A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fourth Sunday in Lent • March 6, 2016
The summer I turned 14, I had an operation to remove most of my thyroid. When I woke up, I hurt every time I lifted my chin; it took all summer to heal. I was left with a bright red raised scar of which I was painfully conscious. I made up stories about it: that I’d been in a knife fight, and I wore a lot of turtle neck shirts. The scar faded but I still saw it every morning, first thing, in the mirror. I still explained about it, increasingly as I got olde,r to people who hadn’t noticed it. It’s still there. Do you have scars? Don’t we all? What would it take to heal them?
“Forgive us as we forgive,”Jesus says. Let’s start with the problem. I’m sure you noticed when I quoted Jesus, I left something out. In both versions of the Lord’s prayer, he doesn’t say “Forgive us…” He says, “Forgive us…” and then there’s a word. If you grew up Methodist or Catholic it’s trespass; if you grew up Congregational, it’s debts. If you have been around Lutherans, chances are you say ‘sins’, which is also popular in a lot of newer churches. Forgive us our debts. Forgive us our trespasses. Forgive us our sins. What does he have in mind?
This is the point where there is a temptation to wander off and show you what I know about Greek, the language the New Testament is written in. I could talk about this for a long time, long enough for you to snatch a nap. But I’m not going to. For one thing, it’s too early for a nap and for another, Jesus didn’t say the Greek word either. Jesus almost certainly spoke Aramaic, not Greek. And he used an Aramaic word here. What does it mean? That’s hard to say. Say trespass and you think, or at least I do, of going to a construction site and taking lumber to build a tree house. But I’m not sure Jesus was worried about lumber or boys or tree houses. Say debt and I think of my credit card bills; did Jesus care about credit scores? Probably not.
So we’re left with sins. That’s a tough one. Congregational ministers don’t talk about sins much anymore; we leave that to Baptists. When we do, we tend to like to talk about sins we don’t do. I remember once sitting with a bunch of ministers at a meeting. This was quite a while ago, when “a bunch of ministers” meant middle aged men who are a little too jolly and can tell you to a decimal point the average attendance at their church and who tend to be a bit fluffy. It’s not their fault. Every church has someone like Arvilla or Joanne who makes cakes and things and it would be rude not to eat them. We grow out of concern for their feelings.
So we are sitting there, munching on pieces of cake some woman in the church had prepared. It was long enough ago that the big issue was gay folks in church. I always thought this was a weird issue; I mean we’ve always had gay folks in church, the real issue wasn’t about having them it was about letting them be honest about who they were without fear. So they were discussing this and gay marriage and most of them were against it. They could really talk about the sin of homosexuality, Bible verses and all. It was impressive. I didn’t have much to say. So I just sat there eating cake and I looked around and realized every one of us was married to a woman. And every one of us was overweight.
So when it was my turn to talk, I said that I thought the cake was really good and since we were all straight there, and all overweight, maybe we should talk about the sin of gluttony, of eating too much. Then I shut up and tried to think how I could get another slice of cake and the table erupted. They did not think this was appropriate; they thought I was making fun of them. We’d all rather talk about someone else’s sins than our own. But we all have them, just like we all have scars.
What does Jesus mean? The word he uses certainly means doing wrong. In our culture, we tend to associate sin with sexual stuff but Jesus actually talks more about economic sins, that is, the sin of letting money get in our way. The word he uses also means “foolishness”. Now that’s something because throughout the Hebrew scriptures there’s a constant play between the notion of being wise—doing what God wants—and being foolish—doing whatever we want, regardless of what God says.
In fact, the original sin had nothing to do with sex, it rose out of the desire to be God like. The serpent says to Eve that she can be like God and she goes for it, inviting Adam along with her. It’s the choice of self over God that makes her stumble.
In fact, The same word also means stumble. That’s something I can understand: I stumble frequently. I mean, I’m walking along and not paying attention and POOF! ouch. Something brings me to a halt. So foolishness, stumbling. Those are part of what he’s talking about, along with scars from injuries and things that make us cover up what we’ve done because we’re ashamed. So from here on out I’m going to use the word ‘sins’ but I trust you to remember it means all these things: scars, selfishness, stumbling.
What he says then is this: Forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others. Look what he does here: he connects these two. That is to say, the experience of forgiveness—being forgiven—is linked to the expression of forgiving: forgiving someone else. You get both or you get neither one. Think of the story of the prodigal we read this morning. You know, I have to admit right here that there is such a temptation for me to preach on this text instead of going along with the Lord’s Prayer. I’m trying to resist but if this sermon goes over 45 minutes, you’ll know I failed. I hope you’ll forgive me. I’m going to try to resist; come back in three years, when the text comes up again, and hear a sermon on it then.
I just want you to notice one thing in the story. When the son returns, his father embraces him. Wow: would you do that? Think how angry the father must have been when the son left. That dad knew just what would happen, parents always do. And it did. So the son comes back; there must have been a temptation to say, “Ok, fine you’re home, I’ll give you one more chance.” There must have been a temptation to set a condition on that love but he never once does: he just embraces him. That’s forgiveness. We usually talk about it as the father forgiving the son but there must have been something between them, some ugliness for the son to want to leave and what his bad experience helped him do was forgive his father. The father embraces his son; but the son also embraces his father. It’s the mutuality of the moment that inspires. We can’t experience forgiveness without expressing forgiveness; we can’t express forgiveness without experiencing it.
Forgiveness is a key part of Jesus’ mission. One of the things that angers his opponents is forgiving sins. When his own disciples ask for a rule on just how much forgiveness they have to do, when they want a church policy on forgiveness, he tells them 70 times 7, meaning—unlimited, unlimited forgiveness. The reason is something we talked a bit about last week: Jesus wants us here and now, in the present, in the presence of God. We can’t get there without forgiveness, which means we can’t get there without forgiving, since the two are so tightly linked together.
We can’t get there because of what I call “the ghosts”. The ghosts are all those things in our past that influence our behavior in the present. Maybe someone hurt you in the past; you’re not going to talk to them again. Maybe someone made you angry in the past; you’re not going to have lunch with them again. Maybe someone betrayed your trust; you’re not going to trust them again. We could go on and on but here’s what Jesus knows: all these ghosts in our past are whispering in our ear who not to talk to, who not have lunch with, who not to trust. Look at the story of the prodigal again: all the elder brother at the end talks about is the past, the past where he worked, while his brother went off to play. All our stumbles, all our scars, all our sins are still there, all our past is still there, all our hurts are still there, until they are forgiven. All our guilt about the times we made someone stumble, the time we injured someone, the times we sinned against someone are still there, until they are forgiven. It’s all about the past but as William Faulkner said in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As long as all that past is still influencing us, it’s here and we’re living in the past.
How do we do this? I think many of us just assume somehow it will happen, like grass growing, like geese returning in the spring. Jesus calls us to choose forgiveness and t these are some of the choices we can make. One is simply to focus ourselves on the present and future. I mentioned last week how hard it can be to choose the present sometimes. Nevertheless, hard choices train us spiritually. When we live in the present, we choose what’s here, not what was here. A second thing we can do is to control our own internal conversation. A woman I know who was terribly hurt through the betrayal of some people she trusted said, “I wanted to stop reading the obituaries with hopeful anticipation. That turned out to be too much. So I started with just not reading the obituaries.” One person I know said about forgiveness, “Every time I got angry, I would just pray. Sometimes the prayers were angry but they were still prayers.”Prayer turns us toward God and God is love. When we let that love in, we heal.
If you are serious about praying, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done”, as we talked about a couple weeks ago, there’s no option, there’s no choice: you have to learn to forgive; you have to learn to accept forgiveness. Forgiveness, forgiving: they mean to put the past in the past. They mean to embrace the present; they mean to let us feel God’s embrace. Neither is easy.
Forgiveness comes in many flavors, from dealing with little bumps and scratches to a full on, long term process. Either one begins with a choice: I’m not going to live in the past, I’m going to choose to walk forward with Jesus, and shoo away those ghosts. Like my friend said, stop reading the obituaries, if that’s the one step you can take. Refuse to remember the hurt. Of course you will remember it—at first. But what we refuse to bring back, subsides. Like the scar on my neck, things fade and if we let them fade, we are free to move forward. We’re still going to stumble and that’s where the dailiness of this prayer comes in: every day, we need to forgive to move forward, every day we need to be forgiven, to move forward along the way of Jesus.
We can do it because we’re following Jesus; we can do it because it’s where he’s going. Remember what he said on the cross? “Forgive them.” He hopes we will do the same, when we stumble, when we sin, when we believe our scars are so obvious no one could love us. He wants to heal those scars; he wants us to feel forgiveness for our sins. He means to make us over into the people God intended. So we can choose to keep stumbling along on our own, keeping track of every hurt, every failure of hope, every time someone wronged us. We can live in that past—or we can get up, get going with Jesus, asking forgiveness and accepting it as well.
I don’t really speak Spanish but there’s a Spanish expression I love. You say it when someone says “thank you” or “I’m sorry”: de nada. It means something like “It’s nothing”. When we come to God, with all our scars, all our stumbles, all our sins, Jesus wants us to know God says, “De nada”—and embraces us. He wants us to practice that by doing it for each other. “Forgive us our debts, our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive our debtors, trespassers, those who sin against us.” If we pray it, if we do it, if we learn it, one day we discover: we know that God is hears the prayer, and we can go home to our true home.