The Choice to Forgive

It was in the basement of a small church in Munich that she saw him. He was balding, heavy-set. He clutched his brown felt hat between his hands. The year was 1947 and Corrie ten Boom had been giving a talk on how Europe could move forward after World War II. They had all been through so much and lost so many loved ones. Her talk had been very healing for many in attendance.

CTBthAs the man waited his turn to speak with Ms. Ten Boom afterward, Corrie struggled to recollect his face. Where had she known him? All at once it came back to her. One moment she saw his grey overcoat and his brown hat, the next it was replaced by a blue uniform and a hat with skull and cross bones. This man had been a guard in Ravensbrück, the concentration camp where Corrie and her sister Betsie had been held during the war, the same camp where her sister had died.

The ten Booms were not sent to die in Ravensbrück because they were Jews, but because they had helped their neighbors, the Jews of Haarlem in Holland. They had hidden Jews in their home and were an active part of the Dutch resistance. Corrie alone among her family survived the ordeal. Her story ultimately became the book and film, “The Hiding Place”.

But now, in his church in Munich, the man before whom she had once walked naked into the showers of the concentration camp was now standing in front of her. He seemed to be smiling. Corrie had been on a tour giving talks on the need for forgiveness in a post-war Europe of damaged buildings and destroyed lives. “When we confess our sins,” she had earlier told the audience gathered to hear her, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.”

Her heart beat faster as he approached her. He spoke to her first, “Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!” He thrust out his hand to her. Corrie’s blood ran cold. In his hand all she could see was the leather crop with which he had once beaten her and her fellow prisoners.

He went on, “You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk. I was a guard there. But since that time I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well.  Fräulein,” he said and put out his hand again, “will you forgive me?”

Corrie stood there, with what she described as coldness clutching her heart. How could she forgive this man?

In the gospel reading this morning, we hear some of the most familiar words in all of scripture, what we have come to call “The Lord’s Prayer.” The disciples simply say, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Luke’s gospel implies that they had been watching John the Baptist and his disciples closely, and they want what John’s disciples have – a model for prayer. And so this prayer does not come from Jesus the intercessor or Jesus the redeemer; this prayer comes from Jesus the teacher.

This is a model prayer. It is simply a way to pray. It provides us a framework on which to build our own prayers. But like good students we have learned these words by heart, and most of us have said them our entire lives until, like the 23rd Psalm, they are deeply engraved on our hearts.

In the Anglican and other liturgical traditions, we believe something about how our worship affects us, we say, “praying shapes believing.” What we pray, whether it be collects or intercessions or the Eucharistic prayer, these prayers, these petitions, form us and shape us as physical training forms an athlete, or studying forms a student. The Lord’s Prayer perhaps more than any other has truly shaped our spirituality for centuries.

There are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer, this one in Luke and a shorter version in Matthew. Here in Luke, after giving the model prayer, Jesus launches in to this discussion of asking and giving, “If your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?  Would you give a scorpion instead of an egg?” Ask God what you will, and, just as a Father treats his children with compassion and love, God will give you whatever you need. “Give us our daily bread,” both versions say. Be persistent, Jesus teaches them, because God is good.

But it is the note of forgiveness that leapt from the page for me today. I grew up in the United Methodist Church, and I remember as a child hearing some Christians use the word “debts” when they prayed the Lord’s Prayer in church. I was a bit of a liturgical snob even then. I pitied them.  “Trespasses” was so much cooler to say, and of course, our way was God’s way. What’s the difference?

Flash forward Greek class in seminary, and I sat down to start translating the Lord’s Prayer from the original language. Turns out the writer of Matthew uses “trespasses”, but here the word Luke’s writer uses is “debts”. “Trespass” implies boundary lines and crossing into someone else’s space, but I dare say debt speaks to us much more loudly and clearly. Sure, you can sin against your friend or your family and you might get away with it, but try sinning against your bank or against the IRS. Suddenly it all becomes very real. The need for forgiveness comes quickly into focus. Sin is that real. Sin is as real as money.

Have you ever owed someone, not money, but owed them something you can’t possibly repay? I think of the former Nazi guard standing in front of Corrie ten Boom. He asked her to forgive him his debt, how could she, really? His sense of indebtedness had no easy resolution.

We are in debt. We have sinned against God and against each other. We owe God in that sense. We owe each other.  Think of all the times we have behaved selfishly despite God’s goodness and God’s selflessness. Think of all those things done and left undone, and how we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. Think of all the times we have mistreated others, whether individually or corporately or even nationally or racially. We have sinned. We are in debt. We owe. No one likes to be in debt. So we ask God to forgive us our debts.

In Luke’s prayer, asking God’s forgiveness seems to spring out of the fact that we have already forgiven others, “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” But the words in Matthew’s version are far stronger, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

It seems pretty cut and dried, a bit like the greatest commandment, “Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Ask God’s forgiveness, and forgive your neighbors as you also ask their forgiveness.” So why do we still struggle so with forgiveness?

Forgiveness is a concept that I have meditated upon myself quite a bit over these past 10 years. Before I came to serve as the chaplain at Rutgers, I was the Episcopal chaplain for 10 years at Virginia Tech. Now, Rutgers and Virginia Tech are actually similar schools – large, land grant, state universities. Just imagine taking Rutgers and putting it in the middle of the woods.

Blacksburg is a quiet, rural setting, a college town ripped apart by gun violence one April morning almost 10 years ago, when 32 students and faculty were killed by a disturbed young man who ultimately took his own life. Unlike Corrie ten Boom who met the man who had abused her, we did not have the gunman to confront. He could not ask for forgiveness. We could not even assure him of his forgiveness. It was a one-sided transaction now.

VTb776109b416529745aade066f9cd938dHow hard it was as a community to deal with our rage, and our sorrow. But then came the question of forgiveness. There was an impromptu memorial set up in front of the administration building. People set up what are called Hokie stones, bits of the local granite, to commemorate those who had died. There were 32 of them. Then someone added another stone, a stone for the gunman. People desecrated it. It disappeared and was replaced several times. In the end, his life was not included in the memorial. Today you will find just 32 stones in the campus memorial.

It became another test of our community. How would the gunman be remembered? Should we forgive him? Some were very quick to forgive, noting his mental illness and easy access to guns. But there were others who I seriously wonder will ever be able to forgive him, to this day. As one parishioner of mine remarked, “Some of us will spend our lives trying to get from 32 to 33.”

Forgiveness is a choice. The choice to forgive is not as easy as writing a check to pay off an IOU. The choice to forgive must come from the very depths of our being. It can be an agonizing decision, but the consequences of unforgiveness are that much more severe. Sadly, I think we are witnessing this very struggle in our own time. So much anger is being directed at refugees, black lives, blue lives, veterans, gays, you name the group, and no doubt you’ll encounter someone who is angry at them. Sadly, this week Munich itself became the latest community torn apart by a madman with a gun who, it appears, hated immigrants, even though his own family were immigrants.

Forgiveness isn’t optional. Jesus doesn’t give us any other choice but to forgive. It may take every fiber of our being, and it might take years to truly forgive someone, but this is the only option Jesus gives us.

Corrie knew this all too well in that church in Munich that night. She stood facing a man who had caused so much pain in her life and had helped bring death to her sister. “Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me,” she writes, “I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Forgiveness is not an emotion—it is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “’Jesus help me!’ Corrie prayed silently.  ‘I cannot forgive him. Give me your forgiveness.’”

At that moment Corrie took his hand and cried, ‘I forgive you brother, with all my heart.’ She writes, “And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on God’s. When God tells us to love our enemies, he gives, along with the command, the love itself.” She writes, “For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”

Forgiveness takes great faith in God, but it also takes courage. Corrie’s courageous example of forgiveness should speak to us all. She shows us how the Church, the Body of Christ, can live lives of forgiveness in the midst of our country torn by unforgiveness.

When his disciples asked him, Jesus told them how they should pray. Ask God for what you need, and like a mother God will give you what you need. But Jesus also said, “forgive as you have been forgiven.”

The teacher has given us our assignment – learn what it truly means to forgive, so that you in turn can receive forgiveness. May the God who longs to give good gifts to us, as children, give us the strength and the grace and the courage to choose to forgive. Amen.

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