“Peter asked Jesus, ‘How many times do I have to forgive my brother? Seven times?’ Jesus said, ‘No, 70 times seven.’ Each of us has to forgive our brothers and sisters from our hearts,” said the Most Rev. Edward K. Braxton at the 9:15 a.m. Tuesday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. His text was Matthew 18:21-35, and the title of his sermon was “Forgive Your Brothers and Sisters from Your Heart.”
“Dear people of God, this is the second sermon from my pastoral letter on The Racial Divide in America,” Braxton said. “Each one of us has to forgive our brothers and sisters from the heart. This is easy to say but it is difficult to truly forgive from our hearts. It is difficult throughout our nation.”
The bishop noted that we have just celebrated Thomas Jefferson’s “hymn to freedom,” the Declaration of Independence. In that, Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal.
“Note — all men,” Braxton said. “Of European origin. All women. People of different religions. Native peoples. People of color brought here to be bought and sold. Thomas Jefferson’s rhetoric did not address these people. It has been the messy business of the last 239 years to address the consequences of actions that continue to cast a shadow.”
He continued: “It is even more apparent from the breaking news that peace and reconciliation must be addressed. We must truly forgive from our hearts not seven times but 70 times seven, a symbolic biblical number that means we just keep on forgiving, forgiving and forgiving.”
Braxton called events in the nation, from Ferguson to Staten Island, Baltimore and Charleston, disturbing and showing of how deep the racial divide is in the United States.
“There is a growing awareness of the spiritual and moral dimensions [of the divide] that are called for great acts of forgiving,” he said.
Braxton named the distressing events — the deaths of young men of color at the hands of white law enforcement officers — lawful protest, whether or not to indict police officers, the sad taunting of the police and the heinous revenge murders of police.
“There is probably enough blame to go around as there is the need for forgiveness in all quarters.” he said.
These distressing events were exacerbated by the events of June 17 at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, when nine people were murdered by a young man who wanted to start a race war.
“They welcomed him and they prayed together, and then he got up and told them his intention to slaughter them all because ‘you people’ have raped our women and taken over our country,” Braxton said. “The families of the victims shocked the world. They spoke to the murderer before they had buried their dead, while they were overwhelmed with grief, prostrate with pain and their hearts broken. Each said, ‘I forgive you, right readily, and may God have mercy on your soul.’ ”
This kind of forgiveness, Braxton told the congregation, is instruction for the world, “for you and me. I would not have been so quick to utter that forgiveness from my heart. I might think, ‘The sooner we have an execution, the happier I will be.’ ”
In studying the distressing events, he said it was challenging because there were similarities in each, but each was different and people cannot generalize.
“We have to realize that our views are influenced by age, education, background, experience, race, family and the media,” Braxton said. “It is difficult to forgive because only God and the people involved know what happened, and a key participant is dead. We were not there.”
He urged the congregation to think about the law enforcement officers.
“We can’t imagine how difficult and dangerous their work is because of the violence in the United States culture,” he said. “They have to make split-second decisions. Most are fair-minded and have respect for human dignity. Some do not. Some have a bias and prejudice that influence their actions no matter what their race or nationality. That is a fact.”
Some young men of color commit crimes.
“That is a fact, but that should not lead to the demonization of all black men or a death sentence on the street,” Braxton said. “Some white officers use more force than necessary and are prejudiced. That is a fact. But that should not lead to the demonization of all white police officers. The facts should not lead to extreme conclusions.”
Martin Luther King Jr. regularly called for forgiveness from the heart, and Braxton said King would not be surprised that we still have a ways to go in this nation. Others try to reduce the problem into a simplistic answer. Braxton shared part of a letter he received that insisted, “Everybody knows that slavery and racism are things of the past. Everybody knows that everyone in the United States has the same opportunities. If people would just follow orders, pull up their pants and get a job … everybody knows.”
Braxton continued: “It might not be quite as simple as that. It might be more complex. Some Christians think they have been naïve to think that racial conflict was behind us. Some believe that systematic racism is morally wrong and have taken part in protests.”
He told the congregation to remember Jesus’ words.
“Not seven times, but 70 times seven,” Braxton said. “We have to keep on forgiving and forgiving and forgiving. It will only widen the racial divide if we don’t. We can cross the divide if each one of us could be open to a posture of forgiveness from the heart.”
He quoted King, stating that love is the only force with power enough to transform an enemy into a friend.
“And don’t forget the words that the young boy sang as he walked away from the church in [Monday’s] sermon: ‘God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more warnings — the fire next time. Praise be Jesus Christ.’ ”
Deacon Ed McCarthy presided. Caroline Bradley, a scholarship student with the International order of King’s Daughters and Sons and a student at the University of Southern Mississippi, read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship coordinator, directed the Chautauqua Choir. The Choir sang “Earth Song” by Frank Ticheli. The Randell-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy supports this week’s services.