Text: II Cor. 5: 16-21 from Today's English version, sometimes called The good News Bible. This sermon was delivered on Aug. 9, 2015
There have been some good and bad anniveraries this month. The 50th anniversary of the voting rights act. The anniversaries of our dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Loose the cords of mistakes binding us as we release the strands we hold of others guilt.
I was reminded last weekend that family stories are filled with hurts and disappointments along with joy and delight. Watching our adult children interact; seeing old roles emerge at times; observating how desperately each wanted to be accepted and valued by the other, I was reminded once again that I am a Jesus follower not because he promises me eternal salvation but because the Jesus way makes so much sense. “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” may very well be referring to some kind of eternal salvation, but for me it is a simple yet dynamic statement of truth. If we are to get along with each other, if we are to co-exist without violence and ugliness we must learn to walk the Jesus walk. And as my dad used to say, “ideas are often hard to put in practice but watching how another person does something can be very enlightening. That's the role Jesus plays. Through his life and teachings he shows us how to be.”
It's ironic then that as human beings, as societies, as cultures, we spend so much time nursing our hurts and avenging our so called slights. Even our understanding of God is shaped by out lust for vengeance and punishment. In spite of our rhetoric we love a violent and vengeful God and use the Old Testament to excuse our own violence. Yet Jesus exemplifies in his person a God of love, a God of forgiveness, a God of new beginnings, a God of hope, a God of reconciliation and remption. If seeing is believing thepotential for human interaction in him, how can I not believe and follow?
It is also human nature to reduce everything to it's lowest common denominator so we seem to cheapen everything we touch. Forgiveness, for instance we reduce to simply saying” I'm sorry” or “that's ok.” But, true forgivenss is radical emotional and spiritual surgery that allows us to remounce all of our logical claims for revenge or compensation for the hurts and damage we've suffered. Forgiveness frees us by cutting the cords and knots, by breaking the chains of betrayal and PTSD and painful memories that bind us to the past that is keeping us captive. Forgiveness frees us from compulsively picking our scabs and opening old wounds so they never heal.
Popular understanding assumes that forgiveness is something we do to relieve the offender of their guilt. And that can be part of the process. But the forgivenss that Jesus practiced was a conditional transaction that is more about us than the offender: it's about the role we play in the process. It is conditional because we cannot forgive without first being forgiven for harboring hate and judgment and the lust for revenge. When he prays, “Father forgive them they know not what they do” he is releasing his disappointments and broken dreams of what he had hoped for; he is recognizing that Judas's brokenness and attachment to the ways of the world were just too strong and that governments are rigid ego driven institutions. He is recognizing that three years wasn't enough time.
We forgive not for the other's sake but for our own, because forgiveness looses the strands we hold of others guilt so that we are freed from all that holds us back. So that we can move on. So that we can heal. So that we can begin to see the other through a new set of eyes. And in that process of our healing we set in motion the opportunities for others to heal.
Forgiveness is not about condoning evil or wrong. It is not about ignoring, making excuses or denying what happened. Forgiveness is about facing reality, accepting what happened even when we hate what happened, and then by taking responsibility for the part we played in whatever occurred, in acknowledging that the way we've chosen to respond to the betrayal, hurt, injury, is what is eating us alive. That revenge can never undo what has happened so the only way to move on is by our detaching from that pain. Forgiveness is saying to the other, “ I no longer give you the power to keep hurting me. I release you from carrying the guilt of what you did, hoping that you have learned something from all of this, but even if you haven't, I release myself from your power over me and my life. Just as I will what is best for me, I now will what is best for you so that we can both move into God's open future as non-enemies.
Three stories defining forgiveness.
A Jewish survivor of one of the death camps was called to testifiy at the Nurenberg trial against a very cruel and sadistic guard. As he painfully recounted his story he began to weep so much that the judge called for a recess. Asked what memory had upset him so deeply he replied, “it wasn't what I remembered; it was what I saw in myself. I got a good look at my deep hatred and contempt for the guard and I suddenly realized that I am no different than he. I am as capable of hurting others as he as I wanted him to suffer as we suffered. Thus I wept in fear and shame.” You see we often react so strongly to the acts of others because they hold up a mirror in which we are forced to see ourselves.
And then there is The Nichol Mines massacre of the Amish girls and more recently the mass shooting in Charleston SC. In both cases those who survived stated that they forgave because not to do so would make their loved ones deaths a senseless traversity accomplishing what the shooter desired.
In the early 60's a Korean family came to New York so their gifted son could study medicine. One evening while walking to the universaity library he was murdered by 3 teen gang members. His parents were devastated. At the sentencing hearing the Korean family spoke against the death penalty and an excessive sentence. Since their son was no longer alive and able to become a doctor, they'd decided it was these very boys who must now pick up the dream they'd destroyed by killing their son. This couple told the court that they would pay for whatever it cost to have the boys finish high school and get college degrees while incarcerated. They believed God wanted them to invest all of their love and resources into these ghetto kids who killed all they held precious. When the boys came up for parole they wanted the boys released into their care. This was what they needed for their own healing for anything less than the complete change of these boys lives would make their son's death a tragic waste.
And so the miracle of forgiveness began... and continued through the years, for this quiet Korean couple visited those boys while in prison week after week, arranging for their education and counseling and religious training while incarcerated and even after their release. By refusing to define the boys according to their past behaviors, they helped everyone involved see themselves through a completely different lens. Today one boy is a doctor who runs a street clinic, another teaches in a ghetto school, and third is a missionary in Korea.
O God of love and forgiveness, grant what we need each day in bread and insight. Loose the cords of mistakes binding us to the past as we release the strands we hold of others guilt. Don't let surface things delude us but free us from what holds us back. Amen
Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church.