This sermon was written and preached by Jessica Mahoney — UCJ’s own beloved Music Director
You can imagine my relief this week when I looked at the lectionary and saw that the readings I was tasked with preaching about were ones that actually made sense. They don’t tell long, complex stories with names that I can’t pronounce and hidden meanings that I can’t decipher; they talk about love. About forgiveness. About kindness. Thank goodness! I talk to my students about kindness every day. This is something I know about. Writing a sermon will be a piece of cake.
It turns out, writing a sermon is not a piece of cake. Sure, I know that kindness is important, as is love and forgiveness, but… how do I preach on it? And what could I possibly say to all of you that holds value? As I was struggling to get started, I asked Pastor Mark for a little bit of guidance. His advice to me was to see which parts of the scripture gave me a reaction; made me feel something. See what jumps out. Naturally, I added in my own reading to play it safe.
I have my copy of “Life of Pi” here with me. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It’s the gripping story of a teenage boy from India- Pi, the son of a zookeeper. Amidst political turmoil in the 1970s, Pi and his family decide to sell their zoo and move from India to Winnipeg. They board a cargo ship with many of their animals in tow, transporting them to other zoos in the Western Hemisphere. Midway through their journey, a storm hits and the ship sinks. Pi is thrown into a lifeboat and dropped into the heaving, churning water. His family does not survive. He clings to the meager lifeboat all night as the storm rages on around him, and discovers in the morning, once the sea has calmed, that he is not alone. He must survive on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean… with a 450lb adult Bengal tiger.
It is a fascinating story of survival that ripples with raw emotion as Pi learns to survive on the open water while acting as a zookeeper in the tiniest, most dangerous of enclosures, all the while processing his great loss and harrowing circumstances. While the majority of the story takes place in the middle of the ocean, the first hundred pages or so take place in India. It is arguably the less exciting portion of the book, but in many ways, the most profound. The beginning of the story details Pi’s childhood, growing up with the animals in the zoo, attending school, and forming his boundless, unshakable faith. But before I turn this into a book report, let’s leave Pi with his tiger for now, and his faith. We can come back to him in a little bit.
Following Pastor Mark’s advice to speak about the things that jumped out at me, I’d say it’s time to talk about the actual scripture readings. The first one, the Psalm, seemed almost too straightforward to preach about. Yes, my soul waits for God and yes, God gives my soul hope and who could possibly stand before God in all their iniquities? There are just so many iniquities. But according to this particular lesson, what was it that makes God so perfect and makes us so unworthy yet so hopeful of being worthy? I read it again and there it was: forgiveness. It is God’s ability to forgive us and love us anyway, even though we are so vastly imperfect. That’s what is truly divine.
Forgiveness is hard. I think that’s what makes it so Godlike- it is one of the most difficult sentiments out there from both the standpoint of the Forgiver and the Forgiven. The Forgiver has a lot of responsibility in these situations. They must make many choices, the most important being the choice to let go. Doesn’t that just feel impossible when you’ve been wronged? Shouldn’t there be more consequences? And even if you say you’ve chosen to let go of your anger or hurt and forgive someone… how do you actually do it?
My mother has told me all my life that I have to learn to forgive, learn to let go, learn to turn the other cheek. As a child, I did not understand this. I thought that “turning the other cheek” meant that I should let someone continue wronging me. Now I know that this is incorrect. Forgiveness is not about allowing hurt to continue, but choosing to no longer hold anger in your heart. There can be boundaries with forgiveness. I feel like the second passage explores this even more. “Be angry, but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” It is okay to acknowledge what you feel when someone hurts you. Your pain is valid. But holding onto it and letting the sun set on it helps nobody, certainly not God.
Many of you know that my father was mentally ill and an addict. When he died, I was still angry with him. I still felt hurt. My mother advised me again to forgive. He was ill. It wasn’t his fault that his brain got sick. Holding onto anger would only make me bitter. She was right, and I wish we had been able to make our repairs before he passed. I work every day at forgiving him now. It’s not always easy, and I’m not perfect at it, but lucky for me, God does not expect perfection, and I can attest that my heart feels better when I make the choice to forgive. Forgiveness comes naturally to God. For us mere mortals, forgiveness must be a choice.
Repair is an integral part of forgiveness. It isn’t always an option and when it is, it doesn’t always work. However, if you find yourself in the role of Potentially Forgiven instead of the Forgiver, it is necessary. This is another instance in which forgiveness is not easy. It requires admitting that you were wrong, even if it feels like you were right. It can be frustrating, humiliating, frightening…but that vulnerability is truth, and truth brings us closer to God. When you make a repair with someone, when you can look them in the eye and say, “I caused you pain and I will work to make it better.”, that’s using love to heal. Love solidifies and strengthens relationships. That is God’s work and his steadfast love. That is how he redeems us from our iniquities.
This wasn’t the only part of the readings that jumped out at me. The second reading was the one that really got my head spinning; so many great points, and not just the one I already mentioned! How about, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up.” How amazing is that? Can you imagine if people really lived by that rule, even just for twenty-four hours? On the grand scale, it would be the most productive and accomplished day the world has ever seen. Relationships would improve tenfold. Day-to-day interactions would be that much more pleasant. Even snarky, under-the-breath comments would be at an all-time low! Then there’s, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.” I wish I could bottle that! There is no strength in wrath or anger; but in kindness and tenderness. I could agree with that until the cows come home. But then there was, “Let us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.”
There it is. All those great lines, beautiful teachings, wonderful ideas to speak on, and there’s the one that jumped out at me: “We are members of one another”. And here’s where Pi comes back in. You see, Pi is a devout Hindu boy, born and raised in Pondicherry, India. When he is a teenager, he wanders into a church and as he describes it, meets Mr. Jesus for the first time in his life. It is through his frustrated questioning of the story of Christ– how could God possibly have his own Son tortured, humiliated, and killed for sins that other people committed?– that he becomes a Christian.
Shortly after this, he meets a Muslim baker. Midway through their conversation, the noon prayer call echoes throughout town. The baker pauses mid-sentence and begins his prayer routine, standing, touching his head and face, kneeling, bowing, turning his head, standing again- and then continues on with their conversation. Pi is fascinated by this; the communal need to pray, the physical actions and their associated meanings, the lilting Arabic phrases… and soon also becomes a Muslim.
Pi does not see a problem with this. He does not see the religions as separate from each other, but as beautiful ways to love God. To him, they are variations of the same thing; bearded Hindus, hat-wearing Muslims, hairless Christians… and he can slip from one to the next without so much as batting an eye. I imagine God doesn’t see a problem with this; that loving him, and living with love for others, is all that God wants.
Naturally, while God can see that love is the bigger picture, there are those who are smaller minded than God, if you can imagine, who think Pi needs to choose just one way to worship. There is a very amusing excerpt that starts out almost like a bad joke. Pi is on the seaside esplanade with his family when the priest, the pandit, and the imam all approach them simultaneously to say what a good and pious boy Pi was at their house of worship. This causes some confusion and each spiritual leader begins arguing that no, Pi is part of their religion. They squabble and begin hurling insults at each other’s beliefs while Pi wants nothing more than to disappear into thin air. I’ll skip over the insults and read you the conclusion of their interaction.
It was hard to tell whose face was more inflamed. It looked as if they might come to blows. Father raised his hands.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, please!” he interjected, “I would like to remind you there is freedom of practice in this country.”
“Yes! Practice! Singular!” the wise men screamed in unison. Three index fingers, like punctuation marks, jumped to attention in the air to emphasize their point. They were not pleased at the unintended choral effect or the spontaneous unity of their gestures. Their fingers came down quickly, and they sighed and groaned each on his own. Father and Mother stared on, at a loss for words.
The pandit spoke first. “Mr. Patel, Pi’s piety is admirable. In these troubled times it’s good to see a boy so keen on God. We all agree on that.” The imam and the priest nodded. “But he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian, AND a Muslim. It’s impossible. He must choose.”
“I don’t think it’s a crime, but I suppose you’re right.” Father replied. The three murmured agreement and looked heavenward, as did Father, whence they felt the decision must come. Mother looked at me. A silence fell heavily on my shoulders.
“Hmm, Pi?” Mother nudged me. “How do you feel about the question?”
“Bapu Gandhi said, “All Religions are true.” I just want to love God.” I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face.
My embarrassment was contagious. No one said anything. It happened that we were not far from the statue of Gandhi on the esplanade. Stick in hand, an impish smile on his lips, a twinkle in his eyes, the Mahatma walked. I fancy that he heard our conversation, but that he paid even greater attention to my heart. Father cleared his throat and said in a half-voice, “I suppose that’s what we’re all trying to do- Love God.”
Brothers and sisters, when we live with love, we are trying to love God. When we lead with kindness, we are trying to love God. When we choose forgiveness, when we make repairs so that we may be forgiven, we are trying to love God. These choices aren’t always easy, and must be made consciously every day, but that’s what makes them so divine in God’s eyes, that we are choosing to be closer to Him. And when you take two steps towards God, God runs to you with open arms, whether you are a hat-wearing Muslim or a bearded Hindu or a hairless Christian. God sees the bigger picture. How lucky we are to be so blessed. Amen.