September 26, 2010 Welcome to Forgiveness Sunday – a day when we join together in a spirit of love and hope to share in our deep-seated need to forgive and to be forgiven, and to heal and be made whole.
I must say that forgiveness has always been a difficult and challenging subject for me. Every time I reflect on the meaning of forgiveness, I find myself with conflicting and ambivalent feelings. I have no doubt that Archbishop Tutu is right in his famous comment there is no future without forgiveness. Being unable to forgive the hurt we have felt or perhaps caused can leave our lives so very broken and in the grips of anger, fear, and pain. But sometimes I can’t help but feel that forgiveness is not always the answer, that some actions should not be forgiven, and that forgiveness can sometimes feel like a free pass for those who have caused terrible pain and violence.
I want to spend a few minutes this morning telling you a remarkable story about forgiveness. It’s the story of two men whose lives were shattered by a terrible, terrible tragedy but who, in the midst of the anguish and the pain, found a path to forgiveness and healing, not only for themselves, but for countless others.
On an otherwise ordinary night back in 1995, a young college student named Tariq Khamisa was working at his job delivering pizzas for a local restaurant in San Diego, California. During one of his calls, Tariq was brutally shot and killed in an attempted robbery. The shooter turned out to be a 14 year old boy named Tony Hicks. Hicks was arrested and tried as an adult, and is now serving 25 to life in a California state prison.
As you can imagine, Tariq’s family was devastated. His father, Azim, recalls that for a long time, the pain was so overwhelming that his heart “felt like a nuclear bomb had gone off.” His beloved Tariq, his only child, was gone, his life senselessly and tragically taken by a 14 year old child.
Azim Khamisa is a Sufi Muslim. Some of you may be familiar with Sufi tradition and with its founder, the famed mystic and poet Rumi. The Sufi tradition teaches that after 40 days, a grieving person should begin to channel their pain into the performance of a good deed. Although Azim’s grief lasted far longer than 40 days, he embraced this teaching from his faith and slowly found a way to channel his pain, his anger, and his brokenness into an extraordinary act of courage and goodness - the forgiveness for his son’s murderer.
You see, the more Azim Khamisa struggled to understand what happened to Tariq, the more he began to inquire into the life of Tony Hicks. It turned out that Tony had grown up in a terribly broken family, had witnessed the violent death of a relative when he was 8 years old, and had eventually been forced to leave home and move to San Diego to live with his grandfather, a man named Ples Felix. In spite of Ples’s best efforts, Tony’s life spiralled out of control and he fell into a life of drugs and gangs.
Something extraordinary happened to Azim Khamisa when he came to understand Tony Hick’s life story. His anger and pain slowly began to turn into compassion and sympathy. It’s important to note that his sympathy did not excuse what had happened or make it easy for Azim to let go or move on. Forgiveness is never immediate or easy. In fact, it took Azim five years before he could bring himself to face Tony Hicks. But Azim was able to find his way to forgiveness – to a place in which anger slowly gave way to compassion and even hope. As Azim later said, “I came to understand that on that on that terrible night there were “victims on both sides of that gun.”
Now I want to make it clear that Azim’s compassion did not lead him to let Tony Hicks off the hook or to excuse his actions. He will always carry the pain of his son’s terrible and tragic death. But his ability to forgive and to let go of anger and bitterness led Azim to reach out – to reach out to at risk children and youth through a foundation he started in Tariq’s memory. And his ability to move beyond bitterness also led Azim to another extraordinary act of goodness - reaching out to Tony Hicks’ grandfather, Ples Felix.
After Tony’s arrest, Ples was filled with guilt, shame, and deep, deep regret. He was, after all, Tony’s guardian and Ples felt responsible for Tariq Khamisa’s murder. At the trial, Ples did not know how to even begin to apologize to the Khamisa family. So imagine his surprise when Azim approached him and asked Ples if he would join Azim in working to end the cycle of youth violence by bringing a message of peace and forgiveness to the children of Southern California.
And that, friends, is the work these two extraordinary men continue to this day. Azim and Ples have spoken at hundreds of schools over the last decade. When they walk out to begin their talk, Ples is introduced as the grandfather of the person who killed Azim’s son. Then they sit down together, as brothers, demonstrating for everyone in the room the power and the possibility of forgiveness. Azim and Ples have spoken to thousands of young people and their work is making an enormous difference. And it all began with one father, his life shattered and his heart broken, finding a way to move beyond bitterness and into the light of love and hope.
And that’s the beauty and power of forgiveness. Each and every one of us carries pain and wounds - wounds that we have received and wounds that we have caused. Those wounds can weigh on our lives like a heavy stone, a stone that makes it so hard, so very hard, to open our hearts fully and to find a path leading back to love and hope. That’s why forgiveness is ultimately not about the person or persons who have wounded us. Rather, forgiveness is a deeply spiritual and life-affirming act of self-care and self-respect. Forgiving someone who has wronged us ultimately isn’t about doing something for them or making them feel better. Rather, it’s about caring for and loving ourselves. As my colleague and mentor Rev. Bill Clark puts it, “Forgiveness is the permission we give ourselves to let go of the pain of the past so that we can see what the days of the future have to give us.” What a wonderful way to think about forgiveness. Forgiveness enables us to let go of pain so that we can see and embrace the blessings and gifts of the future.