SERMON Epiphany 4b 2018
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
Germans are very creative people, and that is nowhere more apparent than in the way they use their language. Germans love to make up words, and they have come up with some doozies. I found one online that had 63 letters. I couldn’t begin to pronounce it. But how about Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften, which, according to the Guinness Book of World Records is the longest German word in everyday sue. It means “insurance companies providing legal protection.” One of my favorites is Backpheifengesicht, meaning, someone who needs a slap in the face. Or how about kummerspeck, literally “grief bacon” for the extra pounds you put on when you’re depressed about something.
But the German compound noun that comes to mind today as I read the appointed lessons is one that I learned from the hymnal when I was playing for German services at St. Mark’s: donnerwort meaning “thunder-word”. There’s lots of thunder in our lessons today. And lightning. Is blitzenwort a word?
I hear thunder today in God’s word to Moses about those who are called to speak God’s word: “I shall put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak everything that I command. ..But any prophet who … presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak – that prophet shall die.” As a preacher, I hear that as a donnerwort, a thunder-word. “Preach my word or die” says the Lord.
And in the gospel, things get even hotter: Jesus not only preached God’s word with authority, but commanded an instantaneous healing for a man in the congregation with an unclean spirit. A lightning strike, a blitzenwort.
We need a donner-und-blitzenwort today, a word from God that with effect healing among us. I am thinking of the avalanche of suffering that has been revealed recently, mostly by women who have been abused or assaulted in the workplace, and perhaps most acutely by the young gymnasts exposed for years to that satanic doctor who was sentenced this week. (You will perceive, I hope, that I am trying to choose my words carefully, in consideration of the children in the room).
The topic is sensitive, but, sadly, inevitable. It has reached into our own lives today, as Lutherans here in New York. Some of you have already heard the sad news that our bishop, the Rev. Dr. Robert Rimbo, resigned on Wednesday when it was revealed that he has had an extramarital affair with another adult. This is not a crime under the law of the land, but the constitution of our church quite rightly requires his resignation.
So, with all this sin and suffering before us and around us, we need to hear a word from God, a thunder-word, a lightning-word that works healing.
That word, dear people of God, is forgiveness. Forgiveness is not just a thunder and lightning word, it is an earthquake word, a word that shakes the foundations. Perhaps a better word for Christian forgiveness would be thermonuclear; it destroys much; it changes the future with the awesome power of God.
This whole project we call the Christian faith is about forgiveness, a forgiveness so powerful that it destroys evil and heals the effects of sin. Forgiveness as we know it in Christ reaches not only the depths of our own souls but the depths of hell itself. Forgiveness demolishes evil and conquers death; it is stronger than our sin, deeper than our pain. It is the word we use when God’s unconditional, omnipotent, impartial and irresistible love dawns like thunder on the shores of our misery and suffering and depravity.
Do you think I am exaggerating is speaking of the power of forgiveness in this way? In Luke 15, Jesus shows us how God’s forgiveness works when he tells the story of the father who sees his wretched, stupid, sinful prodigal son off in the distance and runs to meet him and to shower love and clothes and food and jewelry on him without waiting for an apology. When a woman taken in adultery like our bishop (John 8) Jesus commands that the first stone be cast by someone without sin, and sends her on her way without condemning her. And of course we have the example of Christ himself praying “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” as the Roman soldiers nailed his wrists to the cross. Thunder.
Consider what it meant for the Amish families in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, to forgive the man who picked up a gun and shot ten little girls in their school, killing five of them, and himself, in 2006. The Amish community immediately forgave the killer, reached out to his family and attended his funeral. Thunder.
Or another example I remember from 1972. An American fighter pilot made a mistake and dropped a napalm bomb on a friendly village during the Vietnam War. A nine-year old girl named Kim Phuc was badly burned and ran, naked and screaming toward a group of Americans that included a photographer from the New York Times. His famous picture of her epitomized the horrors of that insane, terrible war and won the Pulitzer Prize. At the time, President Nixon claimed it was a typical New York Times fake.
Kim Phuc was rescued and her burns were treated in American hospitals. After ten years, she was able to walk again. She eventually became a Christian and forgave those who injured her. This is what she wrote in 2008:
“Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful but faith, forgiveness and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself, can you?” Thunder.
In these days, now, when there is so much to forgive, I think it is an open question: will we Christians rise to our calling, speak the donnerwort into the universe of suffering around us, and live into the one thing that sets us apart of all the other religions of the world, the avalanche of forgiveness that pours out of the cross? The world needs it. Syria needs it. Rikers Island needs it. The beautiful girls who were abused by that nasty doctor need it. Bishop Rimbo needs it. You need it and so do I. How much unforgiven stuff is rolling around in our lives? How much forgiveness have we refused to accept?
Forgiveness is why Christ came among us to teach and die and rise. It is the word that God commands his prophets to speak, because it is the word that changes things. Things need changing.
I went back to the German hymnal to find out what word in the hymn was the donnerwort. I was hoping it might be vergebung (forgiveness) because it would work so well with the sermon I wanted to preach.
Alas, the thunder-word was ewigkeit, eternity. I was disappointed until it occurred to me – and this is the last thing I’ll say – that ewigkeit and vergebung, eternity and forgiveness, have a lot to do with each other. Forgiveness is our ticket out of hell. Or perhaps I should say, our invitation to heaven.
Let us pray.