Proper 12C Sermon (2016)

Proper 12 (July 24-30)
Texts: Luke 11:1-13;
Col. 2:6-19; Gen. 18:2-32

RADICAL FORGIVENESS

A theme in my preaching here has been on how much things are changing in the world, and how that effects the ministry and message of the church. In trying to reach the younger generations, for example, we have talked about how they are less interested in what to believe and more interested in how to live justly, how to make a difference in a troubled world. For the church this means less emphasis on teaching doctrine inside our doors and more emphasis on engaging in mission outside our doors.

The Lord’s Prayer can help us to understand why some of these shifts might be more faithful to what Jesus calls us to in the first place. We have talked about a shift away from the emphasis we learned when we grew up, namely, an emphasis on salvation as going to heaven when we die. It’s not that that isn’t part of the Christian promise. It’s that we are noticing that Jesus and the apostles really didn’t talk about it much — at least, not nearly as much as we in the church have come to talk about it. In the Lord’s Prayer, for example, if going to heaven when we die is so important, wouldn’t we expect to find a petition about it there? Wouldn’t we expect something like the last line of the beloved hymn, “Away in a Manger”: [sing] “and fit us for heaven, to live with you there”? Instead, we basically get the opposite in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” (Note: Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t have all these words, but Matthew’s does, Matt 6:9-13. The version familiar to us when we pray is a hybrid of Matthew’s and Luke’s versions together.) Rather than praying for God to take us to heaven [motioning up], Jesus teaches us to pray for heaven to come to earth [motioning down].

What does that mean exactly? The next petition is again very ‘this-worldly,’ “Give us today our daily bread.” I plan to say more about that next week in connection with the Parable of the Rich Man, who instead of praying to God for daily bread, talks to himself about building more barns for stockpiling his bread well into the future.

Today, I’d like to focus on the following petition at the heart of this prayer: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Here we get to something that has been at the heart of the Christian message for a long time, forgiveness. We don’t need to call for a big change in our ministry when it comes to forgiveness as central to our message. But, again, we might at least need to tweek some things about forgiveness from when we grew up. Keep in mind, for instance the earlier petition: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” If our emphasis is on going to heaven when we die, then we hear the message about forgiveness wrapped around those terms: God graciously forgives us through Jesus, so that we might go to heaven. But if we hear the grace of forgiveness in the context of the Lord’s Prayer, then it becomes more about living the grace of forgiveness in our lives now. When we pray for heaven to come to earth, then it becomes more obvious that forgiveness becomes central to our relationship with others — so much so that it becomes a life of peacemaking. We followers of Jesus become known as ones who make peace by forgiving all others, just as we have been forgiven. Again, for the younger generations, it’s not so much about knowing which doctrines to believe in order to be forgiven (which really isn’t grace, in the first place). It’s about learning to live forgiveness in our relationships and in our communities.

I’d like to finish these reflections, then, by previewing a book that I’m planning on using for the Sunday morning adult class. It’s called Radical Forgiveness, and it’s by a formerly conservative evangelical pastor, Brian Zahnd, who himself has undergone conversion on many of the elements of the Christian message that we’ve been talking about. He titled the book Radical Forgiveness exactly for the reasons we’ve talked about today — namely, that the centrality of the Christian message around forgiveness has a much bigger scope than simply forgiveness for individuals as their ticket to heaven. When we fully live forgiveness as God’s unconditional love in the world, it can have amazing and radical consequences for our communities as places of healing peace.

One of his prime examples — he spends 15 pages on it [pp. 96-111] — was the horrific murder of school children in Lancaster County, PA, ten years ago, on October 2, 2006. On that fateful morning, the school teacher and here students began their day by praying the Lord’s Prayer. And hours later a devastated Amish community had the challenge before them of living forgiveness in the face of such an unthinkable crime. It’s both a terrible and yet inspiring story at the same time.

First, though, let’s take a brief moment to understand the shooter himself, Charles Roberts, because his suicide note reveals the horrible underside of unforgiveness. His note spoke of his sexual abuse of two female relatives when he was 12; and then also of the terrible grief of losing their firstborn daughter twenty minutes after her birth. He could not forgive himself for his sin, and he could not forgive God for the death of his daughter. Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer uses the language of both sin and debt — “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Sin and debt are so connected. Charles Roberts could not forgive himself or God, so someone had to pay the debt. Unthinkably and tragically, he chose ten school girls at the Nickel Mines school to pay the debt, before also turning the gun on himself. Brian Zahnd writes:

Ten little girls shot . . . five dead; five in critical condition. It doesn’t get any worse than that. And this could have been the end of the story. It could have been only the horror story of [the tortured soul of an unforgiven man] and his senseless massacre. But this was not the end of the story. As the world shuddered from news of the Nickel Mines tragedy, the world would soon be stunned by a demonstration of radical forgiveness….

Within hours of the killings, a group of men from the Amish community went to [the shooter’s wife ] … to express . . . forgiveness! They brought gifts of food to Amy and her children, telling Amy they had forgiven her husband and held no animosity toward her. They also promised to help her in the future by providing for her what she might need. Later that evening an Amish man visited Charles Roberts’s father to offer his comfort. “He stood there for an hour, and he held that man in his arms and said, ‘We forgive you.’” In the days following, Roberts’s parents received many more visits from members of the Amish community offering condolences and expressing forgiveness. (99-100)

…The Amish act of forgiveness changed the story line coming out of Nickel Mines. Instead of the Nickel Mines tragedy, media outlets began to speak of the Nickel Mines miracle. Forgiveness changed the story line from the horror of murder to the miracle of forgiveness. The miracle of Nickel Mines is a deliberate echo of the miracle of the cross. How is it that we don’t speak of the cross of Christ as a tragedy, which was, after all, the murder of an innocent man? It’s because on Good Friday Jesus changed the story line when he chose to absorb the blow and respond only with forgiveness. This change in the story line of Good Friday is what the Father endorsed on Easter Sunday in the resurrection.

The Amish of Nickel Mines understood that they were not just recipients of the forgiveness that flows from the cross — but that they were to be active practitioners of the same kind of costly forgiveness. … [A]s hard as it was for Jesus to pray from the cross, “Father, forgive them” — it was no less hard for the Nickel Mines parents to offer forgiveness to the Roberts family. But as some of the Amish elders said, “We have to forgive. Refusing to forgive is not an option. It’s just a normal part of our living. It’s just standard Christian forgiveness.” (101-2)

Incredible, isn’t it? I’m not sure I could forgive in that same situation. And even if I could, it probably wouldn’t be right away. I think I would need forgiveness to be a drawn out process over time. But the Amish really didn’t even have to think about it. It was their way of life. As horrific as these circumstances were, forgiveness came as second nature to them.

I’d like to close, then, by considering the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer (not in Luke’s version, but in Matthew’s and the one we will say in a few minutes) that those school girls prayed on the morning of their death, “but deliver us from evil.” Once again the words of Brian Zahnd:

Did that prayer go unanswered? I don’t believe so. Though they were not delivered from the evil of murder, they were delivered from the evil of being defined by evil. … Evil was not allowed to write the last word on their lives. Because of the community they belonged to, forgiveness had the last word, and they were delivered from evil.

The act of forgiveness at Nickel Mines did not erase the tragedy, but it did transcend it. Transcending evil is not the same thing as ignoring evil. Christian forgiveness in the face of real evil is not a liberal fantasy of pretending that evil isn’t all that bad; Christian forgiveness is a means of transcending evil and refusing to engage with evil on its own terms. … When Charles Roberts fired his guns, he hoped to write the final sentence — a sentence of revenge written in blood. But with the simple (or not so simple) act of forgiveness, the story line was changed. Charles Roberts did not have the last word. The last word was not about payback…. (104-5)

Christian forgiveness is neither ignorance nor amnesia. Forgiveness both knows and remembers. Forgiveness does not call us to forget. Who can forget Good Friday? Or Auschwitz? Or Nickel Mines? Christian forgiveness does not call us to forget but to exhaust evil by ending the cycle of revenge. Forgiveness is not pretending that evil didn’t happen or trying to tell ourselves it wasn’t really evil. … For the Christian whose faith is rooted in Good Friday, the existence of real evil — both human and demonic — is undeniable. Jesus was crucified, and it was unjust, and it was evil. But evil does not have the last word on Good Friday. (That’s why it’s called Good Friday and not Black Friday.) Through absorbing evil in forgiveness without vengeful retaliation, Jesus overcame evil. And his resurrection on Easter Sunday was not the rise of vengeance but the triumph of forgiveness. (107)

Amen!

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Faith Lutheran,
Saginaw, MI, July 24-25, 2016

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