5/18/2014 sermon, “I forgive you”

Location: The Hermitage, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Acts 7:55-60
5Easter, Year A

“I forgive you”

I saw a video clip this week of a man who was in the crowd in front of a courthouse. The man was crying and he was holding a sign that read, “You killed my daughter.” Just when I wondered if the man was going to pull out a gun, he turned the sign over. The back of the sign read, “I forgive you.”

This got my attention. What an extraordinary thing to do, to be ABLE to do. We pay attention to this kind of act, don’t we, when someone is able to transcend grief and anger and pain to forgive the one who has wronged them.

The man’s sign reminded me of the extraordinary witness of an entire community of Amish parents who forgave the man who killed their daughters. Do you remember THAT event, in 2006? All those parents, who were obviously grieving, one after another after another, not only saying, “I forgive you” through their tears, but enfolding the shooter’s widow and family into their care.

Do you know that the mother of the shooter now tends one of the permanently injured children? That the parents of this injured child ALLOW this other parent to make amends for what her son had done?

Somehow these grievously wronged parents all were able to say “I forgive you.” These wronged people were able to—as Dennis Maynard says—“Forgive and get your life back.”[1] If we do not forgive, we somehow get stuck forever with the grief and anger and pain hardened into grievance. If we somehow manage to say, “I forgive you,” though, we get our life back.

All of this flashed through my head when I read our first lesson for today. This is the story of the stoning of Stephen, one of the first seven deacons in Jerusalem in the year—roughly—36 of the Common Era, 36 AD.

Rembrandt, The Stoning of Stephen

When our lesson starts, the leaders of the Temple had become so enraged at Stephen’s sermon they had dragged him outside. That’s the thing about prophetic sermons, the thing about preaching a message such as, “You’ve done wrong and you must repent,” is that the result often is NOT repentance, but rather the result is often more sin. We often DO “shoot the messenger,” or in this case, stone the messenger.

Ironically, Peter had gotten away with virtually this same sermon on the first Day of Pentecost, the Pentecost when God gave the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ disciples. Peter had preached to the astonished Jewish onlookers that they had murdered the Messiah (God’s anointed one), and THAT crowd of 3,000 had repented and had been baptized.[2]

Not so for Stephen’s congregation. Maybe this was because Stephen had called them names. Here’s what Stephen said just before today’s lesson began:

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. 52Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. 53You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” AND (the passage continues),54When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.”

So Stephen’s words obviously inflamed those who heard what he had to say because they dragged him outside and stoned him to death. But maybe WHO the congregation WAS had something to do with how the message was received. Peter had been preaching to those who merely had shouted “Crucify him” during Jesus’ trial. Stephen’s congregation was the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Temple leaders who had plotted to have Jesus killed. So Stephen’s congregation had a lot more guilt and also had a lot more to lose than Peter’s congregation.

In any case, there was murdering about to happen, and—like Jesus on the cross—there was forgiving about to happen. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” Stephen prayed, just as Jesus had prayed just before he died. In other words, “I forgive you who are about to kill me.”

So here is where I ask you, “What sins—what grievous sins—against you have you not let go of? Jesus says, “Whatever we forgive here on earth will be forgiven in heaven, and whatever we hold like rocks in our hands here on earth will NOT be forgiven in heaven. Then Jesus warned us that the measure we use to judge and to forgive, will be the measure used against us.[3] Jesus and Stephen show us that our last act here on earth is to forgive those who have wronged us, whose sins we are holding onto as grievances.

I confess to occasionally holding on to grievances. Some of those grievances I have, in the past, just toted around, big heavy things that have weighed down my soul. What I have learned is that nurturing grievances is a losing proposition because grievances make my own heart stony and do not lead to spiritual enlightenment.

Stephen’s story teaches us that one of our final tasks here in this life is to loosen our hold on whatever grievances we have not yet set down. Somehow we have to forgive others of the wrongs they have done to us.



[1] Dennis P. Maynard, Forgive and Get Your Life Back, http://www.amazon.com/Forgive-Get-Your-Life-Back-ebook/dp/product-description/B005NLSO72, 2003-7.

[2] Acts 2:14-44

[3] Mathew 18:18 and John 20:23

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