7 ‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 ‘Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come.
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread.* 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial,but rescue us from the evil one.
14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
The emotions finally came as I entered the dark gas chamber at Auschwitz. The day before, we had seen the vastness of Birkenau, the remains of destroyed gas chambers, ground that had seen more death than we could ever fathom, but today we were actually standing in a gas chamber. I walked up to the wall and saw scratches from those who were desperate to escape and save their lives. I looked up and saw openings in the ceiling where the SS men dropped Zyklon B down into the room and waited for the screaming to stop. It didn’t end there. As we walked out of the gas chamber, we were face to face with the crematorium furnaces where the bodies were taken and burned 24 hours a day. It seemed that the air in that place was stifling. It was hard to take in. I’ll admit that I wasn’t prepared for the moment that I would walk into a gas chamber- I guess no one really is. I knew that we would see one, but didn’t actually think of how it would be to walk into one and see it for myself. It’s one thing to stand over the remains of one that had been destroyed. It’s another to actually walk into one for yourself and imagine how terrifying it must have been to think that you might not walk out again. As I walked out of the gas chamber, I was trying to wrap my mind around what I had just experienced. People around me were crying. I didn’t really know what to feel. Suddenly, the tears came. And then the anger, the bitterness, even hatred for those who somehow in their twisted minds thought that this was something that should be done, something that was ok to carry out, something that no one should stand up and fight against. Next came the feelings of guilt and hopelessness, and as we walked away, it seemed that none of us would ever be the same again.
Up until this point, we had spent quite a bit of time with Eva, hearing her horrendous stories about her experience at Auschwitz, but also a lot about her feelings of forgiveness toward Dr. Mengele and the Nazis and how she eventually got to the point of forgiving. Of course it was not right away- it took Eva 50 years to come to these feelings- she forgave Dr. Mengele, the Nazis, her parents, and herself for feelings of hatred and resentment. Her forgiveness is something that she came to on her own and feels that it is an act of self-healing, self-empowerment, and freedom from the hatred and burdens of the past. Forgiveness to Eva is more than letting go- it’s proactive and a constant in our lives that we should work toward, and it does not condone the actions of those who have done us harm or say that we grant them amnesty or political asylum, because the question of justice is separate from the issue of forgiveness (CANDLES website). On the path to forgiveness, there is much to work through, many feelings to sort out and a lot of history to remember and pass on. As I stood there in the gas chamber, I may have struggled with Eva’s feelings of forgiveness, but I understood completely the need to never ever forget.
Over the years, our culture has somehow come up with this notion that forgiving and forgetting go together, and I want to say that this is not true at all. We can forgive perhaps even the worst of acts, but in all honesty, we will never forget, we should not, and we should not have to. Some of us have had horrible things happen- perhaps you’ve been betrayed, lied to, abused, abandoned- it’s impossible to forget. Forgiveness is about empowering ourselves to be set free from the pain and burdens of the past, not forgetting it. To forget is to open the door for an tragic event to happen again. In the entrance to one of the exhibits at Auschwitz was this sign: “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.” It is our job to tell the story, to carry on the facts and figures of what has happened so that generations to come will work for a world where there are no more wars, bombs, genocide…no more Auschwitzes. Still in our world today there are stories of genocide and mass murder- we are still learning our lessons. If we are taught to forgive and forget, then we are setting ourselves up for more pain and heartache. When we are not comfortable sharing the past and educating others about it, we open the door to further the pain of this world- if we never learn, we will never progress in the direction of a more hopeful and peaceful world.
It’s important to mention that Eva’s concept of forgiveness has nothing to do with any religion- she feels that forgiveness is something available to everyone since all have the right to be freed from their pains and burdens of the past- not all are religious, but all have the choice and the power to forgive. But, of course, as a pastor, I want to understand how this notion of forgiveness could apply to people of faith and the church today. We talk about God as a forgiving God. We talk about Christ who forgives sins and makes us whole, new, transformed persons. We talk about the importance of forgiving one another. Jesus talks about forgiveness quite a bit throughout the gospels, teaching lessons about how to pray, how to live, how to interact with one another. When Peter comes to Jesus and says, “Lord, how many times must I forgive one who has sinned against me? Seven times?” And Jesus answers, “Not seven, but seventy times seven!” Or when Jesus teaches that before we approach the altar of the Lord, we must go and forgive our brother or sister with whom we have had a conflict so that we may approach the Lord with a pure heart. And Paul in Ephesians reminds the community to be kind to one another, forgiving each other as God in Christ has forgiven you. With Christ being our ultimate example of forgiveness, so we should be forgiving and grace filled people. But never once does Jesus teach that forgiving and forgetting are one and the same.
Our text today from Matthew is a very familiar one to many of us when Jesus instructs his disciples on how to pray, which today is known to us as the Lord’s prayer. We say it every single Sunday of the year. Why do we do this? It’s something we know by heart, it brings comfort, it’s a way to unite our voices in prayer to God- perhaps we feel that the Lord’s prayer encompasses all that prayer should be- we praise God for being holy or hallowed, we pray for God’s will to be done on this earth as it is in heaven, so we are praying for heaven to come down to earth and to dwell among us, bringing peace and hope, we pray for our basic needs to be met in food and water when we pray for daily bread- this bread is nourishment for our bodies, but also for our souls- we pray to be spiritually nourished as well. And finally we arrive at this line about forgiving our debts as we forgive our debtors. There are many translations of this word “debt”- sometimes you’ll hear “trespasses,” sometimes you’ll hear “sins”- sin is actually the most accurate translation of what Jesus is talking about here. So we are to pray that our sins are forgiven and that we may have the strength to forgive those who have sinned against us. That is a profound prayer if we really think about it. I’d venture to say that it’s been awhile since many of us really stopped to think about what we are praying when we pray the Lord’s prayer. I’ll admit that there are times when someone is leading a group I’m a part of in prayer, and when they are about to close and they say, “Let us pray the prayer that Jesus taught us,” I’ve been known to doing an eye roll every now and then, thinking to myself, “This again? I don’t feel like praying the Lord’s prayer,” and it is so easy for it to become routine, something we don’t think twice about. But really, this line gets me every time. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. We are to forgive, or pray for the strength to forgive, but we are not to forget. Jesus teaches plenty of lessons about forgiveness, but never links forgiveness and forgetfulness together. I think there is a reason for that.
When we pray that we might forgive someone who has done us wrong, we pray for strength, courage, and the self-healing and empowerment we need to overcome our fears and burdens of the past- we pray to free ourselves from hatred, from sadness, from pain. We do not seek the power to forgive without acknowledging what, in fact, has occurred. The trials that we face in this life have an everlasting impact on who we are, where we have been, and where we are going. Eva has been and forever will be shaped by her experiences and life at Auschwitz- it would be impossible for her to forget Auschwitz, to forget what Dr. Mengele did to her and to her sister- impossible for her to forget the pain she experience as she saw her mother for the last time on the selection platform- to forgive is not to forget, but to be set free of the hatred and bitterness of the heart.
Eva’s forgiveness has given her strength to be able to share her story over and over again because she has set herself free from the hatred and pain she experienced. Her power also lays in the importance of remembering the past so she that may teach others to not repeat it and to break the cycle of violence, prejudice, and intolerance. Just as forgiveness is a seed for peace, remembrance is the root of education and the beginning of stopping cycles of violence and abuse. Remembrance also honors those who have died due to tragedy or genocide, and a reminder to continue to educate so that such events do not occur again. Even in our personal lives, when we are able to forgive, we are also empowered to take with us the lessons that we have learned from the experience or relationship, to pass them along to someone else who has gone through something similar. In this way, remembrance is a way to serve, to pray, to stand alongside those who have suffered, offering a word of comfort.
As I stood in the gas chamber at Auschwitz that day, I found it hard to understand forgiveness. I found it almost unbelievable that someone could forgive what the Nazis had done to millions of innocent people, and in the most inhumane ways. But when I am reminded that forgiving is not about forgetting, I understand more what forgiveness is about. It’s not about “making light” of the events that have occurred, it’s not about pardoning the deeds that have been done, it’s not about seeking repentance from the person or persons that have done wrong, but it’s about empowering yourself and your daily choices to be free of what has haunted us in the past, but not forgetting it. Remembering is part of the journey and process of forgiving.
Perhaps the events of the Holocaust and what I experienced as a walked through Auschwitz still hurt too much to venture on to forgiveness for me personally- and to think that I was not even an actual victim of it, while Eva was. But perhaps we are all victims of tragic historical events such as the Holocaust in some way- it has and continues to affect the world and the way we treat people. It is a cause to examine the human condition so that we might continue to work against inhumane acts and intolerance, and it’s obvious we still have a long way to go. It will take me some time to fully come to understand how Eva has the courage and strength to forgive what has happened to her. But as a person of faith, I might pray to understand forgiveness the way that Eva does, and pray that I understand God’s forgiveness toward each of us. Either way you look at it, forgiveness is a profound and extreme act. So is remembering and passing the story along. Jesus challenges us to pray to forgive those who have sinned against us, and pushes it further by saying, “You must pray to forgive, so that your Heavenly Father will forgive you.” I have a hard time with this particular text, especially when we consider that many acts of humanity are nearly impossible to forgive. I read this as a challenge for each of us to understand the importance of forgiving, to pray that we might find it in our hearts and souls to forgive, and that we might seek understanding of God’s amazing love and forgiveness toward us. Might we seek to understand forgiveness from the depths of our souls, might we seek to understand the ways in which God forgives us…and may we find the strength to share our stories, to never forget the past, to remember our history so we will not live through it again. Amen.