This sermon is about forgiveness. I am going to talk about a church shooting, and I am going to talk about abuse in the church. We have to face these realities, and in order to face them bravely, we have to talk and think about them. The readings today led me to these words.
On the evening of June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, twenty-one at the time, joined a group of African Americans gathered for a bible study at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. For over an hour, he participated in the discussion, and then he stood up, brandished a handgun and, yelling racist epithets, began to shoot people. At one point during the attack, he shouted, “Y’all want something to pray about; I’ll give you something to pray about.” When it was over, nine people were dead, including the forty-one-year-old pastor of the church, Clementa Pinckney; an eighty-seven-year-old parishioner Susie Jackson; and a twenty-six-year-old man, Tywanza Sanders, who tried to talk Roof out of it, and jumped in front of Susie to protect her.
Later, under police interrogation, Roof flatly admitted to the killings. In a journal entry made some weeks after the murders, Roof stated, “I would like to make it crystal clear, I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”
Listen now to words of forgiveness from the daughter of a murdered churchgoer: she said to the killer, “I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you.” The relative of another victim said to the murderer, “We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”
Hearing the response of the families, we can see the unfathomable love of God. We can spend our whole lives trying to understand forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation.
Forgiveness is how we decide to in our minds, and in our lives, let go of a hurt that someone else has given us. It’s when we find our own power, and don’t let another person tell us who we are, and define us. Maybe someone else put a heavy weight on your shoulders. And you don’t need it there. You don’t need to carry it.
Repentance is being aware of the harm that you have done to another person, and wishing that you had not done it, as well as taking steps to change what you do and how you act to make sure that you don’t do the bad thing again, and owning the consequences of your actions.
Reconciliation is the act of making true peace. Making things equal or right again when they were not compatible. Realizing harmony between issues, people, or groups that were against each other before. This can be a short process, or a long process, depending on the situation.
What is forgiveness, and why do we do it?
Forgiveness and reconciliation are different actions. Forgiveness is about what happens in our own hearts and minds. Repentance is what happens in the heart and mind of the transgressor toward the person they have wronged. And forgiveness can lead to reconciliation, just like repentance can lead to reconciliation, but it’s not just a given. Dylan Roof may never be sorry for killing those people in church that day. And sometimes the world is like that. And sometimes people don’t want to forgive. I don’t think that makes them less holy, or less loved by God for it. There is a person who harmed me, and I admit that I do not forgive that person. I’m not there yet. I’m not as good as God, or as loving as Jesus.
In the Episcopal Church we say “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!” and “All are Welcome!” – some tough questions flow out of that, though. Are our enemies welcome? Who are our enemies? What are the boundaries of welcome? For me, the key is not being welcome to the detriment of safety. Are all people actually welcome if there is a predator among us? We can say yes – all are welcome – if we make it clear that in our community we value victims and we value safety. To be a participant in our community, the predator must do likewise – value safety and respect those around them – in order to be welcome here. The typical power dynamic between weak and strong has to be flipped for this to work.
Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43–46). In the Sermon on the Plain, he makes a very similar suggestion: “Do to others as you would have them do to you. For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them” (Luke 6:31–32). And in dialogue with a Pharisee who had invited him to supper, he makes this teaching more concrete and pointed: “When you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you” (Luke 14:12–14).
In stressing love of enemies and generosity to those who cannot repay us, he is urging his followers to break free of the economy of exchange, which simply is our own egotism and it is a form of violence. “If I give you something, you have to give me something back. I deserve it. I demand it.”
Right now in the broader Christian church we are being rocked by scandals of abuse from priests and pastors. How a church responds tells us a great deal about who and what they value. Some, in my opinion, very unhealthy stories have emerged of regions choosing to cover up abuse, or not turning over criminal acts of abuse to be investigated by civil authorities, or saying that if an abuser has repented, then the survivor is now obligated to forgive.
In our Episcopal Church, the response to this difficult issue of clergy sexual misconduct gives me hope that we are a group of people who is willing to flip that power dynamic on its head – we have said from the General Convention in July that anyone throughout time in our church who has experienced abuse is able to come forward and report, because the church, as a reaction to the many reports of abuse in other contexts suspends for three years the canon (church law) that places a time limit on initiating proceedings in cases of clergy sexual misconduct. Leaders throughout the church in the US will be working on other ways of addressing these issues, including a process to help the church engage in truth-telling, confession, and reconciliation regarding our history of gender-based discrimination, harassment and violence. This is the opposite of sweeping it under the rug. This is respecting the vulnerable people who have been hurt, and centering our community around their healing. This seems like difficult, sacred work.
Do you want to forgive someone, but you don’t know how?
Everett Worthington, was a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University when his mother was brutally murdered in a 1995 burglary. In a weird coincidence, Worthington’s research at the university examined the effects of forgiveness. So in the days after his mother’s death, he decided to employ a five-step process he had previously come up with:
First, you recall the incident, including all the hurt. Empathize with the person who wronged you. Then, you give them the altruistic gift of forgiveness, maybe by recalling how good it felt to be forgiven by someone you yourself have wronged. Next, commit yourself to forgive publicly by telling a friend or the person you’re forgiving. Finally, hold onto forgiveness. Even when feelings of anger surface, remind yourself that you’ve already forgiven.
Worthington found that his approach worked—and that other examples confirmed his intuition. Studies have shown that forgiveness aids mental and physical health, while the opposite reaction—holding a grudge and harboring resentment—has the opposite effect on well-being.
Grace feels like a sanctuary most days – a safe and welcoming place. I hope our church and our diocese will not have to directly face the awful topics that I brought up today, that plague the modern world. But if we do, the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers who left him for dead, and the teachings of Jesus will implore us to find a path to healing: seek to forgive when you are ready and able. Seek to repent when you have done something bad. God, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us, and as an entire community, when we face a mass tragedy, or even a small wrong help us remember – we all fall short of the grace of God, and yet, that grace is still there for us, reconciling us to God and to one another.
This is a terrifying thing to say – All Are Welcome – but I think, if we are going to be a church for all people in the heart of the city, we have to say it, and mean it, and work through the forgiveness, and repentance and reconciliation that makes our lives truly holy: The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.