Love Your Enemies
October 2, 2006, started as just another day for Nickle Mines, Pennsylvania residents. The Amish Community was going about the day’s business on their farms, and the children were headed off to school. After recess, the children returned to their one-room schoolhouse and settled in for their next lesson. A man entered the school and asked the children and their teacher if they had found a lost part he was looking for. They had not. The man left the building but quickly returned. What happened next would stun this community.
The man came into the building carrying a handgun and ordered the boys to go and get some items from his truck. The gunman began to barricade the doors and windows and line the girls up and the front of the classroom. The gunman ordered the boys and a few others to leave the school. The children’s teacher was able to escape and call the police from a nearby farm.
When police arrived, the man ordered that they leave or he would begin to shoot the children. Two of the girls, ages 13 and 11, realized their danger and asked that they be shot first so that the other might be spared.
Less than an hour after it began, it was over. Five of the girls were dead, including one of the girls that had asked to be shot first and the shooter. Many of the other girls were wounded and taken to area hospitals.
This tragic story shattered the innocence of this small, enclosed Amish community of Nickle Mines. However, the next part of the story is most extraordinary.
While the community was still coming to grips with the shooting and the deaths, one grandfather was overheard saying, “We must not think evil of this man.” Another Amish father noted, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul, and now he’s standing before a just God.” A member of the Brethren community living near the Amish in Lancaster County explained: “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.”
Hours after the shooting, members of the Amish community had gone to the shooter’s home to offer forgiveness to his family and comfort the family in their grief. About 30 members of the Amish community attended the shooter’s funeral to show that forgiveness had been granted.
I cannot imagine the grief and pain the community was experiencing, but one of their first thoughts was to offer forgiveness.
In today’s Gospel from Luke, we heard these words from Jesus, “But to you who are listening, I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
The story of the community of Nickle Mines certainly bears witness to this passage to love our enemies but also about forgiveness.
On June 17, 2015, the Mother Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church members were just finishing up their Bible Study when a young man rose and began shooting. The shooter had come to the Church for just that reason but participated in the hour-long Bible Study before he began shooting.
Six minutes later, it was over. Eight were dead, a ninth would die later in hospital, and the shooter had escaped.
In statements after the shooting, families of the victims and other church members offered forgiveness. When asked why they were forgiving the shooter, they replied, “we are Christians, we have to forgive.”
Forgiveness is powerful, it’s powerful for the person offering forgiveness, and it is powerful for the one being forgiven. Forgiveness is not optional.
We turn again to the Gospel from Luke, where Jesus says, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” We recite the prayer that Jesus taught us in every service we have. In the prayer, we say forgive us for what we have done as we forgive those who have done things to us. We forgive because we have been forgiven.
Forgiveness is not easy. How can one forgive the taking of a life? How can one forgive harm? It is only by the grace of God that we can forgive. Forgiveness is not for the other person, although it can help them on their road to recovery. No, forgives if for the one offering the forgiveness.
If we withhold forgiveness, we give the other person power over us. The moment we can offer forgiveness is when we take that power back and begin to heal. It does not matter if the other person is worthy of forgiveness; we are worthy of that forgiveness.
However, forgiveness does not mean we forget. The harm done to us leaves a lasting mark on us, and there is no way to remove that mark. What forgiveness does is give us the ability not to be revictimized over and over by the event or events. I know this sounds easy, but it is not. Forgiveness releases the anger we may have towards another person and allows us to begin to heal. We may never see the person again, which is fine, but we slowly take our lives back.
In the examples of the Community of Nickle Mines and Mother Emmanuel Church, forgiveness was the only gift they could offer the shooters and to their families. But the more significant gift was to themselves. Lack of forgives leads to bitterness and all sorts of health and spiritual problems. The power of God’s grace gives us the strength that is needed to offer that forgiveness.
These two communities offered forgives in a very public way; it does not always have to be like that. We can offer forgiveness, and the other person may not even know it. Remember, forgiveness is for you, not them. Perhaps the person we need to forgive is dead; we can still forgive them if they never know we have offered forgiveness.
I have never experienced anything like what these two communities experienced. I have been betrayed and hurt by others, as I am sure many of you have. It was easy to forgive some, and for others, I am a work in progress. When I was able to offer forgiveness, I became free to allow myself to heal from the incident, and today I am a much better person for it.
At each Communion Service, we say a prayer of confession. Confession, sin, and the rest are not things we like to think of these days. Many people don’t feel they even need to say this prayer because they are not sinners; well, you deceive yourself if you think that way. We have all sinned and fallen short, and we all need forgiveness from God which is given.
In a few weeks, we will be entering the season of Lent. This time of year has been set apart by the Church as a season of repentance and is a perfect time to examine our lives and offer forgiveness where it is needed.
Let us pray for God’s grace that we will be able to forgive.