Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Challenge of Forgiveness

October 3, 2010

Matthew 18:15-22

Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way

The Challenge of Forgiveness

Four years ago yesterday a terrible tragedy took place in the community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. A man walked into a one-room Amish school and shot ten girls, killing five of them. It was a shocking tragedy, and it is remembered not just for the terrible violence, but also for the reaction of the Amish community. The leaders of the community said they had forgiven the man for what he had done. The gunman took his own life that day and half the people who attended his funeral were members of that Amish community. They even supported a fund that was set up for his widow and three children.

That act of forgiveness made news around the world, reminding us of how unusual it can be to see true forgiveness in action. All religions teach it (forgiveness), one person wrote, but no one does it like the Amish.

As we continue our series of messages based on Meet the Challenge: The Disciple’s Way, this morning we come to The Challenge of Forgiveness. There are challenges, and then there are challenges. And forgiveness is one of those really, really big challenges. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that every person here this morning either needs to let go of something and grant someone forgiveness or needs to feel forgiven. And some of the events related to the need to either give or receive forgiveness may go back many years.

The passage we read from Matthew’s gospel takes us through the difficult question of forgiveness. Jesus begins by talking about the difficult task of restoring a broken relationship. Peter then approaches Jesus to ask, Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times? Peter is being generous; not many people give someone seven chances. He is, I think, genuinely grappling with being full of grace and forgiveness. But Jesus blows Peter’s mind, I’m sure, when he responds, I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Or, as some translations offer, seven times seventy times.

Many people would hear those words and say, well, Jesus wants us to become a doormat, and I’m not interested in being treated in such a way.

But one of the issues Jesus is addressing is the spiral of hurt that escalates because of a lack of forgiveness. We all know how it goes. Someone hurts someone and the other person responds by hurting them in a greater way and it continues to escalate by drawing in other people and the pain and brokenness deepens. Jesus is saying that at some point we have to be the ones that say we will not be drawn into that cycle of pain and hurt; we will not further the brokenness; we will not further the divide that separates people.

But it also leads us to avoid the danger of the soul-destroying hurt and bitterness that comes when we cannot, or will not, forgive.

Corrie Ten Boom said, forgiveness is to set a prisoner free, and to realize the prisoner was you. (http://christianity.about.com/od/whatdoesthebiblesay/a/bibleforgivenes.htm)

The person most hurt by an unwillingness to forgive is not the person who has offended us; the person most hurt is me. When we are hurt by someone we want justice to be done but what we find instead is a cancer of bitterness eating away our soul. And no measure of justice won’t take away that bitterness.

David Augsburger says it this way in Caring Enough to Forgive, and he writes since nothing we intend is ever faultless, and nothing we attempt ever without error, and nothing we achieve without some measure of finitude and fallibility we call humanness, we are saved by forgiveness. We are saved by forgiveness. What a powerful way to phrase such an important truth. We are certainly saved by the forgiveness of God, but we are saved from so much suffering by not only receiving forgiveness but in granting forgiveness.

I have watched too many people suffer in life because of a lack of forgiveness. They have suffered because someone held over their heads a failure or a hurt and they were never offered forgiveness. It’s tragic that some people want to hold that kind of power over someone else. But more people are hurt by not offering forgiveness. I have watched too many people grow hard and cold with bitterness. They find joy in holding onto a hurt and it smothers and eventually poisons the soul.

When Jesus tells Peter to forgive over and over it’s not a question of being a doormat or being taken advantage of; it’s a matter of cleansing and purifying our soul, it’s a matter of bringing healing and wholeness to ourselves.

There may be something you need to let go of today. Don’t allow bitterness to take root in your soul. Consider this as you hear the story of Phan Thi Kim Phuc (Fan Tie Kim Fuu). You may not recognize the name, but you have undoubtedly seen a picture of her. In 1972 a photo was taken of her that would win a Pulitzer Prize. She was 9 years old at the time and the photo is arguably the most famous photo taken during the Vietnam War. The photo shows her running and screaming when napalm was dropped on her village. Third degree burns covered 75% of her body. After seventeen surgeries the scars are still visible and she still suffers from her injuries. She has traveled quite a path since that day in 1972.

But someone else has traveled quite a path since that day as well. John Plummer was the pilot of the plane that dropped the napalm that day. When he saw the picture he was haunted by the image for twenty-five years. He said that as he looked at the picture he would tell himself, I did that to her. That’s a terrible burden to live with, and it was too much for him. As he searched for something to help with his guilt he began to drink heavily and his life fell apart.

Over time, he discovered the grace of God and became a minister. In 1997, watching the evening news, he saw that picture again and learned that she was still alive. Though she had rarely spoken in public about her ordeal she had been invited to Washington to speak at a Veteran’s Day observance. Plummer knew he had to go and prayed that God would bring them together.

As he stood in the crowd she said if I could talk face-to-face with the pilot…I would tell him we cannot change history. Plummer scribbled out a note, I am that man, and a police officer delivered the note. By the time she was given the note he had made his way to where he was just a few feet behind her. She read it and said, I couldn’t move any more. I stopped and turned, and he looked at me. For years she carried a great deal of anger and hatred because of what had happened to her, but she too had found the grace of God in the intervening years. She opened her arms, embraced him, and as he wept she said, it’s all right. I forgive. I forgive. And over the next two hours they talked and prayed together.

Colossians 3:13 says, Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. As we have been forgiven, may we also forgive.

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