A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, March 18, 2018
Lenten Series: Virtues for Turbulent Times
Proverbs 17:9; Luke 6:37-38 GNT
Perhaps no virtue to be considered during this Lenten season is more difficult to actualize than the one we are considering today. Who among us has not faced the most difficult task of needing to forgive someone who has done us wrong, perhaps a great wrong? Sometimes people do us wrong by accident, without intending to do so, perhaps unconsciously, without even realizing they have wronged us.
At other times, people may do us wrong consciously, intentionally, and maybe even maliciously – with much forethought and malice. Such poses an even greater challenge when it comes to granting forgiveness.
And yet, such is what Jesus asks of us: “forgive others, and God will forgive you” (Luke 6:37). And in the Lord’s Prayer that we pray every Sunday: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12-15). And Jesus’ answer to Peter when he asked how many times we should forgive another who sins against us: seven times seventy (Matthew 18:22).
Why is forgiveness often so difficult? And what about those cases when forgiveness does not come easily, and for good reason?
Some years ago, I gave a sermon on forgiveness, and one of my female listeners countered that the process of forgiveness should not be trivialized and we should not make people feel guilty who have a hard time forgiving great wrongs. And making anyone feel guilty over the issue of forgiveness is not my intention today. She was speaking specifically of women who have suffered years of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse and/or violence. To insist that such victims should just forgive and forget such wrongs in an instant, like erasing bad words off a chalkboard, is unrealistic, unreasonable and just plain wrong. I agree. Some wrongs that are inflicted run deep to the core of our being. And some may take years of therapy or counseling to work through before the offended person can forgive. I totally get that and concur.
The wrongs that can be inflicted by others, even those who are trusted to keep us safe; the wrongs that can be inflicted by those who are driven by evil impulses or severe mental illness, can be horrific. The recent school shootings, Las Vegas massacre, various forms of physical and sexual abuse, and such are just a few examples. Forgiveness is not always easy and may not come quickly in some cases.
But why can granting forgiveness often be so difficult, even for minor offenses? Several years ago, I had the unhappy task of helping conduct the funeral service for a loved one. The other preacher who spoke after I did was of the very conservative, independent persuasion, and he had had no formal ministerial training whatsoever (no seminary training and no college classes either). His sole credential was his devotion to the King James Version Bible. When he got wound up, this other preacher started ranting and raving, and preaching the Bible from one end to the other, with none of what he said having any relation to the person we were remembering.
But the thing that struck like a blow to the head was when he shouted, “I don’t need no seminary education to preach God’s Word!” Such was a direct insult he was hurling at me, it was quite obvious, even though he never mentioned my name. I was sitting on the platform in the funeral home chapel facing the congregation of 75-80 mourners, and Mary Lou said she could see the muscles bulging in my cheeks as I sat there enduring this tirade and clenching my jaws. My personal integrity, my pride in my hard work and education had been assaulted, I felt; and I had suffered embarrassment in front of family and friends alike. I grant you that this offense was minor in the larger scheme of things. But of all the wrongs that have been inflicted upon me over the years, that has been one of the most challenging when it comes to forgiveness.
When someone intentionally and perhaps maliciously wrongs us, we feel it is an attack upon our personhood, upon our good name, upon our integrity. Forgiveness is difficult because it requires a concession on our part.
And the truth is, some people would rather die than forgive. Perhaps you have known such people; they prefer to withhold forgiveness and hold onto a grudge and bitterness and take them to the grave.
Such reminds me of the story about the two neighbors who had a long-running feud over a property line dispute. When it came time for one of the neighbors to die, he gathered his sons close by his side to give them his parting words. They drew close and the old man said, “You know how I have held a grudge against our neighbor all these years and have refused to forgive him. Now that I am about to die, I must forgive him, because Jesus demands that I do so. But if you ever forgive him, I will come back to haunt you!”
Sadly, some people never get there; to the point of being mature enough and strong enough to forgive, that is. What a thing to carry into the afterlife, when you stop to think about it!
Not being forgiven by someone is an awful burden to bear. If I learn that I have inadvertently offended someone, or if I get it in my head that I have offended someone, it worries me. But then when I speak to that person and am either absolved of my offense or learn that I had not really offended them in the first place, it is a wonderful gift that brightens my day and my week.
I have read that a good many people in hospitals for the mentally ill suffer with tremendous burdens of guilt over wrongs they have done or feel they have done. So when we extend forgiveness to someone and let them know they have been forgiven, we are bestowing upon them a wonderful gift, a marvelous gift of grace.
But harboring hatred and bitterness and a lack of forgiveness in the heart is also an awful burden to bear.
Steven McDonald was a young police officer in 1986 when he was shot by a teenager in New York’s Central Park, an incident that left him paralyzed. “I forgave [the shooter] because I believe the only thing worse than receiving a bullet in my spine would have been to nurture revenge in my heart,” McDonald wrote. While the younger man was serving his prison sentence, McDonald corresponded with him, hoping that one day the two could work together to demonstrate forgiveness and nonviolence. Unfortunately, the young man died in a motorcycle accident three days after his release from prison; but McDonald still travels the country to deliver his message of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Christian counselor and author Lewis B. Smedes reminds us, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” So forgiveness is twice-fold liberating. When forgiveness is granted, it actually sets two people free – the one who is forgiven and the one who forgives.
So, what then, can be the ultimate result of granting forgiveness? Granting forgiveness is like casting off an emotional ball and chain that has been holding us back from moving forward. When we forgive, we can in no way change the past, but granting forgiveness can alter the trajectory of our future.
Just as granting forgiveness to another is a marvelous gift of grace to them, releasing bitterness and granting forgiveness is also a gift we give to ourselves. Granting forgiveness blesses both the giver and the forgiven. “It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive,” Maya Angelou encourages.
Being able to forgive is a sign of growing spiritually, an indication that we are at least striving to grow in Christian virtues and toward authentic selfhood.
So, what are the personal possibilities for our lives when it comes to forgiveness? The answer is known only to each of us personally. Could it be for us, as the sermon title indicates, that forgiveness is the freedom times two virtue? That it can free the one who is forgiven, and it can also free the one who grants the forgiveness? May it be so for all of us during this Lenten season and always. Amen.