An Easter Sermon on Forgiveness

I walked into the chapel and sat in my usual pew with, for my own sanity, very low expectations. It was in this very room, after all, that I endured an Easter sacrament service devoted to the concept of tithing (of all things) just three years ago. My mind was playing on the tasks I would need to perform after church was over: putting the folding chairs in the car, not forgetting the vegetables and the hot cross buns, and then driving to my sister-in-law’s house for Easter dinner.

The first talk by a youth speaker was par for the course, as the young man gamely tried to talk about the atonement. I appreciated that he actually tried, with mixed success, to quote one of his seminary mastery scriptures (from Isaiah 53). As youth talks go it was definitely better than average. See?–my lowered expectations were paying off already.

But then the next speaker began. Her name is Mary; she’s a beautiful black woman from Cameroon. I knew immediately this was going to be good; I would be happy to listen to her read the phone book in her lilting West African accent!

The talk started out pedestrian enough; some scriptures, and a quote from Elder Faust. Later, when she quoted a line from the Lord’s prayer, she quoted 3 Nephi rather than the NT; ah, she’s been a Mormon long enough to learn some of the tricks of our speaking trade, I thought.

But then she started to speak of her personal story, and the talk really sprang to life.

As I mentioned, she was born in Cameroon to a large, poor family, with ten people living in a small house. She remembered her young childhood, when she lived with her parents, as very happy. But then when she was eight her older brother took her away to live in the city, and her struggles would begin.

He and his wife basically treated her as a slave. She had to wake at 5:00 a.m. and do a very long list of chores, and she had to do the same at night. Her bed was a chair with two cushions. But her one salvation was that she could go to school. She only had one uniform, and she had to walk a long way by herself, barefoot. It would have been easy to give up, as lots of girls did, but she always made sure to go to school.

When the time came, she took the exam for entrance to secondary school and passed! She was so happy. But when she came home and told her brother, he told her to forget about it, that there was no way he was going to pay to educate a girl.

Luckily, she also had an older sister who had promised to come and get her; and she knew her sister would keep her promise. Eventually she did (they had to lie to their brother to get him to let Mary come with her), and Mary was able to go to secondary school.

When she graduated from secondary school, she came to Chicago and attended Roosevelt University, studying social work. She became the first person in her family to attend and graduate from college.

But she was not happy. She harbored immense anger and resentment, first towards her brother and his wife for the things they had done to her and the way that they treated her, and second towards her parents for letting him take her and not protecting her. From the time that she was eight into her adulthood she had nursed this grudge against her family members, and it ate away at her.

Then in 1993 on Good Friday she slipped into the back pew of a Presbyterian church a block from where she lived, and the pastor was speaking on forgiveness. He talked about what Jesus had suffered and endured, and yet he forgave all, and he asks us to forgive others, too. So many of us go around carrying grudges and hating each other; we need to follow the Savior’s example, for he led the way. She felt the pastor was speaking directly to her, and her soul burned within her. She cried and cried, and then she prayed and asked God to forgive her for not having forgiven her family, and she felt the burden lifted, and a deep sense of relief. She went home and called her parents–it was 7:00 a.m. local time, and they didn’t actually have a phone, so someone in the village had to run for them–and told them that she loved them, and her heart was lifted.

For her, she said, this is what Jesus dyinig on the cross really means.

The only bad thing about the talk is that I was so moved I couldn’t sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” I squeaked out a line here and there, but I just couldn’t get it together to sing the whole song.

So, with Kristine, for today I foreswear my annual ritual of experiencing Holy Week/Easter Sunday sacred envy. There was nowhere I would rather have been this morning than in my own chapel listening to one of the sisters of Zion tell a tale of Christian forgiveness that sprang from the African continent.

Comments

  1. Just beautiful Kevin. Thank you.

  2. Antonio Parr says:

    Kevin:

    You have hit on the agony and ecstasy of the LDS worship experience. (Although the agony of your Easter Sunday/tithing collision borders on the unforgivable . . .)

    The ecstasy is found in those moments when everyman or everywoman peels back the curtains to offer a glimpse of heaven to those who have waited patiently upon the Lord.

    Thanks for taking the time to give such a thorough recap of the talk. I felt as if I were there.

  3. Thanks for sharing this experience. I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced the envy you speak of, but it’s always better when we can come away from our sacrament meeting and say, “That was a great Easter service.” I’m just about to go to mine (different time zone, different meeting time), and I have high hopes for it since my ward has been pretty good at these things in the past.

  4. Thanks, Kevin, for that moving story. When addressed properly, there really is nothing better than a Mormon sacrament meeting where you feel the spirit from an average Joe / Jane member as powerfully as from any ordained and educated minister. That never ceases to move me.

    I spoke in our small branch today, and it was the hardest Easter talk I have ever given, since our branch was dissolved during the third hour – and the members (including my wife and kids) didn’t know it would be happening when I gave my talk. I really struggled with what to say, but I am grateful for the opportunity I had to speak.

    My family sang “I Know That My Redeemer Lives”, and the Branch President closed the meeting with his talk. I rarely have felt the Spirit throughout the entire three-hours as strongly as I did today.

    Even with the foibles and frustrations of our religious structure, I wouldn’t trade this church’s organization for any other I have ever encountered.

  5. Thank you.

    You just made my Easter.

    I too was fearful – I’ve been burned many times.

    So I sit in our building, listening to the prelude (though it appears no one else is). I pull out my Treo to get a quick BCC fix and all of the sudden I’m weeping at/with this story.

    Hallelujah, indeed!

  6. Fantastic.

    A few things struck me during our Easter service today.

    1. Hearing a person’s sincere experience with forgiveness and redemption is much better than hearing a technical explanation of how the atonement works. We had a talk like this as well, not as dramatic but very sincere and meaningful.

    2. The story of Christ’s sacrifice, death and resurrection bears retelling, every year. Brother V, known for his dramatic flair and great radio voice, read from the Bible at length, and it was enormously moving. Worship is sometimes about retelling the story.

    3. The Easter music in the hymnal is better than I remember. We sang several –He Is Risen, That Easter Morn, and All Creatures of Our God and King, which prompted my three year-olds to sing Hallelujah every ten minutes all the way through nursery and all afternoon, which seems a great way to celebrate Easter.

  7. Thanks for sharing this, Kevin. Deeply moving. As well to Norbert. I love it.

  8. Since I didn’t actually get to hear our Easter service (1 o’clock sac + candy = disaster) I’m very pleased to read such wonderful stories here. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Also a nice Easter here in England, both during church and at this evening’s fireside. The closing remarks at the fireside were roughly thus:

    In the garden and on the cross, God — the great Jehovah who ruled over Israel — is no longer God “up there”: he is Immanuel, God down here, God with us. God in our pain, in our betrayal, in our loneliness. And even in the midst of his torture he suggests to us a better life:

    – For the thief he offers hope in a future redemption: “You will be with me in paradise.”

    – For his mother he offers love: “John, behold your mother. Mother, behold your son.”

    – For his tormentors he offers mercy: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

    Let us not forget this miracle of Easter, that Jesus loved. “Love one another, as I have loved you.” This is Christ’s Easter call.

    We also watched a clip of President Hinckley’s testimony of Jesus. All in all, a good day to be a Mormon Christian.

  10. Cherylem says:

    Kevin,

    Is it . . . crass. . . to note that while you heard this moving story in your LDS service, the actual forgiveness moment in this woman’s life came as a result of a Presbyterian sermon?

    All in all, very very interesting.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Ha, I noticed that too, Cherylem but decided not to specifically point it out.

  12. Thanks for sharing this lady’s story. Wow. Perhaps in a future post you can share her story of how she learned about the LDS Church too. Also a story of how she came to the US would be interesting to read.

    It is hard to comprehend some of the things for which some of our fellow human beings must try to forgive each other. I have a couple friends who have been terribly hurt by others and yet desire to forgive- your post is a reminder of how the example of their lives is a constant living lesson in applying the gospel.

  13. Our Easter service was all singing, interspersed with some youth reading latter-day prophets’ testimonies of Christ. It was fabulous.

  14. Carol F. says:

    Thank you for the recaps, Norbert, Kevin and Ronan. The only thing notable in our Sacrament Meeting was a story about an ant carrying a contact, but the music was wonderful. THANK YOU for the beautiful Easter sermon recaps!!!!!

  15. We had a good Easter sacrament meeting today as well. Very good youth speaker, one of our 13 year old Beehives, and then a new couple in our ward, who all talked to the atonement. Not as inspiring as Kevin Barney’s experience, but good choir music, and good talks that that reminded me of the atonement in a good way.

    Thanks, Kevin, et al, for sharing.

  16. I was in tears pretty much our whole meeting, starting with the opening hymn, “He is Risen!” (I have got to remember to put tissues in my scripture case.) I came heavy-laden today; we all have our bitter cups, no? Even the Savior wished His could pass. The lesson is that He submitted and conquered — and because of Him, so can we. We can conquer pain, death, fear…. Today reminded me that because of Him, I can try to endure well.

    The other interesting thing was having one of the Twelve walk in as the meeting started (he has a child in our ward). Added an extra dimension having one of the Lord’s special witnesses sitting not twelve feet from me.

    Thanks for this post, btw.

  17. Antonio Parr says:

    Coney Island, by Van Morrison

    Coming down from Downpatrick
    Stopping off at St. John’s Point
    Out all day birdwatching
    And the craic was good
    Stopped off at Strangford Lough
    Early in the morning
    Drove through Shrigley taking pictures
    And on to Killyleagh
    Stopped off for Sunday papers at the
    Lecale District, just before Coney Island

    On and on, over the hill to Ardglass
    In the jamjar, autumn sunshine, magnificent
    And all shining through

    Stop off at Ardglass for a couple of jars of
    Mussels and some potted herrings in case
    We get famished before dinner
    On and on, over the hill and the craic is good
    Heading towards Coney Island

    I look at the side of your face as the sunlight comes
    Streaming through the window in the autumn sunshine
    And all the time going to Coney Island I’m thinking,
    Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?

    Van Morrison’s spoken song from the great “Avalon Sunset” album captures the grace that comes from noticing and celebrating sublime moments of beauty. His deep longing at the end of his reflections, as he looked at the side of a loved one’s sunlit face — “wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?” captures my precise sentiments as I read your accounts of Easter Sunday, where Christ was placed at the forefront of our thoughts and worship. The peace and beauty of this worship, and the realized capacity of Christ to be with us (Immanuel), has me yearning: “wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?”

  18. georgiaonmymind says:

    I just wanted to comment to Cherylem that it is possible for other people to feel the spirit at their churches we do not own the market on the Holy Ghost. I live in the South and have many friends who are not of our faith and they have shared stories with me of their promptings or feelings when they have truly felt the Holy Ghost. Regardless of what church we go to we can have uplifting and enlightening experiences at church. There are some Sundays that are harder than others to do so. I did enjoy this story very much and felt this Sister had a life changing experience which led her to our faith and she was able to help others. I love that!!!!!!

  19. Antonio Parr says:

    This will seem off-topic at first, but I’ll get to my point . . .

    Van Morrison’s spoken song “Coney Island”, from the great “Avalon Sunset” album, captures the grace that comes from noticing and celebrating sublime moments of beauty.

    Coming down from Downpatrick, Stopping off at St. John’s Point Out all day birdwatching And the craic was good

    Stopped off at Strangford Lough Early in the morning Drove through Shrigley taking pictures And on to Killyleagh

    Stopped off for Sunday papers at the Lecale District, just before Coney Island

    On and on, over the hill to Ardglass
    In the jamjar, autumn sunshine, magnificent
    And all shining through
    Stop off at Ardglass for a couple of jars of
    Mussels and some potted herrings in case
    We get famished before dinner
    On and on, over the hill and the craic is good Heading towards Coney Island

    I look at the side of your face as the sunlight comes Streaming through the window in the autumn sunshine And all the time going to Coney Island I’m thinking,
    Wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?

    Morrison’s deep longing at the end of his reflections, as he looked at the side of a loved one’s sunlit face — “wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?” captures my precise sentiments as I read your accounts of Easter Sunday, where Christ is placed at the forefront of our thoughts and worship. The peace and beauty of this worship, and the realized capacity of Christ to be with us (Immanuel), has me yearning: “wouldn’t it be great if it was like this all the time?”

  20. Antonio Parr says:

    (“Coney Island” is rendered more beautiful when listening to the haunting background music playing while Van recites his lyrics. It also helps to have the syntax of the lyrics, which I could not figure out how to recreate on this website!)

  21. Yes, it’s interesting that Mary first felt the spirit of forgiveness in a Presbyterian church, but what is more important is that she is now LDS. So I guess she didn’t find all that she needed while attending the Presbyterian church. People come to the church by all different paths, her’s just happened to come through the Presbyterian church.

  22. Thank you so much. Kevin, for posting this unforgettable story.

    I also had a very beautiful Easter yesterday — a special 1 hour and 40 minute sacrament meeting (!) with three speakers and three (actually good!) musical numbers, as well as a gorgeous, trumpet-laden morning service at my husband’s church.

    If you’re interested, here is a link to an e.e. cummings poem my husband’s priest quoted in his Easter sermon:

    http://wanderinginwonder.wordpress.com/2008/03/24/easter-poem/

    Wow.

  23. dear carmen, it is sad that you believe that god is a possession that is only held and confined in a cage like a bird in the house of your church. for when i read our holy father words i never come across the words, blessed are the mormons, for they shall inherit the world our blessed are the catholics etc, but what you do hear is blessed are THOSE, and blessed are THEY, god is the father of us all, and it is sad that you think he only belongs to your church.

  24. Steve Evans says:

    Wow, Justin, you’ve changed!

  25. Eric Russell says:

    “when i read our holy father words i never come across the words, blessed are the mormons, for they shall inherit the world”

    Actually, justin, 2 Corinthians 4:23 says exactly that.

  26. Steve Evans says:

    I heart you Eric.

  27. dear carmen….it is sad that you think he only belongs to your church.

    For the record, this “justin” is not me. Also for the record, as Steve immediately discerned I did not say “Blah” on the Obama speech thread.

    OJ (Original Justin)

  28. Inspirational – shows how freeing forgiveness can be. Usually when we forgive we free ourselves from the past.

    Sometimes, however, offenses are ongoing and inescapable. I wonder, for example, how dependent people – like the elderly or severely disabled – who are neglected or abused manage to forgive, or if they realistically can.

    Can forgiveness occur at the same time that we are being wronged on an ongoing basis and with no end in sight? I think this is one of a number of factors that make forgivenss a complicated subject.

  29. real funny eric russel

  30. robert frost says:

    I am so greatful for the honesty of these stories. This is my first time on the site. I love the atonement, i feel the healing power of the saviors sacrifice daily.

  31. Antonio Parr says:

    Yes, I know — Easter is past. Time to move on . . .

    But Steve West’s very thoughtful essay on “Bright Monday” (http://outwalking.net/) reminds me that Easter could (and should) be a light shining so bright that it lasts more than a day.

    (Time, also, to dig out my copy of Levi Peterson’s “A Christian by Yearning”.)

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