Out of our denomination’s national Mission Agency during the past month has come a daily short article, an action the reader can take and a prayer, all leading up to today’s World Communion and Peace and Global Witness offering. I have read many of those as I receive them in my email at the church. I wanted to share this one with you to start off my sermon. It is entitled Caterpillar Soup.
“Everyone loves the story of how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. I remember as a child in the classroom watching a caterpillar get fatter as it ate through leaves, watching it spin itself into a chrysalis. What was happening inside? What would be the outcome of this transformation? And then that amazing day when a beautiful butterfly emerged always amazed me. Something new was born.
I recently learned about what actually happens inside a chrysalis during that in-between time. It becomes caterpillar soup! The caterpillar actually digests itself and becomes an oozing mess as the transformation begins. The group of cells that survive the digestive process are the ones that form into the butterfly. I realized that true transformation is actually that gross and that difficult, even for humans. It’s messy and wild, but what survives can emerge into something beautiful and brand new.”
Well, although that is a mushy mess of a story, it sets up quite nicely the mushy mess that can make up forgiveness that leads to transformation. The Greek word for transformation is used only three times in the New Testament and is always by the Apostle Paul using the passive mood. That cues in the reader that it is God who is carrying out the transformation of us and, of course, it is God who forgives us our sins.
A former and favorite professor of mine from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary wrote an article, many years ago, about forgiveness. Her name was Susan Nelson and she died far too young but I am grateful to have known her. She explains in the article that while life is full of wonderful challenges and of deep abiding connections with our loved ones, it is also about brokenness, guilt and disappointments. That brokenness, guilt and disappointments, however, ought not to define us. Yet how do we get away from those difficult emotions and thoughts in order to learn a better way of living?
We Presbyterians have always been very serious about the human propensity to sin against God and other human beings. That is the reason we include a confession of sin in worship which must always be followed by the forgiveness of those sins. Living into that forgiveness, we know we can live new lives. Life is often murky and a mushy mess but like the caterpillar, we can emerge from that mess transformed into Christ’s likeness.
Being honest with ourselves about that which we do wrong in God’s eyes is an important part of that process. That is why we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” If confession is in fact good for soul, which we Presbyterians believe it is, then, according to Rev. Susan Nelson, we “have been formed in the confessional, following patterns of repentance and gratitude for the grace of God that is our only source of hope.” It is by God’s act of grace alone that we have received mercy and grace. Our awesome God’s grace sets us free and we are to live into that freedom.
The apostle Paul explains that in Christ the old is figuratively crucified and the new begins to grow. [Galatians 2:10] How do we respond to that freedom, that newness in our lives?
First, we need to acknowledge that the other very significant part of recognizing and confessing our sins equation is forgiveness. Two sides of the same coin. Again, that is why an “Assurance of Forgiveness” is included in our worship service each week. We receive forgiveness from God in Christ for ourselves. Psalm 51 states it well: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” We need the Savior’s forgiveness. We need to be cleansed of the wrong we do. As we know we receive God’s forgiveness, the question then becomes: Do we live that way, as a forgiven people made new?
Another reason we need to hear of our forgiven state is so that we may offer forgiveness to others who have harmed us in some way. Forgiveness means that we accept our humanity in all its messiness. Like the caterpillar, we must wade through the mush to emerge set free and new in Christ. Forgiveness means accepting others as human in all the chaos that surrounds our human lives. Forgiveness means taking the risk to forgive ourselves and others. It means to take the chance to embrace life fully in its mushy messiness as opposed to retreating from it in order to avoid being hurt. It means we embrace transformation.
Forgiveness means holding onto the hope that disappointments and hurt will not have the final word.
Instead, we remember that God heals our wounds and makes us new again. Yes, even in that hope we can be disappointed because we are so wrapped up in ourselves. Our ability to forgive encourages us to think of the other instead of ourselves so that we resist a defensive posture and a need for revenge when we have been wronged. Forgiveness is not passive but is actively engaged [not that I think Rodger and I need to forgive, just in case by some happen-stance it would need to come up!] in our lives and the lives of those we need to forgive, even if they are unwilling to accept or give forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process, a journey. It is not the same as the old quote “forgive and forget.” It is especially difficult to forget a grievous act perpetrated upon us. That act may be one that may affect many areas of our lives long-term. We likely won’t forget but we ought to forgive. And, forgiveness refuses to return evil for evil.
That is our resistance, our strong rejection in allowing the continuation of evil. We break that cycle of evil when we acknowledge we are forgiven and in turn, when we forgive others. “Martin Luther King Jr’s tactic of non-violent resistance is an example of forgiveness that refuses to let evil continue.”
Freedom and newness in Christ, embracing our forgiveness and giving it to others, is not an easy task. Forgiveness takes practice. But, it can be accomplished through the support, guidance and comfort of the Holy Spirit. In other words, pray for strength and courage to avoid falling into the need for vengeance. Long-term grudges or bitterness will ruin your freedom and your newness in Christ as they eat away at your soul.
The incredible true story I am about to tell you is an amazing telling of forgiveness as well as freedom and newness in Jesus Christ. An article “A Rugged Road to Forgiveness” written for Presbyterians Today magazine on August 25th of this year was written by Gwen Haspels. As of 2014 Gwen and her husband, John, were mission co-workers for the PC(USA) for 40 years in Ethiopia. They were faithful through many harrowing experiences but this one takes the prize. On Oct 1 of that year she and John were traveling to Moga to build a house for the Wycliff Bible translator. As drove down the road they rounded a corner and there standing in the middle of the road with an AK-47 assault rifle was a young man. They didn’t know his intention so they kept on driving and he got out of the way.
Suddenly, the young man fired into the open passenger’s door. The bullet hit Gwen in the mouth knocking out 20 of her teeth and destroying the left side of her jaw. The bone and teeth fragments tore into her husband’s flesh cutting many lacerations in his skin. Pieces of shrapnel from the bullet also hit John in the forehead and put out his left eye. The remainder of the bullet shattered John’s clavicle bone. The vehicle started to swerve as John yelled, “I’ve been hit!” As Gwen was leaning over to help John, she caught her reflection in the rearview mirror and saw that half of the left side of her face was missing. She covered it with her scarf and continued to lean over to help John control the car and wipe off blood dripping from his forehead wounds into his right eye. They wanted to keep going with the danger of more injury right behind them so John kept driving. He had to stop once because he got so dizzy but, after sipping water, they continued on for 30 minutes until they could get to a little clinic in a town called Dima, Ethiopia in order to get help.
It was during that 30 minute drive when the most amazing part of this story happened. John asked Gwen if she remembered that they had made a covenant with their two daughters and a close Ethiopian friend to pray only thanksgiving and praise prayers for the whole month of October. John then thanked God for the good use of his left eye for 65 years to which Gwen replied he was 67. They both praised God for their lives. These people are amazing! They verbalized their forgiveness for the young man who shot them adapting Jesus’ words on the cross: Father, forgive him, for he didn’t know what he was doing.
John had a few surgeries for his injuries but he has never recovered sight in his left eye. Gwen went through multiple surgeries, many plastic surgeries, to repair her destroyed face. John has gone back to Ethiopia to baptize many Christian converts. They both want to go back to Ethiopia as PC(USA) mission co-workers even at their older age. The Haspels continue to practice forgiveness because wherever they go to tell their harrowing story, they ask the people to pray for that young man who shot them. They talk about the miracles God gave to keep them alive through their long ordeal. They taught this same forgiveness to the Suri people in Ethiopia because there had (and has) been so much killing and violence. Gwen strongly states: “When we forgive, we are not saying that what was done is OK. It is not OK. It is not OK that John lost his left eye and that I have been through so much surgery. But when we forgive and bless the offender, we get healing, and we let God repay them. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. [Now hear this last sentence for it completely changes what I just said] Praying for and blessing our enemies brings us to a point where we ask God not to repay them but to forgive them.”// It is in that practice that we find freedom and newness in Christ.
As we come to this table, let us remember what Jesus Christ sacrificed on our behalf and we know are forgiven and set free so that we are in-turn able forgive others. We are transformed from the caterpillar in all its mushy messiness into the lovely butterfly of God’s gracious forgiveness. We can offer others the very same. Alleluia! Amen.