November 20, 2022
Last Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
For the last ten years, Alan MacMasters has been listed on Wikipedia as the inventor of the electric toaster. The Scot was listed on a Scottish government website as representing the nation’s “innovative and inventive spirit.” He was even nominated to be on a 50-pound note in a contest sponsored by The Bank of England.
The problem is that Alan MacMasters is a thirty-year-old aerospace engineer in London. When he was in college, a professor warned students of relying on Wikipedia as a source. His friend, Alex, who was sitting next to him went on to the site and did what anyone can do: edit the article. He “corrected” the article to say that Alan was the true inventor. And then later developed an entire fiction about the scientist Alan MacMasters in a separate post on the site. They both thought it was funny, and that it would just go away. It didn’t. MacMasters story has been told around the world. At least, until a 15-year-old noticed that the picture on the site seemed wrong, and he set into motion a process that has now set the record straight. Apparently, Frank Shailor is the true inventor of the toaster.
The story took on a life of its own.
In today’s gospel text, the notes at the bottom of my Oxford annotated bible, the fancy smart Bible that we had to have in seminary, has a little note about verse 34, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.” It says, “some ancient manuscripts omit this sentence.” Some of the oldest manuscripts didn’t have this verse. Did some editor decide to slip in a detail to the crucifixion story that sharpened the point about the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion. Interestingly, the phrase is similar to what Stephen says later in the book of Acts when he is stoned for being a Christian. “Do not hold their sin against them.” Did someone think it was so “Christ-like” that it should appear on Jesus’ lips first?
Forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.
It’s an edit that shifts the ground. It’s one of those radical turns in human history; one that goes against the grain. No one can realistically be expected to forgive or to explore the motivations of someone who just nailed your body to a cross and set you up to die in agony. Instead of hitting back, or condemning those soldiers for being pawns of the Roman empire, Jesus chooses a different path. His power, if you even want to call it that, is used to open, rather than to close. Forgiveness makes a path that could not exist before.
To sharpen the point, the two thieves represent the two approaches for ruling the world. One doubles down and demands that Jesus save himself and us. Be a king like kings are supposed to be. Get what you want. Do what’s good for you and for the ones like you. Win at all costs. Vulnerability is unacceptable. The other thief sees things differently. He recognizes innocence. He recognizes himself. He even accepts his judgment. I don’t think he even imagined that he would join Jesus in paradise. He just wanted to be remembered. “Think of me when you get there.”
Jesus reaches into the glory that is to come and gives the thief a sip. “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” When you think of it, even before his death, the man was given the gift of peace, an experience or reconciliation, a gesture of genuine love, in which to live his last moments on earth. Jesus reaches into the glory that is yet to come and makes a little edit in the historical record. “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
It’s problematic to demand forgiveness. Layers of trauma, or abuse, or searing wounds, the ongoing effects of systemic injustice are too important to acknowledge and honor. “Forgive and forget,” seems almost unjust to suggest. I could not suggest that the mother of a child shot at the corner grocery forgive the assailant. I could not ask the refugee to forgive the coyote who left some of the family for dead in the desert. I cannot even ask you to forgive me for my failures as a pastor. In so many ways, those who struggle to forgive terrible things are totally justified.
Forgiveness can never be demanded. It can only be witnessed and then offered.
Yet when someone, for whatever divine reason, decides to choose the path of forgiveness, a new story gets set into motion that has glorious power to re-write the story of the world. It is an edit in the narrative.
In speaking on forgiveness, Pastor Peter Marty remembers the story of six-year-old Ruby Bridges. “In 1960, she walked into William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Ruby was black; the other students were white.Huge crowds of protesters gathered daily outside the school to shout slurs and death threats at Ruby. Some even shoved before Ruby an open child’s casket with a black doll inside.
When psychiatrist Robert Coles was studying children in the desegregating South in the ’60s, he took a personal interest in Ruby. One day Ruby’s teacher told Coles that she had noticed Ruby moving her lips as she was walking into school. So Coles asked her, “Who were you talking to, Ruby?” “I was talking to God and praying for the people in the street,” she said. “Why were you doing that, Ruby?” “Well, because I wanted to pray for them. Don’t you think they need praying for?” Coles responded affirmatively but pushed further. “Where did you learn that?” “From my mommy and daddy and from the minister at church. I pray every morning [when I come to school] and every afternoon when I go home.” Coles continued, “But Ruby, those people are so mean to you. You must have some other feelings besides just wanting to pray for them.” “No,” she said, “I just keep praying for them and hope God will be good to them. . . . I always pray the same thing. ‘Please, dear God, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.’”
I think we all know that none of us could demand that of a child. Yet her witness sets something in motion within us that we know is right. We know immediately that Ruby is an image of Christ, that her prayer was the prayer of Jesus on the cross.
We know immediately that, whether we can be that or not, it is how God chooses to be. God forgives without exception. God in Christ edits humanity’s story. In his story, we receive the same sip of the future that the thief did, even though we all know that deep down we’re more the thief on the cross than the Jesus in the middle of them.
I cannot tell you that you must forgive all things. I can only tell you that God already has. And now you have the power, if you choose, to be an editor.