One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and sat at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was sitting at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more. And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
Sermon: To Err is Human, to Forgive Divine
Robert Frost penned a curious little poem: “Forgive O Lord my little jokes on Thee and I’ll forgive Thy great big joke on me.”
What’s the ‘great big joke’ for which the poet was willing to forgive God?
We know that we all need forgiveness from time to time, or in a general sense we need it ‘all the time.’ But does God need to be forgiven, too?
Does God need to be forgiven for the tsunami?
Frost had tongue in cheek, of course. Poets are always playing with words, turning them around like the pilot who, on July 8, 1938, filed a flight plan from New York to California, but after 28 hours and 13 minutes he landed in Ireland! So they called him wrong-way Corrigan, a phrase that is embedded in our language to this day.
In truth, Corrigan had wanted to fly to Ireland, but the authorities refused permission three times, saying the plane wasn’t safe enough for a transatlantic trip. So he applied the three-strikes and you’re out rule. His own rule.
People loved his audacity and spirit. They also had a great deal of fun with the obvious humor of his situation. The New York Post, for example, printed a front-page headline–“Hail to Wrong Way Corrigan!”–backwards. Corrigan also received a Broadway ticker-tape parade with more than a million people lining the street, more people than had turned out to honor Charles Lindbergh after his 1927 transatlantic flight.
Corrigan never asked forgiveness—that would have required admitting that his story about looking at the wrong end of his compass needle was bogus. “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” he said.
The poet asked forgiveness for his ‘little jokes against God,’ his sins, if you will, his flaws; but insisted that God, too, needed forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a curious concept. The need for forgiveness is a function of what we’ve been calling ‘moral values,’ the inner voice that tells us what’s right and wrong; that ‘still small voice’ that whispers in our ear, keeping us going in the right direction so that we don’t turn out like wrong-way Corrigan.
Corrigan’s trip to Ireland was condoned by the public; it couldn’t be forgiven, since he never admitted that he intended to fly to Ireland. Minor offenses, like being late for a meeting, may be excused. But forgiveness implies volition—a conscious decision to do or say something that you regret—so it requires confession, repentance or remorse. “I’m sorry, I won’t do that again.”
Love means having to say you’re sorry, again and again; love means that you are in a committed relationship–it requires that you think about what you say and do.
Martin Luther King spent his life holding up America’s failure to live up to its commitment, its covenant with all the people. He pointed to rampant racism that made pious statements about equality ring hollow; he pointed to poverty, especially poverty that is the result of economic injustice, and he said, “…injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
He wouldn’t let America off the hook—his whole life was a bold statement—an accusation and an assertion that we are not to be excused if we fail to work to fulfill the dream, his dream and ours.
Early in my ministry I was called to meet with a family at the home of a member of the congregation who had died, a woman whom I had never met. After polite greetings with an offer of coffee I sat with her three middle-aged children in a rather darkened parlor. I had my trusty notebook, and with pen in hand I waited.
After a rather long, uncomfortable pause, one of her sons said, “Well, Reverend, I suspect you’re waiting for us to tell you some nice things about my mother.” They threw glances to one another—the other two knew what was coming, but I didn’t. He continued, “There’s nothing good to say about her. She was a mean and selfish S.O.B”
I put down the pen so we could talk. Though it was rather uncomfortable, the honesty was welcome, and the value that accrued to the three of them was clear—they were getting it off their chest.
Oscar Wilde put it this way, “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” The Picture of Dorian Gray
A rabbi once said to me, “Shivah is a time for forgiveness.”
I always try to get a family to acknowledge at least one flaw in the deceased, but this was the only time I couldn’t get them to acknowledge anything positive about their mother.
We planned an evening service with lots of music that they chose and several readings that I chose, and a time for silence, which we all needed. But what should we do about a eulogy, a statement of praise?
What was I to say about their mother? I had not known the woman, and found no one else who admitted to having known her—she was not an active church member. So, except for her children, who had gone into some detail as a follow up to their opening statement, I knew nothing.
So I began the eulogy—the memorial statement–by saying, “Mary was not an easy person to live with.”
In response to that simple assertion a man who was sitting at an aisle pew in the middle of the church yelled out, in a very loud, clear voice, “Amen!”
After the service people filed out as I stood greeting them at the back of the sanctuary. The ‘amen man’ approached me and nearly shook my arm off.
He said, “Reverend, you made my day, I drove up here all the way from Florida. She was my sister, and we hadn’t spoken in more than 30 years, and I expected to hear (pardon my language) a bunch of crap…I was holding my breath. But you said the truth and for that I thank you…I thank you very much. I’m glad I was here.”
Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Criticism, said, “To err is human, to forgive divine.”
We all know about the human part, but what about the divine? What about that theological assertion: to forgive is divine?
If God is love—which is located within each of us—then our ability to forgive, like our sense of kindness and compassion, is an indication of what we call ‘the indwelling God.’
Shortly after I took responsibility for this pulpit over 20 years ago I offered the first of the several sermons I’ve given about forgiveness. I quoted from a recent book about personality characteristics that researchers said were associated with cancer. The named four: holding resentment—the inability to forgive; having a poor self-image; the inability to develop and maintain long-term, meaningful relationships. (I forget the fourth–I hope forgetfulness is not one of the four!)
After the service a woman approached me and said, “You have no business telling me I should forgive my father who abused me for years…”
From her point of view—and who could disagree?—I was ‘blaming the victim.’
We’re here, in part, to call up the divinity within us—to get rid of old resentments, to practice forgiveness, and to develop and maintain long-term, meaningful relationships.
In 1984, Lance Morrow told the readers of Time Magazine, “The psychological case for forgiveness is overwhelmingly persuasive. Not to forgive is to be imprisoned by the past, by old grievances that do not permit life to proceed with new business. Not to forgive is to yield oneself to another’s control. If one does not forgive, then one is controlled by the other’s initiative and is locked into a sequence of act and response, of outrage and revenge, tit for tat, escalating always. The present is endlessly overwhelmed and devoured by the past. Forgiveness frees the forgiver. It extracts the forgiver from someone else’s nightmare.”
Growing up in a big family taught me a lot about the need to forgive and to learn how to accept forgiveness.
I have been forgiven many, many times; and I have offered forgiveness to those who have ‘trespassed against me.’
We’re here to help develop and maintain a forgiving attitude. Without it, we continue to hold resentments that can do damage to the body as well as the mind—the two are not really as separate as we sometimes assume.
Without a forgiving attitude we develop the opposite—we live with continuous complaint and judgment; we find ourselves judging everyone and everything. “Judge not lest ye be judged” is literally true. “The judgment you give is the judgment you get.”
The opposite of that constant judgmental attitude is what someone called “a realm of continuous forgiveness.” That, I think, would have been a better title for this sermon: a realm of continuous forgiveness.
Ecclesiastes—the book famous for talking about how everything has a season, also says: “There is no righteous person who has walked the face of this earth who has done good and who has not transgressed.” We all need forgiveness.
The Hebrew God in the Bible is flawed, and in need of forgiveness. He admitted it—after the flood he felt sorry for what he had done and promised never to do it again, putting a nice big, bright rainbow in the sky as a reminder of his confession and his promise.
The revered King David, psalmist, poet, singer, and slayer of the great Goliath, was taken in adultery with Bath-sheba, the beautiful wife of Uriah the Hittite whom he sent to the front lines to be killed in battle.
Jesus, the Christian God is flawed. There’s a story about his being hungry and going up to an olive tree that was not in season, so there was no fruit on it, so he killed it.
Emerson said, “There’s a crack in everything God has made.”
We’re all flawed, and we’re here, in part, to be liberated, to be set free, by acknowledging the truth about ourselves and one another.
When we recognize our own faults by naming them, we feel a sense of regret—it’s automatic. We then have a chance to take responsibility for them—to change.
That, I think, is what it means to ‘run into a new year.’ It’s not so much about the calendar, and New Year’s resolutions; it’s about acknowledging our old promises…what we told ourselves about ourselves when we were sixteen and twenty-six…and fifty-six…
If we’re to have a new beginning then we have to ‘beg what we love and leave to forgive us,’ as Lucille Clifton put it.
Lucille Clifton – I Am Running into a New Year
i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
when i was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even thirty-six but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me
from Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969-1980
Closing Words: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become reality. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” Martin Luther King, Jr.