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First Things First

Once upon a time two monks were walking through the countryside. They were on their way to another village to help bring in the crops. As they walked, they spied an old woman sitting at the edge of the river. She was upset because there was no bridge, and she could not get across on her own. The first monk kindly offered, “We will carry you across if you would like.” “Thank you,” she said, gratefully accepting their help.


So the two men joined hands, lifted her between them and carried her across the river. When they got to the other side, they set her down, and she went on her way. After they had walked another mile or so, the second monk began to complain. He was angry. “Look at my clothes,” he said. “They are filthy from carrying that woman across the river. And my back still hurts from lifting her. I can feel it getting stiff.” The first monk just smiled and nodded his head. A few more miles up the road, the second monk griped again, “My back is hurting me so badly, and it is all because we had to carry that silly woman across the river! I cannot go any further because of the pain!


The first monk looked down at his partner, now lying on the ground, moaning. “Have you wondered why I am not complaining?” the first monk asked the second monk lying before him. Said the first monk to the second monk: “Your back hurts because you are still carrying the woman. But I set her down five miles ago.”


Friends, is there anyone you are still carrying, who you are frustrated or angry with, who you need to put down today so you can experience the peace and freedom God desires for you? If so, today is the day. Today is the day that you, by the grace of God, can let go of the anger or frustration which has kept you in pain.


The grace of God can enable you today to be free of that weight which you have been carrying so long, that spiritual burden—put it down and be free. What am I saying? Forgive and forget? No, I’m referring to the quote on the cover of your bulletin: “forgive and go forward”—forgive and move on.


Friends, sometimes our spiritual peace and freedom comes from finally forgiving one who has wronged us—and sometimes it comes from forgiving ourselves for having harmed another. We forgive ourselves and then seek reconciliation with that person and with God.

According to Matthew’s gospel, to his disciples during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”


Friends, the lesson here in Matthew could not be clearer—Jesus is saying in essence: “First things First.” Before we can offer God our thanks and praise in worship—we must seek reconciliation with anyone from whom we are estranged—and that includes both the living and the dead.


Here in his sermon Jesus implies that our relationship with God is intimately connected to our relationship with each other. This does not mean that we should seek out a person who has abused or physically harmed us. That could be dangerous. We are to find forgiveness in our hearts for such a person, and move on. We are not to carry them one more mile by our anger at them.


According to Jesus, we can’t say, I love God, and turn our backs on another. Jesus says “love your enemies.” Forgiveness is the greatest gift we can give ourselves and another. That gift precedes any gift we give to God. And it allows us both to be free of the exhausting enmity between us—and at the same time, reconciled to them as a fellow human being also in need of God’s healing grace.


My wife, Suzanne, and I have been married for almost 30 years. In my younger days when I would get angry or frustrated with someone my wife, at times, would have to say to me: “Bob, you need to let it go.”The inability to forgive or to seek reconciliation, to not let it go or put it down, keeps us imprisoned in a place of pain and brokenness. It’s exhausting to carry someone mile after mile. Let it go! Again, God doesn’t say to us, forgive and forget, God says, forgive and move on with your life.


Gandhi reminded us that forgiveness is an attribute of the strong. And with God’s grace all things are possible. Even forgiveness and reconciliation.


Consider this: Kim Phuc was severely injured as a girl in 1972 by napalm bombs dropped by U.S. military planes during the Vietnam War. A journalist snapped a famous photo of Phuc during the attack that caused outrage worldwide about how the war affected children. It was a heartbreaking photo of a Vietnamese girl running down a road, naked, in pain, her napalm burned arms outstretched as if asking why?


Kim Phuc endured 17 operations during the years after the attack that took the lives of some of her family members, and she still, at the age of 56, suffers pain today. Yet Kim Phuc says she heard God calling her to forgive those who hurt her. In 1996, during Veterans Day ceremonies at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., Kim Phuc met the pilot who had coordinated the bombing attack. “Thanks to God's power working within her, Phuc says, she was able to forgive him.” Friends, she didn’t carry that pilot one more mile.


Former South African leader Nelson Mandela, 45 years old, was sent to prison in 1963, coincidentally, the year Kim Phuc was born. Mandela was sent to prison on charges of trying to sabotage the nation’s government. One which advocated a racist policy called apartheid that denied black people equality and justice (Mandela advocated a democratic society in which all people would be treated equally).


Nelson Mandela spent the next 27 years in prison, but after he was released in 1990, at the age of 72, he forgave the people who had imprisoned him. Mandela, as you all know, later became South Africa's president and delivered speeches internationally in which he urged people to forgive each other because, in his view, forgiveness is God's plan and, therefore, is always the right thing to do.


In his book, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela wrote: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or because of his background, or his religion.” Said Mandela: “They must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Friends, after 27 years in prison, Nelson would not carry hate in his heart one more mile.


As the late Pope John Paul II rode past a crowd in an open car in 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca shot him four times in an assassination attempt, seriously wounding the pope. Pope John Paul II nearly died. He underwent emergency surgery at a hospital to save his life and then recovered.


Two years later, the pope visited Agca in his prison cell to let Agca know that he had forgiven him. The Catholic leader clasped Agca's hands—the same hands that had pointed a gun at him and pulled the trigger—he took Agca’s hands into his own as the two men talked, and when the pope rose to leave, Agca shook hands with him. After emerging from Agca's prison cell, the pope said that he spoke to the man who had tried to kill him "as a brother whom I have pardoned.” You could say, the pope didn’t want to carry Agca one more mile.


Friends, Kim Phuc, Nelson Mandela, and Pope John Paul II in finding the ability to forgive, to be reconciled, opened their hearts and minds to the peace of God. They did not live the rest of their lives as victims but as champions of reconciliation. Forgiveness enabled them to return to the altar and offer God their most precious gift—the gift of their lives.


Finally, as we continue to recognize February as Black History month I close with a brief story of forgiveness and reconciliation involving a man whose racism had brought much pain to black people in Alabama.


“It was March of 1995. Former Alabama Governor George Wallace--the man whom Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had referred to as a vicious racist—the man whom…the Washington Post said was "both the symbol and enforcer of anti-black racism in the 1960s" was visiting St. Jude's Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Two hundred congregants had gathered there to mark the 30th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March.


In a statement read for him--Wallace was too ill to speak--Wallace to those in the crowd who had marched for justice 30 years ago said: 'Much has transpired since those days. A great deal has been lost and a great deal gained, and here we are. My message to you today is, welcome to Montgomery. May your message be heard. May your lessons never be forgotten.'"


"In gracious and spiritual words, Joseph Lowery, a leader in the original march, said to Wallace: “Thank you for coming out…to meet us. You are a different George Wallace today. We both serve a God who can make the desert bloom. We ask God's blessing on you.”


Friends, this was not the first time Governor Wallace had, to use Jesus’ words: sought out brothers and sisters with whom he needed to be reconciled. “Sixteen years earlier, George Wallace made an unannounced visit on a Sunday morning to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where King previously pastored in the 1950s. Having suffered greatly from a gunshot wound inflicted by a would-be assassin in 1972 that permanently placed him in a wheelchair, Wallace was rolled up the aisle of the church to speak. You could have heard a pin drop.


He told the audience he had learned something about affliction he could never have learned before the attempt on his life. Yes, having been shot, and confined to a wheelchair, He said he thought he knew something now about the pain blacks had come to endure. Said Wallace: "I know I contributed to your pain, and I can only ask for forgiveness.”


Friends, forgiveness and reconciliation—two gifts of God’s amazing grace that can lead us all to God’s peace.

Amen.

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