Saturday, September 16, 2023

Choosing to forgive, choosing to live

I know what Jesus says, but the truth is this: there are times when I don’t want to forgive! I want to get even. I want my day in court. My pound of flesh. I want everyone to know I’ve been wronged, and I want the one who hurt me to get what’s coming.

That’s the truth. And I know I am not alone. The problem of course, is what happens when we organize our lives around our injuries— when I start to build my living around all the ways that I have been denied my due, and all the ways I have been injured—then it becomes quickly apparent that my life will bear the fruit of anger, of fear, of resentment. And that’s why Jesus says what he says about forgiveness.

Forgiveness happens when we choose to no longer organize our lives around the things and the people who have hurt us.

What the late Presbyterian pastor and religious writer, Frederick Buechner said of the deadly sin of anger applies to forgiveness as well:

“Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”

The kind of anger that Buechner spoke of is grounded in an inability to forgive.

But it is not magic. Forgiveness doesn’t come with the snap of a finger. Forgiveness is a journey and a discipline.

I remember an example of this from 17 years ago, when five Amish schoolgirls were killed and 11 others were wounded by a gunman in Pennsylvania in 2006. What made this stand out from the rash of school shootings that have infected our country, what stood out the Amish community not only comforted the shooter’s wife and children, but they also forgave him. They even took in and cared for the mother of the killer as she struggled with his crime. As astounding as that was, you want to know what was even more astounding.? It was the anger and the revulsion that the Amish received in their community, in the media, and even in pulpits, because they forgave even as they mourned the death of their own innocent children.

A more startling example happened in 1948. Pastor Yang-Won Sohn’s two teenage boys were shot for being Christians by a rioter in Korea. Yang-Won not only forgave the shooter, but arranged his release from prison and adopted him as his own son.

Were these people crazy? How can people forgive such heinous crimes against innocents? It messes with our minds. Yes, Jesus said forgive, but there must be a limit, and these crazy people crossed it.

But Jesus said, forgive not seven times, but 70 times seven. OK, let’s count it up; we must be way beyond that limit now. But if we’re honest, we know when Jesus said “70 times seven” he was using it to mean “always.” Jesus teaches us that there is no limit to forgiveness, either to the number of times we ought to forgive and to the power of forgiveness. 

And then Jesus told a parable about the wicked slave who is forgiven a huge sum by his master, but then goes out and throws a fellow slave in prison for being owed just a fraction. We hear that the wicked slave then gets his just punishment. “Good,” we may say. He surely deserved that! We might forget that he was punished not because he owed money, but because he did not forgive. Jesus is very serious about this forgiveness thing.

The Apostle Paul reminds the Romans about another side of forgiveness. His take on it was about how we treat each other because of our differences. Some eat anything, others are vegetarians; they must not despise each other. Well, that’s easy enough. We can do that.

Some may worship God on one day, some on another; do not despise one or the other. Another easy one – we can do that! To each his own, we say!

But then the Apostle Paul asks, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” meaning, why do we pass judgment on everybody else? Perhaps because we so often see immense hurt and evil in our world and we want to see justice done. We cannot imagine why people maim and kill innocent people. We cannot understand the sickness of domestic abuse, trafficking of young men and women and children, the horror of genocide. These evils need to be dealt with. They need to be eradicated from the earth and humanity deserves to live in peace and safety. Forgiveness? Was Jesus being naïve when he said “70 times seven?” Probably not. Remember that even as Jesus was being executed he prayed that God would forgive his tormentors and executioners “for they don’t know what they are doing.”

So, how do we start? We might look once again at the Amish. Their ability to forgive came from the center of their theology, which is the Lord’s Prayer. They believe it when they say, “…As we forgive those who trespass against us….” Over and over, Amish leaders tried to explain that to journalists and others who could not believe the parents of the dead little girls could forgive. The Amish in that community made quite clear that forgiveness did not take away the pain of the death of their children. It also did not take away the requirement that the perpetrator be held accountable. They were choosing not to build their lives around hatred for the person who caused that pain.

So forgiveness doesn't say, "Act like it never happened" -- that's amnesia.

And forgiveness doesn't say, "well, nobody could have expected you to do any better" -- that's condescension.

And forgiveness doesn’t mean that there one who injured us is freed from accountability. That’s, well, unhelpful.

Forgiveness puts demonizing the other person out of bounds. When we demonize another person we deny their moral agency, as well as their fitness for being loved. In suggesting that the others are incapable of moral action—by turning them into monster-- we lets them off the hook.

The truth is that when we are hurt and we want to hit back and we want to make the other person suffer, but choose not to—when we make the hard choice to stop organizing our lives around the injury, we are freed from the shackles of living in the past, feed from the fetters of living the injury over and over again, freed from the prison of rehearsing the hate.

You see, forgiveness doesn’t let the other person off the hook. Forgiveness frees us to continue to live faithfully and ethically, because we have chosen to forgive and because we have chosen to no longer organize our lives around life's injuries that have afflicted us either intentionally by other persons, or the disappointments that have inevitably occurred as life has unfolded. 

In a few minutes, just after we recall Jesus’ gift of himself on the cross and just before we break the bread which is also his body that will feed us, his body, we will pray the Lord’s Prayer. And we will all say “as we forgive those who trespass (sin) against us.” As you let that prayer marinate in your heart, think about what the Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said  about forgiveness:

“The simple truth is, we all make mistakes, and we all need forgiveness. There is no magic wand we can wave to go back in time and change what has happened or undo the harm that has been done, but we can do everything in our power to set right what has been made wrong. We can endeavor to make sure the harm never happens again.”

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Here are the Scripture Lessons for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2023.

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on September 17, 2023.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on September 17, 2023.

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