As we Floridians cautiously watched and waited for Cat 5 hurricane Irma, as she ripped through anything in her path, NOAA hurricane trackers were flying into that storm, regularly sending updates and pictures from inside the hurricane. Those images from the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic were both riveting and unnerving. But, of all the many photographs I saw, one stands out. It was the only picture I saw that was taken not so much of the eye, but from within the eye of the storm.
As Irma’s dense, boiling eye-wall arced around the lower 3/qtrs. of the picture … at the very top of the photograph – there - through a clear blue circle, in a day-bright sky, blazed a brilliant, near-perfectly… full moon… bright as the sun and clear as a reflected beacon from heaven itself. Right at the tempest’s center, the radiance of eternity seemed to open from above … holding the churning, smashing ferocity of Irma’s eye-wall at bay.
…Someone suggested that Irma was an act of God’s judgment upon a culture that has cast Him out, which refuses His love and scorns His commands. While God certainly has good reason to pass judgment on our amoral society, if the Lord God Almighty was in fact sending us a message in Irma’s tumult, I tend to see that message a bit differently.
If the storm embodied some Divine communication, it seems to me Irma simply confirms what is already – and always has been - the Truth of life in a broken creation. Spiritually speaking, our sad world IS Irma. The hurricane simply supplied us with NOAA-clear images (from heaven’s perspective) of what Evil’s reckoning and vengeance does in a distorted and chaotic creation. This storm, after all, followed Harvey (as close a cousin to Noah as I’ve ever seen.) And even in the week since Irma… there has been another Islamic-terrorist bombing in a London subway, maiming dozen … and North Korea’s mad dictator has hurled yet another missile across Japan, threatening not only SE Asia, but the political stability of the entire globe. I could go on, but the point is that, from the looks of things, the 21st C. is shaping up to be something of an ongoing and strengthening Irma!
But here’s something else I believe. As I lay awake in the darkness on Sunday night – wide-eyed and hyper-attuned to the screeching rage of hurricane Irma – I was praying (as I imagine most of you were.) And as I prayed, I was acutely aware of something quite different. I was overcome by the wonder of the incredible Gift I had already received … in simply being able to pray; I had already received the Gift of knowing that I had a loving Savior to whom I could pray! Can you imagine facing last Sunday’s wild apocalypse of Irma, without Jesus?
Even in that tempest fury, I knew I was not alone and that Christ knew my name - and circumstances – intimately, and that (with the Holy Spirit) God Himself was actually with me in the storm’s fury. I sensed afresh the presence of a kingdom beyond the ravages of Irma’s brutality. That dark night, Jesus reminded me – reminds us – that His Kingdom is our true home, and when things are at the very worst in our tempest world – HE is right there!
That comes as especially good news as we consider the hard directive today’s readings command. At the eye of all three of these lessons is the stormy theme – and God’s command – for forgiveness.
With the possible exception of prayer itself, I don’t think we are instructed to do anything more often or more clearly than to forgive. After all, the Lord’s Prayer (which is a part of every single service in the entire BCP) includes Jesus’ emphatic, specific and rather chilling appeal that the Lord would forgive each of us, to the exact degree that you or I forgive others.
But, sometimes forgiveness can be excruciatingly difficult. To pardon an unintentional slight is one thing, but forgiveness of purposeful, unrepentant injury often includes deep, life-altering, soul wounds. In such life-tempests … the shredded human heart, the scarred human body, the suffering human soul almost instinctively yearns for retribution, for vindication, for justice. There are Irma’s that can befall one’s life. Such events are unforgettable, and they can shape who we are.
Which bring us to Joseph. Joseph’s jealous brothers despised him and had plotted to kill him; they threw him into a deep well, and ultimately sold him into bondage for twenty pieces of silver. Yet, here as the closing event of Genesis, Joseph, with tears in his eyes, declares anew his forgiveness of his betraying brothers, thereby preserving the twelve tribes of Israel. While he couldn’t know it, Joseph’s forgiveness prepared the way for God’s ultimate plan: his entire family’s emancipation from Egyptian slavery, God’s formation of the mighty nation of Israel, and thus the most glorious event in Jewish history: the Exodus.
Such forgiveness was costly; Joseph wept deeply during each encounter with his brothers. But it seems forgiveness promotes wisdom, and Joseph here voices one of the most profound and hopeful prophesies in all of Scripture. In some ways, Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers, declares the very essence of all Scripture: “Do not be afraid! (he says) Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…”
Here is the transformative nature of forgiveness. I cannot explain it. It is a mystery, but when we forgive, when we give up the stormy energy of vengeance and retribution, we allow God not only to redeem whatever damage was done to us ... but to actually reshape our wounds, to form something new from them, to create some greater good – something beyond ourselves – for His greater purposes. I can’t explain it; it is a mystery, but when we forgive, God really does take what was meant for harm … and transform it into His good. And, incredibly, some blessing (not only for the one injured, but for God’s eternal kingdom) is its fruit. Ultimately, we come to see that we’ve been privileged with our small participation in His eternal kingdom plan.
In today’s parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Jesus provides an even clearer Kingdom perspective on the conundrum of forgiveness. Jesus has moved Peter’s very human (and a bit prideful) questions about forgiveness, from the earthly tempest of retribution and tally-keeping into a different realm, a unique world which Christ was instituting, and which the Disciples (and we) have already begun to experience.
For, in Jesus’ day, from a 1st C. Jewish perspective, the unforgiving servant did nothing wrong. He does exactly what would have been expected of him at the time, and what Jewish law would have prescribed that he do. In fact, at any time prior to Jesus’s coming, there would have been nothing unusual – much less condemnable - about this servant’s behavior. It is only the act of the King’s supreme forgiveness that prompts outrage at this servant’s unforgiveness. Such extraordinary mercy received, should have prompted the servant – and should prompt us - to grant what mercy we can.
Yet, one can know that forgiving is not only the right thing to do, and that we are commanded to forgive; we can even know, quite selfishly, that we ourselves will be better off by forgiving whatever has been done to us. But, there is something quite delicious and empowering about holding fast to injury. To forgive is to give up our righteous anger; it requires that we humble ourselves, that we lay down our badge of honor, or justification, or some sympathetic handicap. To forgive a great injury is to give up part of our proud, human identity!
Yet, as people of faith, is that not exactly the point? Though we momentarily dwell in human bodies, susceptible to the storms of betrayal and pain, we are eternal, spiritual beings (offered real life in the clear light delivered in any storm’s eye) where forgiveness – our forgiveness – is first received and than given – as an act of undeserved Grace. And, challenging as it can be, we have a choice about which realm we decide to model and identify with, for ... forgiveness IS a decision.
We are dwellers in a storm-wrecked culture, where injury and unjust cruelty have their day. But, we are commanded to decide (at first perhaps through gritted teeth) to forgive the one who has wronged us however grievously. And, as we pray for the one we decide to forgive – as we actually ask God to bless our enemy - the eye of our storm, opens to heaven itself, and displays the perspective – and calm strength - that only our mighty, saving Lord can offer.
On the morning after Irma, once we had surveyed the damage, we set to work trying to pick up the broken pieces of twisted gutters, and downed trees. We lost 10 huge trees on our property, 4 of which had been uprooted by winds so powerful their root balls – each 12-15 feet across – were pulled right out of the earth they had lived in for perhaps 80 or more years. In an instant, those enormous trees slammed across a field into the street – completely blocking traffic in all directions. They created an impasse which only professional chainsaws could remove – and that only by cutting those trees into a thousand reshaped pieces – and removing them. It was truly humbling to see such destructive power unleashed. It was equally humbling to see such enormous dug-in vegetation utterly destroyed by one dark night’s mighty upending wind.
Perhaps, the Holy Spirit is the wind we all need in order to forgive – to flatten the mighty barriers the Irma storms of hurt and betrayal have sometimes twisted through our lives. We cannot complete the task of clearing our roads without chopping and sawing away at forgiveness. But, it is ours to be done, and once completed, the clear, bright sky of God’s Kingdom-presence opens before us in ever more profound ways.
The day after Irma hit, I was once-again out in the yard, filthy with sweat, clearing what Irma had destroyed, and I saw something completely unexpected. I saw a butterfly! In fact I saw seven butterflies! One was black with yellow stripes; another was orange with black spots. Each one was uniquely magnificent; it was as if I’d never seen a butterfly before! I tried to memorize each one because it struck me as impossible that such a fragile thing as this could survive the hurricane we had just endured. Where did they come from? Where had they found protection during the night’s horror?
I cannot explain it; it is a mystery. All I know is that – as we got out there, and did the work we knew we had to do – to dig and chop and clear the storm’s damage from our lives … there they were – right in the middle of the destruction … seven fragile, light-as-breath (but strong as Grace) butterflies … floating from broken flower to twisted bloom - dancing and drinking in … the glorious, new-day’s sun.
Thanks be to God. AMEN