Mahatma Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Jesus stressed forgiveness not as a suggestion, but as a mandate. This Sunday at 10 am, Rev. John Weems will explore the power of forgiveness.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Forgiveness is loaded word.
Especially in a week dominated by headlines about former Stanford student Brock Turner’s ridiculously short six-month jail sentence for his despicable sexual assault of a woman outside of a party, and a shooting rampage at a gay night club in Orlando just this morning that killed at least 50 people and injured more than 50 more, it does not seem adequate for me to tell you to simply read your Bible and forgive.
In our Facebook preview of today’s topic, one woman wrote, “I feel like if I forgive, I’m saying what he did was OK.” The woman did not mention the specific incident to which she was referring, but she raises an excellent point for us to explore today.
What happens when we forgive? Is forgive even the right word?
What message does it send to the one who hurt us?
For the purposes of discussion today, let’s divide offenses into two categories: heckish and hellish.
Heckish could include someone taking our seat on the bus or our pew in church or a parking spot. Heck features the neighbor who plays music too loud or the boss who doesn’t seem to appreciate you. Our struggles with transition are sometimes heckish–our favorite restaurant altering the menu or our church diversifying its musical repertoire. I do not intend to mention this change flippantly, as I know that sometimes our restaurants or our churches are the one constant in a very chaotic world. Heckish matters can be challenging, but don’t have to ruin our day or define our life.
Hellish offenses can shake our foundation. They alter our entire lives. In some cases, they involve the tragic loss of loved ones. Another driver or a medical practitioner made a mistake. Natural disaster strikes. We received the diagnosis we did not want. In some cases, our grievance is with God. While this is not the primary subject of my message today, unresolved anger with God is something to take seriously. Along with my clergy colleagues, I would be honored to discuss your feelings in this area.
In some cases, hellish offenses can be downright evil. As Brock Turner’s victim so powerfully wrote in the letter to her attacker, “You took away my worth . . .” Those who attack us or our loved ones or entire categories of people are guilty of these offenses that in many cases, make people feel separated from God and question how if there is a God, that Creator would have allowed such evil to occur.
When it comes to forgiveness, Jesus doesn’t seem to distinguish between the heckish and hellish, the minor and the major.
In today’s Scripture in Matthew 5, Jesus compares being angry to murder. He says that people shouldn’t even make offerings at the temple before reconciling with those they have offended.
Later in Matthew 18:21-22, his disciple Peter asks, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’” to which Jesus replies, “‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’”
Are we really supposed quickly forgive all things, even the hellish ones?
Not so fast, says Vanderbilt University Ph.D. Maria Mayo.
In her post “5 Myths About Forgiveness,” Dr. Mayo explains:
“The Greek word translated as “forgive” in the New Testament, aphiēmi, carried a wide range of meanings, including to remit (a debt), to leave (something or someone) alone, to allow (an action), to leave, to send away, to desert or abandon, and even to divorce.”
Mayo argues that while our contemporary views of forgiveness focus more on the emotional aspects, Jesus and people in his time would have more likely been referring to the concrete actions included in the aforementioned definitions of forgive in Greek.
She explores Scripture including the Matthew passage about forgiving 77 times, a number signifying boundlessness. Looking at a similar passage in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus adds a condition for the perpetrator’s forgiveness: “if there is repentance.” (Luke 17:13)
Mayo also looks at other oft-cited passages in Luke, in which Jesus says, “pray for those who abuse you,” (Luke 6:38) and even forgives those who have attacked and tortured him as he is on the cross: “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
“However, a closer look at the syntax reveals that Jesus is not, in fact, forgiving his attackers,” according to Mayo. “Rather, he is praying that God might do so.”
As we are saved by God’s grace alone, true forgiveness comes through God’s power alone.
If the fully human and fully divine Jesus had to ask for God’s help to forgive those who had harmed him, perhaps we can forgive ourselves for our imperfect ability to let go of pain, especially when the cause falls into the hellish category.
There is some pain that never completely goes away, regardless of how hard we try to let go.
What are we to do, and why should we bother trying to forgive if it’s ultimately up to God anyway?
Calvary Pastor Emeritus Dr. Jim Emerson has written extensively on the subject, including his book Forgiveness: The Key to the Creative Life. Dr. Emerson teaches that “. . . We see forgiveness is not some fanciful or unrealistic ‘nice guy’ act, but as a tough discipline that releases power for dealing with life’s tensions and failures.”
In this framework, forgiveness is a performance enhancer, releasing power.
One of the translations of the Aramaic—the language of Jesus–word for forgiveness is to untie or loosen.
Perhaps if we don’t fixate on forgiveness as forgetting the harm one has done to us, but as loosening the hold it has on us, we can move toward restoration.
If I were a family member of the woman Brock Turner attacked, I am certain I would not be able to perfectly forgive his actions.
The young woman’s victim impact statement, read in court by her, to the attacker, says she will never forgive him.
She goes on to write, “The damage is done, no one can undo it. And now we both have a choice. We can let this destroy us, I can remain angry and hurt and you can be in denial, or we can face it head on, I accept the pain, you accept the punishment, and we move on.”
“Emily Doe,” as the woman is also known, recently explained why she is remaining anonymous beyond protecting her identity, in a statement to KTVU: “I am coming out to you simply wanting to be heard,” adding, “For now I am every woman.”
She refuses to be “stuck in reverse,” a line from the Coldplay song we’ll hear shortly.
She is not forgetting or condoning the harmful actions of her attacker.
She is attempting to release the power it has over her.
I am amazed when I hear stories of people after they have been subjected to evil.
From the families of the nine people gunned down at a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston nearly one year ago, to the Amish families whose children were killed by a gunman nearly 10 years ago, and numerous instances that were not as prominent in the headlines, people are refusing allow anger to win.
Muhammad Ali, put it this way: “I have practiced forgiving, just as I want to be forgiven. Only God knows what’s in a person’s heart . . .”
If those who have been through hell-on-earth events are so often willing to work to reclaim their power by loosening the hold the act can have on them, perhaps we can set aside our heck-on-earth frustrations and use that energy to face injustice and evil with our brothers in sisters in pain.
For those in worship today, I invite you to take one of the pew offering envelopes or pieces or a piece of paper. As we listen to music, consider someone or some event or something in this world that has hurt you and has some power over you and write a word or phrase on the paper. When the offering plates come later, consider loosening the power of that hurt by releasing the paper. If you prefer, take it with you and tear it up and burn it or throw away in a place with symbolism for you.
From heck to hell and beyond, Jesus walks with you.
He weeps with you.
He says, “I was hurt too.”
Pain doesn’t get the last word.
Love gets the last word.
 Maria Mayo, “5 Myths About Forgiveness in the Bible.” The Huffington Post, Aug. 16, 2011.
 Rev. James G. Emerson Jr., Forgiveness: Key to the Creative Life: Its Power and Its Practice-Lessons from Brain Studies, Scripture, and Experience. (AuthorHouse, 2007), 77.
 Lindsey Bever,‘You took away my worth’: A sexual assault victim’s powerful message to her Stanford attacker,” The Washington Post, June 4 2016. Accessed online at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2016/06/04/you-took-away-my-worth-a-rape-victim-delivers-powerful-message-to-a-former-stanford-swimmer/
 Muhammad Ali and Hana Yasmeen Ali, The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections On Life’s Journey (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013).