Steven McDonald was twenty-nine years old when he was shot three times at close range. He had a wife and an infant son at home. He was a police officer in New York City. One fateful day in 1987, he verbally confronted some teens loitering in Central Park. One of the boys, Shavod Jones, had a gun. In an instant, McDonald’s life changed forever. He was paralyzed from the neck down, and he died thirty years later, in January 2017, from a heart attack. He is remembered for three remarkable words about his shooter: “I forgive him.” Several months after the shooting, at his son’s baptism, he released a statement through his wife that said, “Sometimes I’m angry, but more often I feel sorry for Jones. I forgive him and hope that he can find peace and purpose in his life." McDonald spent the rest of his life as an ambassador for the NYPD as well as a strong advocate for gun control.
We all have one life to live on this earth. Imagine what happened to Steven McDonald happening to you. Would you forgive? Could you?
Forgiveness is a complex matter. There are all kinds of questions we attach to it. Does the other person deserve it? If not, should we give it anyway? Who really benefits from forgiveness: the one who receives it or the one who gives it? Why is it that when we think we have forgiven someone, the bad feelings sometimes come back and leave us wondering what to do next? And… what does it mean to forgive one’s self?
In my role of pastor over the last thirty years, I have heard some remarkable stories of people managing to forgive unimaginable offenses. And I’ve heard from those who have spent a lifetime tortured by the memory of being wronged by another or of hurting someone else.
In the Gospel reading today, Jesus is asked by his friend Peter how many times he needs to forgive someone. Seven times sounds pretty generous to Peter. Jesus urges him not to be so stingy and counters with seventy-seven times (or seventy times seven, depending on the translation.) The message seems to be that there should be no cap on showing mercy to others.
The story that follows borders on the absurd, like many of Jesus’ parables. A slave owes the king the equivalent of about 200 million dollars. He was about to lose his home and his family and everything else due to non-payment, and when he falls on his knees and begs for patience from the king, to his surprise the entire debt is forgiven. But a few minutes later, the slave finds a man who owes him the equivalent of one-third of a year’s wages. Now, I’m not sure how a slave in Jesus’ time could rack up 200 million dollars in debt, or how someone that deep in debt could loan money to someone else. Thankfully, Jesus’ stories are intended to be fiction and the monetary amounts are just a set-up to consider the state of this man’s heart. He hit the forgiveness jackpot but was so self-serving that he would not extend mercy to another. To provide a satisfying end to the story, Jesus says that the king caught wind of what happened, was understandably furious, and handed the man over to be tortured until he could repay the debt. Obviously, it’s hard to make 200 million bucks when you are imprisoned and tortured.
The message is pretty clear; if we’ve experienced grace from another, it makes good sense that we would extend the same to others. If we’re unchanged by the kindness of others, then we’ve missed the greatest gift that comes with mercy.
Forgiveness is a theme that runs throughout most world religions. As a Jewish man Jesus would have participated in the annual Day of Atonement, which we know as Yom Kippur. The emphasis of this, the highest holy day in Judaism, is to re-order one’s life in response to receiving God’s forgiveness. Jesus was speaking in his parable to those who had received forgiveness again and again, and he urged them to not just make forgiveness a religious ritual, or something to dole out to others no more than seven times, but instead to make it a way of life.
I love the line from Genesis, our first reading, when Joseph’s father dies and his brothers gather and ask themselves, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” This was a very excellent question, considering the gravity of their offense against Joseph! They sold him to slave traders and lied about it to their father. It was the ultimate betrayal, and Joseph had every reason to not just bear a grudge but to bring the full weight of justice down upon them.
Instead, Joseph reminds them that only God can judge. And then he makes this remarkable statement: “what you intended for harm, God intended for good.”
Shortly after coming to Boulder, I shared the story with you of being ousted from my prior denomination. When I began the long journey of coming out as a gay man, I expected at least some support from the church system that raised and ordained me and that I had served for decades. I also assumed that being honest was better than hiding and that there would be some acknowledgment of that. Instead, I was summoned to the office of our highest judicatory leader. In a fifteen minute meeting, I was given the choice between resigning from ministry or being outed as gay from the pulpit of my church. I was only starting to come out, and I chose to resign rather than expose my children to confusion and embarrassment. As soon as that meeting was over, I realized that I was without a job, the only source of income for my family, and I was without a home since I lived on church-owned property. Some really difficult years followed.
About a year after leaving ministry, I discovered that the person responsible for the end of my career was gay and closeted and doing a masterful job of deflecting suspicion. Without question, how my own situation was handled helped that person remain in the highest office of the denomination. That information, which was confirmed in various ways in the months that followed, had a profound effect on my soul. I moved on with my life, but for years that followed I had recurring nightmares about that person and the meeting where my vocation ended so suddenly.
Five years later, I was approached by a member of the committee that handles clergy matters in that denomination, and I was asked to share my story with them. I prepared a written statement at their request. They were aghast at what I shared, and they apologized on behalf of the church for not assuring that protocol to protect the rights of clergy was followed. They affirmed my years of ministry in their denomination, and expressed gratitude that the United Church of Christ had recently welcomed me as a now openly gay man in ministry. The initiative and actions of that group of former colleagues were an unexpected gift to me. The bad dreams stopped immediately, and I was able to heal emotionally and spiritually in ways that I pretty desperately needed.
Ten more years have passed, and I sometimes ask myself if I have forgiven that person. I certainly haven’t been asked for forgiveness, and I’m not sure what would happen if we were ever to speak. I’m open to the possibility of reconciliation, but mostly I realize that whatever bound me for years has been released due to the kindness of others who recognized and named an injustice. I am no longer captive to resentment. And that feels a lot like forgiveness.
As I have grown as a person and as a pastor in the years since, and as I found a home in the United Church of Christ and later here in Boulder, I understand Joseph’s words in Genesis. “What was intended for harm, God intended for good.” Without the experience of being pushed from a non-affirming denomination, I don’t know that I would have ended up where I really needed to be. I might have just kept pretending to be someone I’m not in order to have the security of employment and the approval of people who could never accept me for who I am.
For some, forgiveness may happen quickly and easily. For most of us it is a halting process that may not ever be complete but ultimately moves us to a better place.
I think what is important is staying open and watching for opportunities to move forward. Seven times or seventy times seven or seventy times seven; it really makes no difference. When our hearts are open to forgiving, even if it is beyond what we think is possible, the opportunities to live in peace with others may surprise us.
This morning we will pray the prayer of Jesus: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. If we aren’t sure forgiveness is possible, we can be honest with God, even as we utter those words. But perhaps the act of speaking them will be the start of something unexpected.
May the peace of God fill you today with the assurance that you are loved and that you are capable of loving others in return. Amen.