By Kim Priddy
Last Wednesday night many of us gathered in this space to observe Ash Wednesday and were reminded by the mark of a cross made by ashes on our forehead that our vitality and mortality are always joined.
This evening we sit in the shadow of the cross, contemplating the last words of Jesus. Continuing in our learning and our reflection in these 40 days of who we are and who we hope to become. This evening we are looking at —Forgiveness.
Our scripture read this evening may be an image seared in your mind; either from your imagination of studying this text or from visual arts such as paintings, sculptures, movies. It is always interesting to me how an artist captures the moments of anguish, prayer, forsakenness, and resolve at the cross.
A nailed Jesus hanging on the cross, with a thief to the right of him and one to the left, being mocked and executed as a criminal. — And then comes a prayer from our crucified savior —praying–“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Can you imagine praying such a prayer? At such a time????
But maybe you have been lucky enough to hear them… prayers of forgiveness offered from an uncomfortable position at the cross.
There is a story that has not left us yet, on the evening of June 17th 2015, a young man, Dylan Roof entered into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina during their prayer service. There he gathered with them in community and for reasons we cannot comprehend- he tragically took nine lives.
On June 19th, only two days later, The Washington Post shared the victims’ relatives’ powerful words of forgiveness extended to the one who could not see past their color of skin to see their humanness.
Let me share the sentiments of two of the relatives:
Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance: “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”
Sister of victim DePayne Middleton Doctor: “That was my sister, and I’d like to thank you on behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. For me, I’m a work in progress. And I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing that DePayne always enjoined in our family … is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”
Only two days later still while in the initial stages of grief and shock and midst the hurt- we witness words of forgiveness. I also remembering hearing through the media that some folks were disturbed that forgiveness by the families could be given so quickly to the young man who showed no remorse for what he had done. But that is not what I hear in their statements. I hear a prayerful plea for forgiveness, and not forgiveness that they alone can offer, but a prayerful plea of forgiveness that only God can grant.
For the relatives, it has to be a difficult journey, one that I imagine has an ebb and flow of emotions; hatred, hopelessness, faith, peace, pain… all along trying to embrace the power of praying forgiveness. And when we do witness this kind of forgiveness, we have to believe that it is a foretaste of what is true about the Jesus hanging on the cross. Christ is ever present in these prayers.
Luke includes the parable of the prodigal son (he is the only one)-the story of a son that behaves absolutely unforgivably- he impatiently takes his inheritance early and we are told that he “squanders it on dissolute living.” Yet his father forgave him absolutely. But I wonder if during his sons’ absence if the father prayed for more than his safe return but also for forgiveness.
Not to be short-sighted of the pain and damage done in these stories or the reality of real hurt in our own lives; I appreciate how the author of Echoes from Calvary, Rembert Weakland writes about forgiveness, “Forgiveness is not to deny justice, but only to add the kind of mercy that we ourselves would want from others. So what forgiveness does- is purify our own hearts and minds of hatred.”
In a sermon on Forgiveness by Emory preaching professor, Thomas Long, he said this “Do not ask the wounded to forgive. Do not as them to completely heal the relationship, to withdraw all of the painful memory and to extract any lingering poison. Civility is within our grasp; but forgiveness, true deep-down, New Testament forgiveness, is not a human possibility. Forgiveness is about deep healing.
These words in no way are a free pass, although we may not forgive perfectly, we must still strive- forgiveness is a gift from God- a costly gift, and we are called to participate in the forgiveness given to us so freely. Our forgiveness was the gift given at the cross. The truth of forgiveness is that we can reach out to others with forgiveness because God has already forgiven us. “Father, forgive them.”
I believe this is what the families were able to offer Dylan: a prayerful plea, that was understood and in practice. They were living into what had already been given to them.
Jesus was living out in his dying one the hardest of his own teachings; Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Matt 5:44-45) Many find Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness a stumbling block to faith. Because we find it too difficult to practice, we dismiss it as unrealistic and utopian.
We should think again, and we should pray that it is not so unrealistic, because this congruence of Jesus, the consistency between his teaching on forgiveness and his action on the cross- is really ours to claim.
Jesus Christ prayed that we may be forgiven, may we pray with courage and persistence to forgive others and ourselves. May we live life as a forgiven people as we well as a forgiving people. In Christ name, Amen.