Saying Sorry: Breaking the Chain of Hate [Lent 4]
2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21; Luke 15: 1 – 3, 11b – 32
73 years ago Avis Gale was born under a Quandong tree near Ceduna, on the edge of the Nullarbor. When her mother fell pregnant while working with a white family she was sent home. A white man had fathered her child, Avis.
As a 7-day old baby she was taken from her mother to the United Aborigines’ Mission at Colebrook Home, some 500 miles away in Adelaide. There she was reared under stringent conditions. If the children didn’t read the Bible they were deprived of food. She was raped and beaten. The Bible made no sense to her. On one Guy Fawkes Night she burned the pages from 30 Bibles. She was beaten with a hose and branded on her leg and told she was going to hell. That didn’t matter to her as she was already in hell.
At 13 she was allowed to move to another hostel run by two women missionaries who had started the first Colebrook Home. They were held in high regard and a couple of stable years followed and she did well at school. But the pain and anger of the estrangement from her family and the physical and psychological abuse had led to a well of deep anger and distrust in Avis. Taken from her family and receiving a few sporadic visits from a black woman, whom she was told was her mother did not establish any sense of belonging. The severe discipline of Colebrook Home cemented her alienation. Sexual and physical abuse only reinforced the alienation that ran deep within her. She was angry, bitter and rebellious.
Her understandable rebellious behaviour against the authorities who had stolen so much from her resulted in spells in prison. In telling her story she says, ‘Once I had a taste of prison it became my home.’ Prison was a sanctuary providing three meals a day and a dry place to sleep. Prison was a place where she felt safe. It was in prison where she was introduced to drugs.
Finally after a complete breakdown she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. It was there, with the help of a doctor and a childhood friend that she decided not to let the system destroy her. In time she became a manager of a hostel for Aboriginal children who came to Adelaide from the centre of Australia for education. When the Royal Commission was established in 1995 on the effects of the assimilation policies, which demanded the removal of children of mixed blood from their Aboriginal mothers, she came forward and told her story for the first time.
Telling her story was highly painful as all the hurts were brought to the surface. Speaking out began to heal her. In time someone gave her a bible. It took weeks before she could touch it. When she read ‘love your enemies’ [Mt 5: 44] it confirmed what she was slowly recognising, that to be fully healed she needed to forgive those who had hurt her so much. She said that when the UCA in South Australia apologised unconditionally for their part in the removal policies it freaked her out. She said she recognised that she too had apologies to make. She also had come to realise that one day she would need to stand before her Maker. So she did make those apologies.
Avis became an active worker in the reconciliation movement working to establish a memorial to grieving mothers whose children had been taken away. She also organised reconciliation days.
Reconciliation is our theme today. Jesus gives us that wonderful story of the Prodigal Son. That’s its traditional name. I prefer to call it the Parable of the Waiting Father. * It tells the story of a father and two sons. The younger comes to the father and says he wants his inheritance. This request is deeply insulting. The son is asking for his portion of the property before his father dies. He is treating his father as if he was dead or wishing he were dead. He also wants to leave the family. The wise father knows that his son will never be his if he forces him to stay. So he gives this selfish boy his portion who promptly goes off and lives selfishly and foolishly, ending up in depravity and poverty. This brings him to his senses. He realises that he would be better off as a servant in his father’s home. He goes back home. He has rehearsed his lines as to what he will say. They are set aside by his father’s unseemly behaviour. He sees his son coming down the road. The father runs to meet his son. That is unseemly. Not what a good father of that day would do. The father breaks social conventions. He offers mercy before repentance. He provides acceptance before recompense. The son is also restored to his former position as a son, and a party is thrown in his honour, despite his previoius insultingly behaviour to father and family.
The older brother returns from the fields and discovers what has happened. We would all agree that this is unfair. But the father goes out to his older son and speaks reconciling words. We don’t know the sequel. But the point of the parable is this: there cannot be a family without the reconciliation, which involves the restoring of all relationships. If we don’t get this then we don’t get Christianity. Christianity is about relationships being restored through reconciliation. That is what Jesus was about. Jesus said in his teaching and actions that God wants us to be restored to our relationship with God the Creator and that he Jesus, would be the pathway to that restoration. Reconciliation is about repentance, apology and forgiveness. Jesus lives and breathes this reconciliation. He identifies with us in his baptism, he practices forgiveness in his ministry, he humbly submits himself in obedience to the will of God the Father and confronts evil with all conquering love.
It is not surprising that Paul says to the Corinthians that the essence of all Christian service is reconciliation. There is nothing more important than binding up broken relationships and breaking down alienating systems and behaviour. Community is essential to living life well. Isolation and alienation is the death of community. Community to exist needs fellowship and that is the hallmark of the Church. The Church is a fellowship of Christ-followers reaching out and welcoming others into that fellowship.
We need to practise repentance, apology and forgiveness if we want fellowship and community. Repentance, apology and forgiveness are each important doing words. Repentance means looking the right way. From time to time we need to repent, because our focus is on the wrong things. We need to turn around and face the right way: face God because God is the beginning and end of life.
Apology is fundamental to our relationships with each other and God. We never do the right thing all the time. It’s impossible. Therefore it is important to be humble enough to realise that and be prepared to say sorry. Sorry is always the beginning of restoring a relationship.
Forgiveness is at the centre and that is why Jesus taught us to pray: ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’. In my experience forgiveness is one of the most misunderstood spiritual actions of life. Forgiveness has a number of steps. The first step is a willingness to forgive. That willingness to forgive needs to be nurtured. Praying the Lord’s Prayer is part of the nurturing of a forgiving spirit. Recognising our own failures develops our humility. So when we are hurt the first step is to ask God to help us to forgive. The second step involves acknowledging the wrong. We don’t just say, ‘Oh that doesn’t matter, I forgive’. No, if you are really hurt you acknowledge the hurt. If someone came to you to say sorry, you likewise tell them you are hurt and that you forgive them and thank them for their apology. Forgiveness is not dismissing the wrong and its accompanying hurt. Forgiveness is not overlooking the wrong. The third step is the act of forgiving having received the apology. Sincere sorrow and genuine forgiveness results in a closer relationship not just an absence of conflict. If all you have is an absence of conflict you don’t have reconciliation. Fourthly, there are times when we can’t talk to the person and we need to forgive and place our anger and hurt at the foot of the Cross. That is what God wants of us – to forgive others as God forgives us. There is nothing worse than carrying a hurt in our hearts and minds and letting it fester.
God has reconciled us through the life, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. God has given us a ministry of reconciliation where we live a life that is forgiven by God and a life forgiving of others.
* [I have preached a series of five sermons on this parable in 2011. If you want to you can search our website to read them. If I may say so they are worthwhile as they were based on the reflection of Henri Nouwen.]
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 31/03/2019