During August at Virginia-Highland Church, we are doing a sermon series entitled “Stump the Preacher.” The congregation was invited to submit questions that they always have wondered about but didn’t know who to ask. Given that this is the church that serves mimosas on Easter Sunday, my assumption was we would get some pretty smart-alecky questions. I might have preferred that to the profound ones we did get.
This Sunday’s question is about forgiveness. Not the run-of-the-mill forgiveness like you need when your spouse eats the last of the gelato and leaves the empty carton in the freezer to taunt you, but the honest-to-God kind of forgiveness that is needed after a holocaust. That is a tough one.
Over the years, I have had several occasions when someone has come to talk about something serious that happened in the past: women who were raped by a relative; men who were bullied to the point of attempting suicide; having to visit their father in prison because his drunken driving paralyzed their twin … those kinds of horrific events for which only a fool glibly suggests that, “You need to forgive them.”
As I have grappled with how I might be a pastor to people who have suffered so, it has been my profound realization that the traumatically tender place into which I had been invited was holy ground. In my youth I struggled to figure out what I should say. The trouble was, at that time of my life, I hadn’t suffered nearly enough to know that there was nothing to be said.
So, perhaps the only valid sermon that can be preached this Sunday is silence. Once, as a member began to describe the awful abuse they had suffered, I began to weep for no apparent reason. I don’t mean that tears ran down my cheeks; I ugly cried. It was utterly humiliating, and I was mortified. I was afraid the person would feel that I was making their suffering all about me. In the end, all I could do was embrace them, and cry with them, and tell them how sorry I was that they had suffered so.
The next Sunday we sort of avoided one another. I assumed they were embarrassed for me. When I left that church, though, they made another appointment to see me. I dreaded the meeting, but they had come to thank me because, they said, that was the only time in their entire life when they felt someone really understood what they had gone through and that it was the greatest gift of healing they ever had received.
When you are on holy ground where the rocks are sharp and painful, sometimes you still have to take off your shoes and simply be there.
Rev. Michael Piazza