Last Words | Forgiveness
“Father, Forgive them…” – Luke 23:34
What does love look like? What does it sound like?
Father Michael Renninger of St. Mary’s Church in Richmond answers these questions with memories of his grandmother and grandfather. (1)
They lived for years in a row house in Philadelphia, where his grandfather would sit in his enormous reclining chair in front of the huge Zenith television, teaching his grandkids a whole new vocabulary while watching the Phillies disappoint him once again. Renninger remembers his grandmother – Nanny Woods – as an active, bustling woman, constantly going and coming through the swinging front porch door – here and there, to and fro between card games and bingo and local church meetings.
All of this changed abruptly and unforgivingly in 1982. That’s when Renninger’s grandfather had a series of strokes that left him paralyzed on the left side of his body. He could no longer walk. He couldn’t speak. And he couldn’t swallow. Doctors finally inserted a feeding tube and they encouraged the couple to find a nursing facility where he could be cared for. But Nanny Woods was having none of that, and announced she would be taking her husband home to the row house to care for him there. And that’s what she did.
The comfortable recliner went out of the living room and was replaced by a hospital bed. The television was still there, and while grandfather could no longer yell, still he could gesture to the Phillies with his right hand. Grandmother, meanwhile, had to learn a whole new set of skills and pattern of life. The door didn’t swing so much any more. Rather than here and there, she was almost always there, by his side, becoming the caregiver for her husband, sitting near him, learning how to feed him through a tube.
The little row house wasn’t far from where Renninger went to college. So one Friday afternoon, as he was driving home to see his parents, he decided to stop to see them. He parked his car on the street, walked across the front porch, pulled the squeaky screen door, and as he did he immediately had that experience – you’ve had it before – where you enter a room and sense something is wrong, but you don’t yet know what.
Until his eyes adjusted and he saw – his grandfather was in the bed his face red, gesturing with his right hand, grandmother standing over him and hurriedly trying to move things around. Something had gone wrong with the feeding tube and the liquid was everywhere. He was flustered. She was crying.
Renninger had the instinct that I would have had at age 19 in a moment like that – “Let me get out of this room…” He put his hand on the door and started to push it open, and with the squeak his grandmother looked up, noticing him for the first time.
She was a gentle woman, one who had never raised her voice to her grandson before, but in that moment she shouted, “Don’t you dare…” He stopped. “Don’t you dare leave…” she said to her grandson of 19. “Because sometimes – sometimes – love looks like this.”
Love looks like a lot of things.
I love it when love looks like a newborn baby, swaddled tightly in the arms of her beaming parents.
I love it when it sounds like a couple on their wedding day. “I do” they say, with all the hope and belief those two words can hold.
I love when I catch sight of it in an older couple in our church, who walks from the parking lot down the long hallway to the Sunday School classroom or pew, all the while holding hands – and not because they need balance.
I love it when love tastes like conversation hearts or reads like a greeting card, or looks like my house amidst our Valentine’s Day tradition, which involves me pulling some recipe off the Internet, and after spending too much money and using too many pots, I end up at about 9PM with something that amounts to spaghetti, as Jenny ever so lovingly rolls her eyes.
I love it when love looks like that and sounds like that. Of course, in my work as a pastor – in our life together as a church – we know so acutely that sometimes love isn’t like that at all.
And sometimes rather than the newborn baby, love looks like a couple holding one another through their deep hopes of one day being parents.
Sometimes love looks like the parents of a toddler, up in the middle of the night trying to comfort a sick child when they just want to sleep themselves, or worrying about that toddler as she becomes an increasingly independent teenager. Sometimes love looks like that. Or sometimes it looks like in the heat of an argument that young person tearfully telling their parents something that breaks through and helps them to see she is not a child anymore.
Sometimes it looks like the couple who, in their late stage of life, can no longer make it to the church they love – or maybe she could if she wanted to, but he can’t, and so she doesn’t – so she goes to his room and they take the boom box cd player and insert the cd from last week’s service, every week at the same time, and they’ll hear me say this next Sunday right around this time.
Sometimes love is that couple who once said “I do” having to one day say “I will” through the hardest times of their lives when love is nothing but willful. And sometimes, sometimes it means saying “I won’t” or “I can’t anymore” – yes, sometimes love has to mean walking away. Sometimes love looks like starting again.
Sometimes love means looking beyond the sweetness and the greeting cards to have a much wider view of just who is the beloved of God, working for justice, welcoming the stranger, caring for God’s earth, and embodying the compassion of God.
Sometimes love isn’t lovely at all. It’s arduous. It’s difficult. It’s long suffering and painful. You know this if you’ve ever tried to love like Christ.
This Season of Lent we are called to remember again what love looks like. What it sounds like. Not just a swaddled, bouncing, infant Son of God sent from heaven to show us how to love and to teach us to believe it for ourselves, but also the one who grows to throw his very body into this way of love, even when it costs him his life.
So looming this Lent is the cross of Christ and the reminder that sometimes love takes a cruciform shape. Sometimes love sounds like the last words of a crucified man.
The New Testament scholar, Ray Brown, has written a sweeping commentary on Jesus’ Passion throughout all of the gospels – two volumes called “The Death of the Messiah.” He begins the work with the conviction that what happens to Jesus in his death and how he responds to it – what is done and what is said – ultimately reveals the God Jesus proclaims and the God we all seek to know more. That’s why these Last Words of Jesus have such profound meaning for the Church.
Jesus speaks once in Mark echoed by Matthew, three times in Luke, and three times in John. Seven words altogether. They might just be saving words for us all over again this Lent.Each of us is called to enter our own reflection on the Cross. But don’t leave. Don’t be like the disciples off hiding under rocks and behind locked doors, for we cannot arrive to the coolness of the empty tomb early Easter morning unless we have stood in the noonday heat on Calvary. We cannot fully understand the power of resurrection unless we have walked with Jesus to his cross and stopped to look and to listen.
It’s at that cross that we hear the words this morning, “Father, Forgive them, they know not what they are doing…” But they did know what they were doing. They were betraying a friend with a kiss. They were denying their leader out of fear. They were smearing an innocent man for political gain. They were experiencing the son of God as an antagonist and a threat. They were celebrating the suffering of an innocent. They were entertaining themselves with the methods of cruelty. They were being swept up in a mob mentality that clouds all ethical discernment. All the while they were washing their hands of it all.
They knew. And we know all too well what they were doing as well.
In this statement from the cross Jesus never names specifically who he is forgiving. Most literally he seems to refer to the Romans who crucified him and the mob that clamored for it. And we would love to leave it right there and continue to blame some others we can call “them.” We’d love to stand with Peter and say, “Surely not me…” I would never deny you, Lord. Not me. Someone else – some other “they” or “them.”
But the anonymity of Jesus’ forgiveness is an invitation for us to insert our own names. We know what they were doing, for we do it, too. We still live in a world where with our individual lives and our systemic sins we deny the way of Christ, we find ourselves swept up in the mob, we unwittingly eliminate sons and daughters of God even all these years later. And then we wash our hands.
With those words, “Father, forgive…” he forgives us all. He forgives us still.
In Eastern Orthodox churches, there is an ancient tradition about Good Friday that the blood of Jesus on the cross soaked into the ground – to the depths of the earth – finally even reaching the bones of Adam and Eve, healing and forgiving them and all of those in between.
Love looks like that. Sometimes it feels like that. So the color of Lent is purple – a color of forgiveness – for Easter will not come until God’s people are forgiven. But in the same way, Easter will not come until God’s people forgive.
Maybe you think you could never do it. You could never embody the kind of seamless integrity of the one who taught us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, and then lived as he taught and died as he lived, with his last breaths modeling this forgiveness. Maybe we believe we could never do it ourselves. But if we stay long enough and look and listen, some of what happens at the cross can take form in our lives.
It’s what happens later in the story – in Acts – as Luke writes about the birth of the Church after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, at the end of his trial says he sees Jesus at the right hand of God. He must have seen that image of what love can be. And then as people set upon stoning him to death, his last words were “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them…” “Father, forgive them…” he was somehow able to say.
Standing nearby a young Pharisee stood watch and held the coats. He saw and heard it all. And the episode must have passed through his mind when, sometime later struck blind on the Damascus Road, God’s servant Ananias would greet him with the word “Brother” before helping him see again. Eyes open. Name changed. With all he had seen and heard, that apostle Paul went on to pen an exquisite hymn of love in a letter to the Corinthians that includes the words, “Love forgives all things.”
See the words Jesus spoke on the cross permeate all the way down. Even to us. if we follow in the way of Jesus, sometimes love is going to look like that and feel like that in our lives. We’ll want to leave. We’ll want to push the door and get away just as fast as we can, just like those disciples. But if we stay, what might we see?
I remember being there – this place of the skull that Luke describes – when I was in the 8th grade. I’ve told you before how as a child I traveled to Israel with my father and a group of older adults from our church.
The most significant moment on this trip was the pilgrimage to the traditional site of the crucifixion – the traditional place of the skull – where Christians have traveled for generations to look and to listen. One particular member of our trip, Elise Yakoubian, had waited for this for years of her long life. She had known far too much suffering in her own life. Grandma Elise, as I called her, was born in Armenia, in a period after World War I known as the Armenian Massacre – or the Great Calamity – a period of genocide in which up to 1 and a half million Armenian people lost their lives in the Ottoman government’s systematic extermination of its minority Armenian population.
Grandma Elise’s father was among this mass. He had been taken from their home when she was a young girl, ultimately dying with so many others. She and her mother were forced to march, passing into modern day Syria – refugees to a place thick with death and suffering today. Even as she moved to safety, she never knew her father. She had carried this her whole like. It was part of what she carried to that place of Jesus’ cross.
When we arrived, she was so moved that she began to weep. She was inconsolable, steadying herself against those around her and then falling silent, reflective. Until later that day… we were celebrating communion in the garden just down from the traditional site of crucifixion, and Grandma Elise stood up to speak. “I need you all to know something,” she said slowly. “Today, here, I forgave the men who killed my father.”
I don’t know how this profound moment happened. But I know it happened. I saw it happen. And I know where it happened. It happened in that place where the echo could be heard, “Father, forgive them…”
See, always, always, love looks like Jesus. But sometimes, sometimes, love looks like us.
(1) With thanks to Fr. Michael Renninger, whose story from his sermon “Sometimes Love Looks Like This” (A Sermon for Every Sunday) forms a frame for this sermon.