Forgiveness & Accountability

Micah 6:8, Matthew 18:21-22, Matthew 21:12-13
Sermon Title: Forgiveness and Accountability The Rev. Dr. Betsey Crimmins

While we were away on vacation, I wanted to do a good deed. We were away and Rebecca, our youngest daughter, was home alone, holding down the fort. Because she has a summer job she couldn’t go with us. Tuesday while we were away was her birthday. And although we did have plans to have dinner with her, I was thinking that it’d be a nice fun birthday surprise if she woke up on her birthday to find the front lawn covered with pink flamingos. It’d be win-win – she’d have the fun of being flocked, and the Honduras missionary effort would get a little more money. So I ordered a flock of flamingos to be placed on the front lawn under the cover of darkness on Monday evening.

Everything went according to plan, until Tuesday morning, office got a call from a man from Troy, PA saying that he has discovered a whole bunch of plastic pink flamingos in the back of his pickup truck. The flamingos have the name of our church and our phone number written on the underside of each bird. That’s how he knew to call the church. Apparently, his grandson and friends visited a friend who lives on my street that night. Driving down my street at 1 in the morning, he and his friends saw the pink flamingos on my front lawn and decided it was a prank so they decided to pull a prank and steal the pink flamingos – well most of the pink flamingos – they did leave a couple birds. The grandfather was mortified, very apologetic, saying that he was a Christian and was so, so sorry.

Rebecca left for work and notice the flocking sign and the happy birthday signs on the front lawn and saw that there were only a couple of flamingos, but didn’t really think too much about the puny flocking.

In the meantime, a church parishioner is trying to get to the bottom of why these kids decided it was okay to steal these off my front lawn. They claimed they didn’t see the sign that explains it all. Once she got enough of the story, she called me at Chautauqua to tell me what happened.

I admit that it was a little annoyed –  that the flamingos were stolen. Didn’t they see the sign prominently displayed? How can they claim that they didn’t see the sign when there’s a street light right across the street from my front yard? And what’s more not only did they steal church property, but they trespassed on my lawn! How dare they? And what was the grandfather thinking that these kids would be out at 1 a.m. on a Monday night anyway? Who was supervising them? I was not happy. I was ticked off. Try to do a good deed and look what happens!

Yes, the police were called and the police talked to the boys, but they didn’t really do anything. Yes, the boys pledged to return the flamingos, which they did later in the day – they did it by dumping them on the front lawn of the church (more annoyance). I knew that what they really needed to do was to call me up and apologize.

So all day Tuesday I waited for the call, thinking, “Ok, now how am I going to handle this? On the one hand, they were wrong and they owe me and the church at least a sincere apology, if not making the effort to put the flamingos back to where they found them, not dumped in a mess on the church’s lawn. Yea, yea, yea, I’m thinking, I could get all sweet and mushy about it all and say to them “It’s okay. I know you didn’t mean any harm, and have a good day” and just try to pretend that it was nothing, but it wasn’t nothing. Yea, I know plastic flamingos in the scheme of things are not all that important, but my daughter’s birthday is, and the church is and the church’s mission in Honduras is important. Besides, since when is the church to be a doormat, laying down so that people can walk all over it, wipe their dirty feet on it and move on. No, the church is not someone’s doormat!

Then I’m thinking to myself: but if I’m too hard on these boys, they will never darken the door of the church ever again. This could be the only experience of a church these boys will ever have and will I make it so negative so that they won’t ever want anything to do with the church again?

And I’m also thinking that God calls us to justice – yes, the passage from Micah went through my head: what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God. Yes, I know that ultimately justice is God’s doing. Ultimately all of us have to answer to God. God judges and the only reason that we aren’t condemned in the way we deserve (justice) is because Jesus’ blood was shed in place for our sins. So we are judged by God through our faith in Jesus. I was hoping that the boys have faith, but I didn’t know and still don’t know. But I have faith, so that even if I don’t handle this in a way that is good and kind, I have faith and I ask for forgiveness from God through Jesus.

But that’s not the end of it: God calls us to justice. God calls us to think and act the way that he thinks and acts, with compassion, and not with bitter revenge or harsh retribution, or some kind of self-righteous one up-man-ship. As Gandhi said, “If everyone follows the eye for an eye principle, the whole world would go blind.” God calls us to justice, which means working toward the comprehensive well-being, wholeness and peace for all. God calls us to justice that restores relationships and repairs harm. What does that kind of justice look like in this situation? How can I interact with these boys in a way that promotes the well being of everyone involved, including them?

And I’m also thinking that God calls us to forgiveness – and yes, the passage from Matthew went through my head: “How many times should we forgive?” Peter asks Jesus. Jesus says – a lot! 70 X 7. By my math that’s 490. That’s a lot. Forgiveness is not a onetime event. I know that. There are times that we forgive people and then the hurt comes crawling back into our souls again and it feels fresh again even when we thought it was over, and that’s when we have to forgive again. I know that. Forgiveness is not approving of or diminishing the import of crime or the sin. Forgiveness is not about glossing over the offense. Forgiveness is not denying that a wrongdoing ever happened. I know that. I kept thinking of the time that Jesus swept the money changers out of the temple. Those money changers were totally out of line; Jesus didn’t gloss over the offense that they were committing; and Jesus was right to do what he did. Jesus does say that we are accountable to God for our behavior. And to be accountable and to be truly forgiving, we also have to “call a spade a spade” and be honest and truthful about the offense. Forgiveness is not a compromise on morality and civility, and forgiveness is not necessarily an avoidance of conflict. Forgiveness includes confronting and naming the truth even when people don’t want to hear that, and it must so truth-filled in order to forgiveness to be real also.

Forgiveness is not about enabling the sin or participating in the sin or crime – for example you can have a friend who is an addict, causing you call sorts of pain as a result. You can forgive them for the hurt that may have caused without enabling them to continue in the hurtful behavior.

Forgiveness is not waiting for an apology –and that one I know is hard and that one I failed at in this situation, because I wanted an apology. But I know that some people are never going to apologize and I was all prepared in my head that those boys may never call me up and may never apologize. But even if they don’t apologize, there must be a point at which I must forgive them anyway, because not forgiving them will hurt no one more than myself. Not forgiving poisons the soul of the one who is not forgiving. As R V G Tasker said, “Probably more characters are spoiled by the nursing of grudges and the harboring of grievances than anything else.” Hate and the nursing of hurts are destructive; it consumes energy, cripples relationships with people and with God, and disables any good we may want to do. Not forgiving is not an option.

Forgiveness is costly. I know that. Forgive us our debts, we pray. I think of the shootings in the theatre Thursday night – the debt of taking the flamingos is nothing compared to the size of the debt that the shooter now owes the families of the 12 victims who died. When we forgive, we absorb the debt rather than passing it forward or taking revenge for it. That’s costly. And that’s really, really hard when the debt is really, really huge. Some debts are harder to absorb than others. It takes strength, courage and faith to resist the temptation to revenge, a temptation that is bigger and harder to resist when the debt is bigger.

To forgive is to demonstrate the presence and compassion of Jesus who begged for the forgiveness from God for those who killed him. As someone has said, “When you forgive someone, you are dancing in the rhythm of the divine heart beat.” Not to forgive denies healing both to oneself and to the one who has sinned and offended you. As Tom Houston has said, “Forgiveness does not come to us in a cup to consume for ourselves, but in a pipe so that it flows through us to others.” If we are going to dare to claim the forgiveness of God for our own sins and shortcomings, we are hypocrites if we do not pass it on to others and if we deny others the same kind of forgiveness that we want and expect from God. Someone once said, “If God forgave you in the same measure of the way that you forgive others, would you be healed and satisfied?” That’s certainly a challenging thought!

Forgiveness is sometimes all we have. When a situation has broken down in hurt and bitterness, and disagreement is so deep there seems to be no solution on earth, there remains forgiveness. And as someone as quipped, “You cannot live to a happy old age without forgiveness.” Or as Ruth Bell Graham, wife of Billy Graham, has said, “Marriage is the union of two good forgivers.” Imagine someone of the stature of Ruth Graham, married to Billy Graham, feeling the need to say that! But it’s true!

So if that’s what justice and accountability and forgiveness look like, what would you have said to the boys when they called you to apologize?

Well, the one boy did call to apologize. He was the grandson of the grandfather who found the flamingos. He called at supper time while we were driving down the road to meet Rebecca for a birthday dinner with her. I would have preferred to have had that conversation in person, but I was 100 miles away on vacation so that just wasn’t going to happen.

He did apologize and I said that I appreciated that. And then I asked him what happened. I really wanted to hear it in his words. I really wanted to hear some sense of truth from him. He said that they had come back from boating. It was 1 in the morning and they saw the flamingos on our front lawn. They thought it was a prank and thought they’d pull a prank by taking them. I asked if he saw the sign that explained what they were. He claimed that they did not. I admit that I’m still having a hard time believing him that he didn’t see the sign because there’s a really big, bright street light right across the street from my front yard and my front yard is not that big. (God, forgive me.) He said that they discovered that the flamingos belonged to the church that night and they were going to call in the morning and return them. Instead his grandfather discovered them and called the church. Well then I explained to him what the birds were used for. I described all the money they helped raise to feed hungry people last spring. I described how we were using them to support a mission trip to go to Honduras to help build schools there. Then I asked him: “Do you go to school,” thinking that he had to be in middle school or high school. He said, “I go to college.” That floored me, because I’m thinking, if you are in college you are certainly old enough to know better. What were you thinking? But I didn’t say that. Instead, I said, “Well then you know the importance of school and how important it is for these kids who have no opportunity for schooling to get that opportunity thanks to the schools that we will be building with the money that we will raise from the flamingos.”

Then I said to him, “I believe that a mistake is not a tragedy unless you refuse to learn from the mistake, so what have you learned from this situation?” He said, “I’ve learned not to take something that doesn’t belong to me.”

That’s when I said to him, “Well, you’ve apologized and you’ve learned a valuable lesson. I’m satisfied. That’s good enough for me.” And I concluded the conversation with some pleasantries and that was it. Justice was done – he returned the flamingos unharmed. And I’ve forgiven him – in the Old Testament the word meaning to forgive means” to lift” as in to lift someone’s punishment off from them. In the New Testament, the word meaning to forgive means to “send away”, that is, to send away someone’s punishment. It’s over and done with. I have no need to punish them. The flamingos are ready to be put in service again.

But the situation was a good lesson for me and I hope that by sharing this story, it is a good lesson for you too. Forgiveness I believe takes practice. I got to practice in a situation in which the debt was comparatively small – at least comparatively small compared with the kind of debt that the families of the shooting victims are facing. Forgiving in those kinds of situations where the debt is comparatively small is good practice preparing you and me for being able to forgive in situations where the debt is really, really huge.

Yet, a debt is a debt. An offense is an offense. In the end Jesus calls us to live lives of justice, responsibility and accountability and forgiveness. The Bible says that we are to walk paths of reconciliation, so far as it depends on us. The Bible says we are to do justice; we are to engage in restoring individuals and communities to well-being and peace. The Bible says we are to forgive – 70 x 7 times. This involves grace, mercy and quite possibly self-sacrifice and cost. It’s hard. It’s challenging. But the one who calls us to this task is the one who lived it – Jesus Christ – having lived a perfectly forgiving and perfectly just life.