"Except for her passionate love of South Africa, Amy was a typical Southern California kid [in the late 1980’s], a straight-A student and a college diving champion who would end her diatribes against apartheid with the words `Free Mandela!’ So it was not surprising that when she won a Fulbright scholarship, [after college] she opted to go to South Africa and immerse herself in the country’s culture and politics.” Her story was profiled on 60 Minutes several years ago.
But her young life ended abruptly in 1994 when a mob of angry, young, black militants attacked her; she was killed by [a group of] the very people whose cause she was fighting for.
But instead of being angry with their daughter’s murderers, her parents did something so atypical that it boggles the mind. They dealt with their grief by doing what they believe their daughter would have wanted: understand the fury that drove the mob, forgive the killers, and become, in effect, the patron saints of the village that her very killers came from.
Her parents, Linda and Peter Biehl, decided they had to try and understand their daughter’s commitment to the people for whom she had given her life. They read her diaries, in which she wrote about her compassion for those who were suffering under apartheid. The Biehls and their three other children decided that they had to go to South Africa. Amy’s mother attended the trial of Amy’s killers. They visited the squatter camps of the black township where Amy’s killers had grown up. They came to understand how those squalid conditions could have led them to violence. Linda went into the home of one of the murderers and met with his mother. She says that after hugging her, “I walked out of that home. There was a rainbow in the sky. My heart was very light. I felt I had come to terms. And if that is forgiveness, I felt it. And I felt--you know, I felt -- I feel at peace with myself. So to me, that’s forgiveness.”
When asked about the Biehl’s forgiveness, Rhoda Khadalie, one of Amy’s professors in South Africa and a close friend said, “It is a gift from God that they can forgive the killers of their daughter, meet with the mother, go into the homes of the killers and understand who they are and where they come from.” Not only do they understand, they spend much of their time in the township, passing the very spot where their daughter was killed. What they’ve done to carry on for her is to establish the non-profit Amy Biehl Foundation. With $1/2 million in grants, donations and their own money, they sponsor 15 programs, including welding classes and after-school programs which involve thousands of young people, all in the very community where their daughter was killed.
What the Biehls are doing is widely known in South Africa, and like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, everyone marvels at it. “The [Biehl’s have] turned it all upside down,” Tutu said. “It is the victims, in the depth of their own agony and pain, who are saying, ‘The community which produced these murderers, we want to help that community be transfigured.’” The twelve-year-old sister of one of the murderers is enrolled in the after-school program. And when her brother and the other two murderers applied for amnesty after serving four years in jail, Peter and Linda did not object, even though they could have blocked the release.
Several years ago, the scholar of world religions, Huston Smith, gave a lecture in which he characterized the most notable, most peculiar aspect of each religion Islam, prayer; Judaism, family; etcetera; Christianity? Forgiveness. It is unique to the faith of Jesus and to faith in Jesus to forgive enemies. Forgiveness turns things upside down.
Let’s turn to this morning’s Gospel reading for a minute. The disciples are gathered in an upper room. They have come in fear and in remorse. Not a single one of them stood by Jesus until the end. They had watched him die and had not lifted their voices in protest. What must have been in their hearts – confusion over the news that the tomb was empty, but even more, shame over their lack of resolve when they could have stood up for Jesus.
Notice that Jesus pronounces “peace” upon his disciples before any of them ask for it. His first word to them on Easter evening is at odds with the way we usually think of forgiveness. For us, if we forgive at all, it is a distinctly secondary word. First, “Let the offender ask for forgiveness, say that he is sorry, truly sorry, then forgiveness comes.”
But that night behind the locked doors, nobody asked to be forgiven. Nobody said, “I’m sorry,” or “Lord, we really let you down by fleeing into the darkness; forgive us.”
Jesus said first, “Peace,” just as from the cross he said, “Father, forgive.” “Who is this who forgives sin?” Jesus’ critics asked – in the Gospel of Luke it is the content of the first great healing story when a man’s friends have opened up the roof of a house to lower down a paralyzed man into Jesus presence. “Jesus looks at the determination of the friends and says to the man, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’” That is the point when the Pharisees and the Scribes begin to draw up the battle lines against Jesus. “Who is this who forgives sins?” If you thought that the preemptive forgiveness was put to an end in Jesus’ death on the cross, you were incorrect. Jesus is raised from the dead and what is the first thing Jesus does? He forgives us.
In some liturgical churches, this Second Sunday of Easter is called “Mercy Sunday.” The scripture lessons are the same – the designation is to emphasize a central aspect of the Easter story – that is the forgiveness of sins. Rather than an emphasis on the sacrifice, however, this post Easter message places the emphasis on true grace, the will of God through Jesus to enter into the pain of our brokenness through Christ’s own, in order that we might be made whole.
Misericordia is the Latin word for mercy. Misericordia, which is composed of two words: “Cordia” is familiar to us from such words as “cardiologist” and “cardiac.” It means heart. The first part, “miseri” refers to suffering. Mercy, then, means to have a heart for those who suffer or, more precisely, to have a heart willing to suffer for others: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead… (1 Peter 1:3)
One of the favorite places to visit and lend a hand for members of our middle school youth in the past several years has been the institution in Chicago on the north side which takes its name from the word mercy, Misericordia is a home to over 550 children and adults with developmental disabilities, some physically involved as well who are given a living hope through the training and loving education and therapeutic treatment. This place of mercy is place where people become whole, active, participants in their own lives through the ministry of others.
So the sense of mercy goes beyond forgiveness and yet it has the same affect – Easter people are those who have experienced this living hope. Thomas, our friend the questioner – the skeptic – had not allowed himself to believe until he felt the hands and the side of Jesus, the tangible evidence of his crucified body raised. Thomas needed to touch the wounds in order to comprehend not only the miracle of resurrection, but also the extent of the brokenness in heart and body that Jesus had experienced on behalf of those he loves. In a moment of comprehension, the questioner becomes the first to understand the connection between human suffering in all its forms and the redemptive suffering of God in Christ. “My Lord and my God,” he declares – the first among his sister and brother disciples to do so.
Rowen Williams is the current Archbishop of Canterbury. He makes the connection between forgiveness and mercy as he looks at the ongoing process taking place in Northern Ireland. He noted in a radio address that progress toward reconciliation had made it possible for people to start to hear each other’s histories there; (recognize each other’s wounds – each others brokenness) which meant that they needn’t be forever enslaved to the past:
“There have been two stories in Northern Ireland for such a long time, two incompatible stories [that of the Catholic and that of the Protestant ]. . . and then there comes a moment when the possibility is just dimly discerned that neither of these perceptions is an objective record; that everyone in this history made decisions, some shockingly evil, some tragic, some foolish and that those decisions and the sufferings that came from them don’t have the power to tell you what decisions you have to make today.”
The Easter story, Williams says, provides comfort and encouragement: “If we can accept the unwelcome picture of us and our world that Good Friday offers, we are, in the strangest way, set free to hear what Easter says. Give up the struggle to be innocent and the hope that God will proclaim that you were right and everyone else wrong. Simply ask for whatever healing it is that you need, whatever grace and hope you need to be free, then step towards your neighbor; Easter reveals a God who is ready to give you that grace and to walk with you.
“When in our world we are faced with the terrible deadlocks of mutual hatred and suspicion, with rival stories of suffering and atrocity, we have to pray for this resurrection message to be heard.”
As another commentator has put it, “the Church in both practice and theology has too often adopted a prosecutorial stance vis-à-vis its opponents. Christians only manage to get along with those that ‘believe’ the same way that they ‘believe,’ usually with regard to experience or doctrine. It is very difficult to look out across the church landscape and find a congregation that actually looks like Jesus.” Easter people are those people who so live that it is difficult to tell them apart from the one they worship. In the opening of John’s Revelation – Easter people are those whom God has called to a new priesthood with a message of reconciliation.
What the disciples learned as Jesus visited them in the midst of their remorse and shame is what we need to be reminded of again and again. We need to know that God is not looking to catalogue the tasks of life that we are going to mess up, as if that was all there is. We don’t just need to hear God looking at our mistakes and saying, “Forget about it.” We need to hear Him say, “I will never forget you.” That is the nature of mercy. Peace be with you…you are not alone! Amen.