Listen to the sermon HERE.
Every Sunday, or perhaps even more frequently, we say the Lord’s Prayer. And within that prayer is a petition that has some real difficulty built into it, if we listen to it. “Forgive us our trespasses,” we pray, “As we forgive those who trespass against us.” The Presbyterians say “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” and the newer ecumenical version says simply, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
I hope that the phrase means that like I try to forgive other people, God would also forgive me. But what if the prayer really implies that God will forgive us insofar as we are able to forgive others? What if God’s forgiveness of me hinges upon, depends upon even, my ability to forgive others? If that’s the case, I might be in some trouble.
In our scripture readings for today we see that forgiveness is multi-layered, multi-textured. It often involves relationships that shift and change. But for forgiveness to flow steadily, from God to or through us, for forgiveness truly to be given or received, the relationships need to be in order, or at least the relationships need to be honest about being out of order.
In the first reading we hear about King David. David has been watching the beautiful woman Bathsheba and he has decided that he is going to have her. David has power and position, and he basically abuses each to get his way. The fact that she has a husband doesn’t bother the king. The fact that her husband Uriah is a soldier fighting to protect the kingdom, doesn’t bother David. Instead, the King David simply has Uriah sent to the battle front where the fighting is fiercest. Sure enough, Uriah is killed in battle, and David moves in for the woman he wants.
But then God sends Nathan the prophet. Nathan tells David this story about a man who had a perfect little lamb. But a stranger came into town and demanded the lamb. David hears the story and responds with outrage that such a thing is unfair, unjust, and ought not to be allowed. The one who demands the lamb should be punished. But then Nathan shows David that the man in the story who demands what is not his is actually King David himself—the one whose greed and lust blinds him his own guilt.
David will need to come clean before he can receive God’s forgiveness. He needs to come to a new place of honesty and clarity before God’s grace can flow. David has gotten used to relying upon himself for everything, so much so that he’s fallen deep into sin. Now, to receive forgiveness and move forward, David has to re-learn what it is to fall in the arms of God, to ask for help, and to have faith in God’s goodness. But he’s got a long way to go.
In the 12 Steps of Recovery programs, the 8th and 9th steps are separate aspects of moving toward forgiveness—forgiveness of self, from God, and from others. Step 8 says, “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.” That takes time and one is usually encouraged to spend some time right there, acknowledging sin, being clear about where the guilt might lie. Then, and only then, one moves to Step 9: “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” Sometimes things take time.
In the Gospel, a woman approaches Jesus, but we’re not given her name. Some have jumped ahead in the story and made this woman Mary Magdalene, but there’s nothing connecting the two. (Except for the fictional book a few years ago by Margaret Starbird.) The woman with the alabaster jar is famous for her act of kindness, generosity, passion… and for her faith, known and perceived only by Jesus, it seems.
The woman begins to bathe and anoint his feet with her tears and with an expensive ointment. The religious leaders, the Pharisees, are appalled at this. They ask Jesus, “Don’t you know who she is? Don’t you know what she’s done?
But Jesus DOES know her, and he knows all about her. He knows that God made her. He knows that God loves her, and he also knows (somehow) that she is sorry for her past and wants to move into the future – free, clean, and new. And so Jesus forgives her and she receives that forgiveness because of her faith.
In today’s scriptures, we see that forgiveness doesn’t happen in the abstract. It happens between two people, usually between two very human people. But it is God who is doing the forgiving—not me, not you. God originates the forgiveness, helps it along in us, and moves us toward the other person or people, but both the frustrating and freeing truth is the forgiveness belongs to God.
That can be frustrating, because I would often rather have such things as forgiveness happen on my own time frame, according to my own sense of justice and mercy. If I’m the one needing forgiveness, hoping to be forgiven, then of course I want such forgiveness immediately, right now. Make me feel better! But if I’m the one who has been wronged, it’s usually the case that I want the other person to stew a little in their discomfort—oh, I might cover it up by saying “he needs to understand what he has done,” or “she needs to show that things will be different in the future.” But if I’m connected to God, the source of all forgiveness, then I need to be open to God’s forgiving—whether I’m ready to be a part of that, or not.
The fact that forgiveness belongs to God is frustrating for the reasons I just mentioned, but it is also incredibly freeing. This frees me to be human, to confess my own unwillingness to forgive (or be forgiven). In prayer, I can talk to God about the things I’m still holding on to, and ask God to relax my clutching hands so that I could be more in a place to be a part of God’s forgiveness. I don’t have to be a super-Christian in order to forgive—I simply need to be open to God’s power, God’s intention, and God’s grace.
When Jesus forgives the woman with the alabaster jar, those looking on don’t understand. They want her to play by their rules, to fit into their understanding of God’s justice. When Jesus offers forgiveness, they wonder aloud, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Which is to say, “Who is this who thinks he can forgive sins.” But that’s just it. Jesus is a channel, is a vessel, is the Way the Father’s love is poured out on the woman, on the religious leaders (if they will have it), and on any and all who seek God’s grace and mercy.
Whenever I begin to think that forgiveness is up to me—either to extend or to receive—I try to remember the words of the theologian Austin Farrer, whose description of forgiveness reminds me who’s in charge.
“God forgives me with the compassion of his eyes, but my back is turned to him. I have been told that he forgives me, but I will not turn and have the forgiveness, not though I feel the eyes on my back. God forgives me, for he takes my head between his hands and turns my face to his to make me smile at him. And though I struggle and hurt those hands—for they are human, though divine, human and scarred with nails – though I hurt them, they do not let go until he has smiled me into smiling; and that is the forgiveness of God.” (Austin Farrer, in Said or Sung. London, Faith Press. 1960.)
May God continue to use us in his ongoing work of forgiveness, mercy, and grace… and may we have the humility and good sense to stay out of the way of God’s working.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.