Outline of Sermon
11 years ago – Oct. 2, 2006
Events in Nickel Mines, PA STUNNED THE NATION
10:30 A.M. – Charles Carl Roberts – milk delivery man – known/respected – entered 1 room Amish school
Boys – help unloading truck
Guns, ammunition, plastic ties, wire, lumber, nails and tools
Let them go
Barricaded himself inside
Lined up girls ages 6-13 against chalkboard – tied together with wire and plastic ties
Beginning at 11:07 – took the first of at least 13 shots – the last one saved for himself
Efforts by state troopers to talk him out of it would not work – 2.5 minutes after shooting began, they stormed the room
5 girls died
Grief and shock enveloped the community.
How could father who kissed his own children goodbye do such a thing?
How had his wife and co-workers missed the signs?
If he understood the pain of losing a daughter, why would he want to inflict the same on others?
For many of those questions, good answers may never be found
NOT the crime
NOT death of innocents at the hands of a madman.
GREATEST shock: forgiveness and support to the family of the mad man who did this to them.
Time and time again – Amish offered grace …
Grandfather of one victim -- “We must not think evil of this man.”
A father trying to explain his ability to forgive said, "He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he's standing before a just God."
Several from the Amish community left their homes to give support to his family – the same day of the shooting.
Roberts’ widow was one of very few outsiders invited or allowed to attend the funerals of any of the slain
His family was SO touched both his mother and his wife have actively testified to the power of grace. His mother published a book named “Forgiven”
Response of nation: AWE
How could anyone who had suffered this loss forgive so quickly?
What would give them the strength to do that?
Why would they even think it appropriate?
What became of justice?
Why didn’t they even ask the normal “why?” questions?
In a national culture that seeks to assign blame and routinely files multi-million dollar lawsuits for things as small as spilled hot coffee – the consistent message of forgiveness offered across the Amish community seemed unthinkable.
Everyone asked, “How could they do that?” -- But they were!
And, in that moment, our nation was forced to imagine a better way – a way that redeemed evil for good; one that brought beauty out of pain.
It was, perhaps, the best day for Christianity in modern U.S. history
We’re going to look at a story with all of those today.
But first -- want to spend just a couple of minutes talking about why I think it is SO important for us to try to place ourselves in this story – to imagine what it would have been like to be the main character.
One of the books that has helped me most in my personal walk is Dallas Willard’s “Hearing God.”
Willard -- profound thinker – a Christian who taught philosophy at the University of Southern California.
His writing normally makes my head hurt because it is so deep.
But this book is accessible.
Willard explains that he wrote the book because a personal discussion in his own family taught him how few Christians genuinely experience the intimacy of a close, personal walk with God. And, without that – they struggle to experience a deeply transformed life.
In trying to address one of the root causes for that problem – he points our attention to a very short passage in the book of James.
It contains a phrase with incredible power – but one that we often overlook.
In this passage, James is urging his readers to pray for sick – and believe that prayer will make a difference. (specifically -- elders pray)
13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. …16b The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
17 Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years.18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.
James 5:13-14, 16b-18
“Elijah was a human being, even as we are.”
For James, that settled it.
If Elijah could pray and things happened, so could we.
Obviously – we could do study of prayer but that’s not our focus today.
Larger principle applies.
We MUST read scripture with fresh eyes – see heroes as people who were just like us.
Willard, in explaining how scripture becomes meaningful in our own lives says it this way:
“We must prayerfully but boldly use our God-given imaginations as we read the stories of people who encountered God. We must ask ourselves what it would be like if we were Moses standing by the bush (Ex. 3:2), little Samuel lying in his darkened room (1 Sam. 3:3-7), Elisha under inspiration from the minstrel (2 Kings 3:15), Ananias receiving his vision about Paul (Acts 9:11) or Peter on his rooftop (Acts 10:10). We must pray for the faith and for the experiences that would enable us to believe that such things could happen to us. Only then will we be able to recognize, accept and dwell in them when they come. …” (Dallas Willard, Hearing God, p. 36)
Willard was teaching about the ability to hear God’s direction and know His will.
If this approach is true of hearing God – surely it is true of growing and exercising faith in the face of our circumstances.
So – for the next few minutes – want to look at Joseph:
Won’t read entire text of Joseph’s story – but we need a brief review – need to be on the same page!
Joseph entered the world, through no fault of his own, in competition for his father Jacob’s attention.
As son of favorite wife -- Instantly loved
Jacob could not help but shower him with attention and lavish gifts.
Most prominent gift -- elaborate coat – “Many colors”
Outwardly good news for Joseph – but instant source of conflict with his brothers.
They resented his favored treatment.
If Joseph was more mature – would have recognized the danger of jealousy & laid low
As a brash young man – who relished status -- he did not.
Continued to accept assignments to check on his brothers and report back to his father about their work
Not only wore the coat -- BUT – became “tattle tale” – reporting their transgressions back to his dad. (Gen. 37:1-4).
In the midst of this very human conflict,
Brothers, no doubt, thought the dream was dead.
But, it wasn’t.
Joseph’s dream would be fulfilled.
Joseph -- just 17 years old when dreams interrupted his sleep
If Joseph could just fast-forward to the end of the story, it would all be great.
He would move from being the favored son of his father to the one in power over not only over the family but an entire nation.
But, life did not move at the speed of fast forward.
This is where it becomes important for us to slow down and try to put ourselves in Joseph’s shoes before we jump to the point of today’s reading.
Yet, human emotions are so universal, I trust we can do so fairly
When you try to put yourself in Joseph’s place, what comes to mind?
First thing I think of – LOST control
Second thing I think of – Alienation and isolation
Rather than living as the son of a well-to-do rancher surrounded by family – father, brothers, in-laws, nieces and nephews – he was alienated from all family with little hope of seeing them again.
Beyond alienation from family – Isolation from others
Yes, he worked with/for people
But they were strangers -- no reason to care.
Studies of human stress -- hormones tell us to be social.
We need each other to get through tough stuff.
Do you think they cared why he was sold?
Would they care that he thought God had spoken to him and called him to greatness?
Would it bother them that his dreams were dashed the minute they paid to purchase him?
The truth is, I suspect they would laugh in his face.
If those aren’t enough – consider living in foreign land – unprepared
(The challenge for us: don’t let familiarity with ending short-circuit the meaning here!)
We don’t know just how much Joseph was tempted to all of these – DO KNOW he wasn’t numb to the pain
Yet – in all that time, Joseph didn’t give up on God – didn’t give up on life
You know the story -- Predicted 7 years of plenty followed by 7 of famine
Joseph wisely advised: STORE UP FOOD
Pharaoh rewarded his wisdom – put him in charge
Finally – thirteen years after he was sold into slavery – he entered the service of Pharaoh where he rose to the top echelons of power.
This was a step in the right direction
Regained control over circumstances. Could choose
But, Joseph still didn’t have extended family. And, despite name of Manasseh, he hadn’t forgotten – only swept it aside.
It was 22 years before he laid eyes on his family. From the time he entered power, Joseph would reign nine more years (the 7 years of “plenty” plus 2 years needed for food to become scarce in his homeland) before his brothers came calling -- begging for food.
You likely remember the story.
His brothers didn’t know him – but he knew them.
1st journey -- After toying with them and forcing one brother to stay, he let the rest go – knowing they’d be back.
2nd – came back (he knew they would) – this time with his youngest brother – the one he wanted to see most.
As Joseph observed them and recognized hearts that had changed, he could hold out no longer – he sent the Egyptians out of the room to preserve a private reunion with this brothers. As tears rolled down his cheeks, he revealed his identity, hugged them warmly, forgave them fully, and ultimately arranged to move all of them – including his aging father – to Egypt.
We LOVE this part of the story. All’s well that ends well.
Today’s reading comes from the second declaration of forgiveness.
Occasion – death of Jacob – Joseph’s father.
Joseph had expressed forgiveness years earlier.
But, recognizing their own guilt – Joseph’s brothers were once again afraid. With Dad gone, he could finally seek revenge
Read with me:
15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” 16 So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.
18 His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.
19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God?20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
So, Joseph made the choice echoed thousands of years later by the Amish; he conveyed his forgiveness again.
How did Joseph do that? How did he, like the Amish years later, find a way to release the desire for revenge and choose forgiveness instead?
I have a very hard time imagining strength like that.
What makes forgiveness of this kind possible?
Can anything make grace reasonable for brothers who sell their own? … for killers who shoot innocent girls?
Why would he – or we -- want to offer grace when everything cries out for justice?
Two phrases in this passage catch my eye. – If any hope of cultivating the heart of grace that we see in Joseph – we’ll need to fully embrace lessons found here.
For Joseph – this confession – revealed at least two important truths: One is implied by his forgiveness; the other explained by his words.
Look at what he says immediately after confessing he’s NOT God.
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good”
Joseph understood that as a child of God – he had a purpose bigger than his own comfort and passing happiness. He could have been angry that God let him suffer at the hands of his brothers but he wasn’t.
He had a role to play in the plans of God for his people on earth.
At this time, he could not begin to know how important that role was to world history
But, he knew it mattered for now.
His family lived because he was sent ahead to preserve food to survive the famine
In truth – he lived because he was sent ahead
God could see a famine coming and need to prepare a way to preserve his people
Joseph played a part
I don’t begin to understand all the implications of this. Lots of questions remain.
But, there’s one thing I do know – when I view my life – my purpose – as being about something bigger than my comfort, my happiness, my pleasure – the hard times look a LOT different.
No longer do I judge every action – every event, every hurt, every struggle, every frustration, every time of opposition through the same light.
In fact, I no longer expect life to be easy.
Jesus said, after all, “Take up your cross and follow me.”
He didn’t promise a life of ease.
He DOES routinely redeem suffering for good.
So, on those too often rare days when I live in the humility of Joseph, I find it easier to believe that God is in the process of redeeming the hard times for good – even when I can’t see how.
And, I’m forced to stop and ask, “How can this be used to further God’s purpose on earth?”
Beyond Joseph’s recognition that God alone is wise enough to set the purpose and plan, his confession reveals one more important truth.
If that’s true for Joseph – given all he’d been through -- it’s surely true for us!
But, it didn’t stop there. He also understood that God is more interested in redemption than in punishment.
If that is true of God – and we’re called to be his hands and feet on earth -- it needs to be true of us. We’re called to be agents of grace -- more interested in the redemption of those who oppose us, who threaten us, who harm us – than in revenge.
We pray – in the Lord’s prayer – “Your kingdom come, your will be done.”
Can you imagine a more vivid display of his kingdom than the grace of the Amish?
Can you imagine a more effective tool against hate than love?
Is there anything else that would entice them to imagine a better way?
I can think of nothing more powerful than a vivid picture of grace.
Before we go any farther or wrap up – which we’ll do soon, I promise, let me quickly deal with some very practical – and important questions. Some of you are sitting here thinking, “yeah, but …” and you are wise to ask. As important as it is to imagine hearts that flow with forgiveness and grace – we must understand what forgiveness is – and what it isn’t.
Forgiveness is releasing our right to revenge.
It IS the first step toward healing.
It does set us free from plotting payback so we can process our grief.
It does set the offender free from worry about our revenge.
It does open the door to reconciliation.
But, it does NOT instantly relieve pain
And, forgiveness does NOT instantly rebuild trust.
Hear this clearly – if you have lived with someone abusive – if you’ve been hurt via physical, emotional or sexual abuse, God does NOT expect you to blindly put yourself back at their mercy.
Forgiveness is about the past. When you forgive, you give up the right to revenge. Reconciliation is about the future and it can require steps to rebuild trust.
Your forgiveness does not absolve the abuser of consequences from the law nor does it require you to set caution aside.
This subject is far too complicated to cover well; just know I’m not advocating blind faith in someone who has not repented nor shown themselves trustworthy.
One last important observation – forgiveness does NOT proclaim “What you did doesn’t matter.”
If it didn’t, there would be no need for forgiveness.
The offense did matter and that is what makes forgiveness so powerful.
Human nature seeks revenge
Human nature demands justice
Only love – driven by the imagination of a better way --compels forgiveness.
Only love has the power NOT only to set the forgiver free – but the power to ultimately transform the one forgiven.
I wish we had more time. As I prepared, my material looked more like notes for an extended study – with lots of discussion – than like a message for this setting.
But, as we close, I want to leave you with words of one more person I deeply admire – someone who understood the power of grace and modeled it toward others – even others who were sorely mistaken. He had much to forgive and could have grown bitter. But when encouraged to resort to violence in pursuit of justice, he chose love.
Martin Luther King believed deeply that God knew best when he said “turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love your enemy” and he explained the wisdom of God’s ways this way:
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral; begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. … Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” MLK
(1967, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?)
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy to a friend.”
Our world is in desperate need of a picture of a better way. Their imagination is NOT big enough.
The question is: -- Is ours? Can we – ragamuffins that we are – find enough faith to reflexively lead with grace?
We need to ask for God’s help. …
Father – we stand in awe of those who live lives of reflexive grace. We confess – I confess – that the forgiveness of the Amish is beyond me. Yet, I stand convicted that your ways are far wiser than my own. We long for this world to be healed – for neighbors and enemies alike to live in peace. We long for barriers to be demolished -- for the reconciliation of all those made in your name.
As we prepare to meet you at the table, we ask for your grace. We ask for a fresh portion of your Spirit. Invade us; convict us; compel us to forgive as we’ve been forgiven. May we be your hands and feet – messengers of grace in a world that badly needs your love.
We love you and are so very grateful for your promises to us.
In the name of Jesus we pray,