peace, Jesus says something even more odd, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Sin? What does any of this have to do with sin, you might have asked yourself. Maybe Jesus, who reaches deep into our hearts could see something lurking beneath the surface.
Maybe the disciples didn’t have fear only of the external world. Maybe it was something internal. Maybe fear was taking over their lives because of unforgiveness.
The disciples are hiding behind a door closed tightly to keep out the fears of the world and Jesus knows that their hearts are also locked tightly, keeping out less tangible fears. We may have fears about snakes or heights or public speaking, but some our greatest fears are less easily named. Some fears have to do with the greatest struggles we have ever faced.
The disciples had many things that they did not want to forgive. They didn’t want to forgive the crowds that had turned on Jesus shouting, “Crucify him!” they didn’t want to forgive the Roman soldiers who had hung Jesus on a tree. And perhaps hardest of all, they didn’t want to forgive themselves who had abandoned Jesus in his time of great need.
They hadn’t even been able to stay awake and pray with Jesus when his heart was broken in the garden of Gethsemane.
If we have spent any years on this planet, we have doors to our hearts that have been closed tightly. Things that we have done, things that we have failed to do have altered how we see ourselves. We don’t want the world to see that ugliness we hold inside of us so we lock it up tight.
Or things that others have done to us. Times when they have hurt us. Words that cut deeply. Physical wounds placed on our bodies from someone who should have loved us but hurt us instead. Systems and structures of our world that are so broken we cannot get through life unscared.
There is much to forgive. Much to choose not to forgive.
Rev. Desmond Tutu lived in South Africa during the time of Apartheid. In South Africa, the state had declared that some people are less than others because of the color of their skin. Though different than our nation under the policies of separate but equal, Apartheid had much in common with our nation during that time.
People of color had their humanity stripped of them. They were forced to do menial work, with no hope of being able to be elected into positions of governance. They were kept from excellence in education. They were forced into lessor areas where the roads and utilities and housing were substandard. And just like in our nation, people of color were often brutally attacked solely for the color of their skin.
There is much to forgive. Much to choose not to forgive.
Jesus appears among the disciples, frozen in fear, locked away in a house behind thick walls, locked away inside themselves, full of unforgiveness for themselves, for others. And says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus speaks to us in the midst of our brokenness and fear, knowing the walls around our hearts and says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus speaks into the life of Rev. Tutu, in the days following the brutality of Apartheid and says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
We, each and every one of us, have a choice to make. Will we choose forgiveness?
I’ve been so inspired by the strength of Rev. Tutu. This month I’ve been reading his book titled, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World.
When Apartheid came to an end, the people had a choice. They could rise up and seek vengeance against those who had done them harm. In America, though Separate but Equal has formally passed, Black and Brown people are still often marginalized both by policies and by conditions of the heart partly because they remain a minority and are under-represented in places of leadership.
But in South Africa, those who ruled during Apartheid, those who are white, are only about 10% of the population in South Africa. They could be completely excluded from governance, have no say over their lives. Land they had owned for generations could systematically be taken from them. Reverse Apartheid could take place where those who once ruled could now become the oppressed, belittled and outcast. A new form of violence and dominance could reign.
But instead, under the leadership of Rev. Tutu and others like him who serve on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, peace, shalom, is coming.
Tutu has lead the people through a path of forgiveness. Four Steps that help us personally and our world find peace, shalom, and forgiveness. He says it starts with 1) Telling the Story.
We cannot find forgiveness in our lives if we do not speak the truth. We need to name what happened. Jesus did not appear to his disciples free of scars. He did not pretend that he had not been crucified. They name what happened. They tell the story. Truth is powerful. When we tell the truth, when we share our stories, we begin a journey towards healing. And this is true when we are the ones who sin and when we are the ones sinned against. We must name our sin. The hurt we have caused. And we are invited to tell our stories of when we have been hurt, sinned against. Telling our stories is the first step to freedom.
Rev. Tutu gives a second step. We also name the hurt. This might sound similar to telling the story, but really is a second step. We recognize the emotional weight of what happened. Do you remember last week talking about Peter and how Jesus brings forgiveness into Peter’s life asking him over and over again if Peter loves him? On the third time, we are told in Scripture, “Peter felt hurt” because of Jesus’s insistence.
The hard things in our life do hurt us. This is why we build walls, why we shut the door to begin with. We close our hearts tightly because we don’t want to be hurt again. We don’t want to feel pain. But as any doctor can tell you, part of healing is pain. Bones need to be reset before they can heal. Cancerous cells need to be killed before the body can be restored. And hearts need space to mourn before they can heal.
It is hard to feel the emotional weight of things we have done. To admit that we oppress, that we bully, that we break all of the 10 Commandments. That we refuse to love our neighbor as ourselves. It hurts not only our communities when we do wrong, it also tears at the very fabric of our own humanity. We do ourselves harm and we must name that hurt. Both the hurt we have caused and how we have been hurt by others.
Tell the story. Name the hurt.
Step three is Granting forgiveness. Sometimes this is a slow process. Sometimes it takes days or weeks or years. Sometimes the hurt took days or weeks or years to build and so the process of forgiveness does to. Jesus reminds us that we forgive not seven times but seventy times seven times. It is a process.
But here is not what forgiveness is not. It is not refusing to name the truth or to name the hurt. It is not forgetting that these things happened. The scars are still there. They were there for Jesus, they are there for us. But in granting forgiveness, those places of hurt move from open wounds to scars.
In the words of Rev. Tutu, forgiveness enables us to move from victim to hero. From people who are bleeding to people who have a story of healing and victory to tell. Tutu says: “We choice to forgive because it is how we find freedom. [It is how we set ourselves free] from remaining trapped in an endless loop of telling our stories and naming hurts.” It is how we keep our world from an endless loop of hurt and violence. We know that hurt people hurt people. Hurt people hurt people. Until we forgive, we will participate in the cycle of violence ourselves. Doing harm to others has it has been done to us. We will harm those closest to us especially. Freedom comes from forgiveness.
And then the forth step is to either Renew or Release the Relationship. Marvelous change is happening in South Africa because people are bravely choosing to embrace relationships with people who were formally their enemies. I am astounded by their courage. Fear is coming to an end.
But for some of us, the relationship must or should be released. Some of us need to forgive a person who is already dead. We cannot renew that relationship. There is no hope of that in this life. But we can release them. We can tell the story, name the hurt, grant forgiveness, and release the relationship. Freedom awaits.
And for some, though the person lives, the relationship should not be renewed. There are some who choose to live in the cycle of hurt and violence. There are some who choose to stay bound. There are some who choose walls which for them become a kind of prison. Sometimes a metaphorical prison. Sometimes a prison which comes because of the choices they make. And though we pray for them, though we hope that freedom will come eventually into their lives, we have to release them. Releasing them is part of the path of forgiveness.
And especially in those cases, we do not forgive them for them. We forgive them for ourselves. We forgive so that healing can come into our own lives. We forgive so that we can become new. We forgive that we might experience Jesus’ true peace, the Shalom that Jesus blesses into his followers.
Friends, whatever is causing fear in your life. Whatever is binding you. Whatever is keeping you behind a locked door, whether physical or metaphorical, there is freedom on the other side.
Tell your story. Name the hurt. Grant forgiveness. Renew or Release the Relationship. And find true Resurrection in the Lord Jesus Christ.