19A Forgiveness

Holy Spirit, Gulf Shores, September 17, 2017

We have spent the last several weeks glued to the weather channel watching the path and destruction of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Jose wondering what we can do to help, wondering if Gulf Shores will be hit next. There is nothing like the weather to teach us about surrender and powerlessness. I think of the 6 million people in Florida who indeed lost power, two thirds of the state.  On our travels from Arkansas we stopped in Hattiesburg where the parking lot was filled with cars with Florida license plates and our hotel was filled with families with their dogs./ As the water rises we evacuate to shelter with what is most precious. After the storm, our only transportation may sometimes be by boat.

Balbir Matbur writes, “The boat I travel in is called Surrender. My two oars are instant forgiveness and gratitude—complete gratitude for the gift of life. I am thankful for the experience of this life, for the opportunity to dance. I get angry, I get mad,/ but as soon as I remind myself to put my oars in the water, I forgive.”


October 2, 2006. Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania1

A heavily armed dairy truck driver enters the one room schoolhouse of the Amish community, takes the eleven young schoolgirls hostage lining them up facing the blackboard, systematically attempts to execute them, killing five, and wounding five before he kills himself. The Amish community enshrouds their grief within their circle of prayer and daily communion. Within hours after the shooting they go to the home of the man who killed their children, offer forgiveness to his widow, attend the funeral of the shooter, and set up a charitable fund for his family./

Today Jesus calls us to forgive seventy-seven times or some translations say 70 times 7 or 490 times. He says nothing about forgiving according to the degree of the sin. He is talking about all. He is telling us that forgiveness is a top down event. It starts with the king in today’s parable, our God who forgives our huge debts and expects us to do likewise. Oh dear. This seems impossible.//

Will Willimon2 suggests we think about the worst thing anyone has done to us, the lie that was told about us, the time we were falsely punished, the deal where we were cheated, the person who insulted us. Now picture yourself extending a hand of forgiveness to that person for the terrible wrong they have done to you./ It seems impossible, doesn’t it?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter have written a classic book called The Book of Forgiving,3 emphasizing that we begin by telling our story so that we can move on to a new and more grateful story. Forgiveness is something we do for ourselves so that we do not allow those persons to continue to harm us as we emotionally and mentally carry anger and resentments towards them like a sack of heavy rocks over our shoulders. When we cannot forgive, that heavy burden causes a part of us to be immobilized, to stop growing.// Tutu’s book is highly recommended to be studied in a group and slowly, slowly digested.

Walter Brueggmann4 also writes about forgiveness especially from what we learn in the Old Testament.  He writes that forgiveness is made impossible in a system of deeds-consequences when deeds have an unbreakable tight predictable connection to consequences with no way out. This is the law, and if you break it, this is what will happen to you. Amen. This is the basis of much right-wing religious preaching of “hell, fire, and damnation,” trying to frighten people into a moral life. Brueggmann believes that forgiveness is only possible when we realize the astonishing readiness of God to reach beyond deeds-consequences, to offer continually to us unlimited restoration and extravagant forgiveness.  There is nothing, nothing that we can do for which God does not forgive us, and we are called to do the same. When we begin to lead a life of pardoning and newness, we start to see the world not through our grievances but through gratitude. It is a new life, a different life. We saw it in Nelson Mandela who forgives his guards of his 27 years of imprisonment as he walks out of prison. He tells others who are harboring resentments and grievances, “if I do not forgive them, I am still in prison.” Buddhists call it the Great Compassion.

Forgiveness brings freedom, a release. God commands us to do so. Otherwise our life is a living hell as it was for the slave in Jesus’ parable who would not forgive a 100 thousand times smaller debt, equivalent to a 3 months minimum wage, after he had been magnanimously forgiven an astronomical debt of more than10 million dollars. The king miraculously wipes out this unbelievable debt, but the first slave does not learn to go and do likewise! Robert Capon writes that the difference between heaven and hell is that heaven is full of forgiving sinners, while when forgiveness is rejected, blocked, when we conform to the old system of a bookkeeping and pointless torture, we dwell in a living hell. Capon believes this parable may be telling us that perhaps the only unpardonable sin is to withhold forgiveness from others.5

 For myself, if someone has harmed me, I begin to think about them all the time and what I would like to do to them, expose them. They live rent free in my head and in essence become my higher power, my God. I do not want this person to be my God, my higher power. That is what brings me back to start the work of forgiveness. Yes, for me it is extremely hard work.// Forgiveness is not forgetting. There are things we should never forget, the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, slavery, abuse, 9/ 11, Hurricanes Camille, Frederic, Ivan, Katrina, and now Harvey and Irma.

Rabbi Kushner tells this story:

“A woman in my congregation comes to see me. She is a single mother, divorced, working to support herself and three young children. ‘Since my husband walked out on us, /every month is a struggle to pay our bills. I have to tell my kids we have no money to go to the movies, while he is living it up with his new wife in another state. How can you tell me to forgive him?’ Kushner answers her, ‘I’m not asking you to forgive him for his mean and selfish behavior. I’m asking you to forgive because he does not deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I would like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of it physically,/ but you keep holding on to him. You are not hurting him by holding on to that resentment, but you are hurting yourself.’6

Richard Rohr founded a group of lay Catholic families in Cincinnati living in community. Painted over the main doorway is “70 x7.” New mail carriers think it is the address. Rohr says, “yes, this should be our address, 70 x 7!” We must live in community freely giving forgiveness. The is the kind of forgiveness where the offender is not left feeling small and judged, but liberated and loved.7 When we forgive, we choose a person’s goodness over their faults, we experience God’s goodness flowing in us in surprising ways and realize this is the way for us to stay connected to God’s forgiveness as well.8 Forgiveness is our only way to free ourselves from being entrapped in the past. God calls us to define ourselves by the present moment, not to define ourselves by what happened in the past.9

Do you remember the person or event we mentioned earlier whom you cannot forgive?   This is a suggestion if you would like to be free from letting that person continue to harm you. Put them at the top of your prayer list for 30 days. Pray for them every day. If you are still not free in 30 days, go another, and another 30 days. I can promise you that one morning you will wake up and you will be free at last, free to become the person God created you to be.  


1Kenneth Briggs, The Power of Forgiveness.

2 Will Willimmon, “Extravagant Forgiveness,” Pulpit Resource, September, 2017, p. 37.

3 Desmond Tutu, Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving, the fourfold path for healing ourselves and our world.

4 Walter Brueggemann, “The Impossible Possibility of Forgiveness,” Journal of Preachers, Pentecost 2015, pp. 8-17.

5 Robert Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgement, 196-200. 

6 Harold S Kushner, “Letting Go of the Role of Victim, Spirituality and Health, Winter, 1999, 34.

7 Richard Rohr, “Forgiveness” Richard Rohr Daily Meditation from Center for Action and Contemplation, Monday August 28, 2017.

8 Ibid, Wednesday August 30.

9.Ibid, Thursday, August 31.