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?”