Sermon – Why I’m Not Running for President
Hosea 14; Luke 23:26-38
Farmville Presbyterian Church
November 5, 2023
– The radical nature of forgiveness
As “tempting” as it would be to run for president, friends, I have to tell you that it will never happen for me. They say, “Never say never,” but I can tell you to rest assured that it is a safe bet that I will never show up on a presidential ballot. I doubt I am the only person in the room to feel that way. That is one job that I could never do, and to be honest, I am not sure how any follower of Christ could ever do it either. Inevitably, (among other unsavory duties) the president is called upon to sanction the taking of human life, either in military action, clandestine or special operations, weapon strikes, strategic enemy removals, or to adopt policies that will directly lead to people dying. That is not something I could intentionally do. Followers of Jesus have struggled with this for centuries. The human heart, the animal side, the world-driven creatures that we are seek vengeance when we are wronged, determine when it is ok to eradicate our enemies, and justify those behaviors that we find morally questionable. The problem is that we also have a spirit-driven side that seeks a different way, a radically different way than the world. That is the side to which we are beholden in Christ Jesus.
Yes, there are situations that are impossible, circumstances that require soul wrenching choices, and I pray that none of those times are considered lightly by our leaders. There are certainly those choices that force the decision maker to pick the lesser of two evils, but I am not going to invite that burden for myself. I have enough to worry about without having to make those more-than-tough calls
In case I have already lost you, let me place the issue in context. Back in 2001, we were all shocked, offended, enraged, hurt, and moved by the attacks on September 11. Some time after the attacks, I was watching the film United 93 about the plane that went down before being weaponized by the terrorists against Washington. By the time the credits began at the end, I was furious and also surprised by how angry I was at those who sought America harm. Watching that fictionalized portrayal brought out emotions I did not expect. Even more, I did not feel any objection at the launching of our military operations in the Middle East. In truth, I did not know as much then about politics and foreign policy and how our society works, but going to war against anyone who might have provided aid to the terrorists or threatened us more made sense to me. The only problem was that I was wrong.
To even express an objection back then to the president’s plan to go to war would have meant being branded unamerican, unpatriotic, or maybe even a traitor. Knowledgeable people who saw problems with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not say anything for that same reason. To do so would have been vocational or political suicide.
We were wrong. Bush was wrong. The whole campaign was wrong. There was a whole other option, a different side to the debate that was never considered to my knowledge. This other way may have been close to impossible at the time, and he most certainly would have evoked the public’s outrage, but following the horror of 9/11, the president should have publicly forgiven the people who did us that evil. What I could not hold then was that violence does not change hearts. Forgiveness does. To change your enemy, you have to be willing to love them. To overcome your enemy is to have compassion for them.
This is not a popular sentiment. It is not an easy sentiment. Just expressing this may upset you. I do not mean to upset anyone, but I do mean to call us to life in Christ Jesus. That is what I am meant to do if it even costs me my life. So, I think you understand my qualms about being elected president. I’m not sure it is possible to follow polls, to follow public sentiment, to listen to your constituents and donors, especially the donors, and do the right thing – do the righteous thing.
Jesus did not have that problem. Instead, in the face of the most horrific evil he had ever experienced, evil unleashed on his very person, he responded with forgiveness… or did he?
Your Bible and mine all include Luke 23:34 (Father, forgive them for they know not what they do), but if you have a good study Bible, there is probably a note about that verse that says some ancient texts do not include that verse. Thankfully, our translation today does. Just the idea of Jesus forgiving the very Romans who were killing the Son of God was excruciating back then. Rome was evil incarnate, the beast in Revelation, so it was a problem for those telling the story of Jesus’ death, but that one line about radical forgiveness is also crucial to understanding the nature of Jesus, the nature of God, and the nature of forgiveness. This whole passage is pushing Jesus past the edge. He literally tells the people watching that they have it worse than he does. Others will say, he tells them, that it would better if they do not have children because the way that the world is coming – that it would be better to just be buried by the mountains now. Jesus is expressing a world they do not want to live in but is coming regardless. Sounds somewhat like these days, doesn’t it? There is always apprehension about what the future brings in uncertain times. The times of Jesus were right in the middle of incredible uncertainty, similar to today, but then there was something else – God is love and even loves the Romans.
Forgiveness is too hard. Not too long ago, I did a series on the Lord’s prayer, and we talked a bit about forgiveness then. You remember the line in that prayer – Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. This is a ridiculous thing to ask if you think about it. Who among us really wants God to forgive us with the kind of forgiveness that we have given to others? Seriously, who here is comfortable receiving the kind of forgiveness that we have shared? Who is comfortable accepting the mercy that we have given? Who is at peace with the kind of grace that we have extended to others? If we take the Lord’s Prayer at face value, though, that is exactly what Jesus instructs us to pray. We cannot skip over forgiveness because it is at the core of our Christian identity. It is the one way we can possibly most resemble God as forgiveness is entirely and completely in our hands. No one can make us do it, and no one can prevent us from doing it. We are as free to forgive as God is. And how we forgive is connected to our life in God.
And it turns out that the world is in desperate need for more forgiveness. In Jesus’ day, the rule was “an eye for an eye” which seems entirely just and fair (also sounds a lot like today), but Jesus was not satisfied with worldly common sense even if it came from Scripture. Turning the other cheek is different, and In order to turn the other cheek, you have to be willing to love the one who is insulting you. By standing there in that person’s presence, you are showing them that you refuse to treat them as an enemy. Jesus could have easily called an end to his execution on the cross. He could have stepped down and given everyone someone to worship, but instead he prayed that God would forgive those conducting the most wicked action in the history of the world.
We see evil and wickedness today, much more often than we wish. That is the price of living in a connected world. Evil was out there back then, but so much was never known at the time, if ever. Today, a terrorist group can invade a neighboring nation and perpetuate unspeakable horror, and we hear about it nearly instantly – seeing deeply disturbing videos that we can never “un-see.” What has not changed, however, is the heart of God.
There will never be an end to the Jewish/Palestinian conflict by bullet, bomb, or force. Only when both sides begin to see the other as children of God and fellow human beings will there be a change. Sadly, so much hatred has flowed, that it might be impossible by human measure. I feel pretty certain that the current leadership is not capable of seeking a humane, loving end to the conflict. Too much hurt and hate has gone under that bridge, but there is always hope that they and others locked in terrible conflict will see past their hurt to the heart of God.
Forgiveness is literally the hardest and easiest thing to do. There is no getting around the fact that we have to be able to let go of those things we carry in resentment. It never means giving up accountability or responsibility, but our lives are not driven by resentment, guilt, hate, or brokenness. You tell me which world you would rather live in, one in which you always must respond blow for blow, if not worse or one in which you find a way to live with all of God’s children in love, even when we hurt each other – especially when we hurt each other. Life truly is sacred. You cannot see that through gun sights nearly as well as standing face to face with cheek turned. It is always up to us to choose to follow in the steps of our Lord, and the way is radical forgiveness. To God be the glory. Amen.