“Forgive and Forget?”

“Roots and Wings” series, part 4.
Luke 23:32-35, and Matthew 18:21-35

Sunday Sermon by Rev. J. Michael Solberg at The Union Church of Hinsdale, U.C.C. on February 7, 2016 at the 10:00 a.m. Service.

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“Forgive and Forget?”
Roots and Wings series, part 4
(Luke 23:32-35, Matthew 18:21-35)

“Father, forgive these people! They don’t know what they’re doing.”

            Opening notes:

  • In October of 2006, a gunman walked into an Amish schoolhouse in Elizabethtown, PA, and murdered five girls before killing himself. Just a few hours had passed before the news media reported that the Amish community of Elizabethtown had forgiven the murderer.
  • Last year, a young white man walked into a church in Charleston, SC, sat with them in Bible study, and then opened fire, murdering nine. Not long later, at Dylann Roof’s bond hearing, many of the victims’ families     said they had forgiven him: “You took something really precious from me. I will never talk to my mother again,” the daughter of a victim said, said. “But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you. I forgive you.”
  • Rodney King trying to flee from police, high speed chase, caught, four white police officers used extreme, many would say excessive, force to subdue King, a black man, and the whole beating was caught on video. The officers were put on trial, and were acquitted on all charges.  The lack of a conviction started the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, or the Rodney King riots, in which 55 people were killed.  In the midst of those riots four black youth, pulled a white man, Reginald Denny, out of his truck and beat him within an inch of his life.

Pick up here:  After Reginald Denny’s painful recovery, he met face to face on the Phil Donahue show with his attackers, shook hands with them, and forgave them.  A reporter, commenting on the scene, wrote, “It is said that Mr. Denny is suffering from brain damage.”  Indeed, to most people it seems like those who are willing to forgive in this way – like Reginald Denny, like the victims of Dylann Roof, like the Amish of the Elizabethtown slaughter – it looks like those willing to forgive in this way are suffering from brain damage.  Such forgiveness is not one of the main characteristics of our age.

Honestly, even I don’t know what to make of all these instances of forgiveness.  I feel that they are doing something wonderful, gracious, even miraculous, I just don’t know if “forgiveness” is the right word for it.

I believe in forgiveness.  I just don’t see how it can be given that readily.  I wonder if you share at all in my skepticism when you hear these stories of forgiveness?  Dylann Roof has shown no remorse, no repentance for what he did.  His only regret is that his action did not start a race war in the U.S. as he hoped it would.  The Bible seems to say over and over again that if someone comes to us and asks forgiveness, we have to forgive them not just seven times, but seventy times seven, in other words, a bunch of times, unlimited times.  But that’s if someone comes and asks for forgiveness.  That’s if someone is repentant.  The forgiveness then follows those difficult words, “I’m sorry.”  But what if those words never come?  What does forgiveness even mean then?  That’s why I don’t know what to make of the stories I opened with.  Again, I feel that they are doing something wonderful, gracious, even miraculous, I just don’t know if “forgiveness” is the right word for it.

But then we remember Jesus, the very one who taught us the need for “I’m sorry” – he  says, as he is tortured on the cross: “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”  For all his ability to upset and confound and challenge, these are perhaps the most disruptive words Jesus ever spoke.  As our fellow humans were taking the life of the only one who can give life, as the most unjust execution in all of history was unfolding, Jesus asks God to forgive them, his unrepentant executioners, that is, everyone, us.

“They don’t know what they are doing:”  It doesn’t mean that they didn’t know they were getting rid of a threat to their power.  They knew that they were killing an innocent man simply to protect themselves, that this was a matter of sacrificing one man for the sake of the nation.  They knew, politically, what they were doing.  They just didn’t know what they are REALLY doing.  They didn’t know that they were creating hell on earth.  They thought they were keeping the peace – but they were actually making peace impossible.  They thought they were punishing someone who undermined their authority, but they were actually condemning themselves to living a lie.  They thought they were relieving the fears of the people, but they were actually making fear the guiding rule of life.  They thought they were creating a better world.  But they were creating hell on earth.  They didn’t really know what they were doing.

So Jesus asks God to forgive them, us, all of us.

Of course, we don’t immediately hear God respond to this request.  God doesn’t speak from the sky for all to hear: “Okay, I forgive them…”

God’s answer to Jesus doesn’t come in verbal form at all.  God’s answer is an action.  On the third day, the tomb is empty.  “He is not here.  He is risen.”  The resurrection is God’s forgiveness in living form.

And I think that is why I am uncomfortable with the expressions of forgiveness I talked about earlier.  I think the resurrection shows us that forgiveness isn’t something that can happen in a moment, and in most cases it isn’t something real when it is one-sided.  Forgiveness is about relationship, and relationship takes two.

To use the economic terms, if our sin, our rejection of God and our damage to each other, put us in debt, then to forgive the debt can’t simply mean crossing the number off the balance sheet.  Poof.  It’s gone.  That is the way Christians have often understood forgiveness.  That in some way shape or form God takes all the debts we call sin, and sends Jesus to somehow pay off that debt, and boom, it’s done.  We are good to go.

And if the story of Jesus ended with the crucifixion, I guess that could well be the way we would have to think about it.  It could be one-sided.  But the story doesn’t end there.  It ends with life.  It ends, or rather begins again, with a life.  And that life shows us that this forgiveness thing is going to be unfolding a while, it is going to be unfolding as God works to reestablish the relationship we obliterated.  The ongoing life of Jesus shows us that what we call forgiveness is just the beginning of the thing that God really cares about, and that is reconciliation – relationship restoration.  The bringing together of that which was separated, estranged.  The goal of it all is communion, with God and with each other.

To capture this, I’m going to create a new word to use in the rest of this sermon.  Forgiviciliation – forgiveness and reconciliation merged together as the real goal God has for the world.  Yes, it’s a little silly, I know.  But let’s go with it.  Forgiviciliation means that there is no such thing as forgiving and forgetting, because all forgiving, and all being forgiven, must come to terms with the brokenness, the brokenness of the sinful action itself, and the brokenness of the relationship.  To forget is too easy.  To correct, to learn from, to reconcile is much harder, but it is the better way chosen by God in the resurrection.

Today we have the wonderful opportunity not just to talk about forgiviciliation, but to enact it in our lives together.  Some of you have heard me say in other situations that I am not a big fan of churches having mission statements or vision statements or whatever you want to call them, because we already have a mission action.  And it is right here at this table. This is God’s process of forgiviciliation, and here’s how it works.  At this table, we are offered a gift.  We say it is the gift of sharing in the body and blood of Christ, but what that means is that we are given the gift of the opportunity to share in his life, to share in everything that made him who he was, makes him who he is.  So the gift comes first.  Having been offered this gift, we then come forward.  We have to decide to respond, to walk up here and receive the gift.  The gift offered, and the gift received.  But that’s not the end of it.  Next, just as these gifts literally touch every cell in our bodies, so the grace they carry nourishes every part of our being.  But it doesn’t end even there, because next having once received this nourishment we go from this place to offer this nourishment to others – living the way of Christ.

And that is the four fold process of forgiviciliation.  We are offered a gift, we receive a gift, the gift fills our lives, and we offer that gift to others.

It is a hard task to give and receive forgiveness, to work for real reconciliation in all the brokenness of our lives.  But Jesus comes to us at this table and gives us the grace to be about forgiviciliation every day of our lives.

My friends, you are a forgiven people.  Go in peace, and practice forgiviciliation always.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.