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10.18.15 Rewriting Wrongs Matthew 5.21-26 Sermon Summary

by on October 19, 2015

The Buddha said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” Jesus got that, and hopes that we will also.

Summary Points

  • How Jesus and Joseph overcame anger to become forgivers
  • Why God wants everyone to become forgivers
  • Four reasons forgiveness is hard
  • The “Fourfold path of forgiving”

Many of us carry around a lot of anger—especially anger that arises from resentment. Resentment results when we have been wounded or wronged. When this happens we get angry and we want revenge. If we hold on to this attitude, it’s going to hurt a lot of people, beginning with ourselves.

I think this is what Jesus was getting at when he said, “If you are angry with your brother or sister, you are liable to judgment, you are liable to the hell of fire.”

Jesus would have been familiar with anger. He was born under embarrassing circumstances, a fact that would have accompanied him his whole life. He was spiritually precocious, so much so that even his parents and siblings didn’t really get him. In his preaching, he spoke like a messiah, but didn’t fit the messianic expectations of his contemporaries. The religious authorities who should have recognized him instead rejected him. Eventually he was tortured and executed as a traitor to the state.

When faced with these occasions for anger, Jesus might have remembered Joseph who also had a lot of reasons to be angry. He was the second youngest of his eleven brothers, but he was the favored one of his father. Early on, he bragged about being special, and his brothers were jealous. They sold him into slavery in Egypt. He was wrongly accused by his master and thrown into prison where he was forgotten. Eventually, however, he was elevated to a high political office.

Over the course of his narrative, through these occasions which might have made him angry, Joseph came to know God. He became humble, honest, and hard-working. He also became a forgiver. When drought forced his brothers out of Canaan to seek his help in Egypt, they were terrified that he would take his revenge upon them. But instead he forgave.

Both Jesus and Joseph became forgivers. From their stories we learn what it takes to become a forgiver. It takes being wronged and wounded. It takes time—sometimes a long time. And it takes God being with you.

When God raised Joseph from prison to prime minister, and Jesus from the grave to life, God rewrote the wrongs that they suffered. And in Christ’s resurrection, God calls us to become forgivers also. Because when Joseph and Jesus became forgivers, they experienced life—true life, eternal life. And in Christ God wants everyone to experience this eternal life. This is why Jesus doesn’t just command us to forgive others, he pushes us to be reconciled when we’re the ones who need to be forgiven. “Don’t let your religious worship distract or fool you,” he says, “go be reconciled with someone who has something against you before you perform your religion.”

True eternal life is salvation, and in both biblical testaments salvation refers to healing and peace. This is what Jesus hopes for all of us—true eternal life, healing and peace, in a word: salvation.

So he wants everyone to become forgivers, because without forgiveness all we are left with is past wounds and wrongs, and our whole lives become consumed with vengeance. He says it’s like being in debtor’s prison until you pay off your debt, which of course, you can’t pay in prison. So your whole life is consumed all because of a lack of forgiveness.

My two favorite books on forgiveness are Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World, and Lewis Smedes’ The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How. Together these books have helped me  understand that forgiveness is the way we participate in God’s rewriting the wrongs of our lives and our world.

Tutu lays it out pretty simply: There comes a moment of choice, he says, “to either walk the path of revenge and be bound to suffering, or take the path of forgiveness and be freed into healing.” (pp. 48-9) In the ABC drama Once Upon a Time, the wicked Maleficent has spent her whole life wondering what happened to the daughter who was taken from her. At long last they meet one another, and her daughter Lily wants to know what revenge the two of them will exact on those who separated them.

Maleficent responds, “Now that I see you, I don’t want to waste our time on revenge. I understand why you want it. It’s suddenly so clear we should only look forward. We can be happy in the future, or we can be angry about the past.”

They are at that point of decision Tutu identifies, that crossroads of vengeance and healing and peace. It is the juncture called “forgiveness.” Tutu says, “Retaliation gives, at best, only momentary respite from our pain. The only way to experience healing and peace is to forgive. Until we can forgive, we remain locked in our pain and locked out of the possibility of experiencing healing and freedom, locked out of the possibility of being at peace.” (p. 16)

Forgiveness is hard for lots of reasons. It’s hard because we think it lets the wrongdoer off the hook. In reality, it puts him on the hook because we can’t forgive whom we don’t first blame. It’s hard because we’re waiting for the wrongdoer to apologize or to be punished. But those things may never happen, and “The problem is that the strings we attach to the gift of forgiveness become the chains that bind us to the person who harmed us.” (Tutu, p. 20)

Forgiveness is hard because we think it makes us vulnerable to wounds and wrongdoing again. But forgiving a wrongdoer doesn’t obligate us to return to him. Rather, it frees us from the ongoing victimization we inflict upon ourselves in our anger and desire for vengeance. Forgiveness is hard because we think it erases the past. In reality, it rewrites the past. Smedes says it “creates a new way to remember.” (p. 171)

Tutu’s Fourfold Path to Forgiveness is deceptive in its simplicity. It’s easy to forget that forgiveness takes time—maybe a long time. And we must never forget that that it takes God’s help.

The first step is “Telling the Story.” We have to understand what happened. In my own life, I’ve been tracking down an aspect of my story for over two years. Each time I “tell” it, I understand it better. Telling the story also helps us realize the humanity of the wrongdoer, which is essential to being able to eventually forgive them. The wrongdoer isn’t just what they did to us—they are also a person. Getting in touch with the story helps us remember this.

The second step is “Naming the Hurt.” Remember that we can’t forgive what we don’t first blame. We can’t let go of vengeance until we feel it. Therapists say, “You can’t heal what you don’t feel.” If we want healing for our past wrongs and wounds, we first have to name them. Naming the hurt clarifies the choice we have when faced with our pain: we can “hold onto it, get even for it, or heal it.” (Smedes, p. 136)

The third step is “Granting Forgiveness.” This is the choice we make to surrender our private demand to get even. (Smedes, pp. 69, 177) The wrongdoer will still have to face justice, but not our vengeance. Tutu says, “You may not have had a choice in being harmed, but you can always choose to be healed.” (p. 109) Support groups call this step “Letting it go,” and they remind us that we may have to do it over and over. Forgiveness is often a process, not a one-time shot. When we retell the story or feel the pain again, we may have to grant forgiveness again.

Tutu’s final step is to “Renew or Release the Relationship.” Yes, we may keep the relationship, but it’s now under different terms. These terms include the wrongdoer’s remorse and repentance. It may require the wrongdoer’s making restitution. But if there is a renewal of the relationship, it is certainly not a return to the same relationship. But we may also choose to abandon the relationship. Forgiveness gives us the freedom to release the relationship, without guilt, and with peace and hope.

Forgiveness can’t be rushed, so we shouldn’t try to hurry it. It took Joseph much of his lifetime to become a forgiver. Healing takes time, and the deeper the wound and more unjust the wrong, the longer it takes. But our eternal life, salvation, and peace can start today, as we follow Jesus command to forgive and to seek forgiveness, and as we allow God to rewrite our wrongs and the wrongs of the world.

Lord Jesus Christ, you know something about forgiveness. You know about being wounded and being wronged. You know about trusting your Father’s Spirit to accompany you through the pain of such wrongdoing, and to deliver you through it. You also know about our own wounds, and the wrongs we have endured. You know we have suffered in a past we cannot undo. But you also have a vision for us, for a hopeful future, one in which we are free from our pain. And you have commanded us to begin this new life through forgiveness. So walk with us through the redemption of our lives from the pain that would cause us despair if it were not for your presence. And grant us hope and peace in the meantime. Amen.

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