If You Thought Forgiving Your Family was Hard, Try This . . .


WAS HARD, TRY . . . 

Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

September 13, 2020

Texts: Gen. 50:1–15; Matt 18:21–35

      The two sisters stood in the chapel at their father’s memorial service. They had never really gotten along, but as a result of the old man’s final illness, they managed to sever every semblance of sisterly affection. The younger one looked at her sister and told her she would never speak to her again nor would she ever come to her funeral. And she has kept her word for over twenty years. Funerals and weddings have a way of raising old hates and resentments to the surface. And this had been no exception. 

     Funerals and weddings also bring family members together in ways they never imagined. Joseph’s brothers used the death of their father as a way to mollify what they thought would be Joseph’s anger toward them. Joseph, however, had long since put away that anger. I suspect putting away one’s anger and vengeance is more easily done when the wronged person is at the top––as was Joseph. It’s always easier to forgive when you’re not suffering. 

      It’s also easier to forgive when the person who has offended you asks for pardon. What strikes me most about Jesus’ statement to Peter in this morning’s Gospel is that the forgiveness to be given has little to do with repentance, apologies, or penance. Jesus seems to be saying that forgiveness is absolute no matter what the wrong and no matter whether the offender has even asked for pardon. That’s tougher to do––a lot tougher. 

      How do we forgive those who have not even asked for pardon or forgiveness? Does Jesus’ command to forgive go beyond personal hurts? What happens when a society or a nation or a people are hurt? In his short but riveting book The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal examines the limits of forgiveness. In this book a dying German soldier seeks forgiveness for his past deeds. He calls up a prisoner from the concentration camp and tells him his story: He had joined the SS; he went to the Eastern Front in the war with Russia; he and his company had come upon a village of Jews, mostly women and children. They put them all into a building and then began to throw hand grenades into the house. Any Jew who tried to escape was mowed down  by the machine guns. He himself had bayoneted a baby thrown from the burning building by its dying mother. “Forgive . . . Forgive me . . . ” the dying soldier pleads. 

      Fast forward to this past week, the nineteenth anniversary of a terror attack on the World Trade Center, full of civilians, considered to be military targets because they were part of the infidel empire. Who here has the right to forgive? What are we commanded to do as Christians?  

       Put yourself into a war zone. In 2005, American soldiers murdered 24 noncombatants, mostly women and children, in Haditha, a small backwater farming village in Iraq following a third attack on their convoy; two previous attacks had left 20 Marines dead. War is different, we say, war is different. Who has the right to forgive the soldiers who engaged in the massacre? Who has the right to forgive those who ambushed the Marines?  How do we sort out these questions? 

      Well, we think, happily we are not in that war zone.  But the questions of moral culpability cannot be shrugged off just because we’re sitting here and those soldiers just happened to be there. Do we just slough it off? Not bring it to trial? Is that how we deal with societal forgiveness? To date, that has been our approach. What should it be?

       Closer to home, the Black Lives Matter movement should make us consider these questions. Who has the right to forgive others for the violence suffered by people of color at the hands of the state? What is the role of justice in the act of forgiveness? 

      In 2015 some of the surviving family members of the murdered nine people in a Charleston church publicly forgave the killer. But their acts of forgiveness did not obviate the demand for justice. The larger questions of forgiveness remain with us. How often do we forgive? Are we even able to forgive? And what are the limits of forgiveness? As my perspicacious son George said to me once when we were talking about a victim of domestic violence, “Jesus said to turn the other cheek but he didn’t say to be a doormat.” 

      He was right on point. Jesus did not tell us to be doormats. But forgiveness is not being a doormat; on the contrary, it is an act of positive engagement. When you forgive someone, you are telling that person that he or she has actually offended you. It is an act, as the nonviolent civil rights protestors of the 1960s knew, that challenges the offender to repent. When you forgive someone who has not asked for it, you challenge that person to take responsibility for hurting you in the first place.

       When African Americans sat down as partners in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s, they not only practiced nonviolence, they practiced the power of forgiveness. Just as powerful in the struggle as the nonviolent response to the hate spewing forth was the power that forgiveness gave those students who were harassed and beaten. 

      The emerging medium of television showed the nation how violence was met by nonviolence and forgiveness, and we became appalled by the ugly face of hatred. Feelings began to change. Legislation was only possible because the temper of the nation had changed.

      Forgiveness is not just required but it is really complex. Who can speak for the victims of September 11? Or for those killed in Iraq––American, military personnel from other countries, Iraqis? How do we even begin to sort out issues involved not just in this war but in the responses to September 11? How do we deal with our anger and grief revived every year through the memorial ceremonies?  

       We cannot even begin to address these questions that tear at the fabric of our national life in something as short as a sermon––or even in an hour of worship, but perhaps what we can do is to begin to search within ourselves and to ask what the limits are for us and then what they should be for us as Christians, the followers of a man who forgave the very people who crucified him. 

      Struggling with these deep and important questions of faith will, in the long run, bring us into a closer relationship with the God who has given us life and breath. And, in the end, this will lead us to a deeper understanding of the power of forgiveness to overcome evil in the world. 

      Let us pray: Eternal One who always forgives us, help us to find our way to forgive others even when they do not ask to be forgiven. We pray for the strength to be more like the one upon whom we model our lives, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.