Monday, November 26, 2007

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

Nov. 25. 2007
Church of Our Saviour
The Rev. Este Gardner Cantor

Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, and on this Sunday we frequently hear hymns about Christ the mighty king. But the king we see up on the cross in our gospel story of today, has only one power left to him- the power of forgiveness.

All through the Old Testament a Messiah, a Savior, a King was prophesized. A shoot was to spring from the branch of Jessie, a new warrior king was to rise from the house of David. The people were waiting for a king, but as we say in our children’s curriculum, Godly Play, the king who came was not the king they expected.

In the Gospel of Luke Jesus is called the Messiah by the angel at his birth, he is called the Christ child by the old man Simeon at the babies’ temple dedication. Even the demons knew that he was the Messiah, and then Peter confesses, you are the Messiah of God.

The taunts flung at Jesus by the soldiers while Jesus is on the cross tell us the same thing- he is the Messiah, or the Christ, meaning simply the anointed one- which is what a king was.

But he ignores the taunts from the soldiers and goes about using his mighty power of forgiveness. Jesus forgives all those who brought about his crucifixion, saying “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Then he forgives the penitent thief, promising him that “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus, like any king, is able to pardon, to grant a stay of execution in a spiritual sense. He is able to transport the wretched to paradise.

This is indeed good news for those of us who are wretched in our unforgiveness or wretched in our state of being unforgiven. And more comforting still, the thief has only to ask that Jesus remember him.

I led a women’s retreat on forgiveness a few years ago, and at this retreat almost every single woman had a forgiveness issue with her brother, and I was no exception.

In perusing the bible I saw with startling specificity just what we were to do with these unforgiven brothers right there in the Gospel of Luke:

“If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him.” (17:3)

Many of us, including myself, were still in the miserable rebuking stage, although some hadn’t even gotten that far. And not one of us had ventured far enough to get to the forgiveness stage.

As a child, my brother had a lot of energy and was frequently frustrated by life. I later found out that this was because he was something of a creative genius trapped inside the body of an awkward young boy. Anyway, I was the one who got the brunt of his frustrations and he hit me often and pretty hard. My oldest brother, who was very kind, could not control him, nor could my parents. He continued to pummel me until the day my boyfriend (I was 15 by then) told him that if he ever hit me again he would be very sorry. I found out that my brother had no interest in challenging someone closer to his own size and to my glee, the punishment ended.

Very slowly, after that, I began to build an actual relationship with him. Then he left home and then I left home and we both got involved with the glory of living lives away from our family of origin (the source of much of his and my frustration.) He persevered in the difficult calling of being a documentary filmmaker (as I did not, although I pursued it for a while) and he won numerous Emmies and was nominated for an Academy Award. His shows were on network TV (although I couldn’t be bothered to watch them, since I did not own a television) and I saw posters in major cities announcing his next film. He was now out of the country filming more than he was in the country.

The irony was, that although I felt I was nearly ready to forgive him for beating me up for ten years of my childhood, I found it almost impossible to forgive him for his spectaular successes, and worse yet, not returning my e-mails, and for never, ever initiating contact with me.

So on one of my annual trips to the East Coast where most of my family lives, I did not visit or call my brother. I spent 2 days with my father in Baltimore, I went up to New York and saw the sights with my husband. But even though my brother lives 5 minutes from my father and I knew he was in town, I did not call him. I asked my father not to mention my visit to my brother that I was in town, but this was like telling Pavarotti not to sing.

My brother did e-mail me when I got back home, and was very hurt that I had not contacted him during my visit, even though he had not initiated contact with me for years.

At that women’s retreat I had a revelation that I immediately shared with all the neglected sisters there. If my brother were handicapped- if he was confined to a wheel chair, I would never refuse to walk down a flight of stairs in order to be able to greet him. In his inability to initiate contact with me there was a more subtle kind of handicap involved, and I finally realized that I was not willing to let him sit down there at the bottom of the stairs. But on my trip to the East Coast that that was exactly what I had done, and I saw that adding injury to his handicap was hurting us both.

So I went to my spiritual director and said that I was going to have to try to forgive my brother, but I didn’t know how. He first told me to start praying for him- deeply and without judgment. This was very hard at first. I had to initially say, “OK, God, I am praying for my [expletive deleted] brother.” It got easier with time.

When I was finally able to pray for my brother without using questionable language, I asked my spiritual director what the next step was. “Show him hospitality,” he said. “Speak to him without judgment. Complement him. Tell him you love him.”

This was even harder. But my first realization was that without even knowing it, every communication I had with my brother, even those neglected e-mails, had a subtext of resentment, carried no complements or graciousness, and I certainly did not tell him I loved him.

So I threw caution to the wind and I wrote him a loving e-mail, apologizing for the fact that I had seen almost none of his films, and said I would be very grateful if he could send me some. I told him how proud I was of him for all his successes. And I signed it “Love, Este.” I hit the send button and expected never to hear from him again.

A reply came back with dizzying speed, and he told me he was having a package prepared with all his films on DVD so I could see them. He told me fun stories about actors he was working with and costume and prop problems he was having in Europe. He never mentioned my failure to contact him when I was five minutes from his house. And I began to realize that in the act of forgiveness both forgiver and forgiven get to climb down from the cross.

I read in a recent poll the three things that people most want to hear in their lives:

Number one, as you might imagine, is, “I love you”
Number two is, “I forgive you.”
And number three is, “Supper is ready.”

These are the three things that Jesus promises. And if people thought that this is what they would find inside of these church walls, they would pour in like the hungry guests of the feeding of the five thousand.

Because whenever we are loved, when we are forgiven, when we are fed, physically and spiritually, we get a taste of the paradise promised to the thief.

Lately I am seeing the words of Jesus in a surprising place- the poetry of Jelaladin Rumi, the thirteenth century Sufi mystic. His poem on forgiveness bring us the essence of what Jesus was saying to the thief, what he says to us all:

Come, come, whoever you are.
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.