A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 28, 2015
Matthew 18:21-35 GNT
Reading from Anne Lamott, Plan B, pp. 45-46
We were all shocked week before last by yet another senseless act of violence that took the lives of nine innocent, beautiful people, who were in the midst of their mid-week prayer meeting, no less. One of the slain was Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor, who had started preaching at the yount age of 13 and was also a South Carolina State Senator, having been elected at the age of 23, the youngest state legislator in South Carolina’s history.
This most recent church shooting reminded us yet again that, seemingly, no place is safe. And in the eyes of some, no place is considered sacred. What makes the Charleston tragedy so shocking is the fact that the good folks of Emanuel AME Church had welcomed the shooter into their midst with open arms. Then after sitting with them in the prayer meeting for an hour, he turned on them and opened fire, while mouthing racial slurs. Disturbing, unsettling, shocking, to say the least. This tragedy served to reopen old wounds and resurrect old memories of other senseless shootings. Dylann Roof, the confessed killer, was an unabashedly white supremacist who flaunted it. Rev. Cornell William Brooks, president of the NAACP, rightly called the incident “an act of racial terrorism.”
But something almost as shocking is the way that some of the families of the victims have responded to the shooter. When confronting the accused killer at his bond hearing, a number of them stood to address him, and several told him that they forgave him. The statement of family member Anthony Thompson is illustrative: “I forgive you, my family forgives you.” John S. Dickerson, writing in USA Today, stated that “Such forgiveness is unseen in the animal world, is illogical in the rational world. . . Such forgiveness is humanity at its most human, or perhaps most divine.” Dickerson continues, “We have witnessed concentrated, unthinkable evil – met by concentrated, undeserved forgiveness.”1
Just as the Charleston church shooting resurrected old memories of other church shootings, the forgiveness expressed by some of the family members of the Emanuel AME Church’s victims reminded many of the forgiveness the Pennsylvania Amish community demonstrated when a gunman walked into an Amish schoolhouse near Lancaster in 2006 and opened fire, killing several sweet, innocent Amish girls. The grieving families of those girls immediately extended forgiveness to the gunman (who had taken his own life as well), and even visited the gunman’s widow and parents to comfort them, including attending the gunman’s funeral. You may remember that a book was released that centered on the Amish community’s forgiveness titled Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy. That Amish community was named the newsmaker of the year by the Religion Newswriters Association and Beliefnet, who cited them for “demonstrating courage, forgiveness, self-sacrifice and love.” “They really taught everyone how to live our faith and values in a vivid way,” said Beliefnet editor Steven Waldman.
But back to Charleston; we wonder, if we were in the shoes of those Emanuel AME Church’s victims’ families, if we could express forgiveness as readily as some of them have. And it should be noted that not all of them have been so ready to forgive. I heard one of the grieving family members confess during a television interview, regarding her forgiveness, “I am not there yet.” I am not there yet. I imagine such would be the sentiment for many of us. Because forgiveness at such a time is hard, if not downright impossible. Forgiveness in the face of such evil, senseless tragedy, and extreme loss presents the ultimate challenge.
In one of his hard-to-follow teachings, Jesus talks about forgiving those who have wronged us—forgiving our brother or sister “from the heart,” as he puts it (Matthew 18:35). Here, and in other places, Jesus (or at least Matthew speaking for Jesus some 50 years later) states that God’s forgiveness of our wrongs is predicated upon our forgiveness of others. That seems a bit stringent, since we are not God. We are humans who tend to be vulnerable creatures, who can suffer deep hurt, and who can be emotionally fragile. We applaud those who say they can forgive so quickly following a tremendous loss. But for many of us, our extension of “Jesus-like love and forgiveness” may not come so easily.
For most of us, I conjecture, forgiveness for some great wrong or deep hurt is more of a long, drawn-out process that takes time and cannot be rushed. Forgiveness as such might be compared to the process of grief. When we suffer the death or loss of someone close to us, there is a grief process that we need to work through in order to arrive at a sense of closure and sense of peace. We do others a great disservice when we try to force them through the process of grief too quickly. And we do ourselves a great injustice when we don’t allow ourselves to work through the process of grief as we need to. And for each individual, the grieving process is different.
Likewise with the process of forgiveness, I believe. Forgiveness toward one who has inflicted great harm or hurt upon us, as did the shooter in Charleston, is a process that each one must work through individually. Some may be able to work through it quickly. But many may not.
This is something that writer Anne Lamott seems to understand. In doing research for today’s sermon, I ran across some quotes by Lamott about forgiveness, so they drove me to pull from my shelf her book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. Lamott relates how that even two years after her mother had died and she had stored her ashes in the closet, she still had not been able to forgive her for her failings as a mother and the way she had left her feeling wounded and broken. Anne seems to be saying that forgiveness can be a long process. But she goes on to say that there comes a time when you just have to give up the bitterness and anger and be done with it, and forgive. One of the things we often fail to realize is that harboring bitterness, anger and the lack of forgiveness is harder on the one who refuses to give it than it is on the one it is directed against. Bitterness and anger are like acid eating away our insides, while forgiveness is like a healthy purging of the emotional toxins that we have been storing inside. As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “We must finally be reconciled with our foe, lest we both perish in the vicious circle of hatred.”
John S. Dickerson, in that same USA Today article I quoted from earlier, states that “Good sometimes overcomes evil via counterintuitive forces: compassion, mercy and forgiveness.”1 And William P. Youngs, in that eclectic bestselling novel, The Shack, that was so popular a few years ago about a father dealing with the abduction and tragic murder of his young daughter, observes (via the voice of God), “Every time you forgive, the universe changes.”2 Such is truth: forgiveness can be like a chain reaction, leading to reconciliation, the end of conflict, and a better world for all.
But the truth also is, forgiveness can sometimes be hard, very hard; sometimes almost downright impossible. At such times, forgiveness cannot and should not be rushed. But when great evil, hurt, and loss are worked through so that forgiveness can be extended, it is a thing of marvelous grace. And the world is changed for the better because of it.
So we applaud all those greatly affected by the Charleston church tragedy who are able to extend Jesus-like forgiveness so readily and so gracefully. But at the same time, we dare not judge those who will continue to struggle with the need to forgive the assailant, for months or maybe even years to come. The ability to forgive in such extreme circumstances—in the face of the ultimate challenge—is a wonderful manifestation of grace. It is a manifestation of grace that each of us should be striving toward. But sometimes the good work of grace takes time. Amen.
1John S. Dickerson, “AME Church Shows How to Forgive,” USA Today, June 22, 2015.
2William P. Youngs, The Shack. Windblown Media, 2007, p. 235.