“Giving Forgiveness Freely”

Luke 6:32-42

We have been making our way through Lent lifting up “The Big Question” about forgiveness.   The grating question that keeps popping up is, “Yeah, but……”   What about the person who doesn’t do anything to deserve forgiveness?   What about the person who is unrepentant?   Do I have to forgive them?

            This week, we consider that in Jesus’ words, and they are curious words to be connected with the matter of forgiveness.   I have to admit that I struggle with this, and so I am relying on the words of others and their reflections more this week than I have in the last few weeks.  

            I think it is relatively easy for me to stand up here and tell you that you need to forgive others without expectation of any kind of reciprocity, but that my words will in the end be hollow.   What experience do I have of offense and wrong?   What would I know?

            And so, a few other voices.   

            The first one you will hear is that of Bishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa.   South Africa, as you may recall, suffered under Apartheid.  That was the legacy of colonialism under the Dutch.   The official law of the land was that only whites had power, authority, and could hold office and land.  Blacks had no rights, even though this had been their home for centuries before the White colonists.   

            When Apartheid ended, there was great fear that what would ensue would be a bloody round of retribution against the white South Africans.  

            But that is not what happened.   Instead, the country set up a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” that allowed Blacks to tell the story of their oppression and confront their oppressors, but not with the intent of retribution, or trial, or exacting payment.   Instead, telling the story led to forgiveness, by both sides of the conflict, the wronged and the one who had perpetrated the wrong.

            

            What I like about listening to Desmond Tutu, even in this short clip, is that you get a sense that this is a really joyful spirit.    There is a jovial lilt to his voice, almost a twinkle in his eye, even when he is talking about something even as tough and as close to him as this matter of forgiveness. 

            This next clip also talks about the South African experience, this time through some reflections by Philip Yancey, an award winning journalist and author, as he reflects upon the South African experience.  He’s going to lift up the story of South Africa’s first Black President, Nelson Mandela, and I want you to listen closely to Mandela’s assessment of why he forgives

            “They controlled my life for 27 years, and I wasn’t going to let them control it any more now that I was free.”   Mandela said.  

            Is that part of the key to forgiveness that we sometimes overlook?  What will this act of forgiveness do for me?   Yancey gently reminds me that most of the time when I am hung up on the matter of forgiveness, I am the one who suffers.   I want to be free from that churning.

            When I look at the Gospel reading for tonight, I am struck by the way that Jesus moves the initiative for forgiveness from one of expecting something from someone else, to one of expecting something from yourself.

            “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?…. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?……Love your enemies, do good, lend expecting nothing in return.”   

            Wow, that is a high calling, a tough bill to fill.   And I hear myself saying, “I don’t think I can do that!”   “I don’t think I can make that happen.”

            But Jesus seems to have a pretty high opinion of what we are capable of.  “A disciple is not above the teacher,” Jesus said, “but everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher.”  

            If the teacher forgave from the Cross, and we are fully qualified as disciples, that seems to mean that we are fully capable of doing that as well, and getting the ultimate reward of what happens when we do that.

            “Forgive, and you will be forgiven;” Jesus says.  “give and it will be given to you, a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put back into your lap, for the measure you give will be the measure that you get back.”   I just love that it talks about it falling into your lap.  We use that expression don’t we?   Is that how it works?  We forgive, and look what happens, this just sort of come as an unexpected blessing you could never anticipate or expect.

             Forgiveness freely given carries a great deal of risk.  

            There was no guarantee that the truth and reconciliation would work in South Africa.  There was ever expectation that it would fail, and that the country would descend into chaos. 

            But somehow, because they expected more of themselves than anyone ever thought they could give, they ended up receiving much more than they ever hoped for from the process.

            So tonight, to get to that “pressed down, shaken together, running over sense of Joy that you can hear in Desmond Tutu’s voice even though he was beaten, arrested, and suffered, we are going to do a little higher calling.  

            I want to end with this poem by Daniel Votino.   As the words scroll by and sink in, I want you to think back on the call of Jesus to forgive.   

            I do think that Jesus is also calling for a new birth in us.

            We can be awfully good at “nursing” and hovering over our resentments, over our sense of being wronged, and over our hurts.  Oh, we treat them so tenderly, hold them so tightly, feed them so carefully.

            But Daniel’s poem begs the question, “ How will we care for the tender child that is the first tentative step of forgiveness?”

Telling the Story Differently

            Let’s face it; one of the roadblocks to forgiveness is the “I don’t want to hear it” defense.  You know how this goes.  It has been used against you, and you have probably used it a time or two as well.  

            Forgiveness requires some action, some element of change of heart, attitude or action.   

            In church we talk about that in terms of confession, or repentance.   It is a means of truth telling and clearing the air.           

            Sometimes repentance does not happen because the person who needs to repent, does not seem inclined to do so!  

            But, there are also times when we do not want that person to repent!   We really don’t want to let it happen.  

            “I don’t want to hear it….”  We say.

            I know what you did.

            I know what I did.

            I know all too well where such and such is going, I do not want to hear your excuses, your justifications, or your pitiful attempts to set things straight.

            In Luke 7:36-48 we encounter a Jesus who is quite content with what is going on around him. 

            He is at the home of a Pharisee at his invitation, and at his feet is a woman who is weeping and anointing his feet.   It is a strange scene, but he is quite at ease.

            The person who is not content is the Pharisee who has invited Jesus in the first place.  In fact, he forms a quick opinion.  “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

            That is a statement of someone whose mind is made up, and who would not be convinced even if you engaged him.  

            When I read this Gospel lesson there are so many things that well up in me. My first inclination is to give the Pharisee a good talking to!

            “You don’t know her circumstances….”

            “You don’t know what she’s been through…”

            But at the same time, I can kind of see the Pharisee’s point.  She walks in uninvited and unannounced and plops down and just starts doing this.  

            “Who is she to walk into my house?”

            “What does she think she is doing?”

            But to engage in that kind of conversation is butt heads with minds already made up.   It is likely that all we will do is shout at each other over what should be the proper course of action, and maybe even get to that point of saying, “I don’t want to hear it anymore, my mind is made up.

            Is there another option than this?

 

            It is no small thing you see that Jesus turns to his host and launches into a story.  This in fact is a talent or skill that Jesus employs often to break down barriers, recast the conversation in a different light, or a point out the often overlooked detail.

            Jesus, who is we say, “The Word made flesh” has a high opinion of words and what they are capable of doing.  

            “Simon, I have something to say to you….” Jesus says.    And then he re-casts the events of this meal much like the lady with the green shoes recasts the scene on the street.

            The circumstances have not changed.

            The plea has not changed.

            But the words have. 

            “What did you do to my sign?”  

            “I wrote the same, but different words.”  She replies.

            Change your words, change your world, it goes on to say.   And I think that is the heart of what Jesus says in his telling of this story in a different way.

            Nothing in the situation changes, the plea does not change, but how we view the scene does.  How Simon sees the scene changes dramatically.  This is no longer a woman whom he has made up his mind about, but now Jesus encourages him to really look at things.

            “Do you see this woman?”   He’s been doing nothing but looking at her for the last half hour more than likely, and murmuring, but now Jesus tells the story differently and it is not one of her offenses, but of Simon’s.     

            You gave me no water for my feet.. but she has not stopped bathing them.

            You gave me no greeting of a kiss of peace, but she has not stopped kissing.

            You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet.

            Therefore what you hoped you would get, and got (forgiveness)… She is ready to receive as well, and when she hears it, it will mean much more to her than perhaps to you… but the same gift is given.

            What I like about the film clip is how changing one little piece of the story changes everything, for everyone involved.

            This is the power of words, and this is the power that words have in our hands and on our lips when we choose to use them.

            I often tell my confirmation students that the eighth commandment is my favorite, because it is precisely about this matter of telling the story differently.   The 8th commandment is “do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”   In his explanation Luther does his typical “positive spin” on it.  “We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander or lie about our neighbor, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest of ways.”

            That’s a directive much needed in the world of Jr. High and High School, when it is so easy to enter into the world of tearing down others to make yourself seem bigger.   But it is just as important to those of us who are older, and no less prone to that.

            When it comes to matters of forgiveness, can you find a way to tell the story of what happened, and what is happening, to you, that changes the conversation?  

            Can you discover the same power of Words that Jesus knew of, and find a way to tell the story a little differently, either to help that other person see what you see, or perhaps even to help you see things a little differently yourself?

Forgiveness – Empathy Matthew 18:21-35

This week we turn our attention toward a second step to forgiveness, and that is one of finding empathy.    Empathy for the other is key in finding a way to forgive someone.   I have to see in that other person something that moves me to change my direction, my anger, my opinion about them. 

            The scripture passage for us to consider this matter of empathy is this one from Matthew about Peter asking how many times you are to forgive a fellow member of your community, and Jesus parable that drives home the need for forgiveness.

            Peter asks, ”how many times, as many as seven?”

            “Seventy seven times…”   Jesus replies, and then launches into a parable about a King who wants to settle accounts with his slaves.  

            One slave owes so much, there is no hope of him ever paying his debt, and so he throws himself at the King’s mercy.

            The King, we are told, in some sense empathizes with him, can put himself in the slave’s situation, and so forgives the debt and sends the slave on his way.

            But this same slave who had been forgiven so much then comes upon another slave who owes him just a small amount, something that could be repaid. 

            We might expect that there would be a “pay it forward” attitude here.  “Hey I’ve been forgiven my debt, I’ll just pass that along.”
            But the story shocks us when the slave has apparently no empathy, no mercy at all, for his fellow slave in the same predicament, and ends up throwing his fellow slave into prison until every penny should repaid.

            Well, word gets back to the King about this, who then comes and scolds the slave who had been forgiven so much, and revokes the previous act of mercy, and that first slave ends up in prison as well.   

            And so, the parable ends with no accounts settled, two slaves in prison, and no hope of anything ever being paid back that is owed.

            The parable ends with this stern warning given by Jesus, “So will my heavenly Father do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

            Wow! 

            What do we do with this?   We have a threatening Jesus who scolds and warns!

            How do we understand this story?   How could that servant have not passed along what he himself had experienced?  How could the King come back to revoke the gracious act?  Where was empathy in this?

            For a long time I focused on the parable, and the money.   That’s where we usually get hung up after all.    I kept thinking about the actions of the King, and the actions of the slaves, and really forgot about the exchange between Peter and Jesus that had set this parable up. 

            Sometimes, as it turns it, when we are talking about forgiveness, what we think is the point, the issue, isn’t really the issue or the point at all.

 

            When I first saw this film clip, and thought about that KKK member sitting in her classroom, I thought about how easily it would have been to have just written that boy off.  Of all the odd ducks in the room, surely he is the easiest one to just wish away. 

            I also thought about, and was aware of my own feelings, how I would have responded to the skinhead in the chair

            I might have lectured him, reading him the riot act for his beliefs.

            I might have found a way to use the class to teach him a lesson about civility and discourse, and chosen by the way I let him or others participate to send subtle and “not so subtle” messages about what I thought about him and his beliefs. 

            I would have a hard time empathizing with someone who preached hatred.

            What is remarkable in that teacher’s story is how she saw beyond the apparent tensions, to ask the critical question about what we have in common.

            The need to connect with our father, mother, parent.. loved one….

            This wasn’t about the KKK, it was about connection with the Father.

            It made me look back at this bible story again, and move back up above the parable to the relationship with Jesus and Peter. 

            “How many times do I have to forgive Lord, as many as Seven?”   Peter asks.   That’s a statement of trust and vulnerability.   Peter and Jesus share this incredible relationship where honest questions can be asked, and honest answers can be given, and so Jesus says “Seventy seven times….”

            And I can just imagine Peter starting to fume and fumble here, because after all, he is asking about a “fellow member of the church” so he’s got a particular name and face in his mind.  That “so-and-so” and what he’s done to me, or not done, or the things he’s said, or she’s done.”   I’m looking for ways to write off this encounter Jesus, not your words of having to put up with more. 

            Oh yes, I can see Peter getting worked up, and so can Jesus, and that is what launches the parable.  

            “I care about you Peter.  I care about you enough to not let you start to get wrapped up in your fussing and fuming and justifying and “yeah-buts”…..

            I care about you so much that I’m going to employ a little “shock therapy” to pull you up short.  Here is how it is, unless you forgive from your heart this is how it ends up…. all of us screwed! 

            The King can’t be merciful.

            The Slave can’t provide for his family.

            The other slave sits in the slammer even though he could have worked it out.

            Unless the power of empathy, of caring deeply for the other and finding out what is really going on in their lives is employed, we are all trapped in the tragic consequences of our choices and decisions.

            This is not about the money, or the King, or the Servants, or the parable…. It’s about you Peter, and whether you will look at that member of your church with an open heart so that you can discover what is really going on with him.   Unless you do, this is where we end up.

            But if you do, if you look at that member with whom you have a problem and find out what is the need they have,  then there is the possibility I’ve talked about, says Jesus… this Seventy Seven Times….unlimited forgiveness, and fresh starts.   

            But if you approach this with a “let’s see what they will do for me first” attitude, or an attitude of “I only have to give you seven chances.”    Then it ends like this parable, with no good news and scolding at the last.

Forgiveness – The Big Question


Gary Ridgeway was known as the Green River Serial Killer.  Over the course of nearly two decades in the Pacific Northwest he lured women to their death.  He would strangle them, dump their bodies in the woods or river, and leave families wondering what had happened to their loved ones.

            A&E did a documentary on him, and in one notable courtroom scene from his sentencing, the victim’s families one by one come up to express themselves.     


It
 is no wonder that there is strong emotion in this courtroom.  No one can blame those who spit vile and venom and wish the worst for him. 

            What is hard to figure out is how one father (Robert Rule) could find a way to forgive, and more than that, to pronounce forgiveness upon Gary Ridgeway.   It is the singular moment in the courtroom when everything breaks down, even the hardened criminal.

            I believe that there is no more important task for us as human beings, and no more difficult one, that to forgive and to be forgiven.  

            We start on the road of forgiveness by “Looking Deeply.”       

            We start by going way back to the beginning, to this story of Cain and Abel.  (Genesis 4:1-10)  The issues surrounding forgiveness are literally as old as creation itself, and looking deeply at this story gives us clues as to how we might also try to look deeply at our own stories, and what happens when we do.

            When you look at this story, really look at it, you might come up shaking your head.

            Cain brings his offering, an offering of the fruit of the ground, his produce, grain, etc.

            Abel brings his offering, firstlings of the flock, their fat portions.

            And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.

            That’s all you have to work with for trying to figure out why these two brothers are at odds, something about the offering.

            You might first jump to laying this all on God for “not regarding” Cain’s offering.  It’s God’s fault that these two aren’t getting along, except God makes a point of intervening and talking directly to Cain.  “If you do well, will you not be accepted?”

            And besides, how did Cain know his offering was not regarded?

            This sets us off in the direction of speculation, and that’s o.k. because I have found in working with folks in matters of forgiveness that part of the root issue is usually that a whole lot of speculation is going on.

            He said this…

            She did that…

            I heard this…

            Someone told me that…

            I heard that she said that he said….and so on.

            When there is a rift in relationship, it seems that one of the things you can depend upon is speculation, and rumor, and innuendo.   Those things seem to feed on the situation like a hungry wolf snatching at any little bone thrown its way.

            So part of “looking deeply” is looking very closely at the actual events that took place.

            In this case, offerings were made… .period.   

            Each made offerings from what they had to offer…. Period.

            What happens next is all speculation!

            Maybe, for some reason, Cain knew that what he was bringing to God wasn’t the “first fruits” as prescribed later in Deuteronomy.    Maybe it was because he was scraping from the bottom of the barrel, or bringing moldly grain, or doing something like that that made Cain feel that his offering was not regarded by God.

             Maybe because Cain was looking at what he brought, and decided in his own mind that it didn’t measure up compared to what his brother brought that he got angry. 

             Maybe this is a case of “my brother is showing off, making me look bad, and I really hate that….”

            Or, some speculate that what happens is weather related.    The offering is made, and the visible sign of an offering being receive is smoke rising, as if God is inhaling the fragrance of the offering.  If the smoke goes up, the offering is received.

            If the smoke floats around on the ground, swirls and lingers, then the perception is that God is not receiving it.

            So maybe Cain is mad for no reason at all.  It’s just a low pressure system coming through, that’s all….. God is still receiving your offering, this is about YOUR perception, not God. 

            But again, that is speculation.  Speculation about what kind of person Cain is to be upset because smoke gets in his eyes.   Speculation about how Cain is really angry with God, but he will end up taking it out on his brother.

            Or maybe this is a story about way of life.  A story about how herders are always valued more highly than farmers, and don’t you just hate that God seems to be playing favorites!

            Looking deeply at this story, you begin to get more confused about motivations and actions.   It becomes harder and harder to figure out what it is that really sets Cain off. 

            That too, is the truth about our experience.

            Sometimes when we look back on an event where we were hurt, or when we hurt someone else, we can see exactly what made it all take place.  “That’s where I went wrong, that’s where he/she made the mistake.”

            When “looking deeply” gives us insight to recognize fault, and what happened, we find a way to move forward and to heal.   Either we can bring the fault to the attention to the person who hurt us, or we can recognize what it is that we did, and then reconcile over that issue.   Looking deeply sometimes helps us get the perspective needed to make the change, or to at least know where to start.

            But sometimes, looking closely at an event is of no help whatsoever.  We rehearse and nurse the events over and over again and never have any satisfactory resolution.  In fact, the more we look deeply, the less we understand what happened to set us off, or to set off that other person.  

            At those times it is important to look at this story in a whole new light, and that is the one of God coming in and giving Cain the warning.   “Look, sin is lurking … and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

            Sometimes looking deeply at an event is seeing in it the potential to have fallen into it yourself.  This is hard thing.

            Few of us can imagine that we would ever be a serial killer, but we have probably all wished someone dead.

            Few of us can imagine ever letting things get so out of control that we would act violently, or brashly, or thoughtlessly, but at the same time we have all experienced the loss of control over things that we later said we shouldn’t have let bother us at all.

            Sometimes looking deeply at an event requires a level of self examination with which we are not all that comfortable.   It is recognizing that when the event happen, I was not at my best.   Looking deeply sometimes helps us look at all the things that were going on around us at the time, over which we had no control, and how they may have contributed to the event.

            In this story, God tells Cain in the end “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”  

            That is a statement of all of creation being involved in the events leading up to the death of Abel.  

            Pay attention here, all of creation, cries out, so all that surrounded you leading up to your actions were also involved!    Be that the weather, or your perceptions of worthiness of yourself, or of your offering, or how you felt that day, or the events leading up to coming to worship, or the events that had recently taken place in your life.  Everything was involved!   

            Looking deeply helps us see that the events between Cain and his brother did not happen in a vacuum.   There were all kinds of things going on!   Something was lurking, something that he could have mastered, but this time he did not.

            Looking deeply helps us see that sometimes the same applies to us.  If we had been at our best, we might not have let this get under our skin, or we might not have done what we did, or we might have been able to make a better choice…. But we did not.    Now what do we do?  

            It will do no good to hurl accusations at ourselves or others.

            It will do no good to rehearse over and over again the events, there is not much to be learned from them in the end.

            Sometimes looking deeply brings you to the place where you have to make an unexpected turn.   You look deeply, and you cannot see anything else to do but what Robert Rule does, not because it is easy, but precisely because it is difficult, and the only way to master what lurks always so near by.   That’s the big question.  When you look deeply, can you make a move to forgive even what appears to be unforgivable.