Forgiveness: Love’s Litmus Test (Advent #4)
Advent #4 - Forgiveness: Love’s Litmus Test
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • Dec 20, 2015 • Rev. Donnell T. Wyche, Senior Pastor
Good morning and welcome to the Vineyard!
We’re so glad you are here with us this morning. If this is your first time or 100th, we are honored that you are here today in our community. Whether you arrived here this morning because of an Internet search, because you were invited, or because you already knew the way, we are grateful for your presence. Our simple prayer for you is that you would experience peace, welcome, and acceptance. We also pray that you would find space to encounter the loving presence of the living God during your time with us this morning!
This morning I’m concluding our four-part Advent sermon series on Forgiveness.
Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent. The love week! Advent is a part of the liturgical calendar where Christians around the world set aside the four Sundays and weeks leading up to Christmas Eve to prepare themselves to receive new hope, peace, joy, and love come to us. During this Advent season, we have considered the call to forgiveness as our theme.
Last week, captivated by the “good news of great joy” announced by the Angel of the Lord in Luke 2, we unpacked the forgiveness story of the “sinful woman” and Simon the Pharisee found in Luke 7.
Four Basic Options
When we have been harmed, we have four basic options in no particular order:
- seek revenge (seeking more than simple compensation,)
- disengage (write them off)
- retributive justice (a life for a life)
- forgiveness (this is like giving someone a gift).
Let me tell you a story of how a neighbor turned into an enemy. (This is the story of Vernon and Bernard Williams, & William Norman (neighbor) - Read the full story at <http://bit.ly/forgivenesstruth>)
It’s a story of gun violence, a teenage boy and his friends were goofing off one night and they set off the alarm on a neighbor’s car. The neighbor frustrated because the key fob was broken, irritated because he was going to have to go outside to turn off the car alarm, instead grabs his Ruger Mini-14, opened his window and fired this semi-automatic weapon at the boys, a bullet delivering the mortal blow strikes one of the boys. Vernon Williams had just turned seventeen. 30 minutes earlier, he pleaded with his dad to extend his curfew.
Vernon’s friends raced to his house to get his father, Bernard. Arriving on the scene, shocked, confused, and overwhelmed, Bernard discovers that his neighbor William Norman has killed his son. The neighbor was immediately arrested.
What’s a father expected to do in this situation? How does a father respond to a neighbor who had killed his son? What do you do when your neighbor becomes your enemy?
Clutching his son’s lifeless body on the street, Bernard full of anger and rage, wanted justice, he wanted revenge. Truthfully, he wanted his son back. Since that wasn’t possible, Bernard was willing to settle for:
An eye for an eye.
A tooth for a tooth.
A life for a life.
At the perpetrator's sentencing hearing, Bernard, the victim’s father offered this statement:
"Your honor, I would like to see this man punished for the murder of my son, Vernon Williams. I would like to see him receive the maximum sentence."
When we have been victimized, abused, or hurt by another, evolutionary biologists tell us that we want them to suffer. We want “the other” to experience the same level of pain, suffering, and harm they have caused us.
This, we call justice.
The scope and devastation of Bernard’s story may be too overwhelming for many of us that our internal response is to disengage from the sermon, but let me invite you to consider your own hurt and pain here as we make our way forward. Have you ever been hurt or wounded and experienced pain and suffering at the hands of another? Is this person still wreaking havoc, or have you been able to move forward? What did you do? How did you respond to the hurt, pain, and suffering? Let’s take a moment together and consider this... I’m going to pause.
Jesus has something to say to us about our enemies, those who hurt and harm us, something that at first blush seems so utterly laughable, so ridiculous, so out of left-field, many of us just flat-out ignore him.
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, and bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:27-31)
Implicit in the command to “love your enemies” is the command to forgive them as well.
Who is My Enemy
Forgiveness for many of us can feel like it’s entirely in the domain of God. Only God is able to forgive his enemies, certainly not us. When we enter into the text and we hear Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” our first thought might be, “Okay, well, exactly who is my enemy?” We offer this objection because when we are hurt, we try to figure out the limits of our call to forgiveness. Is there anyone I can withhold forgiveness from?
The answer to is quite simple, who do you spend time with? For whatever reason–envy, misunderstanding, birth order, resentment–people close to us may turn on us.
“All my enemies whisper together against me; they imagine the worst for me… Even my close friend, whom I trusted, he who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” (Psalm 41:7,9)
Generally, our enemies can be found among those closest to us. A spouse or former spouse. A roommate. A parent. A child. A co-worker. A friend. A neighbor. The question, “Who is my enemy?” is answered by those who despise us, who manipulate us, who belittle us, who demean us, who use us, who gossip about us, who undermine us, who get on our nerves, who grate on us, who annoy us, even those who frustrate and irritate us. It’s not just those who hate us.
Another way to think about our enemies to ask the question “Who do I see as an ‘other’ ?” Who am I defining myself against? “At least I’m not like him or her, or them.”
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.
Here is love’s litmus test: learning to love your enemies!
But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Jesus wants to do more than just supplant the existing retributive justice system, he wants to invite us to live a life without vengeance and retaliation. Jesus knows that unless the revenge cycle is broken, it will just continue to repeat itself, often with disastrous effects. This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky call to religious piety. This is real life and Jesus wants to offer us a creative way out of the revenge cycle—he invites us to disrupt it. This invitation from Jesus is simple, but it isn’t easy, and it takes time. It requires that we trust Jesus, that we trust that he is really able to reveal the invisible God to us.
Learning to love like this is a marker of those who follow Jesus.
It’s not a law, it’s an illustration.
It’s not a law, it’s the way that you live.
It’s not a law, it’s an enactment of what you believe, it’s called faith.
Seems impossible, doesn’t it? If we love those who hate us, then those who hate us will destroy us.
They win and we lose.
No thanks, Jesus!
I’m Chosen, Holy, Beloved
It seems impossible because we fail to realize that in order to love our enemies, we must love ourselves.In order to love ourselves we must be certain of one thing: that we are loved. Remember the opposite of love, is not hate, it’s fear. We fear “the other” because we fear that God doesn’t really love us. Where does the love of enemy originate from, it comes from being loved, from being secure in God’s love for us? It comes from knowing that we are chosen, holy and beloved.
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3: 12-14)
Chosen: At the core of our being, we need to know we’re chosen in an ultimate, transcendent sense. We will only be secure in the core of our who we are, when we understand that we have we been chosen by a God who wants us, who created us, redeemed us, and now claims us as his own. Jesus said to anyone willing to follow him,
You didn’t chose me, but I chose you. (John 15:16)
Those are the words we need to hear at the core of who we are.
Holy: When God says, “you’re holy” he means, “You’re mine. You have been set apart. You belong to me.” We were made
“through him and for him.” (Romans 11:36)
When we come to grips with that, and can give ourselves freely to him, we become holy…and that’s a powerful thing to be. Powerful enough even, to change the way we live.
I’m beloved: Now here’s the kicker. I’m beloved. Not “I love.” Not even just, “I am loved.” But “I’m beloved.” It means “dearly loved.” It’s the kind of love that’s a little embarrassing to talk openly and publicly about. There’s a tenderness to it. There’s a feeling behind it that you’re precious and whoever it is that loves you can’t help loving you. It’s the picture of a God who delights in you.
Mercy Triumphs Over Judgement
Let’s return to Bernard’s 13 year journey to forgiveness, Bernard, realized that he wasn’t moving forward after his son’s death. He returned to his life, shattered. He took up drugs again, after promising his “dead” son he wouldn’t.
You can almost hear him saying, “Because he broke his promise, he deserved the pain in his life.” How many of us have believed the lie that we deserve the hatred, pain and suffering we are experiencing? Resist this, you who are chosen, holy and beloved.
Bernard goes into rehab and kicks his old habits, but then he stalls again. He developed diabetes and high blood pressure, and he grew depressed. His hatred was setting in and taking over.
This is important.
Bernard was stalled and sinking, he had to face the ugly truth, that his anger, frustration, and brokenness was affecting his life. Before we can love our enemies, we have to love ourselves and sometimes that means taking care of ourselves.
After tending to himself, he had to take the next step to make himself whole again; attempt to offer forgiveness to his enemy.
However, his family wasn’t on board, they thought it was a really bad idea! His family believe as many of us do that, “The perpetrator deserves unforgiveness. That it would be an injustice to forgive.”
Jesus pushes back and reminds us of the point of loving our enemies: no vengeance. Because he knows that revenge enslaves us and he came to set us free. The only way we can meet Jesus on the path is to know that our rage, our anger, our hatred belongs before God. This is the lesson of the Psalms, they teach us where to put our anger and rage. “By placing our unattended rage before God we place both our unjust enemy and our own vengeful self face to face with a God who loves and does justice.” (Volf, 124)
Wanting freedom and restoration, Bernard decided to met with his enemy, the man who murdered his son. They had multiple visits. During the visits Bernard shared his story, and listened to Norman’s side of story. As the stories unfold, Bernard hears, probably for the first time, Norman’s remorse and his regret.
Bernard knew what he had to do.
He had to stand before the parole board and advocate for Norman’s release. For in his enemy’s release, Bernard would finally experience his own release. In becoming his enemy’s advocate, he would finally be able to let go of the anger, the hatred, and the rage that was devastating Bernard’s life. So, he met with the board and concluded his statement by saying:
"So it is my intention to ask that Mr. Norman be granted parole and released today. I hope the board takes this into consideration and grants my family and Mr. Norman some relief."
A stunned parole board responded in shock, "I've been here 19 years and have only heard a victim say this once before." Another board member speaking to Norman, commented while shaking his head, “This man has shown incredible mercy to you today, I don't know how you pay this back in the future." The parole board granted Norman’s parole request.
Enacting the restorative justice prescribed by Jesus puts us on a collision course with self-hatred, self-loathing and self-doubt. Desiring restorative justice puts us in the crosshairs of the Empire. We will be labeled weak, stupid, horrible, and dumb.
But we have to remind ourselves that those labels aren’t the fruits of the spirit.
When we understand that we are chosen, holy and beloved, it gives us everything we need to follow Jesus as he leads us through the narrow gate into life.
This isn’t easy, friends, it takes everything we have, it’s a called to radically trust Jesus with everything. This can be difficult for those of us who come from broken families of origin. This can be especially difficult when we haven’t seen forgiveness practiced or demonstrated in our lives. This can be difficult when it’s family member or someone who is in our daily life. We need God’s help.
Let’s return to the fourfold path to forgiveness, which we’ve considered during Advent. It is easy to see and feel Bernard’s pain related to the death of his son and his desire for revenge or justice. Using his faith, Bernard was able to come to a place where he could do something very loving for the murderer of his son. But most of us aren’t at the beginning or end of this kind of story. We find ourselves somewhere in the murky middle. We haven’t come to the place where Jesus’ command to love our enemy seems obvious, or for that matter, doable. That’s okay.
Let me make a few suggestions for our next step?
The first step is to tell your story of hurt or pain or betrayal to someone. This could be anyone willing to listen to you, but it would be helpful if it were someone who could accompany you throughout the process. This probably means a close friend, a small group member, a spiritual director, counselor, or a member of our church’s pastoral team.
The second step is to describe the hurt that we experienced at the time and how it still hurts. It would be helpful if the person listening could listen without judging you or the person who hurt you, but could help you describe your hurt even better than you thought you could. As you work through your experienced hurt, it’s okay to ask your questions.
Why did this happen?
Why did God allow it to happen?
Where is justice, healing, reconciliation?
Forgiveness doesn’t happen all at once, this isn’t the demand that parents make on siblings who fight. As we make our way on our forgiveness journey, the thing that is most needed is grace, space, and a little time. As I like to say, be kind to yourself. It’s okay if you aren’t ready to start or if you just want to hurry up and get past the hurt.
Remember it took Bernard years before he was able to start his forgiveness journey.