A Sermon on Forgiving


Rev. Dr. Douglas K. Showalter, United Church of Christ, Copyright 1996

Scripture: Luke 15:11-32

It was May 13th, 1981. St. Peter's Square at the Vatican was filled with 20,000 pilgrims and visitors from all over the world. The golden rays of the late afternoon sun, streamed over a vast multi-colored quilt of the human race. There were black Africans in red and yellow dashikis; cyclists and their bikes from Northern Italy; and American parochial school children, watched over by nuns in black-and-white habits.

The air was filled with keen expectation--and a joy which was contagious. Looking like doves of peace, hundreds upon hundreds of light grey pigeons, sat on fountains, window sills, and roof statues all around the square. Like a sweet fragrance, their gentle cooing drifted through the air.

Suddenly the crowd burst into cheers, as Pope John Paul II was driven into sight. Cameras flashed, as the smiling Pope stood in his open-air "Popemobile." He waved blessings to the crowd and embraced little children lifted up to him. As the Popemobile slowly made its way around the crowded square, a forest of eager hands reached out to the Pope. Tragically, one of those hands held a gun!

Shots rang out! The gentle pigeons scattered in fright. Severely wounded, the Pope fell backwards in intense pain. His white robes showed the spreading red stain of his own blood.

Time passed--weeks, then months. The Pope survived. The open-air Popemobile was replaced, by a new vehicle which completely enclosed the Pope in thick sheets of bullet proof glass. This was a sad step to take. But it was taken because people did not forget. Rather, they remembered and learned from the assassination attempt.

Time passed--in fact, a whole 2.5 years passed. It was now a chilly early morning on December 23, 1983. Dressed in his crisp white robes, the Pope sat in a bare, white-walled prison cell in Rome. Seated before him, knee-to-knee, was his would-be assassin. Unshaven and clad in blue jeans, this man was now a prisoner, convicted with a life sentence. The Pope looked into the eyes of this man who tried to kill him. Then, leaning forward, the Pope took the man's hands in his own--and he forgave him!!!

In forgiving, the Pope let go of the burden of pain in his own heart. The Pope refused to chain his life, to the terrible nightmare the gunman had created. In forgiving, the Pope let the grace of our forgiving God shine through his life. In forgiving, the Pope opened up a door to personal reconciliation--which the gunman could walk through, if he ever became truly penitent.

How does one know when true forgiveness has taken place? More than just words, true forgiveness takes place in the heart. It begins on that day when we no longer carry ill will toward the person who hurt us. And so it was with John Paul II. He emerged from that prison cell, calling the prisoner his "brother." This Pope forgave graciously, in a way that is a model for all Christians. But consider this: the Pope did not forgive and forget. Rather, what he did was forgive and remember.

For example: The Pope did not try to pretend the shooting didn't happen, or that it didn't really hurt. It happened and it hurt him a great deal! The Pope did not suggest, in any way, that the shooting was not evil. In fact, it was terribly evil! And most significant of all, the Pope did not try to get the prisoner released from prison. Although forgiven by his victim, the man still bore responsibility for his evil act. There were consequences from his act, he still had to face.

Jesus told a wonderful parable about forgiving: a parable about two brothers and their father. If you will, let's imagine a portion of it. The elder brother strides into the dooryard of the family brown stone farm house. The sweat pours down his tanned and muscled arms. Bits of chaff from the field, still cling to his gray woolen tunic. The day's work of wheat-cutting has ended. The sun is going down, but already a party is in full swing.

The family home is filled with youthful guests, the lilting sound of pipes, and joyous laughter. A servant tells the elder brother that this impromptu celebration is for his younger brother. Ragged, dirty, and aching with hunger, this younger brother finally stumbled back home, after several years of wayward living in a far country. The servant notes that this younger brother has been forgiven by his father. In fact, his father is now leading the celebration.

Hearing these things, the elder brother begins to shake with rage. He throws his scythe down on the ground. It snaps in two. Through gritted teeth he mutters:

How could there be such injustice? This boy squandered his inheritance! Now he returns home with nothing! And everyone, even our father, acts as though nothing happened!!!

The elder brother stares at the rough callouses on his own work-hardened hands. A painful image from the past keeps flashing through his mind. Years ago this younger brother made a terrible scene. Shouting and stamping his feet, he demanded his share of his father's estate. It was almost more than their aging father could bear--to have a child pick his bones before he was even dead.

But eventually their father gave in. Heavy-hearted, he sold off a large chunk of the farm's acreage, just to satisfy his younger son. It was clear this son didn't give "two hoots" about the family farm. Cash in hand, and hardly stopping to say "goodbye," this son just headed off toward the horizon one day.

The elder brother's face is flushed with anger. But beneath his anger there is a fear--a fear that he will become a victim twice!

It was painful enough when his brother left! It ripped the family and the farm asunder. But now his brother has returned, the elder brother fears another injury. He fears that their father will completely forget their past inheritance arrangement. He fears that, in the name of forgiveness, their father will be tempted to divide-up his estate, yet a second time(!), to make peace with his wayward son. In fact, the younger brother already received his full inheritance--years before. And he spent that inheritance--every last shekel of it--in the far country!

The elder brother grimaces. It hurts him to think his Father might treat him so unfairly. After all, he's the son who has loyally stayed home--and worked so hard to keep the family farm going. Just then, the silver-haired father steps from the house into the dooryard. He invites his elder son to join the celebration. But the elder brother refuses. Instead, he explodes in anger:

Listen father, all these years I've worked like a slave for you...and you never once gave me and my friends a party! But this son of yours comes home, after throwing your estate away in loose living, and you host a great celebration for him!

The father is stunned. Pausing a moment to study his elder son's face, this father is wise enough to see the fear and the hurt which are beneath his son's anger. With great tenderness, the father places his hand on his elder son's shoulder. Looking deeply into his eyes, he says, "Son, you are with me always, and all that is mine is yours."

This father has not forgotten! To be fair to his elder son, this father will not try to divide his estate again. The younger son spent his inheritance. In the days ahead--but not this day--the younger son will have to face the consequences of that reality. Still embracing his elder son, the father tells him:

Now is the time for us to celebrate your brother's return, for he was dead to us, but now he is alive! Now is the time for us to try to forgive your brother, to let go of all ill will towards him. And because your brother is truly sorry, now is the time for us to welcome him back, into the loving relationship of our family.

The parable stops at this point. Jesus never tells us what the elder brother did next. We wonder: did the elder brother remain in the dooryard still nursing his anger, or did he go into the house to try to forgive his younger brother?

We can hope that the elder brother tried to forgive. For if he did not, he would be excluding himself from the party!

By not trying to forgive: the elder brother would be chaining himself to the nightmare of his younger brother's past. He would be closing his own heart, to the grace of our forgiving God, which seeks to shine through us all. By not trying to forgive: the elder brother would be shutting himself out of the loving relationship of his own family.

Like the father in this parable, our loving God invites us to forgive those who injure us. But going beyond that invitation, our forgiving God will even help us to forgive--once we decide we really want to forgive.

God invites us all to forgive. But I suspect that all too often, many of us are like the elder brother in this parable. Like the elder brother, we are out standing in the dooryard--unwilling to go into the party.

We're reluctant to forgive because we fear, that forgiving also requires forgetting. We're reluctant to forgive because we fear, that forgetful forgiving will open us or others up to being hurt again. We're reluctant to forgive, because we fear that forgetful forgiving will totally ignore or undo the things which are fair and just.

But that's not the case with Christian forgiveness. For we Christians can forgive and remember! We can forgive and remember, to learn from our injuries. We can forgive and remember, to protect ourselves and others, from the repetition of those injuries. We can forgive and remember: so that fairness and justice are preserved.

God invites us all to join in the party! The truth is, none of us has to remain standing outside in pain or fear or anger! Won't you come in?

Rev. Dr. Douglas K. Showalter, Copyright 1996

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Last Updated on November 9, 1997 by mailboxRev. Dr. Douglas K. Showalter