A Commissioning of Discernment

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd     April 28, 2019

John 20:19-23 (24-31)

May words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

This has been quite the week! Once again, countless volunteers have stepped up to the plate to make the rummage sale another success. And other volunteers helped in the planning of the interfaith vigil that we ultimately had to cancel. Was all of that work and angst over the vigil worth it in light of the sad turn of events? Should we have just watched and prayed from a distance? Our chair, Eunice Pratt, said that we made the most faithful decisions we could with the information we had in our commitment to walk our talk. How could we do otherwise after holding our Interfaith Dialogues? We had some very difficult decisions to make very quickly and our Council Chair and Past Chair, Outreach Team and Communication Team prioritized prayerful discernment and quick response. I am so grateful for this congregation. I am particularly grateful to Eunice for her wisdom and loving presence through these long days.

We won’t make any comments or judgements or speculations on the police reports—we’ll leave their work up to them. But what I do ask is that we try to keep cynicism from creeping in. I would much rather be found gullible and naïve in offering Christian solidarity than having cynicism begin to gnaw and cripple our spirits and our ministry—and the Jewish community expressed to me their fear of this as well.

As the dust is clearing, here’s what we’ve learned. We continue to receive an outpouring of gratitude from the Jewish Community for offering support to them by planning a vigil that would speak out against antisemitism. Murray Trachtenberg wrote “What I take away from this entire incident is the quick and clear support that you and your congregation provided to the Jewish community. We will need that again someday as there will be more incidents, and they will be real… It is comforting to know that you will be there when that time comes.” Avrom Charach wrote, “thank you…for thinking of our community. It means a lot to me and many of us—that will not be forgotten.” Murray and Avrom were both trained as facilitators for our Interfaith Dialogues. The Jewish Federation of Winnipeg sent us a letter of gratitude, as did many other individuals. Our quick and clear response was important to the Jewish Community and it showed Westworth’s true colours.

We also learned that hundreds of people were planning to come to the vigil, including the Lieutenant Governor and her husband. The city of Winnipeg was coming together in a significant way to say no to antisemitic violence. We were stunned and yet not surprised that Winnipeg would respond with such a strong voice. It showed Winnipeg’s true colours.

When we learned about the police charges, we decided that we needed to continue taking the lead from the Jewish community as they had been guiding us from the beginning in our planning of the interfaith vigil. Almost all of them asked us to cancel the vigil. There would be more opportunity for future vigils, but the Jewish community needed time to process what was happening. We agreed. But we also assured them that cancelling the vigil did not mean that we would cancel our prayers. We have send out emails and a further media release, which you see in your bulletin, stating that we will continue to support the Jewish community, speak out against antisemitism and against hate and violence directed at any group because of its identity.

We’re also learning that there is a risk to standing in solidarity. By putting ourselves out there publically in solidarity with victims of violence, whether they be Jews or Muslims or the LGBT community, we risk becoming targets as well. This is a risk we need to seriously consider in our ministry. It is real and it requires prayerful discernment about how God is calling us to be an interfaith partner.

And this last statement takes us to our gospel lesson for today. The disciples were cowering in fear behind locked doors when the risen Christ appeared to them. To ease their fear, he greeted them with words that he often used to ease their fears and worries: “Peace be with you.”

His next words were not what you would call a pastoral response. He didn’t ask them how they were doing. He didn’t acknowledge their own terror when he was crucified. He didn’t sit down with them and process everything that had happened. He simply commissioned them in the midst of their terror and uncertainty to go out into the world with his message.

But first, he breathed on them and they received the Holy Spirit. The Spirit would become their guidance, their wisdom, their comforter, their healer. The Spirit would help them process day by day; the Spirit would give them words to say and power to heal. They would no longer be alone because the Spirit would be their constant companion.

The disciples weren’t ready to go out into the world, but perhaps they never would have been fully ready. Sometimes we need to respond to God’s call when we’re not at our best, when we’re overcome with fears, when we’re a bit shaky. What enables us to do this is the Spirit. When we are less sure about something, we may actually be more open to the Spirit’s guidance. It gives us a little humility and also keeps us open to the wisdom of others.

This seems to be how God calls us in ministry. Most people in this congregation don’t have polished degrees in Christian ministry. The only prerequisite that God requires is a willing heart to be Christ’s vessel and humbly serve as the Spirit calls. We will make mistakes, but with the Spirit’s guidance, there will hopefully be more times than not when we get Jesus’ message right.

And what is Jesus’ message? It is a strange one in this gospel lesson. Jesus tells the disciples that if they forgive the sins of others, they will be forgiven; if they don’t these sins will be retained. It sounds like Jesus is sending out the disciples to be magistrates in the community deciding who will be forgiven and who will not. I have never understood this passage, but I recently came across a commentary that helped me make sense of this commissioning message.

We are to speak words of peace that at times require significant challenge and at other times require abundant forgiveness.[1] There are times when we need to be very clear that something is not acceptable. Violence directed towards any group of people because of their identity must be condemned unequivocally. Irreversible destruction of the environment must be condemned. At the same time, when people offer sincere apologies and change their ways—which is what repentance means—we need to be quick to forgive. Our message is therefore what John Stendahl calls “holy responsibility”.[2] We condemn, with a counter voice of love, that which promotes hate and environmental degradation. And we forgive, with a counter voice of accountability, those who repent. Even in cases when repentance is lacking, forgiveness for our own sakes may be necessary—never to condone, but to set ourselves free from hurt, anger and resentment.

This is not an easy message to discern. It requires compassionate care and urgent attention to our world and to our community. Accountable forgiveness is not easy, but neither is compassionate condemnation. Archbishop Desmond Tutu is one of the few people who has been able to hold both together. He writes, “Forgiveness does not relieve someone of responsibility for what they have done. Forgiveness does not erase accountability. It is not about turning a blind eye or even turning the other cheek. It is not about letting someone off the hook or saying it is okay to do something monstrous. Forgiveness is simply about understanding that every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed. Within every hopeless situation and every seemingly hopeless person lies the possibility of transformation.”[3]

Desmond Tutu was able to practice accountable forgiveness while still condemning unequivocally those things that promoted hate and violence. He wrote, “I wish I could shut up, but I can’t, and I won’t.”

This past week, we’ve had a taste of how difficult and challenging our interfaith solidarity can be. I recognize that not everyone in this congregation has the energy or ability or even passion for this and that is fine because there are many other important ministries we offer in this congregation. But in our varied ministries, I ask for everyone’s support for the leadership of this congregation. They are faithful and committed and depend upon your prayers. While I’m on sabbatical, I know that I’m leaving you in fine hands.

So–where is the Spirit leading us in our ministry? That is a question which I will be prayerfully considering over the next few months and I invite you to join me in that prayerful discernment. In the fall, we will have many opportunities to explore this together as we consider our future direction. This is our commissioning of discernment.

[1] John Stendahl, “John 20:19-31: Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Year C, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009): 398-400.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Desmond Tutu, The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World.