The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 19], September 16-17, 2017
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist
The unimaginable horror took place almost eleven years ago. On a pleasant fall morning in October Charles Roberts burst into an Amish schoolhouse at West Nickel Mine, Lancaster County, armed with three guns. Almost immediately he released all the boys and three adult teachers and their infant children. The remaining fifteen girls he held hostage.
Those who were released ran immediately for help. Before long the local police were on the scene. They were powerless, however, to prevent the senseless tragedy that soon took place. When the shooting stopped three children were killed, many others were seriously injured, and the gunman was dead from a self-inflicted wound.
From notes he left we learn that Roberts was angry with God for the death of an infant daughter some nine years earlier. This might have been just one more pathetic American story of a mentally disturbed person with a cache of guns. But the story became unforgettable because of the response of the Amish community.
On the day of the shooting, the grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls said to his family: We must not think evil of this man. He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he’s standing before a just God.
These pious Christian people proceeded to give the world a witness to the power of forgiveness through their response to this unmitigated tragedy. The Amish reached out to the widow of Charles Roberts, to his children, and to his parents. They called on them, brought them food, comforted them, and even attended Roberts’s funeral. When they learned of the dire straits of the Roberts family, they provided them financial support.
All over America people responded in amazement. How can people forgive what than man did? What would motivate them to act in such an astounding manner? I remember thinking at the time … read Matthew 18: 21-35! This is not a behavior the Amish invented … this is the essence of the Christianity that Christ came to proclaim.
Again and again the Apostle Matthew portrays Jesus as the Great Forgiver. In his Gospel we read that Jesus was forever telling the people who come to him … Your sins are forgiven!
Forgiveness is a common theme in Jesus’ teachings. When Jesus taught the disciples to pray, he placed at the heart of his model prayer the words … and forgive us our sins, as we also forgive those who sin against us [Matthew 6:12].
Jesus was particularly concerned that we practice forgiveness in the church. Our Gospel lesson last week spoke about resolving conflict in the local congregation by finding the way to achieve forgiveness and reconciliation.
How many times must I forgive? Our Gospel lesson gives us an opportunity to eavesdrop, as Jesus discusses this very question with Peter and the other disciples. Of all the things Jesus addressed in his lifetime I can think of nothing more significant than his insistence that we must forgive one another. Jesus insists, through this prickly parable, that there is no limit to forgiveness … it is not a transaction but an attitude toward life lived with others.
This is difficult … one of the hardest things Jesus ever said. Some can forgive instinctively … most cannot! One reason it is so hard to forgive is that we have such a keen ability to remember the slightest offence we have endured. We try to live in the present moment, but we find that we are constantly distracted by events from the past. When someone has hurt us, we keep picking at the scab and the result is that it never heals. Fixated by what we are convinced is an injustice toward us, we stew about it in a way that undermines our ability to have an open encounter with the person we are convinced has offended us.
Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past! Forgiveness is acknowledging that we get no “do overs” in life. When we refuse to let go of our old grievance we, in effect, limit our present and compromise our future.
Forgiveness, then, is ultimately a decision about the past ~ the decision to accept both that you cannot change the past and also that the past dare not have the power to hold you captive. Lewis B. Smedes, a contemporary Christian theologian, understood this great truth: To forgive is to set a prisoner free … and to discover that the prisoner was you!
Why is it so hard to forgive? Another reason is that we seem programmed to cling to old resentments. We often confuse resentment with virtue. When we lived in northern New Jersey we had a neighbor named Helen, who once told us that she and her family were visiting her brother and his family when her brother reprimanded her ten-year-old son for his behavior. Helen said that her husband announced, Get our coats … we are leaving! They left and Helen took pride in fact that they had not spoken to her brother for over fifteen years. A virtue? No, a tragedy! Life is too short for such foolishness.
Two simple thoughts on this critical aspect of forgiveness:
Resentment is the act of taking poison in the hope that it will kill the person who offended you!
Resentment is the entrenched attitude of an unforgiving heart. When we refuse to forgive, we inevitably diminish ourselves.
A painful form of resentment is regret ~ the inner anger and bitterness that we can all too easily retain toward ourselves for some mistake we have made in the past or some oversight we regret. We need to give up all hope of a better past! If we can do that, perhaps we can cut ourselves a little slack!
Forgiveness is challenging. Most of us find it difficult, but perhaps manageable, to forgive a one-time transgression. However, it verges on the impossible when the offense is ongoing. Such circumstances require an attitude of forgiveness, not just an act of forgiveness. This is what Jesus had in mind when he said to Peter that forgiving seven times was not enough … no, it needs to be seventy times seven!” [Matthew 18:21-22]
Psychologists define forgiveness as … a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group whom you believe to have harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness. I think Jesus would like that definition. Forgiveness is a decision to release.
Finally, let us remember that we do not have to be the Master in Jesus’s parable, believing that we shall always fall short and can never forgive like that gracious man. No, we are the servant … we are the recipient of God’s amazing grace and mercy! We do not have to forgive enormous transgressions of others … we need only bask in the unbelievable forgiveness, acceptance, and grace that is God’s gift to us through Jesus Christ. And then we should ask: how then ought I to live? May God help us to live as His redeemed people. Amen.