Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 12 and 13, 2020
“The Hardest Thing You’ll Ever Do”
Rev. John R. Larson
Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
One of the worst things that you will ever do is to feed a grudge. The grudge will consume you. It will turn you into a bitter person. Pain and revenge will be the constant food of your soul.
Rev. Howard Thurman has been dead for about 40 years now. But during his 82 years of life, he left a great legacy. He was an educator, a civil rights leader, and one of the mentors of Martin Luther King Jr.. In his ministry, he even made hospital calls. It is one of those calls that he wrote about.
Dr. Thurman visited an older black man who will ill and frail. As he entered the room the old man looked at him and said, “You are looking at a man who cannot die. Not long before the war over slavery I barely escaped from the plantation with my life. I was accused of doing something I had not done. The master himself had me dragged to the empty smokehouse. I was stripped to the waist and my hands were tied to one of the cross beams. I was beaten until I fainted, then revived with buckets of cold water and flogged again. The next thing I remember was the darkness of the night and someone was cutting me loose and helping me to dress in fresh clothes that hurt my skin. Oh, Reverend, how it hurt! Whoever this was helped me escape into the woods. Finally, I came to the river and got across to Ohio. Ever since I have been kept alive by hatred for the man who beat me. I suppose he has long since died…the only thing I know is I cannot die until I forgive him.” (Pulpit Resource, September 8, 1996, Pages 41-42)
Can you blame him for hating that man who was so evil? He held a grudge. He could not forgive. And with that bitter heart, he lived in turmoil every day.
The hardest thing you will ever do in life is forgive someone who has wronged you. Some terrible things have happened to others -maybe you. Someone cheated on you, or abused you, or stole from you, mistreated you, demeaned you, or has made your life hard. How do you forgive? How can you put such pain behind you?
It is clear that you have to forgive. Here are some directives from God concerning not holding grudges and allowing forgiveness to flow from your soul.
- See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (Hebrews 12:15)
- In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. (Ephesians 4:26-27)
- [Love] is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. (I Corinthians 13:5)
- Forgive us our sins, as we have also forgiven those who sin against us. (Matthew 6:12)
Our reading from the Old Testament is the emotional and painful conversation that Joseph and his brothers had shortly after their father Jacob died. Joseph, when he was 17, was sold as a slave by his brothers to some enemies who were going to do who-knows-what to him. Joseph’s brothers lied to their father about what had happened to his favorite son. They had taken the beautiful robe his father had given to Joseph, dipped it in goat’s blood and brought it to him. “We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe.” (Genesis 37:32) When he saw the robe and felt the blood he said, “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.” (Genesis 37:33)
How Joseph’s brothers hated him. They held a grudge against him and through their lie brought pain to their father. Joseph could have held a grudge, justifiably, against them. 17? Sold as a slave. Put in prison – a number of times. Away from his family and his father.
But you may know how God preserved his life and how he was placed in positions of great honor during those 20 years in Egypt until he saw his father and his brothers again. Though his brothers had disowned him, his God had not.
But their father died, and his brothers feared that he was only restraining his vengeance until his father was gone. (Sort of like some of the Godfather movies and how the families “settled the score” once the Mob bosses had died.) Our reading says, “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?’ So they sent word to Joseph, saying, ‘Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘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 your servants of the God of your father.’” (Genesis 50:15-17)
What should he do? Was it time for justice? This could be the moment of making things even. They hated him before and didn’t care if he was alive or dead, was this the moment to pay them back and settle the score?
The hardest thing that you’ll ever do is also the best thing you’ll ever do. The hardest thing is forgiveness. And the best thing is forgiveness. The word forgiveness means “to release”. It is just the opposite of keeping. You don’t bear a grudge. You don’t keep the anger and bitterness growing. You do the hardest thing that you can ever do – you forgive. You release that grudge, that hatred, that anger, that pain, and forgive another for what they have done. You’ll be free again. Your life will have peace. St. Paul, treated very poorly by quite a few people in his life wrote, “Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong.” (I Thessalonians 5:15)
The hardest thing that you’ll ever do is the best thing you’ll ever do because it is the best thing you have ever received. Why forgive others? Because you have been forgiven. What grace and favor God has given us. We, with more sins than we can count, have been forgiven, fully, in the blood of Jesus Christ. God could have held a grudge against us, but He hasn’t. In the parable we read today of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21-35) the comparison between the man who was forgiven by the king and then the one who wouldn’t forgive his fellow brother is astronomical. The one guy owed his brother, his equal, a hundred denarii. A denarii was worth a day’s wage. That was not an insignificant amount, but in comparison to what he owed the king (God) – ten thousand talents, it was nothing. One guy said that ten thousand talents was the value of 60 million days of work!! 164,000 years vs. 100 days. God forgave us our debt – no easy thing. We forgive others – which may be the hardest thing we’ll ever do, and we do it because of God’s grace. God is directing us to deal with others in the gracious way He has dealt with us. Psalm 130 reads, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.” (Verses 3-4) Ephesians 4 reads, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Verse 32)
Joseph could do the hardest thing because he was able to see that even in the darkest and most painful moments God was working His plan. After his brothers asked him not to hold a grudge but to forgive them, he reassured them. “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives,” (Genesis 50:19-20) He could face the hardest moments and do the hardest thing (forgive) because God’s hand was with him in grief and allowed him to see that God was still in control of matters – even in the darkest moments. It is like we read in Proverbs, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” (16:9)
I’m convinced that the hardest thing you’ll ever do is also the best thing you’ll ever do. Dr. Thurman continued his account of that man who had been beaten by that slave owner and who had said, “The only thing I know is that I cannot die until I forgive him.” “Thurman visited the man many times over the next few weeks. One day he entered the old gentleman’s room and was greeted in great excitement. The man said, ‘It happened last night! It happened.’ In a few weeks, the old man died.” Thurman, thinking of that encounter, wrote, “God enables us to do what God requires us to do. We can never be free, in life or in death, until we learn to forgive.”
The hardest thing you’ll ever do in life is the best thing you’ll ever do in life – for you and for them. Give the grace and forgiveness that God has given you to others. Amen!!