Text: Psalm 130
I want to begin today’s sermon with three short stories on forgiveness. Each narrative gives a small glimpse into the profound journey of struggling with the not only the idea of forgiveness but the act of forgiveness.
Corrie ten Boom, who during World War II worked in Holland’s underground resistance to the Nazis and was later imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp because of her efforts to hide Jews, went to Germany following the end of World War II where she spoke about forgiveness. At this speaking event, a former concentration camp guard whom Corrie recognized from the camp called Ravensbrück, near Berlin, Germany, where her beloved sister, Betsie, had died, held out his hand and asked Corrie to forgive him. She wrote about the experience in her book, Tramp for the Lord.
“… I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. Help! I prayed silently. I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling. And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’ For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.”
In 2007, Tracey Ford was a single mother, running her own business and looking after her two children, Becky (14) and Andre (17), when at his friend’s ice-skating party Andre was shot dead. The perpetrators were never caught. She writes:
“The afternoon before Andre went skating was a special one. Unusually he’d spent the whole day at home. We had lunch together and were messing about and having fun. He was growing into an incredibly independent young man, always jovial and bubbly. It was his friend’s birthday and he spent ages getting ready. Then he left saying he’d be back later. But that was the last time I saw him alive.
“The immediate feeling after being told that Andre was dead was one of total disbelief. It’s like living in another world. But even so, from the moment it happened, I went into a space of forgiveness. When everyone else was crying and wailing, I stayed calm and kept myself very busy so I had no time to sit and be angry. Everyone wanted revenge, but I knew that wouldn’t solve anything.
“Each year we go and stand outside the skating rink and put up posters to remember Andre but also in the hope that someone will be able to say what happened, and the perpetrators will be brought to justice. My wish for justice doesn’t stop me forgiving.”
In April 1995, Bud Welch’s 23-year-old daughter, Julie Marie, was killed in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. In the months after her death, Bud changed from supporting the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols to taking a public stand against it. In 2001, Timothy McVeigh was executed for his part in the bombing. Bud Welch shares his experience of the day he visited with Timothy McVeigh’s father, Bill and sister, Jennifer. He writes:
“When I got ready to leave I shook Bill’s hand, then extended it to Jennifer, but she just grabbed me and threw her arms around me. She was the same sort of age as Julie but felt so much taller. I don’t know which one of us started crying first. Then I held her face in my hands and said, ‘Look, honey, the three of us are in this for the rest of our lives. I don’t want your brother to die and I’ll do everything I can to prevent it.’ As I walked away from the house I realized that until that moment I had walked alone, but now a tremendous weight had lifted from my shoulders. I had found someone who was a bigger victim of the Oklahoma bombing than I was, because while I can speak in front of thousands of people and say wonderful things about Julie, if Bill McVeigh meets a stranger he probably doesn’t even say he had a son.
“About a year before the execution I found it in my heart to forgive Tim McVeigh. It was a release for me rather than for him.
“Six months after the bombing a poll taken in Oklahoma City of victims’ families and survivors showed that 85% wanted the death penalty for Tim McVeigh. Six years later that figure had dropped to nearly half, and now most of those who supported his execution have come to believe it was a mistake. In other words, they didn’t feel any better after Tim McVeigh was taken from his cell and killed.”
Most of us don’t have such dramatic stories of forgiveness—either of forgiving or being forgiven—but I know from my own story and listening to some of yours that our stories of forgiveness are as real and painful and in some cases just as redemptive as these three.
If you grew up going to church as I did, your first introduction to forgiveness probably was in being told that if you wanted to be a Christian then you needed to be forgiven of your sins. Forgiveness of sin and sins was directly related to “being saved” or loved by God. And that glorious plan of salvation began with one’s admission of being a sinner and then asking for God’s forgiveness. At age 11, when I professed my faith, I remember trying to sort out what sins I had committed that needed God’s forgiveness. Were my sins embedded in the ugly words exchanged between my 13-year-old sister and me? Or in the arguments that I would have with my parents over chores? Whatever they were, at age 11, I wanted to please God, so along with my childhood pastor I prayed that God would forgive me of my sins so that God might love me. As strange as it sounds now, it seemed simple then.
Later in life, I would come to understand that forgiveness is not so simple. Instead, it is rather a complicated idea. Its truth is not found in that old slogan: forgive and forget. Nor is forgiving just about letting go. I have learned that forgiveness is not a form of passivity, nor is it a backing-away from the claims of justice – if by justice we mean clarity about what is right and what is wrong. I have also learned that forgiveness is not optional if I truly want to follow Christ’s teachings. Biblical forgiveness at its most basic form is a practice that gives witness to God’s expressed intention that as God’s beloved community we are not separate even from those who have hurt us. In its truest form, to forgive is to align oneself with God’s intention that we are created to live in relationship with one another, believing that we are all created in the image of God—forgiven and forgiving. Possibly, though, the hardest lesson I have learned about forgiveness is that it has nothing to do with logic. As one person in the lectionary group noted, it is in fact the final breakdown of logic. More times than not the Biblical narrative presents us with the mystery of forgiveness rather than a three or five-step process on how to successfully achieve it. When asked how many times we must forgive someone Jesus says, “seventy times seven.” When the towns people were unwilling to forgive the woman caught in adultery, he says, “let those without sin cast the first stone.” And his most famous parable, the parable of the prodigal son, teaches us that God’s forgiveness is unconditional and without bounds.
I believe it to be true, God’s forgiveness, like God’s love, is unconditional. But as the great German theologian, Dietrich Bonheoffer has reminded us, there is a distinction to be made between “cheap” and “costly” grace. In Bonhoeffer’s words:
“cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”
Or, even more clearly, cheap grace is to hear the gospel preached as follows: “Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness.” In contrast to this is costly grace:
“costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels [humanity] to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’”
The Psalmist cries out, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O God, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication! If you, O God, should mark iniquities, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you…”
There is forgiveness with God. It is a forgiveness that is so immeasurable that our minds can hardly comprehend it. Maybe our best response to the mystery of God’s forgiveness is one of gratitude. Or maybe our best response is to ask ourselves what it means to be created in the image of God when it comes to forgiveness. The Psalmist expresses a deep affirmation of faith in saying, “There is forgiveness with God.” Along with the Psalmist, I wonder if we might add to that affirmation of faith and say, “There is forgiveness with us—God’s people?
This I believe about forgiveness: it is an action—it requires us to do something; it is relational—by that I mean it is about you and me and us and this world we live in; it is a journey sometimes taking years and even a lifetime to live into; and last, forgiveness—God’s forgiveness—is much larger than any one of us.
Our stories of forgiveness may not include forgiving someone who shot our child or blew up a building where our loved one worked. But maybe, like Corrie ten Boom, our stories of forgiveness invite us to stretch out our hand to someone and ask that person to forgive us for the hurt we have caused them. Maybe your story of forgiveness is to stop withholding forgiveness and finally say to that person who is asking for your forgiveness, “I forgive you.” Or maybe your story of forgiveness is inviting you to take someone’s hand and hear the words, “I forgive you.” Hardest of all, your story of forgiveness (like mine) may mean that you reach out for your own hand and say to yourself, “I forgive you.” For as the Psalmist sings, “There is forgiveness!”