Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Anrold AO

Excuse us our sins as we excuse the sins of others

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen

Peter asked Jesus:

‘… how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

On the evening of June 17, 2015, at 8.16 pm Dylann Roof walked into Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He sat down in the midst of a Bible study group that had been underway about a quarter of an hour and which was attended by a dozen people. They were studying Mark 4:13-20, the parable of the sower, about the seed which fell on fertile ground compared to that which fell upon shallow and weed-infested ground. Dylann Roof was welcomed by those present but sat silent throughout the study. At the end of their time together, just after nine o’çlock, one member started to say a benediction. Everyone present, except for Dylann Roof, closed their eyes and bowed their heads. While they were in prayerful reflection, Dylann Roof pulled a handgun from his bag and started a shooting spree that, after five reloadings of his gun, would see him firing not seven times but seventy seven, and killing nine people that night.

As he was firing, Dylann Roof had shouted:

I have to do this. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go. It don’t matter, I’m going to shoot you all. [p3]

When he ran out of bullets he left the building, got in his car and drove off into the night. As he left he said to one of the survivors:

I am going to let you live so you can tell the story of what happened. [p17]

He was arrested a day later, during his cross-examination he told police that he ‘almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice’ to him.

After standard judicial processing, the trial took place nearly a year and a half after his arrest. On December 15 2016, the jury took two hours to find Dylann Storm Roof guilty on all charges. In April of this year, he was moved to the death row section of a federal penitentiary.

In the lead up to the trial, at the bond hearing in June 2016, various members of the Mother Emanuel congregation, mainly relatives of those slain, made statements to the court. In their book entitled “We are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel” Herb Frazier, Bernard Powers and Marjory Wentworth have written about the tragedy, the historic events that led up to it, and the impact on the community of the Mother Emanuel church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the Deep South, established in the early 1800s. Writing about the statements made by members of the congregation to the bond hearing, they said:

There is virtually no precedent in America for what transpired at that bond hearing. The forgiveness expressed by some of the family members astounded everyone who heard them speak. [p164]

Further on they wrote:

There are cynics who assume these extraordinary expressions of forgiveness were only a trip of the tongue when these family members were put on the spot – but if that’s true they would have recanted their statements or qualified them somehow. And that is not what has happened. In fact, there seemed to be a higher power at work that Friday morning in June, and it was for all of them a moment of revelation from which they continue to gather strength. Each of them said something distinctly different at the bond hearing, and all the complexities and contradictions that weave their anger and grief into the notion of forgiveness must be considered. This forgiveness is not easy; it is quite the opposite. [p165]

Frazier, Powers and Wentworth considered all this in a chapter entitled “What is forgiveness?”

Behind Peter’s quantitative question – how many times, Lord? – was really the substantive question about what is forgiveness. And, by his answer, Jesus himself went beyond the quantitative – almost dismissively answering ‘seventy-seven times’ to Peter’s proffered ‘seven times’. Instead Jesus then went on to the substantial question about what forgiveness is. The remaining portion of our gospel reading this morning proves that.

So our question today is not really about how many times each of us should forgive others – and I once read a biblical literalist justifying that one didn’t have to forgive the seventy-eighth sinning of someone else – but what is the nature of the forgiveness to which we are called when we pray the Lord’s Prayer – Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

As we start to consider this, let me ask you to reflect through your own experience and ask you these questions:

What has been the most powerful example of forgiveness you have encountered in someone you have met? What was it about that example that so impressed you?

I am not asking what is the most powerful example of forgiveness you have read about, but that which you have actually encountered in people you have met.

Like the TV cooking shows and their focus dishes, I already have a story of forgiveness prepared beforehand. In 2004, when I was working for World Vision, we visited Chennai to learn more about the HIV-AIDS crisis that was looming at the time. During this visit, we met a poor family living in little more than one room in the slums of Chennai. The household consisted of a husband and wife and their two young children; the wife’s mother also lived with them. The family had been seriously impacted by the HIV-AIDS crisis for the husband was in late stages of the disease and would die within weeks of our meeting him. He had infected his wife who was HIV positive as a result, with a high probability she would develop full blown AIDS. The disease having struck the family, they were also socially ostracised by their neighbours. They were very poor, the husband was by this time unable to do any work, so the wife prepared simple sweetmeats each day to sell in the streets in an endeavour to earn enough to keep them and their children fed.

One of my colleagues travelling with me asked the woman how she felt about what her husband had inflicted on her and, by consequence, on their children if she were to fall ill. Her response was to say that she forgave her husband and said, with great joy, how happy she was that he had now become a Christian.

What sort of forgiveness had Elizabeth granted to her husband? Was this a despairing forgiveness? – what can you do? – or was there an authenticity to her pardoning the cause of imminent catastrophe to her family?

The same question was asked of those who appeared before Dylann Roof’s bond hearing. Some have said those statements of forgiveness were simply classic examples of the weakness of the oppressed whose only retort to evil was to forgive, as they could never combat, their oppressors. Elizabeth was so poor, what else could she do? This sort of forgiveness is in the category of forgive, forget and move on from that which cannot be changed, explained, restored or redeemed.

But this was not the sort of forgiveness offered by many of the family of those killed by Dylann Roof, nor was it that of Elizabeth in Chennai.  So let’s turn to the story that Jesus used to complete his answer to Peter’s question about forgiveness. Summarising the story, a servant is in desperate need of forgiveness by his master and he receives it. In consequence, that same servant then exacts ruthless judgment on those indebted to him. When the master learns of this he is angry with what has happened; and the story doesn’t end well for the servant.

But what words should we focus on in that section of the reading referring to the master’s response? I suspect that most often these are the words that stand out for many readers:

And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt.

But to me, these words are the anti-climax of the story. I feel the climax came with these words:

Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?

I am confident of this because of the very conclusion that Jesus himself drew from his own story, the final words of today’s reading:

So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart

Which brings us straight back to the Lord’s Prayer – ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us’

In other words, a recognition that the sinned against are also sinners – those seeking forgiveness need to show forgiveness themselves. And let us not forget who said these words – he who was and is the only human being ever beyond sin – the very God of very God – Jesus.

And it is here that we return to the question of what sort of forgiveness was offered by those family and friends at the bond hearing of Dylann Roof and by Elizabeth to her husband. Their acts of forgiveness were human renditions of that divine forgiveness uttered by Jesus on the cross – ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’

Frazier, Powers and Wentworth put it this way, citing the theologian James Cone:

This approach to adversity brings us back to the story of the crucifixion, so central to all Christian thought. Cone explains the gospel as the way we move beyond the crucifixion by reminding us that God promised to be with us during a tragedy. Forgiveness, according to Cone, comes from this promise and the fact that ‘tragedy is not the last word’ [pp169-70]

Continuing, they wrote:

… the connection between salvation and the cross … describes the cross as ‘an opening to the transcendent’…  It takes enormous Christian faith to believe in transcendence, and this is what the world witnessed at the bond hearing – faith in the divine and the love that comes from that faith. With this faith also comes hope and the strength to go on.

Bringing the needing to forgive with the needing to be forgiven into a unity – something which, if we are honest with ourselves, applies to each and every one of us – we find ourselves challenged, like Peter, to explore what that forgiveness should look like. The problem is that often our exploration may be short-circuited by us transposing the word ‘excuse’ for ‘forgive’ – Excuse us our sins as we excuse those of others.

And the point is? I feel you asking. Let me quote C S Lewis, from his essay ‘On Forgiveness’:

I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different. I am asking him not to forgive me but to excuse me. But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing. Forgiveness says, “Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.” But excusing says, “I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.” If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites.

Of course, Jesus wants us to acknowledge that we could always help what we have done; that thoughtlessness, or rationalisations of alternative intent cannot be mitigating circumstances absolving us of the accusation of having ‘meant it’ so that we really must accept blame for the sins we commit. But the issue goes much deeper. Returning to C S Lewis then wrote about:

… the bit left over, the bit which excuses don’t cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable.

Those family members at Mother Emanuel and Elizabeth in Chennai reached through the excuses to the inexcusable and the unforgiveable and they forgave.

Their forgiveness cannot have been easy; and I don’t want to give the impression that what the authors of “We are Charleston” wrote in their chapter ‘What is forgiveness’ was some easy manual of pardoning. It is not. Not all members of the Mother Emanuel did forgive, or have forgiven yet. And the Mother Emanuel African Episcopal church in Charleston is having to deal with becoming something of a shrine to Holy Forgiveness.

But the acts of forgiveness by those at the bond hearing and by Elizabeth should not be depreciated by being explained away as just social survival behaviour. Their forgiveness was much deeper than that – it was sacramental.     

To explain, let me close with the experience of Anthony Thompson, husband to Myra who had led the benediction at the end of the Bible study before the slaughter began. He spoke of his struggle before the bond hearing:

A voice said (to him) ‘I’ve got something to say, and this is what I want you to tell the (hearing). And he told me exactly what to tell them. God told me exactly what to say because I didn’t even want to be there … I said exactly what he told me – no more and no less I knew where to begin, and I knew where to end. Because he told me. That was it … (and) when I sat down, I was a different person. I wasn’t that person thinking like when I came in there, ‘What happened to my wife?’ No more. I said ‘God, you’ve got her; you gave me peace this morning.’ I knew where to go from there.’

Reference: We are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel by Herb Frazier, Bernard Edward Powers and Marjory Wentworth, [2016], W Publishing Group.

Note: If people would like a copy of the chapter “What is forgiveness” from ‘We are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel’, I can supply it.