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Sermon at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral Diocese of Olympia - 2004 June 20 Seattle, Washington

Sermon at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral Diocese of Olympia - 2004 June 20 Seattle, Washington

Sermons at St. Mark’s

The Reverend Michael Lapsley, Executive Director of the Institute for the Healing of Memories in Cape Town, South Africa, The Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 20, 2004


Bicycle Theology

Zechariah 12:8-10; 13:1                   Galatians 3:23-29                              Luke 9:18-24


My sisters and brothers, I am very delighted to be here in Seattle. I tried to come in 1997, but I got sick, so I’ve been waiting for seven years. It’s been worth waiting for. Thank you, in a particular way, to Father Robert, for inviting me to be here. As I come from Cape Town, you might have thought I’ve come to take him home. But I discovered that he is sufficiently loved that we will leave him here for a few more weeks.

I would like to begin by thanking this Cathedral church for taking seriously the Epistle to the Galatians, the reading that we heard today. Because this Cathedral church is a shining light at a dark moment of human history. I want to thank you for being a cathedral in which male and female are treated with the same dignity. I want to thank you for being a cathedral church where all the colors of the rainbow are treated with equal dignity. I want to thank you for this cathedral church being a place where same-gender loving and other-gender loving human beings are received with equal dignity. The particular way I want to thank you is for being a cathedral that stands for peace in a time of war. For refusing to buy the argument that you’re less patriotic because you are committed to peace. I thank you on behalf of the peoples of the world, who too were not convinced that this war was just or justifiable. So thank you. (You are allowed to give yourselves applause now. You see, when you have no hands, you have to get other people to clap for you. So thank you for being willing to cooperate with me.)

I’d like to reflect with you about a verse which does not appear in Scripture. The verse is: “The time has come to forgive and to forget.” I was involved in a Healing of Memories workshop, the kind of work I do in South Africa, and a pastor stood up and said, “We must forgive and forget.” I said to him, “Pastor, why do you say that?” He said, “Because it’s in the Bible.” I said, “Please show me the passage.” He’s still there, turning the pages, looking for that particular verse.

In South Africa, at the time of our transition to democracy, the last white president used to speak of the need to forgive and forget in such a holy tone that it sounded as if, it wasn’t, at least it should be in the Scriptures. But as I have listened now for many years to the stories of people in pain, again and again I have heard them say, “Of course we’re supposed to forgive and forget, but the problem is, I cannot forget.” That raises the question about whether we should, in fact, forget.

Just before I was in the United States, a couple of weeks ago, I was in Australia, and it was at the time of the remembrance of D-Day of more than 60 years ago, and so it was in the headlines in the Australian press. And so I arrived in the United States, and again it was headlines about D-Day. So many countries of the world were filled with remembrance of the sacrifices of 60 years ago and how they shaped our history. But it was also interesting to see how the politicians sought to use memory to justify the present. So yes, remembering¾but remembering to what end?

And then of course President Reagan died. I must say, as a South African, I was a little surprised to find that he had become a saint. But I suppose my memories as a South African were slightly different. I remembered that he had opposed sanctions, and that the Congress had voted for sanctions, and eventually the Congress overruled the President. Those sanctions meant that we died less in South Africa, that our struggle came to its culmination more quickly.

But we are people of faith, people who read the Good Book, and so of course it needs to be to Scripture that we should turn to discover what the Bible tells us about memory. I have one of those clever computer programs where you can punch in any word from the Bible, and it will give you all the appearances of that word. It’s very interesting, if you punch in the word “forget,” In most cases in Scripture is has two little words in front of it, “do not,” There are many examples of the call to remember in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. Again and again the prophets say to the Jewish people, “The reason you are misbehaving now, the reason you are morally lost, is because you have forgotten the God who accompanied you on the journey from slavery to freedom. Remember! Remember when you were slaves in Egypt, remember the God who talked with you, who walked with you on the journey.”

And of course, what is it we are doing here? What is this table all about, the altar in front of us? “Take, eat, this is my body, this is my blood. Do this in memory of me.”

Next time that somebody tells you that we as Christians are supposed to forget, tell them they’re talking junk. Because like Muslims, like Jewish people, we Christians belong to one of the great remembering religions.

(How often to you have mass, Father, in this church? Every Sunday? Not during the week? Every day? Is that¾pardon? The sound system is bad, isn’t it.)

What kind of memory does Scripture encourage us to have? It is redemptive memory: it is the memory of good that comes out of evil; it is the memory of life that comes out of death. Redemptive memory¾because of course, nations, communities, and individuals often have another kind of memory¾destructive memory. There are many conflicts in the world in which grandparents pass on to grandchildren hatred. Yes, they remember¾in Ireland they speak of Battle of the Boyne, through the 16th something or 17th something. I remember in Bosnia, people saying, “We’re going to attack that village over there, because of what they did to us in 1492.” So the question for us is how do we move from destructive memory to life-giving memory?

I want to suggest to you that if something terrible has happened to an individual, to a community, or to a nation, there is one of two journeys. Either we travel a journey of victim-survivor-victor (something has been done to us, we are victims¾if we physically survive we’re survivors¾to be a victor is to become a subject of history once more.) To become what the Bible speaks of co-creators, co-workers with God. That is the redemptive path. There is another path¾the path of victims who become victimizers. One of South Africa’s great and wise leaders, Chief Lutuli, once said: “Those who think of themselves as victims eventually become the victimizers of others.”

When September 11 happened, New York¾the United States¾was a victim. It had the sympathy, the compassion, and the support, of the broadest possible group of humanity, transcending so many barriers, so many divisions. But what did the victim do? The victim went on to become the victimizer. And the victim didn’t mind if it was the same people who did it, but there was need for revenge. And so the cycle continued. But equally that is true for us as individuals, and often in conflicts, both sides think of themselves as victims; both sides justify what they do to the other in the name of what was done to them.

So the question is, how do we break that cycle? I want to suggest to you today that breaking the cycle of victim-victimizer-victim is a question of detoxification; it’s a question of getting the poison out. It’s a question of dealing with not what we think about the past, but of what we feel about the past. It’s about traveling a journey beginning with the step from knowledge to acknowledgement. Often in families, communities and nations there is a guilty secret everybody knows, but it cannot be spoken about¾so there is no acknowledgement. There’s nobody saying, “I’m sorry. It was wrong.”

But what of forgiveness? I’m sure not from this cathedral church, but often from pulpits, preachers tell their congregations that they must forgive, and forgiveness is spoken of as something glib and cheap and easy. The preacher doesn’t admit that she or he finds forgiveness costly, painful, and difficult. And that it to is a journey and a choice.

(I don’t know¾I must just ask Father again¾do you have, Father, in your church, Bicycle Theology? No?) Bicycle Theology is where I come, I steal your bicycle, and six months later I return, and I say to you, “I am the one who stole your bicycle. I am very sorry. Please will you forgive me?” And because you’re a good Christian person, you say, “Yes of course I forgive you”¾and I keep the bike. Often, we in the church preach Bicycle Theology. We reduce forgiveness to saying sorry, and we don’t return the bike. And so restitution and reparation are part of the journey of forgiveness.

I have often said that, in my own journey, I am not full of hatred, I’m not bitter, I don’t want revenge. Because I realized that if I was filled with hatred and bitterness I would be a victim forever: they would have failed to kill the body, but they would have killed the soul. So sometimes after I speak, somebody jumps up and says, “You’re such a wonderful example of forgiveness!” Which surprises me slightly, since I hadn’t mentioned the word forgiveness.

You see, I received a letter bomb in April of 1990, three months after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. I know that the last white president was morally and politically responsible, but I don’t know who made the bomb. I don’t know who posted it. So in a sense I have not yet forgiven anybody, because there’s nobody yet to forgive. But perhaps, when I return to Cape Town, the doorbell will go, and someone will be there who says, “I am the one who sent you the letter bomb. Please will you forgive me?” I would have a prior question: “Do you still make letter bombs?” He says, “No, actually, I work at the local hospital.” My response would be to say, “Yes of course I forgive you¾and I would prefer that you spend the next fifty years working at that hospital rather than be locked up in prison.” Because I believe more in restorative justice than the justice of retribution.

Often when we say justice, we mean retribution¾if not revenge.

So, perhaps we would have tea together, then I might say, “Of course, you cannot return my hands, you cannot return the eye I lost, you cannot fix my eardrums¾but you could assist me for the rest of my life with someone to help me, as a consequence of what happened to me.” That would not be a condition of forgiveness; it would be a form of reparation and restitution, in the ways that are possible.

And so, dear sisters and brothers, ask yourselves, are there any bicycles that need to be returned in your own life? Are there those to whom you do need to say, “I’m sorry. I was wrong.”? Sometimes, even though we might have mainly been the victim, we need to travel the journey of forgiveness for our own sake, as a form of healthy selfishness, to let go, so we too can be free¾free if you like to become wounded healers.

So my work is part of an institute for healing of memories, listening to the pain of the people of South Africa, and increasingly to the pain of the people of the world. Providing spaces where human beings can begin to acknowledge what has happened to them, have it heard, reverenced, recognized¾begin to let go of that in the past which would destroy them, and take from the past that which is life-giving.

I’m here in the United States this time seeking support for this work in South Africa, but also in other parts of the world. But even as we seek your support, I hope in a small way this morning to be able to minister to you. Maybe just to say, there are pamphlets in the back about our institute and our website, if people are interested. You’ll easily recognize the pamphlets, which are black, because in South Africa the future is black, and hopeful.

But just to ask, finally, what does God promise us on the journey to healing? My own discovery was that God did not step in and say to me: “That’s a letter bomb. Don’t open it.” But when the bomb went off, I felt God’s presence with me. But to me, the great promise of Scripture had been kept: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of age.” God’s promise to accompany us on our journeys. And that’s the promise we claim today also in this sacrament: we offer the bread to God, we offer the wine to God, and God gives it back to us¾Christ’s body, broken, Christ’s blood, poured out, as food for our journey.


About Us

The Institute for the Healing of Memories seeks to contribute to the healing journey of individuals, communities and nations. Our work is grounded in the belief that we are all in need of healing, because of what we have done, what we have failed to do, and what has been done to us.

Contact Us

  • Institute for Healing of Memories
    5 Eastry Road, Claremont,
    Cape Town, 7708, South Africa

  • +27 21 683 6231