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Thoughts on Forgiveness

This was a sermon which Renee shared with a friend within a year of her murder, as the friend was dealing with forgiving someone at the time.  This document recently resurfaced again....perhaps God's perfect timing?!??  Certainly Renee would want the message shared.....for anyone who may be struggling with forgiveness. 

Written September 11, 2005

Sirach 27:30-28:7; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35

Over the past several years I have given several workshops and presentations on the topic of forgiveness.  This is always humbling.  Teaching a course on any topic would imply that the presenter has some sort of expertise on the subject.  But, I don't think I am very good at forgiving.  I just know that we should.  I know that we should, because Jesus did it over and over again throughout his time on earth.  Part of his last words were to forgive his killers.  Among his first words as the risen Christ, he instructed the disciples to forgive.  If forgiveness was so central to Jesus' life and mission, then we should value it as well.

During discussion periods in these presentations on forgiveness, the following questions have surfaced many times:  Does forgiving mean that we are saying what the person did was okay?  Are we obliged to forgive someone who is not sorry?  How do we forgive someone who keeps hurting us again and again?  What if we truly want to forgive someone for a serious hurt, but just can't seem to let it go?  How do we forgive? 

Forgiveness is complicated and difficult, but it is possible.  Pope John Paul II went to the prison cell of the man who had attempted to murder him.  There, he embraced and forgave him.  Cardinal Joseph Bernardin forgave the young man wha had falsely accused him of sexual abuse.  The Dalai Lama tells of a Tibetan monk who had been imprisoned by the Chinese for eighteen years.  When asked about his biggest threat or danger in prison, he said that what he had feared most was losing his compassion for the Chinese.  After thirty years of hard labor in prison, Nelson Mandela invited his jailer to be a guest at his presidential inauguration.  Forgiveness is possible.

Upon hearing these examples, we might be tempted to think that forgiveness is something that only the world's greatest spiritual leaders can accomplish.  Yet, in her book, Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean writes about Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of David, a teenager who was brutally murdered by one of the men that Sister Helen accompanied to execution.  When the police brought Mr. LeBlanc tot he murder site to identify the body, Lloyd knelt, gazing at his son's battered corpse.  He prayed the Lord's Prayer, and when he came to the words, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," he said, "Whoever did this, I forgive them."

Forgiveness is complicated, difficult, possible and also beneficial.  Rabbi Harold S. Kushner tells of a woman in his congregation:  a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children.  She says, "Since my husband walked out on us, every month is a struggle to pay our bills.  I have to tell my kids that we have no money to go to the movies, while he's living it up with his new wife in another state.  How can you tell me to forgive him?"  He answered, "I'm not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable.  It wasn't; it was mean and selfish.  I'm asking you to forgive because he doesn't deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter, angry woman.  I'd like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is physically, but you keep holding on to him.  You're not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you're hurting yourself."

Forgiveness is difficult, complicated, possible, and beneficial.  In addition, for Christians and many other people of faith, forgiveness is mandatory.  But how do we do it?  I wish I could say I knew.  I believe it is partly choice and mostly grace.  I also believe that today's gospel gives us some helpful clues.  Jesus responds to Peter's question about forgiveness, by essentially saying that it must be limitless.  He then illustrates his point with the story of the servant who was forgiven an enormous debt, by his master, only to turn around and mercilessly demand payment from another.  It seems to me, that if the first servant had truly been grateful for the mercy shown him, he would have been able to extend that mercy to others.

An example that hits home for many of us these days involves the hurricane*.  During this past week, we have all complained about the price of gasoline.  Yet, how many of us have turned on a faucet and thought how grateful we were for access to clean water?  How many of us have sat down to a meal and remembered the wonder of having enough to eat?  How many of us have become less obsessed with our possessions and more grateful for a sturdy roof over our heads?  How many of us have become more patient with and appreciative of our loved ones?  Have we considered that if the only negative consequence of this hurricane for us is that we need to pay more for gasoline, that we are unbelievable fortunate?  When we live our lives with an awareness of our blessings and a spirit of gratitude for them, we tend to accept the lumps life gives us much more gracefully.  Wnen we live our lives with an awareness of how generously we have been forgiven, by God, whether we have deserved it or not, we become more able to forgive others.

In his book, The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal tells an ancient Jewish tale claiming that at the creation of humanity, four angels stood as Godparents -- the angels of Mercy, Truth, Peace and Justice.  The angels argued with God, contending that humanity should not be created at all.  The one who argued most was the angel of Truth.  God finally became angry with the angel of Truth, and banished him to earth.  Yet the angels of Mercy, Peace and Justice, begged God to pardon him.  So God let the angel of Truth return.  He brought with him a clod of earth that "was soaked in his tears, tears that he had shed on being banished from heaven.  And from this clod of earth the Lord created" humanity.  The truth is that as humans, we will deeply hurt God and each other many times over.  But more powerful even than truth are God's mercy, peace and justice.

God will always forgive us.  In turn, God asks us always to forgive.  Forgiveness is complicated and difficult.  Yet it is possible and good for us - and is required of us.  On September 11, 2001, God did not say 'forgive them if you can'.  God said 'forgive'.  Every time we are hurt, no matter how big or how small, God demands that we forgive.  Harboring grudges only hurts us more deeply.  When we refuse to forgive, we might as well be sending ourselves to be tortured until the debt is payed.  I know it isn't easy, but when we compare all that God has given and forgiven us, to what God asks us to forgive, it really isn't that much at all.

*Referring to hurricane Katrina

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer...
Romans 12:12