March 6, 2019
The good news of Lent – J. Barry Vaughn – Ash Wednesday – March 6, 2019
Do you remember when Pope John Paul II was shot? I do. I regret to say that I’m old enough to remember a great many assassinations and attempted assassinations, starting with President Kennedy. But I have an especially strong memory of the day that John Paul II was shot. Mehmet Ali Agca, a member of a Turkish terrorist group shot the late pope on May 13, 1981. That happened to be the day that I was flying home to Alabama at the end of my second year of divinity school at Yale. It was a bright sunny day, and I heard the news as I was boarding the bus to go from New Haven, Connecticut, to La Guardia airport.
But I wonder how many of us remember the even more significant day on which John Paul visited Agca and forgave him? The pope went to Agca’s cell two days after Christmas in 1983. Leaving the prison, John Paul II said, “I spoke to him as a brother whom I have pardoned and who has my complete trust.”
One editorial writer cynically remarked, “Of course the Pope forgives the man who tried to kill him. After all, he is the Pope, and forgiveness is his business.”
Sometimes forgiveness is easy. If someone steps on our foot in a crowded theater and says, “Oh, I’m so sorry!” it’s easy to forgive her. But if a spouse or partner betrays our trust with another person, then forgiveness can be one of the difficult things we’ve ever done.
It’s easy to say that we forgive, but it’s something else to really forgive. The Rev. William Self wrote, “We bury the hatchet with people, but then we keep a road map of exactly where we buried it. We put our resentments in cold storage, but we’re ready to let them thaw out again whenever we need them. We take grudges down to the lake to drown them, but we remember the location in the water so we can find them again. We take the cancelled note, tear it up and say, ‘They don’t owe us anything anymore,’ but we hang onto the wastebasket.” (“Magic Eyes” in day1.org.)
We live in the age of the “nones.” The American population is 33% Protestant; 24% Roman Catholic; and 7% Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons, and others. The largest segment of the population (34%) is atheists, agnostics, and “nothing in particular;” in other words, the “nones.”
But there’s a problem with the “nones.” If you don’t believe in God, then there is no one to forgive you when you need forgiveness. One of the biggest advantages of being a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim is that we have a God who offers us forgiveness for our sins.
Of course, the atheist or agnostic might say that sin is a concept that has outlived its usefulness or that it doesn’t do any good to declare some things good and others bad. Sometimes it’s true that we are too quick to declare something a sin or to characterize a deed as good or bad. Some of us grew up in churches that had long lists of things that were declared bad, and we couldn’t wait until we went off to college to try out a lot of those things!
But the fact is that good and bad are real. When we have harmed someone else, we know that we have done a bad thing. We know that we have sinned and need to be forgiven. The good news of Ash Wednesday and Lent is that we can be forgiven.
The cross on our foreheads tonight is a reminder that life is short, that we need to forgive and be forgiven every day of our lives, that forgiving and being forgiven is hard but important work, and there is no time to be lost in doing it.
One of the disciplines of Lent is to give up something. This Lent let’s all give up resentment. Give up those memories you are hanging on to of something that somebody did to you long ago. Practice forgiveness instead of bitterness and anger.
I want to encourage you to practice forgiveness of your sisters and brothers in this church especially. I sometimes think that church members are more reluctant to forgive each other than any other group of people. Churches have split because of arguments between altar guild members or choir members. Church members seem to have photographic memories of wrongs done to them by other church members.
“Life is short, and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us; so be quick to love, make haste to be kind, and go in peace to follow the good road of blessing.”