At our work day yesterday, as we were cleaning out the garage, somebody found a couple of packs of printed cards – Pastoral Record Forms. They had been in the desk in the garage, probably had been in that drawer for 50 years. It had a line for the family name and address, a line for the husband’s name and wife’s name and up to 4 children’s names. There was a space for birthdays and just one space for occupation. At the time these were printed, I guess the expectation was that only one person in the family worked outside the home, and it probably wasn’t the wife. And then there was a space beside each name for “church status.” That could have meant whether a person was a member, but I suppose a person’s church status could be something like “shaky.” Or it could be like marital status, and you could maybe put “available” on that line. There was also a line for notes.
The form had that “this is going in your permanent record” look to it, and we kind of got a laugh out of it, but I think the intent was good – a pastor is supposed to care for his or her flock, and this was supposed to help with that.
Caring for folks in the church is not always easy. Just ask Paul. This is our third week in Second Corinthians. This book is actual correspondence between Paul and the church in Corinth, and it reveals some of the possibilities as well as some of the challenges of living as a community of faith.
Now reading someone else’s mail can be a problem. I’m not talking about intercepting somebody else’s mail and reading it – I mean, that is definitely a problem. Trying to steam a letter open and reading it and then resealing it as best you can so that the recipient of the letter doesn’t know you have read it – that is not just a logistical problem, it is an ethical problem. I saw that on a TV show just last week, and I know it happens more often on TV than in real life, but still. It happens.
But that’s not what I’m talking about when I say that reading someone else’s mail can be a problem. Paul’s writings were open letters, intended to be read by the community, and from very early on they were passed on to be read by other churches and provided wisdom and instruction not only for those to whom the letter was addressed, but for all Christians.
The problem is that when we read something written for a different person or a different audience, we do not always know the context and history surrounding the writing. And that is very clear in our passage today. Paul can sometimes be a little obtuse, a little verbose as it is – OK, sometimes more than a little obtuse - but in today’s reading that difficulty in understanding is magnified because he is referring to events that were painfully obvious to the church in Corinth, but not to us. He didn’t explain everything because he didn’t have to. The Corinthian church knew full well what Paul was talking about. But then we come along 2000 years later, reading this same letter, and I’m thinking it would have been nice if Paul had spelled it out a bit more.
In Paul’s defense, we do exactly the same thing. There is a big blowup somewhere along the line. Sides are drawn, feelings are hurt, relationships are damaged. It may have been controversial. It may have been scandalous. Because it was so painful and talking about it is so awkward, there comes a point that when the past conflict is mentioned, it gets referred to as something like “that past unpleasantness.” It is easier and a lot less painful to just leave it at that rather than rehash all the details. Everybody knows what you are talking about, except that if you weren’t around at the time and haven’t been clued in, you have no idea of what “that past unpleasantness” means.
That is what we are dealing with here. While we don’t have the specifics of what had happened in Corinth, we have the broad outlines of the story. Paul had promised to visit Corinth again, but changed his mind and was criticized by some in the Corinthian church for not returning as he had promised. He was accused of vacillating and being undependable. Paul responded by saying that in light of what had happened and the atmosphere in the church, he had decided not to make another “painful visit.” His presence might have inflamed the situation and just made things worse, so even though he had very much wanted to visit in person, he had sent a letter instead. (We don’t have that letter.)
Paul then speaks of someone who had caused pain both to him personally and to the church as a whole. We don’t know who this was or what had transpired, but it required church discipline. As you read though 1 Corinthians, it is clear that there were all kinds of issues in this church. A man was having an affair with his mother-in-law. There were problems with gossip and slander. Some people were getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper. Rich people were enjoying feasts at the church potluck while some poor people barely got anything to eat. There were arguments over whose gifts were more important and there were cliques and competing groups in the church.
Here, we are not really sure what had taken place, but someone in the congregation had caused pain to others, including Paul, and the church had determined to punish the offender. “Punishment” is really a stronger term than the sense of the Greek word. The person was not banned or excommunicated; it was something more like a censure or rebuke.
At any rate, one who had disrupted the fellowship and acted inappropriately in whatever way had been challenged on his behavior, and there had consequences of some sort. Now Paul counsels that this person be forgiven. The point of whatever measure that was taken against him was not retribution but to bring a return to right fellowship. Paul says that this person should now be consoled, going back to the language and theme of chapter 1 - consolation and encouragement, which we looked at a couple of weeks ago.
So it is a bit of a convoluted argument, especially for those of us reading the letter 2000 years later, but Paul comes down on the side of forgiveness of this one who had wronged others. And he adds in verse 11, “we do this so that we may not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.” To not forgive can create all sorts of problems. To hold on to anger, to hold on to hate, to hold on to a desire for retribution, can wind up damaging us – it gives the forces of evil room to operate.
We can talk abstractly about forgiveness. A lot has been said about it. Alexander Pope said, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.” Marianne Williamson said, “The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world.”
And what do we pray nearly every Sunday? “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
The idea of forgiveness sounds good and right. Most of us agree with the idea, in principle. But in real life situations, it is not so easy. Paul gives us an example of forgiveness in a community. Someone had caused deep pain, and you can just imagine what people were saying. “We’re better off without him. I’d be glad if I never saw him again. We can’t run the risk of having him in the church. We know old so-and-so. He’ll never change.” Emotions were running high. This could not have been easy.
We like the idea of forgiveness, especially when we are the one being forgiven, but to actually practice forgiveness in a community is tough. Just how difficult the dynamics of it are comes through in Paul’s letter – look at the words he uses: pain, distress, anguish, tears, sorrow. Maybe another way of saying all of this is to simply say that forgiveness is one of those things that is a lot easier to talk about than it is to actually practice.
Back in 2005, in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Jameel McGee was minding his own business when a police officer showed up and arrested him for dealing drugs. “It was all made up,” said McGee. Of course, a lot of people accused of crimes make that claim, but in this case it was true. Former Benton Harbor police officer Andrew Collins admitted that he falsified the report. “Basically, at the start of that day,” he said, “I was going to make sure that I had another drug arrest.” He just made it up.
“I lost everything,” McGee said. “My only goal was to seek him when I got home [from prison] and to hurt him.” Eventually, that cop was caught and served time for falsifying police reports, planting drugs and theft. McGee was exonerated, but he had spent four years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Can you imagine what that would be like?
Today both men are back in Benton Harbor. Last year, by sheer coincidence, they both ended up at the faith-based employment agency Mosaic, where they now work side by side in the same café. And it was in those cramped quarters that the bad cop and the wrongfully accused man had no choice but to have it out.
Collins, the former cop, said to McGee, “Honestly, I have no explanation, all I can do is say I’m sorry.” McGee says that was all it took. “That was pretty much what I needed to hear.”
Amazingly, McGee was able to forgive this man who had put him in prison for four years. He had dreamed of retribution, but instead he forgave this man. Today, working together in the café, they are not only cordial, they’re actually friends. They hang out. They are such close friends that not long ago McGee told Collins he loved him.
“I just started weeping because he doesn’t owe me that. I don’t deserve that,” Collins said.
McGee was able to forgive because of his Christian faith and his hope for a kinder world. He wants to be an example -- so now he and Collins give speeches together about the importance of forgiveness and redemption.
It is hard to fathom such forgiveness. But what is the alternative? Holding on to bitterness and hatred, holding on to the need for revenge, makes us smaller people. Jameel McGee was imprisoned on false charges, but without forgiveness, he would have remained in a prison of a sort. Lewis Smedes, who wrote a wonderful little book on forgiveness, said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
Jameel McGee understood that, but for him it was even deeper. He didn’t forgive just for his sake, or even for Collins’ sake. It was for our sake,” McGee said. “Not just us, but for our sake.” And by that, he meant all of us. A world that practices forgiveness is a better world.
The basis for our forgiveness and the example for our forgiveness is Jesus. Jesus, who offers us forgiveness – no matter what we have done. Jesus, who on the cross said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Those words were directed at his accusers and executioners, but in a sense they were also directed at his disciples who abandoned him, and they were directed to us, even today, who foolishly, carelessly hurt one another.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in the aftermath of the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa and the work of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, wrote The Book of Forgiving. In it, he says,
To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.I think it is important that Tutu speaks of anger and hatred as being part of the process of forgiveness. We can’t really forgive unless we have come to terms with the pain. Jameel McGee had to deal with a lot of anger and hatred. And sometimes, so do we.
However, when I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator. If you can find it in yourself to forgive, then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator. You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person, too.
Forgiveness is so hard because it means giving up something. It literally means that something has to die.
What has to die? What do we have to give up? Maybe the right to get even. Maybe the right to feel superior. Maybe the right to feel like we have something on another person. Maybe we have to give up an idealized version of someone. Or of ourselves. It might mean giving up bitterness when we we have grown accustomed and comfortable with bitterness.
Forgiveness is not just saying everything is OK, and it is not just letting bygones be bygones. It means facing the pain, acknowledging the pain, and then, however slowly or excruciatingly, choosing to give up our right to get even. It means letting go of the anger and the hatred and letting go of the hold the other person has on us. We do this for our own sake. We do this because of what holding on to the anger and hurt can do to us.
And while, depending on the circumstances, we may not be able to say “I forgive you” directly to the other person – we may not even know the other person - we also do it for their sake. Lewis Smedes said, “You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.”
Families are great places to practice forgiveness because, let’s face it, when we live together, we are going to hurt each other, whether we mean to or not. It is just part of life. And so practicing forgiveness is essential for family life. And it is no less so in the church.
The community of Christ is to be a community of forgiveness. This doesn’t mean allowing others to walk all over us or to hurt others. Forgiveness does not mean being a doormat. In Corinth, the one who had caused so much pain was held accountable. But being a community of forgiveness means that just as Christ has forgiven us, we are willing to forgive – both for our sake and for the sake of a better world. Amen.