(Given in Dixon Center Chapel, January 16, 2007)
I’m very grateful to have this opportunity once again to be with you today. As I was thinking about what to speak on, I was encouraged to address other aspects of life as a Christian in the Digital Age, and I do hope to be able to do that sometime, but the more I tried to work on it, the more deeply impressed I became that I needed to speak on another topic altogether. I’m not sure why. When I say that I don’t mean to suggest that what I have to say is in any way Divinely inspired. I just mean that the topic has weighed very heavily on my heart for some time now and I felt a great need to do something about it. I generally try to address things that I myself am wrestling with, so as I go on, I hope none of my friends or acquaintances will think that I’ve fashioned anything around them. I haven’t. I can safely guarantee that what I say today is from the depths of my own struggles.
On October 2 of last year a local milkman in Lancaster, PA walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse. It was about 10:30 in the morning. He calmly pulled out a shotgun and a 9 mm handgun, lined up 10 little girls in front of the blackboard and then shot each one of them. Then, as state troopers started breaking in through the windows, he pointed the handgun at his own head and shot himself. He died, as did five of the ten girls, Marian, age 13; Anna Mae, age 12; Naomi Rose, age 7, and sisters Lena and Mary Liz, ages 7 and 8.
Two days later, a reporter from the Washington Post wrote this:
“A double seesaw and a swing set sit outside the schoolhouse. A small baseball diamond shows wear spots in the grass for the bases and home plate, and a simple chain-link backstop. There’s a school bell in the cupola and a whitewashed board fence around the perimeter. Huge gray draft horses graze in a field out back.
‘This really hurts,’ said an Amish woman, ‘But, see, at a very young age our parents teach us to forgive like Christ did, not man-made forgiveness … Jesus still takes care of us, even if bad things happen. These children are in Heaven. We still weep and cry just like everybody else, but then we go to Christ.
‘My mom and dad taught me, and now we teach our children the same, to forgive people if they hurt us or wrong us,’ she said. ‘Things are going to happen in life. We’re going to get hurt. But . . . we have to forgive…. If we give it to God, he’ll take it and make something good out of it.'”
The story goes on to tell how the grieving Amish community reached out to the gunman’s widow and two small children, even attending the man’s funeral and helping to raise money so the family would be taken care of in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Now I guess the question I have to ask myself is the question that’s probably buzzing around the room right now and that is, “Could I do that? Could I forgive if that was my child who had been killed?” And I would have to answer very honestly-I don’t know, because if I know myself at all, I’m not at all sure that I could.
I do want to talk about forgiveness today. But I need to make a disclaimer. I’m not a pastor, or a theologian or a counselor or any kind of expert. In this particular case I am just another sinner who has stood in need of forgiveness himself and has also needed to forgive. And it’s from those two radically opposed perspectives that I want to approach this subject.
Jesus and the writers of the New Testament do a lot of talking about forgiveness, so much so that if you start to trace it out, it may make you a little uncomfortable. This is in contrast, I think, to a lot of sermons today, especially ones you hear on television that talk about things like power and victory and how to believe and think positively through the next day or night or hour or minute. They give you nice little verses of Scripture to cling to so that you can access that power or get that victory. And there’s nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with thinking positively, nothing wrong with getting victory over obstacles in life, whatever shape they may take.
But the Gospels record three startling statements by Jesus with regard to forgiveness that have always stuck in the back of my subconscious like one of those hangnails you get on your ring finger that just won’t go away. You know, you cut the little part that’s hanging, but then it gets infected and starts to hurt and you never knew you had to use that finger as much as you do until you get one of those infections because then it’s as if you have a baseball bat instead of a finger and you keep hitting everything with it until you finally break down and do that homemade surgery with a needle and hydrogen peroxide. Have you never done that? For some of us today that’s what this talk may be-a needle and hydrogen peroxide on an infected finger.
The first statement of Jesus that I’m talking about is familiar to most of us because it’s found in the Lord’s Prayer, right there under our noses superimposed on a photo of some gorgeous sunset or on your grandmother’s cross-stitch. Jesus says, in Matthew 6 in the New English Bible: “Forgive us the wrong we have done, as we have forgiven those who have wronged us…. For if you forgive others the wrongs they have done, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, then the wrongs you have done will not be forgiven by your Father.”
The second statement is in another familiar part of the Gospels, the beginning of John chapter 8 in the King James Version, the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery who is just about to be stoned. Jesus makes that really bothersome statement to the men with rocks in their hands, “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” When all the would-be rock throwers are gone, Jesus asks the woman if anyone has condemned her. She says, “No one.” And then Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”
The third statement is from John 20: verses 22 and 23, right after the resurrection of Jesus. It says in the NIV, “He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.'”
Okay. Each of these passages has had a lot of ink devoted to them for one reason or another, but with apologies to any exegetes in the room, we’re going to skip all that and look at some really basic possible applications.
Let me try to put this in perspective.
In my brief lifetime, I’ve hurt people and I’ve been hurt. I’ve made my share of mistakes and some of those mistakes have been hurtful to others. And some people have hurt me, many unintentionally, as I have done. Some have hurt me as byproducts of their otherwise stupidly selfish acts and behaviors, as I have also done. And some of the worst hurts I have received have been from Christians who were profoundly convinced they were doing what was right. I’m sorry to say I have probably done that, too. Perhaps you can point to similar experiences in your own life.
Have you noticed, though, that when it comes to hurts and forgiveness there seem to be multiple levels to deal with? And we have recourse to a whole broad vocabulary of terms here, words like confession and repentance and absolution and penance. In the Roman Catholic tradition the priest hears a confession and at the end says, “Ego te absolvo”-I absolve you, or I loose you from your sin and guilt. In Protestant traditions we hear expressions like, “As far as the east is from the west” and “it’s down on the ocean floor” or “it’s as if it never happened.”
But in all of this, one thing I think I have learned is that confession is not the same as repentance, that forgiveness is not the same as absolution, that absolution, if granted, is not the same as forgotten, and that forgotten is not the same as “it never happened.” Should I say that again?
Here’s the crux of the problem, the really infected part of the hangnail. When a wrong is committed, some kind of damage is done. And no amount of confession, repentance, forgiveness, absolution or forgetting can change that. You see, on October 4, 2006, in Nickel Mine, PA, little Naomi Rose was buried, even though her parents had forgiven the killer.
Please pardon me for using the extreme case of West Nickel Mine School to make what is really a much-less-drastic point. What I want to say is that when a wrong is committed, whether deliberately, unintentionally, as part of selfish behavior, as part of a misguided sense of rightness or even in a consensual act-that’s what happens when two or more people decide they’re not hurting anyone else-when a wrong is committed something is damaged. Whether it’s a trust betrayed or innocence destroyed or self-esteem crushed or expectations trashed or ties of affection roughly severed or any of a host of things directly or indirectly affected by such a wrong, the fact remains that damage has been done, not just to the person wronged, but also to the person behind the wrongful action.
That’s a point I think gets overlooked sometimes, that the really tough, hard as nails fact in this whole forgiveness equation is that the damage is done. And what I am wondering is whether or not the real problem of forgiveness is not about erasing the damage or pretending it doesn’t exist anymore, it’s actually more about how we decide we’re going to live with the scars that it leaves.
Please bear with me. I’m really not trying to be depressing here and dredge up old wounds or mistakes or cast us all out into outer darkness where there is weeping or gnashing of teeth. Hang in there, because I think you’ll agree that it gets better.
Now it probably goes without saying that, in general, when it comes to exactly how we should respond to wrongs committed we feel that those who sin against us should receive all the mercy in the world and we, when we are wrong, should be the recipients of justice. Is that right? Did I get it wrong? It’s the other way round, isn’t it?
Let’s be honest. We cut ourselves all kinds of slack and usually have to be persuaded pretty heavily to grant it to others. But when we do forgive, when we do recognize the need to forgive-and I’ll talk about that need in just a moment-what is the full nature of our response?
Is it a contradiction to say that some forms of forgiveness may actually require acceptance of some kind of justice, whether it be punishment or restitution or an irreversible change in circumstances? I may be treading on some very thin ice here, but it seems to me that this could be the case. Jesus did forgive the woman in adultery, but there’s that interesting admonition: “go and sin no more.” Someone who has lived in an abusive situation may certainly forgive the abuser, but may also need to break company with that person forever. Some selfish sins, such as the whole range of addictions, may carry the kind of consequences that escaping their negative effect is not entirely possible and breaking free of them may entail a great deal of pain. If you’ve seen Walk the Line, the movie about Johnny Cash, you know that the road to redemption might just lead through a private hell.
This is not to say that in some cases, forgiveness is not tempered with that brand of mercy that says, “Paid in full” and lets the offender go relatively free. I experienced this once when I was a young boy. I broke out the rear windows on my neighbor’s van. (Yes, I once had a budding career as a vandal.) Now I didn’t get thrown into juvie and I didn’t have to wear an orange vest and pick up trash along the highway. My dad paid for those broken windows. The spanking I got was merely symbolic of the much larger penalty of coin and abject contrition my father paid on my behalf. My stupidity cost him far more than it did me.
The larger point, regardless of the situation, is that forgiveness is never free. It costs somebody something. In some cases it costs a whole lot. For the offender who repents and asks for forgiveness, it costs the harsh recognition, not just of the responsibility for one’s actions, but for consequences that may last a long time, consequences that might even reproduce themselves and negatively impact far more lives than one ever anticipated if the cycle is allowed to perpetuate. For the person in a position to forgive, the cost is a willingness to surrender a fundamental right, a right to punitive damages, damage for damage, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. It costs a willingness to live with the scars but not to cherish them or review them, like King Xerxes of the Persians who had a servant whose sole job was to come to him every morning while he was enjoying his breakfast and tell him to remember those who had helped his enemies. “Remember the Athenians,” the servant would say, and would shoot an arrow in the general direction of Greece, just so the busy king wouldn’t forget how angry he was.
Forgiveness and forgiving are not easy, then. There’s the added problem that when I most need forgiveness and ask for it, I’m not actually entitled to receive it. If what I get is the full weight of justice for my actions, damage for damage or worse, without the slightest hint of mercy or kindness in return, it’s nothing less than I actually in truth deserve. It’s not as if, having been the offending party, I have the right to look my victim in the eye and demand forgiveness because Jesus said they have to. If those whom I offend choose not to forgive, I am not in a position to make them change their minds or even to be offended in turn by their lack of Christian virtue. It doesn’t work that way, even if I find myself in the place described by Sarah McLachlan in her song, “Fallen”:
We believed that we could change ourselves
The past could be undone
But we carry on our backs the burden
Time always reveals
In the lonely light of morning
In the wound that would not heal
It’s the bitter taste of losing everything
That I’ve held so dear.
Heaven bend to take my hand
Nowhere left to turn
I’m lost to those I thought were friends
To everyone I know
Oh they turn their heads embarrassed
Pretend that they don’t see
But it’s one missed step
One slip before you know it
And there doesn’t seem a way to be redeemed
Though I’ve tried, I’ve fallen…
I have sunk so low
I messed up
Better I should know
So don’t come round here
And tell me I told you so…
On the other hand, if I am in the position to forgive, whatever level of forgiveness I can possibly manage is not simply a good idea because Jesus said so, it’s an actual necessity. Why?
You see, what the Amish in Lancaster, PA understood implicitly about the nature of forgiveness is that it stops the wrong dead in its tracks and builds a dam against the flood of evil that threatens the lives of those who must go on. It works a miracle, a miracle that turns poison, not water, into wine. It sends away the pack of devils and demons waiting to multiply the damage already done and turn it into more evil, more damage, more pain. It puts a stop to all of that. It doesn’t erase what happened. It doesn’t take away all the pain. It doesn’t erase all the scars. But it takes those scars and that pain and redeems them, it buys them back at huge personal cost and says, “This debt is paid in full.”
As one who has experienced real forgiveness from people who had every right not to forgive me, I can say firsthand that the sheer sense of liberation from a kind of slavery to guilt and condemnation is a priceless gift indeed. I know what that forgiveness cost. And I’m grateful, because it not only taught me more about God’s grace, it showed me the door to forgiving others and eventually helped me to forgive myself, which is sometimes harder to do than forgiving someone else.
In William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, Shylock the moneylender, full of hatred for the wrongs done to him, vents the kind of feeling that many of us share: “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”
Shylock demonstrates that as high a price as we pay to forgive, the cost of unforgiveness is greater still. It eats at our souls. It sucks our very life away. It blinds us to the desperate need each one of us has for grace. And it places our memory in a dark prison, a prison that we visit again and again and again and receive fresh injury from each visit. And inside the same prison we place the shade of the person we have not forgiven until they morph into a monster beyond all resemblance to who they really are.
And what if the offended person refuses to forgive me, or what if the one who offended me refuses to ask for forgiveness? What then? I like to think that God can ultimately trump the failure of others. But the statements of Jesus that I read earlier seem to suggest that the ball is actually in our court, that He has given us this power–this scary and risk-filled responsibility–to bring real forgiveness into being. Once again, forgiveness isn’t free. And if, in the end, we must meekly forgive someone else’s lack of forgiveness or render forgiveness where it is not asked or even desired, then it seems clear that this is what we have to do. Because ultimately the job of redemption is to halt the cycle of destruction in our and other people’s lives.
Look at the example of Jesus. On the cross, Christ asked forgiveness for those who had no desire to receive it. And he granted forgiveness to a thief who was suffering the full penalty of his own sin. And Jesus’ death meant the freedom of Barabbas, a murderer who paid nothing for his crimes. And Jesus bore the unforgiving hatred of those who thought he had committed a crime he did not commit. And in doing so he brought all that swirling and angry force of evil to a screeching halt and said, “It is finished.” Is it possible, then, that this monumental forgiveness of Christ, the forgiveness that we ourselves enjoy, is the real key to Hell and Death? Is it possible that this forgiveness, and this power to forgive, is the key Christ has given us to defeat Hell and Death as well? Is forgiveness then the first and truest act of discipleship?
Now for the “so what” question: I haven’t shared all this so we could have a touchy-feely teary-eyed hugging session where we confess our faults one to another and tell each other we forgive all our real and imagined wrongs. And we won’t be playing endless rounds of “Just As I Am” so we can have a really juicy altar call.
What we need to know is how to make this stuff work. The Amish in Nickel Mine, PA did one very interesting and instructive thing. Yes, they forgave. They not only forgave, but they extended mercy. They buried the dead as they celebrated the time God had given them together. And then, finally, they tore down the schoolhouse where the whole dreadful thing happened and they built a new schoolhouse, so the memory of the crime would not linger within the old structure.
Maybe we also have some structures to tear down, internal buildings where darkened memory lingers and flourishes-structures of anger, of bitterness, of accusation, of resentment, of guilt, of fear, even of righteous indignation turned rotten. And perhaps, by God’s grace, we can start tearing those structures down and find a way to build something new. Amen?
I would like to end today by asking us to stand so we can pray the Lord’s Prayer together:
Our Father who art in Heaven
Hallowed by thy Name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On Earth as it is in Heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom and the power and glory
Forever and ever. Amen.