Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, February 24, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Cape Town’s Table Mountain seen from Robben Island

Genesis 45:3-11, 15 + 1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50 + Luke 6:27-38 + Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42

Several years ago, I was privileged to spend three weeks in South Africa training in the methodology of the Institute for Healing of Memories in Cape Town. It was the first international group invited to be trained, and we spent the first three days together on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and the freedom fighters against apartheid were imprisoned, but where we participated in one of the Healing of Memories workshops so that we could have first-hand experience of what it is like.

The Institute was founded by Father Michael Lapsley, a priest from New Zealand who made his home in South Africa in the early 1970’s where he became involved in the struggle against apartheid, serving as chaplain of the African National Congress. Because of this, he was forced to leave South Africa at the expiration of his visa and went to Lesotho, the mountain kingdom that sits like an island in the middle of South Africa. Continued threats against him and his order, the Society of the Sacred Mission, landed him in exile in Zimbabwe, where, in 1990, just a couple of months after Mandela was released from his 27-year imprisonment, Father Michael received a letter bomb in an envelope containing religious magazines. The explosion ripped off both of his hands, blinded him in one eye, and left his hearing badly damaged.

The letter bomb was sent by the innocuously named Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), the government-sponsored death squad of the apartheid government. Michael does not know who made the bomb, who sealed it in the envelope, who took it to the post office. The inability to know who perpetrated the violence against individuals is one of the lasting wounds of apartheid South Africa. It’s one reason Michael founded the Institute for the Healing of Memories. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealt with known victims, known perpetrators. What about all the others? So after serving as chaplain of the Trauma Centre in Cape Town, he founded the Institute and developed a story-telling methodology to help participants – victims and perpetrators alike – “vomit out the poison” as he puts it of hatred, fear, remorse, anger. He makes clear that he is unable to forgive a nameless, faceless person who committed this horrific act of violence against him, not because he is unwilling. He just doesn’t know whom to forgive. but he is not trapped in anger or seeking retribution. One of the most remarkable things about my friend Michael is that he harbors no bitterness. He has mechanical hands and can’t see out of one eye yet is one of the most engaging, funny, liberated human beings I’ve ever known. In his memoir, he writes:

As the recipient of a letter bomb, I had become the object of evil. It is evil to create and send letter bombs to other human beings and to type an address on an envelope knowing it is designed to kill someone. Yet at the same time I also became the beneficiary of all that is beautiful in the human family, the ability to be tender, loving, and compassionate.[1]

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“Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27). These are some of the most beautiful and most misused words in all of scripture. They have as often as not been used as cudgels to shame women into returning to violent husbands, covering up sexual predators in the church, keeping children in abusive and victimizing households. That is not what Jesus intends. We can love without allowing evil to continue, we can pray for God’s help for those who have harmed us, but there is nothing in here that says that we allow ourselves to continue in the abuse.

The gift of these words is to free us from becoming like those who would do us harm. I think Jesus is telling us to not become like them, not to let whatever evil impulses driving them to drive us, too. As poet W.H. Auden wrote in his poem “September 1, 1939”:

I and the public know. / What all schoolchildren learn. / Those to whom evil is done. / Do evil in return.[2]

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There is another way to look at this part of Jesus’s teaching on forgiveness that comes out of the nonviolent resistance movement. New Testament scholar Walter Wink claims that these words of Jesus are to an oppressed people under threat of Roman violence.[3]In ancient Israel, animals were often used as collateral for loans. But for the poor, an outer garment could be used instead, but it had to be returned each night so that the person had a blanket to use. The one issuing the loan could come back to claim it the next day. So, if this poor person is being dragged into court and sued for that outer coat, Jesus is saying to give your shirt, too, because in that culture, to stand in public naked brought shame not on the naked one but on the one who caused the nakedness. This is Jesus’s way of encouraging them to do more than required and thereby expose the person abusing you in a nonviolent, justice-seeking way.

Similarly, the teaching to turn the other cheek is passive resistance. If someone were to strike another who is an equal, they do say with an open right hand, but for a subordinate or servant or someone not an equal, the backhand was used. So if the one struck then turns the other cheek, the one doing the hitting would be forced to strike with the open hand, treating the victim as an equal. Again, it was a way to resist without violence.

In Matthew’s version of these teachings, there is one that says, “and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matthew 5:41). A Roman centurion could force any citizen to carry his 65-85 pound pack for one mile, no more. Roads were clearly marked with mile-markers, and if someone was forced to carry the pack further, the soldier was guilty of a military infraction. So in encouraging someone to keep on walking that second mile, Jesus is exposing the issue of an unjust military code used against an oppressed people.

Now, I don’t know if any of these are the correctinterpretation of these teachings of Jesus, but from a non-violent resistance point of view, they make perfect sense. Jesus has already proclaimed that the year of the Lord’s favor is here, even as Roman occupation brutalized the people of Palestine. He is teaching them peaceful, potent opposition to that corrupt authority.

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There have been many examples of extraordinary forgiveness in the face of horrific violence in recent years. Many of the family members of those slaughtered in Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina received a lot of attention for saying that they forgave Dylann Roof for killing their loved ones. Several years ago, the Amish in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, rallied around the family of the man who had murdered so many of their children in a one-room schoolhouse. 

But sometimes, such forgiveness is more than we can manage. Perhaps the best that we can hope for in those circumstances is to leave the person in God’s hands, to pray that God will work things to the good for that person even if we ourselves cannot. No one should be guilted into a situation that could cause more harm and trauma. That is not gospel. That is not Jesus. That is not God’s love. 

I don’t know when Fr. Michael developed the ability to pray for those who had caused him such devastating harm, but he is clear that, should the person or persons ever identify themselves to him and ask his forgiveness, he would grant it. And then he would ask what restitution they plan to make. They can’t restore his sight or his hands or his hearing, but what good are they doing in the world to make up for the evil they have done? This, he says, is the only way reconciliation happens. He still hopes for the day that will happen.

In the conclusion of the preface of Michael’s memoir, he writes about the work of the Institute for Healing of Memories and a methodology that

honors people for their sacrifices and yet encourages them in the fullness of time to lay down their burdens and integrate their pain into a new life. In this way none of us need remain imprisoned by the past; rather, we can become agents of the future, helping to shape and create a better world. For me, this is the meaning of liberation, and I believe it is God’s dream for the human family.[4]

That sounds like good news, indeed.


[1]Father Michael Lapsley, SSM, Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer(Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY, 2012)  11.

[2]http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15545

[3]http://ucup.org/multimedia-archive/turn-the-other-cheek-go-the-second-mile/

[4]Lapsley, xiii.

ASEPSermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, February 24, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas