June 28, 2015
Genesis 50:15-2 Joseph Forgives His Brothers
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ So they approached Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.” Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, ‘We are here as your slaves.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.
Matthew 18: 21-22
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber tells the following story:
An old rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun.
“Could it be,” asked one student, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?”
“No,” answered the rabbi.
Another asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?”
“No,” answered the rabbi.
“Then what is it?” the pupils demanded.
“It is when you can look on the face of any woman or man and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”
Dylann Roof sat with the congregants at Mother Emmanuel for 45 minutes that evening, studying the bible, a sacred book in a sacred place, but he couldn’t see those sitting around him as his sisters or brothers. For him it was still night.
It’s hard for us sitting here to understand how someone so young could be filled with so much anger and hatred that he would commit such a heinous act. It will take a legion of psychiatrists to help uncover that.
It is equally difficult for many in our society to understand how the families of his victims could stand in front of a judge only days later, and speak to the person who had taken their loved ones lives, and tell him “I forgive you, and my family forgives you. Repent and make yourself right with Christ.” Their comments, through their tears and grief, held me spellbound. “We are the family that love built. We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive. May God have mercy on your soul.”
Forgiveness and love - without them there can be no peace - in the world, or in our individual souls.
The events of this past week brought to mind a book I read years ago called “Amish Grace; How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy.” It chronicles the shooting of ten young girls in a one room Amish school in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 2006. It left five girls dead and the others in critical condition.
The deranged shooter, Charles Roberts, then took his own life. He was angry at God for the death of his first daughter twenty minutes after her birth nine years earlier. Nine years he hated God and himself - nine years of living with an unimaginable emptiness, despite the birth of three more children. ”I’m going to make you pay for my daughter!” he wrote in a suicide note. Misplaced anger and revenge. His actions made no sense.
Within hours of the shootings, the Amish community shocked the world by their actions, which made no sense to most outside their community, by forgiving the killer and offering grace to his family. They visited his relatives, offering condolences, expressing their forgiveness and bringing gifts. The Amish had no insurance and five of their children were in intensive care in various hospitals. In the coming months over $4 million dollars came in to the community from people throughout the world. They shared this money with Robert’s widow and her children.
The world looked on in awe and disbelief. It seemed inconceivable they could forgive such a heinous crime, and so quickly. What much of the world wasn’t privy to was an understanding of Amish spirituality and their strict adherence to their understanding of their Christian faith. Their faith focuses on the teachings of Matthew in particular, the Sermon on the Mount: loving your enemies, taking up your cross and following Jesus, the Lord’s Prayer and forgiveness.
“The Amish believe if they don’t forgive they won’t be forgiven. This forms the core of Amish spirituality and the core of their understanding of salvation: God’s forgiveness hinges on our willingness to forgive others.” As Mark quotes Jesus, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” After all, none of us are perfect.
The Hebrew texts are filled with stories where God grieves when Israel breaks their covenant with God. But God gives them a second chance, then a third, or more, to repent, to turn their lives around and once again live in that covenant.
At the bail hearing last week, the judge shocked, and angered some, when he began his remarks by asking us to find it in our hearts to help Roof’s family, as well as the family of the victims. They too were hurting and in grief. Had he read “Amish Grace”, or does he just take the teachings of Jesus seriously?
To forgive is not to forget. It’s to remember, but in ways that bring healing, and that includes reaching out in action, as well as words, to those who you are forgiving. It’s to find ways to let go of the pain that the harm has caused us. It’s what restorative justice is all about. The power of their faith enabled the Amish and the Charleston families to respond with grace in the face of injustice and violence.
We live in a culture far different from the Amish - a culture that seems at times to nourish revenge and mock grace. Look at the video games our children play, the movies we watch, the gangs that patrol our streets. How many lawsuits make it through our criminal justice system each year?
Governor Haley, along with others, are saying that Dylann Roof deserves the death penalty. I believe that to forgive does not mean letting the criminal get away with murder, but it does mean giving that criminal an opportunity to find a new way of life in which his or her former need for violence is given over to God, even if that happens behind bars, even if the crime is so heinous that they can never live in society again.
In his book, “Learning to Pray”, Wayne Muller talks a lot about forgiveness. In refusing to forgive, he tells us: “Again and again we relive the suffering, calling it up over and over, as if sheer repetition could somehow erase the tape. But each repetition deepens the rut of anguish that corrodes our peace. When we hold our abusers hostage, the recollected hurt simultaneously holds us hostage. We are forever locked in an inner prison of our own making. If we want to be free, we must choose to leave our self-imposed exile in the past, and move boldly into forgiveness.”
If not, I might add, we are in danger of being trapped in an endless cycle of retribution. What does a world without forgiveness look like? Just look at Israel and Palestine, the Sudan, Nigeria, and so much of the Middle East today.
In our story from the book of Genesis, of Joseph and his brothers, they could have been trapped in that cycle, but Israel was able to grow and flourish because the brothers were able to ask for forgiveness, and Joseph was able to grant it - not only grant it, but reach out to them in love. “I myself,” he tells them, “will provide for you and your little ones.”
Do we as Christians, take the teachings of Jesus on forgiveness as seriously as the Amish? The writers of Amish Grace point out we are not only the products of our culture, but the producers of our culture.
How do we turn that around? How do we learn to forgive? The Hebrew Scriptures gave the ancient Jews detailed instructions to follow in order to obtain the forgiveness of God. But Jesus tells his followers in order to receive God’s forgiveness, we must forgive each other. There are no formulas given in the New Testament on how to do that. We are left to our own devices. I can’t help but think, What if Charles Roberts had learned how to forgive? What if Dylann Roof had learned how to love? Forgiveness and love - without them there can be no peace.
Martin Luther King Jr. had it right when he said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” Dylann Roof was so buried in his darkness he could not see the love and light that were being extended to him.
I pray that none of us ever have to find a way to forgive, as the families in Charleston and Newtown and Denver and New York and New Jersey after 9/11, and so many others across our country have had to do. But I am thankful for the light that so many of them have shed on our darkness. May the light and grace that has been shed by the residents of Charleston continue to spread in the weeks and months ahead. We need as much light as we can get. There is much work to be done.