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As We Forgive Our Debtors

Sunday, February 24, 2019.  Rev. Annamarie Groenenboom, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Luke 6:27-37; Genesis 45:3-11, 15

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October 2, 2006 was a warm fall day in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It started out like every other day, children going to school, adults going to work. At around 10am, Charles Carl Roberts entered into the West Nickel Mines Amish Schoolhouse with a gun.  He took 10 of the children hostage and, at the end, he murdered 5, injured 5, and then ended his own life.

The world and the West Nickel Mines community were shocked and horrified. They wondered how this senseless act of violence could happen.  The world was surprised by the response of the West Nickel Mines community.  The Amish community offered forgiveness to the shooter and the Roberts family. Instead of reaching out with revenge and hate, they reached out with grace and compassion.

A grandfather of one of the murdered girls met with the Roberts family that same night and offered them forgiveness. A week later, the Roberts family held a small funeral for the shooter, and many members from the Amish community attended and hugged his family.  The mother of the shooter was the only non-Amish person invited to the funerals of the murdered girls.  And when the Roberts family was in need of financial support, the Amish community came together to support them. These actions, this forgiveness, left the world amazed and wondering, did the Amish community forgive too quickly?

When asked about the impact of the school shooting, members of the West Nickel Mines community only spoke of the incident in terms of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a deeply rooted value in Amish society, and to say the Amish community walked the walk and talked the talk would be an understatement. People from the community often explained that since Jesus has forgiven our sins, we are called to forgive the sins of others. We are called to love and forgive our enemies.

The forgiveness they offered to the family did not say that the actions of the gunman that day were OK. It did not say we are going to forget this happened and move forward.  Willingness to forgo vengeance does not undo the tragedy or pardon the wrong, but it was something that they were called to do, and there was no question that they would offer forgiveness even in the worst situation.  They were called to forgive their enemies.

The scripture passages we read today emphasize our call to forgive others.  In our first passage, Jesus tells us that God forgave us, and we must forgive others, even our worst enemy. And, our story from Genesis is another awesome story of forgiveness.

Joseph’s story is one that many of us have heard time and time again. When Joseph was young, his brothers were jealous of him and the gifts and praise he received from their father. The brothers made a decision that would impact Joseph’s whole life. The brothers threw Joseph into a pit and then sold him into slavery in Egypt.  They assumed that he had died.  Instead, Joseph slowly rose to power.  He went from being a slave, to a prisoner, all the way up to being the Pharaoh’s second in command.

The story Spencer read for us today is the climax of that story.  After years and years, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt for food and aid because they were hit hard by the famine in their country. Joseph could have easily sent them away with no food.  He was in power over them and could do whatever he wanted.  He could have easily yelled and screamed and caused them trouble. Their well being was in his hands. But instead of hurting them the way he had been hurt, Joseph offers them forgiveness.

When Joseph announces that he is their long lost brother, they are speechless.  They thought he was dead.  Joseph does not scold them, try to make them feel guilty or shameful.  He does not ask for a confession of sin. He just names what happened, “I’m that brother you sold into slavery” and offers them forgiveness.  Not only forgiveness, but a new place to live and thrive.  Joseph cried over his brothers and talked with them.  He set his power aside and entered into a place of compassion and vulnerability.

I’m a person who loves happy endings.  But, I’m not too sure how often they actually happen. To be honest, I’m not sure that I would respond in the same way as Joseph.  While it may be difficult for us to enter into the story of Joseph, we can all relate to that universal feeling of being hurt by someone.  We have all been hurt probably many times by others and even ourselves.

When hearing these stories, we wonder, how could the Amish in the West Nickel Mines community forgive the shooter? We wonder, how could Joseph ever forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery and almost ruining his life?  How can we possibly forgive that person who has harmed us?

Forgiveness is hard.  It is completely contrary to our instincts. When Jesus says, “love your enemies… turn the other cheek,” we want to do anything but that in the moment. We want to go on the defensive and protect ourselves.

And what happens when that person we are called to forgive doesn’t deserve that forgiveness.  Many times, the people we are called to forgive don’t even know they did anything wrong.  Or maybe they don’t want our forgiveness.

Forgiveness means giving up on that anger we hold.  The anger that gives us power and fuels the fire that we have inside us.  The anger that makes us feel better.  It gives us power over that person.  Honestly, lots of times we just don’t want to let go.  We don’t want to forgive that person, that group, ourselves. We just don’t want to do it.

My husband is a chemical engineer, and he explained what corrosion was the other day. Corrosion happens when a substance slowly changes something perfectly useful into something that is unusable and broken. An example could be a piece of rusting metal. When something rusts, the metal becomes weaker and weaker until it eventually disintegrates.

And as I thought more about it, I realized that hatred and anger are exactly like corrosion.  Anger is a necessary and normal emotion.  It can actually be useful in many ways.  At first that anger and hatred feels good.  It makes us feel strong and powerful.  It makes us feel stable. We sometimes even love the anger.  But as time goes on, the anger and hatred slowly eat away at us until it’s the only thing that we think about.  It’s the only thing that matters.

Famous American author Mark Twain once said, “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”  We’ve all experienced that corrosive anger and hate. The kind that you can’t just let go of.   it’s not sustainable. It’s not a sustainable source of power and strength. But there has to be a solution to the corrosive power of anger.  The solution is forgiveness. Forgiveness brings peace to our souls that are hurt by anger.

Forgiveness doesn’t just stop the anger corrosion, it actually brings new life. In Joseph’s story, he could have easily held onto his anger and sent his brothers away with no food.  He could have ended his brothers lives. I nstead, Joseph forgives his brothers and ensures their future. Joseph ensures the safety and life of those who put him at risk.  Creating something new and sustainable did not come from Joseph’s power and anger; it came from a place of vulnerability and forgiveness.

The West Nickel Mines community could have closed in on themselves and held their anger against the Roberts family. But instead, they chose to offer the family support and forgiveness. A church in the community paid for the shooter’s funeral. They helped the family when the needed financial resources and supplies. They gave the family emotional support as they grieved. They did not leave them.

After hearing these powerful stories of forgiveness, we can still feel like it’s impossible to forgive.  The person we consider forgiving doesn’t honestly deserve our forgiveness, and it’s easier to hold onto that powerful anger.  But, then we look to the ultimate and perfect forgiver who is Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ perfectly forgives each one of us. He forgives our past, our present, and our future.  And then he empowers us to follow in his example by forgiving others.

We will never be able to perfectly forgive like Jesus. The forgiveness we offer is more like a journey and may take a very long time. Look at Joseph. It took him his whole life to forgive his brothers. We may not be able to forgive right away and that’s OK. In order to start your forgiveness journey you need to be ready. You need to be willing. And you need to be patient.

I want to think for a moment about what would happen if we lived our lives from a position of forgiveness.  A position where you recognize that people are going to hurt you. You recognize that you will probably hurt yourself. But after feeling that anger and hurt, you stand willing to forgive. You stand willing to enter into a journey of forgiveness.

We could replace the corrosive anger with feelings of peace and freedom. We could actually read what Jesus says and think, that’s hard but not impossible. The Good News is good but not easy. We could fulfill God’s call for us to live lives of forgiveness. We recognize that we are a forgiven people who must also forgive. We can know that forgiveness is not saying that everything is alright. It’s saying that you are ready to begin letting go of the anger and ready to move forward.

Our society is filled with corrosive anger and hatred. A society that thinks forgiveness is weakness and impractical. It makes you vulnerable. Just look at the way we talk to each other in the news and sometimes to each other’s faces. God calls us to not participate in that anger but to be examples of forgiveness. To show others that forgiveness is more powerful than anger and hatred and brings peace and compassion.

I’m not sure if we can ever be as good of forgivers as Joseph from the Bible or the Amish from the West Nickel Mines community, but we can always try. Forgiveness is a journey that can take a short or long time.  It’s a call that isn’t easy.  It goes against our thinking, inclinations, desires, and will.  But when we offer forgiveness, it gives us new life, new peace, and new hope for the future.  I challenge you today to think of someone or something you need to forgive and if you’re ready, start your forgiveness journey.  Thanks be to God for helping us to love and forgive everyone.  Amen.