Last April, during Holy Week, this Chapel hosted a performance of Hayden’s Seven Last Words of Christ, performed by the wonderful Brentano String Quartet. Each musical rendition of Christ’s seven final utterances was preceded by a brief homily, and I offered the one on, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I used a phrase (I did not make it up) during that reflection that some people in attendance told me later was very meaningful to them: “Not forgiving is like eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.” It’s true, isn’t it? Refusing to forgive someone doesn’t hurt the other person. The rat continues on merrily - enjoying their new sweetheart (if we were jilted), laughing all the way to the bank (if we were cheated), or living life oblivious to how they’ve hurt us (or worse - knowing and not caring). Our refusal to forgive someone who has wronged us simply doesn’t hurt them. But it deeply hurts us.
It is a poison inside us. It deforms what and how we feel about everything. It keeps us suffering, sad, obsessing, maybe mean. It compromises our ability to enjoy anything. It eats away at the goodness inside us. When we don’t forgive, we let the person who has wronged us win. They have us. We let them make us smaller people. We remain in their clutches. We are stuck and cannot grow; we are locked into our suffering forever. We are not free. “Not forgiving is like eating rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”
Peter asks Jesus how often we are to forgive others, and Jesus’ response is, “Endlessly.” Don’t count; just do it. He tells a parable about someone who is graciously forgiven a massive debt, but who then turns around and won’t forgive someone else’s small one. Christ instructs us to remember that God forgives us - that God’s grace is always poured out upon us. Who are we, then, as sinners, not to do the same to others? Forgiving others is a kind of spiritual obligation. As we continually receive the gift of forgiveness, we “re-gift” it, we spread it outward, forward, and backwards, up and down. We are a pass-through. Who are we, recipients of grace and forgiveness, yet sinners, not to do the same?
As if this weren’t enough, forgiveness is also our road to freedom - freedom from the suffering that comes from holding on to hurt, holding on to abuse, holding on to an obsession with having our rightness recognized. Sometimes vindication is never going to happen. I said during my Holy Week reflection that I think, from the cross, Jesus understood this: that his spiritual freedom rested in forgiving the people who had driven nails through his hands and feet and propped him up to die in agony. And so from that cross he called out to God,“Forgive them!”
Forgiveness is one factor - but such a critical one - to our freedom, to our liberation - our spiritual freedom, our emotional freedom - our ability to let go and live the life that really is life. Our text from the Book of Exodus tells us of the dramatic escape of the Israelites from slavery to freedom - physical liberation from the yoke of forced servitude. Often this text is read during the Easter Vigil, during the wee hours of the morning before we acknowledge and celebrate the resurrection of Christ. We read and remember this crucial moment of God’s participation in the salvation of all God’s people. The pillar of cloud that had gone before the people to lead the way now has moved to the back of the line. The seas have parted, the people step fearfully onto the newly dry land with walls of water to their left and right. To turn around would be to play it safe and return to slavery. To go forward is to risk both destruction and liberation. They move forward. The pillar of cloud separates the back of the Israelite line from the first troops of Pharaoh. And the Angel of God goes to the back of the line as well. The Angel moves from luring the people onward to protecting them from behind, where they now need it. The Angel of God has their back.
In the first verses of the Book of Genesis we read how God, in creating all that is, moves and manipulates the waters, the deep dark forces of chaos, making dry land appear and taming the forces of destruction. Now God is at work manipulating the waters not for creation but liberation. In the ancient mindset, the waters were still the malevolent, uncontrollable powers that raged from time to time to swallow individuals and whole communities, pulling them under the waves. We see in the Exodus story that God did not stop with creating the world, God is continually at work in saving, liberating, freeing.
But the path of liberation from slavery is dangerous. The Egyptians are armed and they are in hot pursuit. The waves are towering over them just feet from their right and left flanks. Freedom from slavery is never easy, is it? Not in the United States, following the North Star, avoiding posses, trusting operators on the Underground Railroad that they were who they said they were. The institution of slavery here only ended after the massive loss of life in the Civil War. No, liberation isn’t an easy journey. The nations that struggled to free themselves from colonial powers can attest to that, so can the resisters of apartheid, so can those who’ve freed themselves from addiction to drugs, alcohol, money, and more. The path from slavery to freedom is dangerous, it is hard, and it takes a lot of courage.
And the journey from slavery to freedom has its own victims. There are the captives who don’t make it - who will die of exhaustion on the wilderness trek, who were captured by masters and died in chains, who overdosed, or who died still consumed by the poison of refusing to forgive. There are other victims, and no death or victimization is something we should make our peace with. Egyptian bodies wash up on shore. We do not rejoice, even as we do not accept the violence of slavery. Oppression is sometimes defended to the death.
Sixty years ago Dr. King preached on our text from Exodus, a sermon he titled “The Death of Evil upon the Seashore.” He was clearly inspired by the newly minted decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education. He saw the Red Sea opening! He saw those bodies on the seashore and made them analogous to the many things that were working against God’s plan of liberation in 1954, and I would add today. He named greed and war, and “high places where [people] are willing to sacrifice truth on the altars of their self-interest.” He named “imperialistic nations trampling over other nations with the iron feet of oppression.” He told the numbers of the bodies on the various contemporary seashores.
We read this text in 2014 with our minds on how much and how little have changed. What does liberation mean for us today - as individuals, a community, and a global community? We at Princeton are not physically enslaved, but how else do we need to become free? Some of us must find freedom from our suffering and finally learn to forgive those who have wronged us. In some cases, the abuse has been horrific, I know, and forgiveness is the most challenging project in life. Some of us are addicted - to substances, but also to money, or status, or grades, or “success.” In some way, each of us needs liberation.
But let’s think beyond ourselves. Where is slavery today? Is it amongst those who are trafficked into brothels, or into jobs on fishing boats or factories where they are literally locked into their workplace? Is it the people who come to this country and others and have their passports removed and who are imprisoned in the homes where they do domestic work, too fearful of literal prison if they contact police because their visas have now expired? Is it the people, usually boys and girls, who are sold by family members into bonded labor from which they aren’t released for many years? Is it women sold into marriages by a relative or a broker?
Let’s also ask ourselves, where is the dry land that we walk upon today? Where are the places in our lives, even with chaos to our right and left, where we see God at work, simply keeping us safe and dry, or leading us toward liberation? Is it a support group or friends, a new chance at fulfillment, the long slow work of a worthy goal, the assurance of prayer, or the knowledge of just how much ground we have traveled thus far from whatever place of suffering we started in?
Is there someone you need to forgive in order to be set free, to thrive again? If so, who can help you do that? You don’t have to go it alone.
Do you see the bodies on the shore, all of the victims of evil? We need to look at them. Some were in chains, and some cracked the whips. Slavery kills them both. There are bodies on the shore of the tens of thousands of children who die every day of hunger-related causes, and of the victims of despotic regimes, and of the tyrants themselves.
And, do you know that there’s an Angel of God who has your back? It is there. We make no liberation pilgrimage alone - not forgiving, or fleeing, or striving, or walking for forty years through desolation with only the stubborn belief that the promise of total liberation can be true. The Israelites get to the other side, but their journey has only just begun, with a vast desert before them. The Angel of God will go with them there.
The path backwards is a return to slavery. The path forwards is the one to freedom. Thanks be to God, who isalways laboring for our salvation.
Commentary on Exodus 14:19-31, Anathea Portier Young, www.workingpreacher.org, 9/14/14.
Feasting on the Word , eds. D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor, Year C, Vol. 2, pp. 330-335.