Last month when I was leading the Seekers group for people exploring church membership I started each session in the same way. I would begin by sharing the topic for the evening. “Tonight we are going to talk about God, or Jesus, or the Bible” and then I would say “wars have been fought over tonight’s topic, families have been divided and churches have been split.” Because of the sensitive nature of these topics, each time we gathered, we took the time to review the behavioural covenant we had made with one another. One of agreements in our covenant was to suspend judgement about one another and turn instead to wondering about others and our own reactions.
I don’t know about you but the first place I feel judgement towards someone is in my heart. My outward appearance might not change at all but inside my heart starts beating faster and pounding harder. And if I’m not attentive to those feelings, it’s not long before my blood begins to boil and sometimes when that happens I can’t contain my anger. When it comes to judging others, the harm that is done always seems to begin with us. The peace that first gets disturbed is our own peace. Never is that more true than when the thing that provokes our judgement is connected to our values.
When it comes to religious differences, the irony is that all world religions hold at their core values around the sanctity of human life and the imperative to love one another. And yet so often it’s religious beliefs and values couched in religion over which we fight.
I’ll never forget the person who came to church on the Sunday after 911 and told me he didn’t think he could come to church anymore because it was clear to him that religion caused more war than peace.
Our scripture reading today highlights our propensity for division rooted in religion when it talks about people judging one another over what they eat or whether they observe the sabbath or not. The context of the reading is the early church in which both Jews and Gentiles were coming together in newly created Christian communities. Because people were coming from different backgrounds they had different religious practices. Some kept kosher and some didn’t some kept sabbath and others didn’t. The Apostle Paul, who is said to have written the letter to the Romans, says it doesn’t matter what you eat or how you worship as long as what you do honours God. It does matter that you don’t sit in judgement of one another.
“If there are corrections to be made or manners to be learned” he says “God can handle that without your help” Now we might wonder what it looks like for God to correct our neighbours or teach them manners but I wonder if what Paul is really saying here is don’t worry about sitting in judgement of others, worry instead about taking responsibility for yourself and your own actions.
At this moment in our world, when peace seems pretty hard to find, when people are lobbing bombs at each other over ethnic and religious differences and over what appears to be mutually exclusive values, perhaps the best that we can do is create our own peace.
I’ve already mentioned the way our peace gets disturbed when we judge others. Our peace also suffers when we have a hard time offering forgiveness, which is what the words of Jesus we heard this morning were all about, forgiving one another not just seven times but 70 times seven.
I’ve found it helpful to discover that the Greek word for forgiveness that’s found in this passage is best translated as letting go. When we can’t forgive ourselves or when we can’t forgive someone else we get stuck. We lose our peace of mind. We get consumed by what we’ve done or by what’s been done to us and it can even begin to shape and form our identity.
I really like what Bruce Sanguin says about this is his book “The Advance of Love.”* He talks about how we often think that holding onto our hurt and anger about the wrongs that have been done to us or even about the wrongs someone is doing to themselves or to others somehow holds those people accountable for their wrongdoings. Our lives become the jury and judge of another person’s actions.
The problem with that, says Bruce, is that when we hold on to these wrongdoings so tightly, we bind our energy to the past. A piece of our creativity gets locked up in seeking revenge or holding onto a grudge, or a judgement or self-loathing instead of being released into finding a new way forward.
In his book, Bruce really challenges the way that we can get stuck in our stories, both the stories we think and tell about ourselves and the stories we think and tell about others. He talks about how we limit ourselves and others by the old stories we tell.
How many of us when we see what is going on between Israel and Palestine right now think to ourselves or even say out loud “nothing is ever going to change?” How many of us have broken off relationships or stayed angry with people in our families because we’ve been unable to imagine a different possibility for that relationship to unfold in the future?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for people to stay in unhealthy relationships. I never want to diminish the pain and suffering people have experienced at the hands of others or the real challenge of what to do with those who are completely unrepentant of their past behaviour. I’m also not advocating that we seek peace at the expense of justice. A ceasefire in the Middle East does not mean peace will have been achieved. Martin Luther King reminded us that true peace is not merely the absence of tension; it’s the presence of justice. But I do want to invite us to stay open to the possibility that things could be different than they are, that people can change and grow. Because if we are able to put our energies into a future with hope rather than opting over and over again to take revenge for the past or stay stuck in our old stories, we might be able to find a way forward into a lasting peace.
Bruce Sanguin claims that this is the only way we will evolve as a species, to be unafraid to love wastefully and without reserve. He says this is what brings us closer to God more than anything else. Perhaps that is why love is at the heart of all world religions. It is our shared value as human family.
And yet it bears mentioning that this kind of love is much easier said than done. Maybe that’s why when Peter asks Jesus the question when one member of the church sins against me how often should I forgive them, seven times? Jesus replies “Not seven, but seventy times seven.”
It takes practice to be gracious. Sometimes the hurts we absorb from one another are so great, they simply can’t go away overnight. We have to release them over and over and over again which is why we sometimes speak of forgiveness as a spiritual habit that needs to be nurtured and honed. It makes one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves on a regular basis “is there anyone, including myself, whom I need to forgive this day?” Practicing forgiveness brings peace.
Some of you may be familiar with Mark Sakamoto’s book “Forgiveness: A Gift from my Grandparents” It won the CBC’s Canada reads contest in 2018. The book tells the true story of Sakamoto’s paternal grandmother Mitsue Sakamoto and his maternal grandfather Ralph McLean. Mitsue was expelled from her home by the Canadian government after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour during World War II because she was of Japanese heritage. She and her family were sent to Alberta to live and work on a sugar beet farm. Ralph was a Canadian soldier who became a prisoner of war in Japan during the same timeframe. He nearly starved to death in the prison camp. Both grandparents knew what it was to be mistreated by others because of their heritage. The scars they bore from that were very deep. But when Mitsue’s son fell in love with Ralph’s daughter they made a decision not to bequeath all that hate to their children. They chose a different future. They chose peace for their family that started with forgiveness.
We might want to note that the relationship between Mark Sakamoto’s grandparents began when the Sakamotos invited the McLeans to drive down from Calgary to Medicine Hat to break bread with them at table.
Every time we gather around this communion table and tell the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we are reminded of the way that judging others can lead to violence and unrest and innocent people getting killed. We are also reminded of the peace that is possible when we suspend judgement and turn to wonder, when we embrace our common humanity and say yes to love.
*Bruce Sanguin, The Advance of Love: Reading the Bible with an Evolutionary Heart, Sanguin and Evans Publishing, Vancouver, 2012