Our 4th and final Sunday of Advent has us consider the theme of hope. We know that hope is an essential element of our faith. But what is it exactly that we have hope in? What is it about the Christian story that gives you hope? If you look at the titles of the coming Messiah that are recorded in Isaiah nine—which one brings hope to you and your faith? Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. For me, I have always been drawn to the titles Wonderful Counselor and Prince of Peace. I see the Messiah as counseling us in the ways of peace which is what makes him wonderful.
And this is where my faith has me put on my walking shoes. Because central to the ways of peace that Jesus taught and embodied has to do with forgiveness; being forgiven and forgiving others. My hope lies in the belief that not only are we forgiven by God but that we humans can forgive each other.
And this hope is put to the test every day. Every day we are reminded of the cycle of violence we live in. Every day we read news reports or are exposed to something on social media that clearly displays our propensity towards rivalry, revenge, and hatred.
In The Book of Forgiving, Desmond Tutu shares that “Evolutionary biologists suggest that we are hardwired to seek revenge and hurt back when we are hurt. This is how our ancestors survived when confronted by a threat, and this is our nature now in response to a threat.” Tutu goes on to share that “There is no doubt that revenge is part of our evolutionary biology, but there is also no doubt that we are hardwired to forgive and reconnect. Primatologists show that even monkeys seek to make amends. They extend their hands to one another and become very agitated when the group is not in harmony. For humans, ‘sorry’ joins ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ among the earliest additions to a child’s vocabulary. This thirst for harmony is why our hearts soar when we hear that someone who has been wronged has chosen to forgive.”
But “when we are uncaring, when we lack compassion, when we are unforgiving, we will always pay the price for it. It is not, however, we alone who suffer. Our whole community suffers, and ultimately our whole world suffers.”
After our stepmother married my father and entered our family in 1969, she was cut off from her family of origin. Her family lived only 5 miles from our house but we never saw them as we grew up. My understanding is her parents disapproved of her marriage to our dad and could never forgive my stepmother. This inability to forgive caused lots of suffering in my stepmother’s life and our whole family life. After my stepmother’s mom died, Sharon was able to reconnect with her father and experience reconciliation with him. And this brought tremendous healing to my stepmom and to all of us. My stepmom was able to function in all of our relationships in a healthier way. Forgiveness led to a powerful transformation in our lives. The truth is when members of our older generations can forgive, the younger generations will increase their functioning and have a greater chance at living in healthier relationships.
Have you ever gone through the process of forgiving someone? Maybe you are in that process now? And on the flip side, have you ever gone through the process of asking for forgiveness from someone you harmed (either intentionally or unintentionally)? Of course we all know that the work involved in forgiving is difficult and complex and I could never cover all the aspects of forgiveness in a 10 minute sermon. What I’m simply asking us to do today is to reflect on how the Gospel message is intimately connected to our giving and receiving forgiveness.
The passage from 2nd Corinthians makes it clear what our role is as Christians. Because we have been reconciled to God, we are called into the ministry of reconciliation. What might help us here is to think of what it means to be reconciled to God. We often hear the phrase that Jesus frees us from our sins. What if we thought of it this way—that Jesus frees us from our violence in all its forms? From the violence of rivalry, from the violence of revenge, from the violence of cutting ourselves off from others, from the violence of our words and behaviors. I think the word violence is a much more relevant term to use and is not burdened by layers of moralistic guilt that often distracts us from the real issue. The good news is Jesus frees us from our violence in all its forms…we no longer live in the cycle of violence but are drawn into the cycle of forgiveness. This is what makes the Gospel message so relevant.
In our middle school Sunday School class, we consider the way we are hard-wired as humans to seek revenge and be violent. And we study the life and teachings of Jesus and how Jesus leads us to be people of forgiveness. We study people like Martin Luther King, Jr. who believed in the power of forgiveness and nonviolence. And we learn about other people who have stories of forgiveness like Bud Welch–
Bud Welch was in his 50’s when his 23-year-old daughter Julie was killed by Timothy McVeigh, along with 167 other victims of the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995. For nine months Bud raged inside with a desire for revenge. But it was so eating him up that he finally begged for the grace of forgiveness and then arranged to meet with Timothy McVeigh’s father. Sitting at his breakfast room table one Saturday morning, Bud discovered that Timothy’s father was in as much agony as he was. The next step was meeting Timothy himself, which Bud did a number of times before Timothy’s execution. We don’t know whether Timothy ever expressed remorse to Bud, but Bud did not make his forgiveness conditional on Timothy’s remorse. In the face of all that terrorist rage and killing, Bud Welch escalated forgiving love. It is this message of Jesus’ forgiving love that Bud has been carrying across the US, pleading for an end to the death penalty.
After I shared this story, one of the youth asked me, “Don’t you think Bud’s daughter would be upset with him because he chose to forgive McVeigh?”
I’m so glad this person asked this question because it simply reveals how this cycle of violence is in our blood. The cycle of violence and revenge is what we think is true. And this youth thought that Bud’s daughter would be betrayed if Bud did not continue in the cycle of violence and ask for McVeigh’s killing.
This is precisely where the Gospel of Peace steps in. This is exactly what we are freed from—from the violence in all its forms that infects us. We no longer model the way of the world but the way of the Prince of Peace.
Our own situations of hurting and being hurt are very real and sometimes very painful. Asking for forgiveness and making amends for the times we have hurt others and extending that same forgiveness to those who have hurt us give us unique opportunities to participate in the incredible compassion of Jesus. Each time we reach out our hand in a gesture of reconciliation, we become the reconciling heart of Jesus. This is the hope of Advent, this is the hope of Christmas, this is the hope of the Gospel. Amen.