Divine Forgiveness
Mt. 6 and John 20

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In the “Deer Hunter” Robert DeNiro returns from serving in the special forces in Vietnam after being drafted right out of high school. Small steel town in central Pennsylvania, three boys go off to war together. One is tortured so bad during his capture that he is in a wheel chair the rest of his life. The other becomes a heroin addict and kills himself. All of them had been immersed in the trauma of being surrounded by sustained violence and death.
The special forces soldier comes home, full of this rage and sorrow. And suddenly, even his home feels alien. It is not just that he couldn’t share his war experiences with the guys back home, it is complicated by the country being divided over the war so that people just didn’t talk about it at all.
He goes hunting with his high school guys, like they’ve done since they were kids, only his friends just want to get drunk in nature and fire off their guns at nothing, pretty much like they were still in high school.
But the ex-special forces soldier is too filled with anxiety. He awakens at dawn and hikes up through the peaks of the Allegheny mountains. He is tracking a deer, inside full of all this pain from war, discord just welling up inside of him, so many hurts and wounds that are connected to each other. He sees this huge buck a few hundred yards away on the next ridge.
He gets it in view. It moves. He gets it in view again. Again it moves. The veteran is agile and fit scampering across the ridge lines. He is in position again. The buck makes an iconic move. It stops and looks back over its shoulder right into the scope, so that they almost meet eye to eye. It is almost like the buck presents itself as a sacrifice. It is a moment hunters dream about.
But the soldier doesn’t shoot. He points his gun upward toward the heavens. He fires the round into the heavens. It is a moment of truce, a moment of détente.
The way of anxiety, the way of anger, of hatred and violence, of destruction and death. It is not working anymore. Suddenly he just wants to let it go. In a moment where the hunter meets the hunted, he broke through to release the past.
There comes this time in our lives, as the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, a season to fix what has been broken, a season to sew what has been torn, a time to make things right again. It is a season of forgiveness.
It is said that the Bible has the most realistic depiction of humans because it presumes that we break things, that we hurt and betray each other, that we make substantial mistakes. Jesus calls us to be people of reconciliation.
It was the center piece of what he taught us in the sermon on the mount, teaching us to pray, “Oh God, forgive us as we forgive other people”. Just before he died, he turned to the thief who asked for forgiveness, “your sins are forgiven you.” And he was reported to have prayed to God “Father forgive my executioners, for they know not what they do.” And his parting words to the disciples after the resurrection, “if you forgive the sins of others, they are forgiven.” Don’t be afraid to use it…
The spiritual way is the way of reconciliation, not that it is particularly easy. But it is surprising, how long it can actually be before we get it in our guts isn’t it?
I think of a brother and brother-in-law. A friend sent the brother-in-law an email of congratulations that their company had been sold, only to get a call back right away asking where they had read that news. Long story short, the brother-in-law was still a part owner in the company, despite having left it a decade ago, and the brother had sold the company like he owned it outright. What followed was a court case that dragged on… Years of distance, with family reunions disintegrating to the point that even the cousins didn’t actually cross paths, for over a decade.
This path is taken often. It is as if we think that by stoking our bitterness, by renewing our justification for distance, we are actively hurting the other person somehow. Like our psychic power can focus some voodoo. But at some point, sometimes only after years of this, two thing happen, almost at the same time.
You realize that you haven’t really made the person that hurt you all that miserable. However, you are still chained to this event that now seems like a long time ago, and that you haven’t really resolved anything constructively this way- your hurt is still hurt and you are still aggrieved- so that it is like you are tethered to this person and to this past. All of a sudden you just want to be free of it. You want it resolved.
For the brother-in-law, it was the death of his wife. It was all very awkward at the memorial service because their families had been distant. But at one point, they were across the room and their eyes met for a moment. It was almost a glance really but in that moment, they were two men who loved their wives, sharing the pain of losing a spouse.
Shortly after that, one of them went to see the other and offer his forgiveness for the past. He realized that he needed to let go of it.
As another man wrote of the same experience. “We didn’t skip off into the sunset together. In fact, years later I saw him again and he said something to me that felt hurtful and critical, and for a moment I wondered if the forgiveness had worn off. Instead, I learned that I had an expectation that my forgiveness would magically turn him into a nice guy, a different guy, a better guy. And with this expectation I was making myself a victim to him all over again. The magic didn’t happen to him. The magic happened to me. I felt lighter. The world seemed a more hopeful place… I learned that I was only responsible [for my future and me]. I wasted years of my life reliving the victimization… Forgiveness didn’t save him or let him off the hook. It saved me.”
And this is truer on the other side of the equation, when you need to seek forgiveness. The truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, actually declared a day of Reconciliation as part of their program of bringing together the Victimizers of Apartheid and the Victims.
Bishop Desmond Tutu tells the story of a young man named Stefaans Coetzee. In 1996, when he was 17, “Stefaans and a trio of members of the white supremacist AWB planted a series of bombs in a shopping center in Worcester, South Africa. Their target was a venue frequented by the black population of the city. Their goal was to exact the maximum death toll. Only one of the bombs exploded, but it injured 67 people and left 4 dead. 3 of them were children. Shortly after the incident, Coetzee expressed his disappointment at the low death toll.”
But he changed over time, when he was in prison. Interestingly, his mentor in the way of forgiveness turned out to be Eugene de Kock, nicknamed “Prime Evil”- wonderful chap I’m sure. But through the changes that they went through together, Eugene told Stefans this “Unless you seek forgiveness from those you have harmed, you will find that you are bound inside two prisons- the one you are physically in and the one you have around your heart. It is never too late to repair the harm that you have caused. Then, even though you are behind bars, you will still be free. No one can lock away your ability to change. No one can lock away your goodness or your humanity.”
Stephans could hear this word from Prime Evil,” so on Reconciliation Day in 2011 Stefaans read a letter to a gathering of the survivors… expressing his remorse and asking for forgiveness.”
It is interesting that what Bishop Tutu learned during this bold and creative project to bring together Victims and Abusers from Apartheid, is how important it was for the relatives of those who died to be able to ask questions about what happened to their loved one. He learned how important it is for the Victimizers to be open to answering the detailed questions that people have that they hurt. That process leads us into this vulnerable space because the person that has wronged you has to be in touch with their faults, and deceits and cover ups to make it happen.
And it is also a vulnerable spot for those that have been harmed. The more that they hear, the more they can put the tragedy in a context and humanize everyone involved, even having some empathy for the person that inflicted this horrible wrong.
This is the point of contact, our vulnerable humanity, in the midst of tragedy and loss. And not everybody was willing or able to forgive Stephaans for his terror, to be sure. But for those that did, Stefaans describes being forgiven as “a grace… that resulted in freedom beyond understanding.”
This is why Jesus taught us that the real spiritual path is the way of humility. It lies in admitting that we make mistakes. Our personal spiritual growth only happens when we allow ourselves to be open, honest, and real with each other.
It only happens when we can share out of our common humanity, knowing that out of our hurt, we hurt those around us. That is why Jesus taught us that we are not only ‘Children of God’ but we are all also ‘redeemed sinners’ or ‘broken healers’. But this is the way of what is spiritually real.
We are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation, to make this our aim to return to. We will have seasons of anger, hate, and violence. We will know terror and tragedy. Accidents will change the future for good.
So reconciliation needs to be built into the warp and woof of our life together, the divine way that allows us to process the hurts of the past and use them constructively to grow. So it isn’t a one time thing, but an on-going evolution towards healing. As Bishop Tutu, says he has learned, ‘God does not waste his children’s pain.’
We keep jumping forward and backward, processing these things again and again, whether we want to or not, they just keep coming at us. So I hope for you the strength of vulnerable humanity with those you are closest to, including those that have hurt you so. And I hope for you the courage to be humble as you live, for our life on this earth is short and you have so much life and love within you. I hope for you the space to be really real and to keep on the path of growth. God is not done with you yet. Amen