In season two of the Netflix series, “The Crown,” there’s an episode that focuses on when Queen Elizabeth met the famous American evangelist, Billy Graham in 1955, ten years after WW II had ended. It’s an incredible episode because it focuses on our topic today of forgiveness.
In this episode, Queen Elizabeth struggles in what it means to forgive her uncle, former King of England, Edward VIII. As Queen, Elizabeth had to decide on how to respond to the revelation that her uncle had been a Nazi sympathizer, plotted to overthrow his brother, Queen Elizabeth’s father, and encouraged Germany to bomb England so that England would eventually sign a peace treaty with Germany.
Queen Elizabeth makes the difficult decision of telling her Uncle, the former King of England that he is no longer allowed to return to England without her permission and Edward leaves from that meeting upset and angry that she would decide to do such a thing especially since he is part of the royal family. During her meeting with him, she actually tells him that there is no possibility of her forgiving him.
After she makes this difficult decision regarding her uncle, Queen Elizabeth sets up a meeting with Billy Graham who was visiting England at the time to see if the famous new evangelist might have some helpful insights on how she might be able to forgive her unrepentant uncle for the things he had done.
During this meeting, the Queen remarked to Billy Graham the tremendous pressure that is involved in being the top leader of the Church of England and the challenge it is to be constantly making difficult decisions. And she tells the famous preacher how she longs to be what she referred to as a “simple Christian.”
She then asks Billy Graham on his thoughts about forgiveness and it’s that conversation that I find to be an incredible theological dialogue on the challenge of forgiving others. I said to Penny after we watched this episode last year, “You know that I’m going to use this someday in a sermon.” And so here we are.
In their conversation about forgiveness, Queen Elizabeth asks Billy Graham whether there can be any good circumstances where one can be a good Christian and not forgive someone. And Billy Graham answered that Christianity teaches that no one is beneath forgiveness. He said that even when Jesus was dying on the cross, he asked the Lord to forgive those who were crucifying him.
And Queen Elizabeth countered that with the observation that Jesus also said as he hung on the cross that they know not what they do. The implication she was making was, “What do you do when people do know what they are doing and still do it?”
And that really is the question of all questions, isn’t it? “What do you do when people do know what they are doing and still do it?”
Like our Gospel reading for example. How do you forgive a son who rudely demands his share of the family inheritance in which he was basically saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.” How do you have a forgiving attitude toward someone like this, not to mention a close member of your family.
And how do you forgive your son who then foolishly wastes the family inheritance on loose living and irresponsible spending of the money. How do you forgive that kind of person even if he’s your son?
This story reminds me of the passage in the Book of Ecclesiastes where the melancholy author says, “I hated all the toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me – and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.”
What does a father do when his son squanders the family fortune in a small fraction of the time that it took the father to accumulate it through hard work and dedication? What does a father do?
You heard the story. A father has two sons and the younger of them does the unthinkable by asking for his share of the inheritance and basically cutting himself off from the family by doing so.
He leaves and the first thing this son does is find a financial advisor with a really good reputation and invests his money in savings bonds, equity mutual funds, blue-chip stocks, income mutual funds, and standard saving accounts that would allow for transfer of funds without penalty. He updates his resume, buys a nice interview suit, and applies for job openings that match his skills and offer the possibility of career advancement.
OK, I made that part up. Just making sure you were awake. No, what this wayward and rude son does is he spends the entire fortune on temporary pleasures leaving him in a very desperate situation.
With no more money left to buy lottery tickets, he has no choice but to start growing up. And he’s forced to take one of the lowest jobs you can have during that time which is to feed someone’s pigs. Since he didn’t know anybody, was in a foreign land, and was cut off from his family, there was nobody left to help dig him out of the hole he had dug for himself.
Just as he is about to scoop up some of the pig food for himself, the thought occurs to him that if he is going to have to live at the bottom of the food chain, he might as well do it as one of his father’s servants who at least get to have people food every day.
I never thought about this part of the story in this way, but when this wayward son becomes super excited at the possibility of becoming one of his father’s low level servants, he probably felt like he won the lottery.
This young man who at one time had everything he ever needed was now facing a life and death situation. And because he was in such a desperate situation, he lowers the bar so much that even the thought of possibly being a low level servant for his father was now comparable in his mind to being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
And of course, the amazing “over the top” part of this parable is when the father throws caution and pride to the wind by running out to welcome his son home before the son even has a chance to offer the apology of his life.
Instead of being one of his father’s servants, this wayward son is welcomed back and reinstated as one of his sons. It is an incredible and unbelievable story of grace.
This is a parable that has a feel good ending, or does it?
I mean, yeah, it’s awesome that Jesus is helping us to see that we have a loving and forgiving God who is always ready to welcome us back no matter how far we have drifted away and no matter how unworthy we may think we are and how underserving we may feel, but the story actually ends with the elder son feeling excluded.
This elder son who was dependable, reliable, and faithful isn’t so ready to forgive his younger brother. And he certainly is in no mood to attend the welcome home party.
And that’s how this story ends, with a son who doesn’t deserve mercy receiving mercy, a father who shouldn’t be forgiving being very forgiving, and an elder son debating in his mind on whether or not he will be attending the welcome home party for baby brother.
Like any story, we can probably identify with the different characters. Maybe we can see ourselves as the prodigal son who really messed up but then received forgiveness. Or maybe we can identify with the father because we have been praying for reconciliation and when the opportunity arose, we were more than ready to offer forgiveness. Or maybe we can relate to the elder son who is nowhere near ready to offer forgiveness. There’s just too much pain. You need time.
Which kind of brings us back to the Queen Elizabeth and Billy Graham story and why I think that episode of The Crown is so important. Queen Elizabeth was struggling with forgiving her uncle, the former King. She was feeling very conflicted about the situation and reached out to Billy Graham for spiritual advice.
How do you forgive someone after they have caused so much pain, especially when there’s no sign of contrition or humility on their part? And what does that mean for people of faith who believe in a God who is forgiving and offers unconditional love like the prodigal son received in the parable?
No easy answers, I know, as much as I’d like to wrap this sermon up in a nice little package with a bow on top and send us all on our way. What does it mean to have our fears relieved when it can be so hard to be forgiving. Where is the relief in that?
Well, even John Newton, the writer of the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” admitted even years after his conversion that he often struggled in accepting God’s forgiveness because of his past sins. If the writer of “Amazing Grace” struggled to come to grips with forgiveness and if the Queen of England has similar struggles, then maybe we’re in good company. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing but it can also have some rough edges if we’re honest.
And so, I wondered how Billy Graham was going to respond to the Queen’s excellent question that I shared at the beginning of today’s sermon. “What do you do when people do know what they are doing and still do it?”
And I loved Billy Graham’s response. He said, “The solution for being unable to forgive is to pray for those that one cannot forgive.”
Wise words. What else would you expect from Billy Graham?
“The solution for being unable to forgive is to pray for those that one cannot forgive.”
As that scene between Queen Elizabeth and Billy Graham fades out, the next scene, the last scene of the episode shows Queen Elizabeth alone in the chapel in prayer.
She took his advice. She prayed.
We are halfway through the season of Lent and our series on “My Fears Relieved.” We have looked at the fear of temptation, the fear of doubts, the fear of fruitfulness, and today, the fear of forgiveness.
Whatever fear we might be facing, let’s take Billy Graham’s advice and pray.
And when you pray, pray that you would be open to receiving God’s forgiving love in your life. Pray for those you find it difficult to forgive. And pray for those who are unforgiving toward others.
In the words of a beautiful ancient prayer:
“Almighty God, you know our needs before we ask, and our ignorance in asking: Set your servants free from all anxious thoughts about the future, give us contentment with your good gifts, and confirm our faith that as we seek your kingdom, you will not let us lack any good thing; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
My Fears Relieved: Forgiveness
Sermon Discussion Questions
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 31, 2019
Forgiveness is a beautiful thing but we often find it difficult to forgive ourselves or others.
What are some reasons why people find it difficult to be forgiving?
In the series, “The Crown” there’s a scene where Queen Elizabeth is struggling to forgive her uncle, Edward VIII who was the former King of England and who had been a Nazi sympathizer during his reign as king. She consults the famous evangelist, Billy Graham and asks him how it’s possible to forgive someone who is unrepentant.
If you were Billy Graham in that situation, how would you have answered the Queen?
The story of the Prodigal Son is about the youngest son who rudely demands his share of the inheritance. He then spends all of the money on foolish things leaving him destitute. He comes to his senses and decided to go back to his father and beg him to be one of his servants so he would at least be able to have food to eat. Surprisingly, the father welcomes his wayward son home and throws a lavish welcome home party for him and the family. In observing all of this, the elder son is reluctant to join his father in welcoming his brother home.
Which character in this parable that was told by Jesus do you relate to the most at this time in your life? Which character do you relate to the most from your past?
At the end of the scene between Queen Elizabeth and the evangelist, Billy Graham, the Queen asks a very difficult question. “How do you forgive someone who has caused you harm and is unrepentent (referring to her uncle)? Billy Graham wisely answered, “you pray for that person.” The following scene shows the Queen taking his advice by praying in a chapel.
What do you think of Billy Graham’s advice to pray when we find it difficult to forgive? How can prayer help us find relief from other fears that we have been looking at in our Lent series: Temptation, Doubt, Fruitfulness?
Conclude your time by praying this ancient prayer of faith that can help us overcome our fear of forgiving ourselves and others:
Almighty God, you know our needs before we ask, and our ignorance in asking: Set your servants free from all anxious thoughts about the future, give us contentment with your good gifts, and confirm our faith that as we seek your kingdom, you will not let us lack any good thing; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.