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Giving Up On Getting Even

Big Lessons From Little-Known Letters
Second Lesson Sermons For Sundays After Pentecost (Middle Third) Cycle C
She walked nervously down the hallway, following a purple line that led into the visitation area. There he was, waiting for her, behind a hazy window of shatterproof glass. He wore a blue prison outfit. She wore a blue dress. He sat on a metal chair bolted down on all four legs. She sat on a plastic chair that could slide across the dirty tile floor. He nervously clicked a ballpoint pen open and shut. She fidgeted with her hands.

They exchanged a few words in an attempt to break the ice. Forced smiles appeared as a comment was made about how crazy they were for doing this. This meeting was painful, but it was pale in comparison to their first encounter two years earlier.

They talked for over an hour in that visitation room at Hillsborough County Jail in Tampa, Florida. Then Jane Levine made a gesture. She put her hand on the shatterproof glass between them. The man opposite her, John Branshaw, put his hand up opposite hers. "Truce?" she asked. "Truce," he responded. And then the conversation was over.

Jane got up and strolled out saying, "When I walked out of that jail, I really forgave him -- there was no malice in my heart." It was a gutsy thing to do, considering what Branshaw did to her two years earlier.

As you can imagine, there was a rape involved and a shattered life to rebuild. The pieces didn't go back together very well. Jane had nightmares and lost her job because of the emotional trauma. She naturally sought the death penalty for her attacker -- at first. But then her thinking shifted.

After successful counseling and dialogue with other rape victims, Jane changed her mind. She felt execution wasn't the answer, but acceptance on her part and responsibility on his. So she opted for a plea bargain where he was given a life sentence. Part of that agreement was that they meet. Jane needed some answers, and a concrete way to give up on getting even, which is what biblical forgiveness is all about.

Do you remember that Oscar-winning film The Mission? In that movie a slave-trader-turned-missionary does penance for his sins. He is pictured climbing up muddy slopes with a heavy bag of noisy junk leashed to his back. His destination is the village of some Indians he pillaged and destroyed. After literally clawing his way up to these people, the locals are at first ready for execution, but then their thinking changes.

Instead of stabbing him, they use a knife to cut the huge rope he used to carry that bag of clanging junk free. These tumble down the same hill he labored up. They splash toward a rushing destination downstream, out of sight, gone forever. The broken ex-slave trader is overcome and breaks down weeping. Another vivid example of how we apply forgiveness, by giving up on getting even.

We find in Philemon an invitation to extend forgiveness based on this same principle of giving up on getting even. That invitation comes from a heavy hitter, the apostle Paul. We don't see Paul using his power and prestige to influence Philemon. We see him appealing "on the basis of love" (v. 8).

Philemon was a key leader in the Colossae (modern-day Turkey) church meeting at his home (v. 2). He was also wealthy enough to own slaves, one of whom was named Onesimus.

Onesimus is the reason why we have a letter from Paul to Philemon. Onesimus met the aging Paul in a Roman prison. The slave had likely financed a run-away trip there by robbing his master, Philemon. Providentially Onesimus and Paul meet, discovering they have something in common -- Philemon.

Paul's invitation for Philemon to give up on getting even is a case study in tactfulness. Without a hint of insincere flattery, we read in verses 4-7 how deeply Paul cares for his "dear friend and coworker." It is obvious that love and trust precede Paul's advice in verse 8f. Is it obvious to us that before we challenge anyone in like fashion, we pave the way with genuine encouragement?

It was obvious to Denver food storeowner Dian Pham in 1994 when an eleven-year-old boy robbed him at gunpoint. Despite Dian's plea to the judge, the young thief-in-training was charged. But Dian Pham didn't stop looking for creative ways not to get even. The first words out of his mouth were signs of encouragement. "Please don't charge him. He doesn't know what he is doing," Pham told Judge Lee Hamby. "He's too young. He doesn't know. He needs to know how severe this was," Pham said, "he also needs to know that we are here to help him."

So guess who was Champa Food Store's newest hire? Yes, Dian Pham gave this neo-robber a job! He also threw a block party for all children in the neighborhood under the age of twelve. Dian was determined to redirect someone who was on his way toward uselessness into someone who could truly learn to be useful.

Onesimus, whose name means "useful," was certainly in a useless predicament before meeting Paul. So was the eleven-year-old boy who robbed Dian Pham. But Dian pleaded for his young attacker the way Paul pleaded for this runaway slave. As Dian was able to convert a thief into an employee, Paul was able to convert an outlaw robber into a spiritual son.

What did Jane Levine and Dian Pham have in common? They made a choice to forgive, which is never easy. That's because there is always an element of unfairness to our being wronged. Forgiveness is painful, even if it's the right thing to do.

Have you been wronged and are not sure how to respond? Maybe you go back and forth between wanting to let go and wanting to get even. Chances are good you have spent considerable emotional energy exploring alternatives toward evening up the score just a bit. But wait. Even if the score is settled, will your injured heart be healed? Probably not. In fact, trying to get even might just make matters worse.

A couple was getting away for the weekend in Daytona Beach, Florida. Neighbors had taken their two children so the stressed-out husband and wife could be away, and alone together.

Friday night was relaxing. They went to dinner at a first-class restaurant and strolled the starlit Atlantic coastline. Saturday was shaping up to be an equally memorable day as they gazed around some Spanish architectural ruins. They decided to hit the beach again after sightseeing that afternoon.

While relaxing on the shoreline, two tall, tan and terrific-looking young people approached them. This couple could have passed for Barbie and Ken in beach attire. The attractive young man and woman wanted to invite the older couple to tour a new townhouse complex on the beachfront.

A special offer was being extended that weekend to anyone who signed up for a "time-sharing" slot with one of the townhomes. In addition to the special offer, people could get a free meal that night at Olive Garden, just for taking a brief tour.

The young sales couple persisted, and got the vacationing couple to take a tour. The man was skeptical, but a free dinner for twenty minutes' inconvenience seemed reasonable. He put up and shut up while the salesman rambled on about the wonders of the facilities. The problem was that twenty minutes ended up being two hours, with some high-pressure tactics employed by the salesman.

The man was getting visibly upset, shifting in his chair and shooting frowns across to his wife. He finally had had enough of the salesman and demanded that the pitch wrap up immediately. By this time the only redeeming value was that coupon for a free meal at Olive Garden.

They got the coupon, but learned that it had to be used at a specific Olive Garden restaurant fifteen miles up the coast. That made the man furious, and he let his wife know it. For the next several hours he took every opportunity to remind his wife that she had ruined their getaway weekend. He even blamed her for their not being able to find a parking space because so much time was spent at the sales presentation!

The verbal shots finally did their job, and the woman broke down crying. The man got even, but at what price? They could have used the strange experience as something to laugh about. The man chose to get even. But it didn't work. And it won't work when we try it either.

What does work is giving up on getting even. Notice the thrust. We are to give up -- on getting even. Settling the score doesn't work because who really loses then? It's the very person who needs to move on emotionally.

Don't misunderstand what "giving up" means. It doesn't mean burying a hurt. That's because anything we bury before it's dead is bound to come back and haunt us, and to stink. That's why Jane Levine needed to talk with John Branshaw. She needed closure and, ideally, reconciliation. Her willingness to give up on getting even allowed both closure and reconciliation to happen successfully.

Ever try to hold a beach ball under water? It does not work too well, even with all your weight cradled over it. The beach ball somehow squirms out and pops up, throwing you off balance. The same principle applies to us when we have been wronged. Until we resolve the hurt with whoever hurt us, it's going to pop up again like the beach ball. Our vacationing husband in Daytona Beach chose to address his frustration by getting even with little jabs at his wife. He could have chosen to address it, reconcile it, and then bury it for good.

As Paul concludes his letter to Philemon, in verse 22 he surprises us with a request. He asks Philemon to "prepare a guest room." It's as if Paul has said what needed to be said concerning Onesimus, and now it's time to move on.

Moving on is a big part of giving up on getting even. In 1998 Paul Bricknell purchased a Bristish drinking establishment named The Old Stone Cross. Shortly after that acquisition, he learned of an incident 35 years earlier involving the Rolling Stone singer Mick Jagger. It seems that in 1963 Jagger was expelled for life from The Old Stone Cross for urinary indiscretion. New owner Bricknell found out about it. "A 35-year ban is enough punishment for any man," he said. "And as he's having a few marital problems, I'd welcome him in for a pint to help him drown his sorrows."

Forgiveness is all about giving up on getting even. That's because it takes tremendous work to carry a grudge. We can either feed the process of reconciliation, or we can feed the process of retaliation. Knowing that forgiveness is a process lightens our load. It's like eating a meal. Just because I eat breakfast does not mean I can skip lunch. When I am hungry I need to eat again. And so it is with being wronged time after time. We must forgive as often as we must fill up our bodies. Most of us don't have to forgive on the same scale that rape victim Jane Levine had to forgive. But all of us are carrying wounds inflicted upon us by tangling with others.

Road rage seems to be an increasingly scary part of commuters' lives. Someone gets cut off and the rage ignites. Yet, it's in surrendering the small stuff that we become equipped to take on the larger.

Several years ago, the mighty 1,200-pound Minnesota moose was being decimated by tiny, nearly invisible ticks. This onslaught killed approximately half of the 6,700 moose then inhabiting that northern region. The ticks don't attack other animals, and they are not a threat to humans. But they latch onto moose and don't let go until they have engorged themselves with blood and the moose drops to the ground.

We all take a lot of little hits in life. We get cut off in traffic. We get criticized, neglected, and mistreated. It can all add up. The small stuff can bring us down, just as surely as the tiny tick brings down the mighty moose. We must learn to let go. We must give up on getting even.

If it works for rape victim Jane Levine, robbery victim Dian Pham, and slave owner Philemon, it will work for us. Don't be like that Daytona Beach husband who couldn't laugh at being suckered into a timesharing outfit. Don't be like the mighty moose who lets all the small sins of others gorge on them until they go down hard. Be a Saint Paul who knew what it was like to taste forgiveness, and encourage others to do the same.

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