Sunday's Sermon -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
This world is an unforgiving place and its people are an unforgiving people.
If you need support to believe that statement, just look at the news this past week:
• A civilian airplane with nearly 300 people on board is shot down for no apparent reason
• Hamas launches missiles from Gaza into Israel and Israel launches a ground war against the people of Gaza
• Desperate children enter the United States and are treated as illegal aliens rather than refugees.
Closer to home, too many family members are seemingly at war with one another.
All of this very bad news got me thinking about, of all things, forgiveness!
As I thought about forgiveness I remembered an article I read in the New York Times some months ago. The headline had caught my eye – “A Good Day to Speak of Love, From a Rabbi Who Knows Hate and Forgiveness.”
The article went on to tell some of the story of the life and ministry of a Jewish rabbi, Rabbi Michael Weisser, who, at more than 70 years old, was trying to revive the Free Synagogue of Flushing, the oldest Reform Judaism synagogue in the Queens borough of New York City. It began by telling of the rabbi’s recent visit to a Queens mosque, where he had been warmly received. On leaving the mosque, still wearing his tan kipa, a Jewish skullcap that resembles those which Muslims wear, “a man driving by who had apparently mistaken him for a Muslim, shouted that he should go back to where he came from”!
Rabbi Weisser later told his own congregation that, “Hatred comes forth from some pre-existing prejudice and only when we create the need within us to hate, do we then develop reasons to justify our hatred.”
All very interesting, but then the article went on to tell some of Rabbi Weisser’s “back story.” It seems that one day in 1991, shortly after he arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska, to serve as spiritual leader of Lincoln’s South Street Temple, Weisser’s telephone rang. The man on the other end of the telephone called the rabbi a “Jew boy” and told he would be sorry that he had moved to Lincoln. Shortly thereafter a think package of anti-Semitic literature arrived in the mail with the unsigned card, “The KKK is watching you, scum.”
Welcome to Lincoln!
The Times article went on to say that it turned out that the messages were from a Larry Trapp, the Grand Dragon of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Nebraska. Although he himself was then nearly blind and using a wheelchair to get around because both of his legs had been amputated because of diabetes, Trapp later told Time magazine that he set out to scare Rabbi Weisser into moving out of Lincoln. “As the state leader, the Grand Dragon, I did more than my share of work because I wanted to build up the state of Nebraska into a state as hateful as North Carolina and Florida,” Trapp said. “I spent a lot of money and went out of my way to instill fear.” He left many hateful messages on Rabbi Weisser’s telephone answering machine and sent much hateful material to his home. All to instill fear and get Rabbi Weisser and his family to leave Lincoln.
His efforts were not successful. Instead, Rabbi Weisser found Trapp’s telephone number and began to leave him messages on his voice mail. Once a week he left messages of love on Trapp’s telephone.
One day, after Weisser had left many weeks of loving messages on Trapp’s telephone, Trapp actually picked up the telephone and answered one of Weisser’s calls. Weisser reports that his wife had prepared him well for this opportunity, stressing that, if he ever actually spoke with Trapp, he should say something nice to him. Trapp picked the telephone and Weisser said, “I heard you are disabled. I thought you might need a ride to the grocery.” Trapp hung up without a response.
And, then, something quite amazing happened: One day soon afterwards, Weisser’s telephone rang. It was Mr. Trapp calling to say, “I want to get out of what I’m doing and I don’t know how.”
Weisser and his wife immediately drove to Trapp’s apartment where they talked for hours. Out of this conversation, an unlikely and close friendship developed. As Trapp’s health worsened, he even moved into one of the Weisser’s home’s bedrooms where Weisser’s wife became his caretaker and confident. He lived there until his death a year later.
Mr. Trapp eventually renounced the Klan, apologized to the many he had threatened and even converted to Judaism and joined Rabbi Weisser’s synagogue. A 1995 book by Kathryn Watterson, “Not by the Sword: How the Love of a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman,” tells Trapp’s and Weisser’s story.
“An act of kindness can make a change,” says Rabbi Weisser. “Need a ride to grocery?”
Today here at Mt. Olive, we are sharing in the sacrament of forgiveness, Holy Communion. In the Lutheran church, we have just two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion. We Lutherans believe that a sacrament involves a physical element, water in Baptism, bread and wine in Holy Communion, was begun by Jesus and involves a promise, the promise of eternal life with Jesus, a promise which begins today with the forgiveness of our sins. Other churches have more sacraments – confession, confirmation, marriage, last rites, and ordination – but, for us Lutherans, these rites, as we call them, do not have the same focus and importance as Baptism and Holy Communion. What could be more important than the promise of eternal life? What could be more important than the offer of forgiveness?
The history of those of us in the religions of Abraham – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – is a history of God’s forgiveness for people. Again and again throughout what we Christians call the Old Testament, God reaches out to God’s people with a promise of continued love and forgiveness. Again and again, the people, even the leaders of the people, react to this love in some very unloving ways – the Old Testament is full of stories of God’s people falling short of God’s will for them and God still loving and forgiving.
For us Christians, this love and forgiveness reaches fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Seeing so many human failings, God decided that, once and for all times, God would send his son Jesus Christ to earth to remind people of God’s forgiveness and love and the promise of eternal life with God. Jesus came and did this: Love, forgiveness, eternal life with God – pretty wonderful promises, personified in Christ Jesus.
Well, this week got me wondering, what are the blocks for us to receiving God’s forgiveness? Why are some families torn apart by hatred and fear? Why do we ignore and why do we even allow so many people sleeping in our parks and on our streets? Why are nations so hardened in their views of their “enemies” that they resort to war and retaliation, even to the point of killing too many innocent civilians?
So, today, I want us to think about, to pray about, forgiveness. Today, as we say The Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us” or in more common language, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” let’s say these words as if we really mean them.
And, then, let’s do something in response! Let’s make a new effort at forgiveness in our families – husband to wife and wife to husband, child or children to parent or parents and parent or parents to children, brother to sister and sister to brother, neighbor to neighbor, co-worker to co-worker, student to student – you get the idea. Let’s make a new effort to forget at least one past hurt and forgive others and ourselves.
And, let’s carry this effort for forgiveness a little further. Let’s try to love those in our community for whom we may have less than positive thoughts – those who sleep on our streets and don’t smell very good, those of a different class or race or religion. Let’s welcome the children who are fleeing violence and murder and coming to the USA for safety.
And, let’s even try to carry this effort for forgiveness even further. Let’s tell our local and state and national leaders that the killing must stop in our towns and cities and even in the Ukraine and Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan and Israel and Gaza. We have a God of forgiveness and love – let’s let our leaders know that that should be the backbone of our policy in cities and towns across the USA and even in our foreign policy. No, I do not know exactly what that would look like, but I do know that what we are doing now is certainly not working.
More than a little naïve? You bet. About as naïve as a Jew calling the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan and telling him that he loves him.
And, naïve or not, if our sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion – if these make any sense, than that is exactly our calling – to love and forgive ourselves and others. Beginning with our family, extending into our community, reaching out across the world.
And it all begins quite simply, “Need a ride to the grocery?”
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California