Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
Mr. Hinton was at his mother’s house on an otherwise normal day in 1985, helping her around the house as children often do for their mothers.
Except on this day, two police officers came to the yard and arrested Mr. Hinton. They asked if he had a gun, and when he said he didn’t, they asked if his mother did. She did, and they went in the house to retrieve that gun. It was the only piece of evidence used to try Mr. Hinton of murdering two restaurant managers in Birmingham, AL. The expert witness admitted he couldn’t see through the microscope very well because of poor eyesight. Mr. Hinton passed a lie detector test, had a solid, verifiable alibi, and the only incriminating evidence was supplied by the aforementioned deficient expert.
Mr. Hinton was found guilty of the double murder and sentenced to death row.
Years later, Mr. Hinton met a lawyer named Bryan Stevenson, who agreed to take on his case. Mr. Stevenson found three highly credible and well-known experts that testified that there was no way the bullets that killed the restaurant managers came from Mr. Hinton’s mother’s gun. The prosecution actually agreed. Mr. Hinton was innocent! Yet he still spent another sixteen years on death row as appeal after appeal was rejected.
His case eventually reached the Supreme Court which, in an almost unheard of unanimous decision, ordered a retrial. The case against Mr. Hinton quickly crumbled, and thirty years after his arrest, after spending three decades on death row, Mr. Hinton was released a free man.
Mr. Hinton’s life was forever changed by his stay on death row. He still wakes up every morning at 3 am, because that’s when he had to get up in jail. He bought a California King-sized bed to sleep in, but sleeps curled up tight on one corner, because that’s how he slept on death row. But spending three decades on death row couldn’t rip his joy away from him, he says. He still has so much joy.
To this day, Anthony Ray Hinton doesn’t speak ill of the people who falsely put him on death row for thirty years. “I do not hold any hatred for the people who put me there,” he says, “I have seen what hatred can do. What would it profit me to hate? … I forgive them. I forgive them without them asking… I forgive them so they can sleep good at night… I forgive them so that I can sleep good at night.”
Shane Claiborne tells Mr. Hinton’s story in his book Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us. In it, he says that Anthony Ray Hinton “is one of the most incredible faces of grace I have ever met,” even though he endured a thirty year nightmare and has every right to hate the people who falsely accused him of murder because he was black and “looked evil” and the jury that sentenced him to death with no evidence.
Instead, Mr. Hinton forgave those who wronged him.
Mr. Hinton’s story has parallels in the Joseph saga recorded in the book of Genesis. Refresher: Joseph is one of Jacob’s at least thirteen children (twelve sons and at least one daughter), and is Jacob’s favorite. After Jacob gives Joseph an expensive, rich coat, Joseph’s brothers plan to kill him out of jealousy. Instead, they sell him into slavery in Egypt, where Joseph is falsely accused of trying to put moves on his owner’s wife and thrown in jail. There, he earns a reputation as an interpreter of dreams, which comes in handy when the Pharaoh starts having worrisome dreams.
Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams to mean that a big famine is coming, and Pharaoh is so impressed he puts Joseph in charge of administrating the entire country’s supply of food. When the famine hits, Joseph’s brothers who live outside Egypt come to Egypt to buy food because of the famine. They don’t recognize Joseph, who puts them through a few tests to see if they’ve changed, and when he sees that they have, he breaks down in tears because he’s so happy to see them again. He brings his father’s entire family to live with him in Egypt, where they can live comfortably.
Which leads to the part of the story we read this morning, where Joseph assures his brothers that, like Anthony Ray Hinton, he doesn’t harbor any ill feelings toward his brothers, the people who put him through hell. He’s forgiven them.
It’s a practice called “restorative justice”. When we think of the word “justice”, we’re usually thinking of retributive, or criminal justice: a crime is a violation of law. It creates guilt. Justice then is the meting out of punishment to fit the crime so that the offender gets what they deserve. It’s the kind of justice that the slave in Jesus’s parable expects, since he can’t pay his debt; and it’s the justice he gives out when another slave can’t pay his.
Restorative justice, on the other hand, treats crime as a break in relationship between people. It creates an obligation. Justice involves people coming together to make things right and focuses on the needs of the victim and the responsibility of the offender to meet those needs. It’s the kind of justice the king in Jesus’s parable gives out at first, when instead of worrying about the 10,000 talents owed him, he instead focuses on the slave’s life and family, and chooses to erase the debt to avoid hurting him and maintain the relationship.
As Claiborne explains it, criminal justice asks, “What laws have been broken? Who did it? What does the offender deserve?” Restorative justice asks, “Who has been hurt? What are the victim’s needs? Whose obligations are these?” And it involves a lot of forgiveness.
We’ve talked about forgiveness before; just last week, actually. And we talked about how hard it is to forgive. Forgiving once is tough enough. But more than once? I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” It means, “If I trust you and get hurt, that’s your fault. But if I’m stupid enough to let myself trust you and get hurt again, well, then that’s my fault for being so stupid.”
Forgiveness is for the first time, right? Maybe the second? Which leads us directly into Peter’s question to Jesus: just how many times is he supposed to forgive someone who hurts him? Seven times, a rather generous number?
Sometimes, it’s hard enough to forgive just one time, let alone seven or 490! I know it is for me. Every time I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I lie—I don’t want God to forgive me the way I forgive others, because I’m terrible at forgiving others, and I don’t want God to be terrible at forgiving me!
Fortunately, this is something God excels at. And we need to be reminded of that.
Do you ever wonder why, almost every Sunday, we begin worship by confessing our sins? It’s so that, every week, we hear again these words:
When Christ died, he died for sin once and for all. But now he is alive, and he lives only for God. In the same way, you were dead to the power of sin. But Christ Jesus has given life to you, and you live for God. By the mercy of God you are united with Jesus Christ, in whom you are forgiven. Live in the peace of Christ!
When was the last time, outside of Sunday morning, that you heard the words, “you are forgiven”? I don’t know when I last heard them. It’s not because I don’t need forgiveness—I screw up a lot. But I don’t hear them a lot. In the absence of those words, it’s easy to think that, maybe, I’m not worth forgiving. Or that I’m unforgivable.
But God forgives. God forgives more than Anthony Ray Hinton forgave our racist criminal justice system that sentenced him to death on no evidence because he was black. God forgives more than Joseph forgave his brothers for trying to kill him and selling him into slavery. God forgives more than the 490 times Jesus tells Peter he should forgive each person that hurts him.
God forgives because each and every one of us is worth forgiving. Because God values our relationship more than punishment. Because God loves. Because if God was able to boldly proclaim forgiveness to the people around Jesus Christ as they literally drove nails into his arms and hoisted him up on an instrument of torture and execute him, then what do you think can possibly stand in the way of God forgiving you?
We begin our worship the way we do not because it’s the way we’ve always done it. We begin worship with forgiveness because we need to know—I need to know, you need to know—that we are not only in need of forgiveness, but that we are worth forgiveness, that we are not beyond hope. And maybe, in the process, we’ll be able to recognize that those around us who have hurt us too are also in need of and worth forgiveness. Which is the really hard part. Because it means we have to be vulnerable, both victims and offenders, valuing our relationship over our need to be right. Which is, of course, ultimately better for all of us.
Near the end of his book, Shane Claiborne talks about forgiveness. He says, “Forgiveness does not undermine or subvert justice. It creates the possibility for real justice to happen. It casts out the toxic residue of resentment and the desire for revenge. It frees from the inside out.”
Forgiveness heals both the victim and the perpetrator. It restores relationships. And even when we can’t forgive others–or worse, we can’t forgive ourselves–God forgives, more times than we can count, and with a patience that never runs out. Because we’re worth it. We are worth it to God.
You are worth it to God.