upper room daily devotions

Sunday, June 16, 2013

(Don't Just) Do the Right Thing - A Sermon on Forgiveness Luke 7:36-8:3

Every week when we gather in worship, we pray "forgive us our
trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Depending
upon what Christian tradition you grew up in, if you did grow up in a
church, you may have also prayed "forgive us our sins" or "forgive us our
debts." All three - trespasses, sins, and debts - reveal the depth of the
power of this prayer. Trespasses - the way we trod on others in unlawful
and uninvited ways. Sins - the ways in which we miss the mark, the goal
that God has set for us. Debts - what we owe. Each word, a good
translation on its own, shades our prayer in a slightly different way.
Perhaps, instead of always praying using the word "trespass," we should
be more expansive and from time to time say "sins" or "debts." Years
ago, a woman came up to me and asked that we not pray the Lord's Prayer
every week; it loses its "specialness" to do so, she said. I thought to myself that this
woman must be much more holy than I am. I trespass, sin, and fall into
debt on a regular basis! I need to pray this prayer with every breath, not
just once a week, and certainly not once a month.

Forgiveness is both an act and a state of being. It is the concern of the
heart and it affects every manner in which we live in the world. Both our
ability to receive and extend forgiveness are the bedrock transactions of
Christianity. And, holy cow, forgiveness is hard to practice in disposition,
that is, in the recesses of our hearts, and in deed.

On to our story.

The story in Luke is a kingdom story; it is an invitation into life lived in the
presence of God, and it moves us into the kingdom by way of a path made of forgiveness.

A man invited Jesus to dinner. Like most dinner parties, I suspect they
talked about all kinds of interesting things. That's what happens around
a table. We share stories, debate politics, and that sort of thing. And, in
the midst of talking about life, real life interrupts - in the form of a woman. And
what a woman she is. We are told that she stands there weeping. What an image. What
vulnerability. She seems to present herself in the midst of her tears.
Tears of poverty. She also brings an alabaster jar of oil and she anoints
Jesus. Oil of extravagance. She is immediately declared a
sinner by the men in the room, which prompts Jesus to tell a story about
two men forgiven debts, one a little and one much, and he ends with a
question. "Now which of them will love him more?" The one forgiven a
little or the one forgiven much? Simon "supposes" (we are told) that the
man forgiven much. Supposes? Simon is hedging. Of course the one
forgiven much will love more in return. Jesus turns to the woman and
forgives her sins. He says it twice. He really means it. And, for those of
us who have sinned much, we need to hear words of forgiveness a lot
because it is difficult to believe, in our hearts, that forgiveness is not only
possible, but extended so freely to us.

In an article called "Forgiveness and Gratitude," David Lose asks, "But is forgiveness really
everything? Can it possibly be worth that much? Consider: forgiveness
at heart is the restoration of relationship. It is releasing any claim on
someone else for some past injury or offense. That’s why the analogy to
a debt works so well. Forgiveness cancels relational debt and opens up
the future. Which is why it’s so important, so valuable.
But it’s also something more. Forgiveness also gives you back yourself.
You see, after a while, being indebted, owing others, knowing yourself
first and foremost as a sinner -- these realities come to dominate and
define you. You are no more and no less than what you’ve done, the
mistakes you’ve made, the debt you owe. When you are forgiven, all
those limitations disappear and you are restored, renewed, set free.
So, yes, forgiveness is everything."

But this story does not concern itself wholly with the receipt of
forgiveness, it reveals the how the hardness of heart closes us from the
liberating power of the gospel. Simon, a man who should understand the
law, sees only a sinner before him. He is irritated that this woman would
interrupt the party with her disruptions. He had a well laid plan for the
evening - of mannered discussion among learned men and this
wandering rabbi that people were talking so much about. And here this
woman comes and messes everything up. The hardness of his heart
closed him off from the miracle of that moment. Inasmuch as we are in
need of forgiveness like the woman, we are like Simon, too - hard
pressed to be graceful in the face of others needing forgiveness. A man
so sure of his place in the world, Simon suffered from what many of us
suffer from - complacency. Comfort. These are insidious diseases that
infect our soul. They make us not only comfortable with ourselves but
intolerant to the wounds, sins, debts, and trespasses of others. A
kingdom moment for the woman is a conflict moment for Simon. So
closed from the power of forgiveness and the transformative power of
grace that he only "supposes" that the indebted man will love more in

As much as this story is told to us individually, this is also a story for the
church as a whole. It is a missional story. Who are we as followers of
Christ? What implication does this story have on our mission and
ministry in the world and in our lives shared with one another?
Absolutely everything.

On a large scale, Christians easily embroil ourselves in conflicts about
doctrine and right thought. And right in the local church or among
intimate relationships, we can become enmeshed in petty
disagreements, too. It's normal. It's natural. That's what flawed human
beings do. We take missteps and we focus on the wrong things, much
like Simon. This story drags us back to our core identity - a people in
need of forgiveness and a people challenged to extend forgiveness. In a
world of broken relationships, people need to hear that trespasses can
be mended. In a world of growing debt - real financial debt - people
yearn to hear a word of debt forgiveness. In a world in which making the
mark is so hard, we need to hear that sins can be forgiven. And, right
here among us - not out in the big world in some abstract way - right
here in this room between you and me, you and the person next to you -
brokenness stands there weeping, crying out for restoration. For us to
believe the best in one another, not for our hearts to be hardened by low
expectations or the expectation of hurtful behavior.

The Christian life is not one that does the right thing, for we will
inevitably fall short. We will, despite our best efforts, not always do the
right thing. And others around us will also fall short. That's part of being
human. The Christian life is a life open to restoration. The Way of Christ
is plotted through a path built of forgiveness - extended and received.
Love, grace, healing. These all arise from forgiveness. Forgiveness
embedded in our hearts. Forgiveness asked for through tears.
Forgiveness lavishly extended to the other like anointment from an
alabaster jar.

The great theological gift in Christianity is grace. Forgiveness is grace
found in relationship. Luke sets this story around a table for a reason.
Our communion table is a physical manifestation of God's grace found in
and through forgiveness. When we come to the table, we come as a
woman weeping, our sins laid bare before our Christ. When we serve
Communion, we serve as a little Christ (which is what "Christian" means,
or an ambassador of Christ, as Paul puts it). We offer to others the grace
and forgiveness offered to us. It is not our grace. It is not our
forgiveness. It is Christ's just as the table is Christ's.

Today God extends to us an invitation to restoration through forgiveness.
When you pray the Lord's Prayer, pray with a heart weeping and honest.
When you take the bread, be assured that you take the healing
presence of Christ into your body. It will circulate through your whole
being working miracles of healing. When you leave this worship go into
the world - not just to do the right thing - but to live whole lives aware of
brokenness and ready for forgiveness. This is the gospel of our Lord.

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