Sermon Archives

Sunday, September 17, 2017
The 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 19
The Reverend Areeta Bridgemohan, Curate
The Limits of Forgiveness

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you Oh Lord, our Saviour and Redeemer. Amen.

This time of year is busy with the back to school transition, the chaos and excitement of new beginnings and the task of finding a new normal.

This year, Michelle Jones, joined the millions of students in the back to school transition. She was granted an early release from an Indiana prison, so that she could start school in September with her fellow students.

She was released last month, and started a PhD program in American studies in New York. NYU was one of several top schools that offered her a spot in their doctoral program (this list also includes the University of Michigan).

Michelle served over twenty years in prison for the murder of her 4-year old son, Brandon Sims. Her childhood was marked by a family history of abandonment and domestic violence, and in her teenage years she was a victim of sexual violence. In 1992, her son died. It was determined that she had beaten the boy and left him for days in a room in their apartment, and when she returned to him, he was dead.

She was sentenced to 50 years in prison, but was released after 20 due to good behavior and educational attainment. During her time in prison, she became a published scholar of American history, presenting her work to historians and the Indiana General Assembly.

She led a team of inmates who gathered data from reams of photocopied documents from the Indiana State Archives and produced what was acclaimed as the best research project by the Indiana Historical Society. 

Her research focused on chronicling the history of The Indiana Reformatory Institute for Women and Girls, which was the first totally separate women’s prison established in the U.S.

This prison was founded in 1873 by two Quaker female reformers. These women were shocked by allegations of sexual abuse of female prisoners at the state’s unisex institution. 

Up until Michelle’s teams’ research emerged, these reformers were portrayed as heroes. Michelle’s research team, made up of female inmates and academic researchers, uncovered evidence that the leadership of these two women did not quite live up to its portrayal. The research team found evidence of inquiries submitted by female inmates into incidents of mistreatment and abuse.

Beyond the value of the historical research, and the untraditional composition of the team, the limited tools that the researchers have available to them makes their accomplishments all the more astonishing.

They have no internet, their libraries are filled with fiction and romance novels, so they do most of their research at, what an article described as “a 19th-century pace,” requesting books from the interlibrary loan system and photocopies from the Archives.

However, what has brought Michelle Jones and this research team to the spotlight recently, is that Michelle’s admission to a Harvard PhD program was rescinded.

She was among 18 selected for admission from more than 300 applicants to Harvard’s history program, but in a rare override of a department’s authority to choose its graduate students, Harvard’s higher officials overturned her admission.

A number of arguments cited against her admission, including doubts as to her ability to handle the “pressure-cooker” atmosphere at an institution like Harvard and the anticipated fallout on the university’s reputation from this decision. Some professors raised concerns that she played down her crime in the application process.

A Harvard professor who supported her admission stated: “Michelle was sentenced to a courtroom to serve x years, but we decided – unilaterally – that it should be x years plus no Harvard. Is it that she did not show the appropriate degree of horror in herself, by applying? We’re not her priests.” 

This professor argues that it is not the university’s responsibility to pass judgment on Michelle’s contrition or the condition of her soul.

This is an area of concern that is more fitting for priests. It is more fitting for priests because introspection and self-reflection are key practices for all Christians on our earthly pilgrimage.

Christians are called to be self-aware, to wonder about our inner motivations, and the desires and fears that drive our behavior. These practices help us observe when our behavior or attitudes are not consonant with who God calls us to be, offering us the opportunity for repentance, reconciliation, growth and change.

In our passage from Romans, Paul instructs the early Christian community in Rome, not to judge one another.

In the letter, he models a generosity of interpretation and spirit. He says that both groups who disagree about religious dietary practices and about the observance of holy days, are all trying to honour God.

Paul points to what lies beneath the surface differences: the thread of shared objectives. Both groups in their different ways are seeking to honour God.

We humans are prone to an in-group/out-group mentality, which leads us to develop a sense of identity rooted in belonging to one group or another.

But as Christians, our primary identity is not derived from political, economic or moral standing, or with others who oppose the same thing as us. Paul shakes us out of that short-sighted vision – reminding us that “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s”.

All our relationships can be seen through the lens of our relationship to God.

When we look at another person, the first thing we might see is their gender, race, class or other surface thing, but Paul reminds us that we often miss seeing that that person is also a child of God, a soul never beyond the reach of God’s transforming grace.

When we can look at a person as a whole person, not as a label – a label that gives us permission to write someone off, to reduce something as complex as a human being to a category – we reflect God’s generosity with us because God never writes us off.

The accomplishments of Michelle Jones, and her fellow team, demands that they not be seen solely as defined by their crimes, but as people who can make valuable contributions to society through scholarship, who have demonstrated resilience and determination.

It would seem that they are deserving of a chance to pursue their dreams.

But this incident reflects back to us the limits of forgiveness in this society.

At the beginning of the Gospel passage, Peter asks Jesus how many times we should forgive. Peter suggests seven times – the number of wholeness and perfection in Jewish numerology – and in typical Jesus fashion, he blows Peter’s suggestion out of the water.

Not seven times he says, but seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven in other manuscripts, either way Jesus pushes us way outside our comfort zones and expands the opportunity for forgiveness beyond a transactional, case-by-case basis.

Jesus says that we are to go way beyond tolerance and civility. We are to allow God to transform our whole selves into beings of mercy and generosity.

That is the only way to live into Jesus’ expectations of us with regard to forgiveness.

That is what undergirds Paul’s generous interpretation of the motivations behind the factions in the early Roman church.

The conversion of our stance towards each other and all of creation, reflects God’s image within us; it reflects the heart of who God is: a God of patience, mercy, love and abundance.

At the end of the day, Paul reminds us, we are accountable to something much greater than our egos: we are accountable to God. 

The focus of the faith community is not judgment – which is God’s realm – we are called to pursue what makes for peace and mutual edification, because we are parts of a larger whole - a wonderful mystical reality: the body of Christ. 

So then, let us hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s church: let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual edification, for if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.