|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
March 26, 2017
Fourth Sunday in Lent
“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
During the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King verdict, a truck driver named Reginald Denny was savagely beaten by four men and barely survived. His skull was fractured in 91 places, and it took years of surgeries and physical rehabilitation to bring him back to any semblance of his former self. His assailants were eventually apprehended and tried, but Denny sought out their families to offer forgiveness, and even shook hands with one of his attackers. After this remarkable gesture of forgiveness, one of the reporters commenting on the scene said, “It is said that Mr. Denny is suffering from brain damage.”
Apparently, our society has so completely accepted vengeance and grudge-keeping as the norm that only brain damage can adequately explain why someone who has been badly hurt would offer forgiveness. The natural thing to do in such a situation – and far more mundane situations, too – is to keep score so that we can get even. We have been conditioned by our society to think of forgiveness as weakness, acquiescence, losing…and we are taught, nearly above everything else, to want to win.
And yet, right in the middle of the Lord’s prayer – the prayer we say more often than any other, the prayer that teaches us how to pray – we pray for the radical and counter-cultural ability to give and receive forgiveness: “Forgive us our sins,” we say to our heavenly Father, “as we forgive those who sin against us.” This Lent we’ve been looking more closely at this prayer, and today I want to explore this little phrase in the middle of the prayer that may just be the craziest and most radical of all the crazy and radical things in it.
It begins with an astonishing admission: that we need forgiveness. When we say to God, “forgive us our sins,” we’re not making a polite request so much as a desperate plea. Unlike a lot of prayers we say in church that seem to hide our requests behind flowery, antique language, this is straightforward. Now, some of our elected leaders claim that they don’t feel any need for forgiveness, but as Christians we know the truth: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1John 1:8).”
I think one of the ways we perpetrate the self-deception is by playing the game of comparison. We are constantly comparing ourselves against the people around us, measuring our goodness and our flaws against the goodness and flaws of others. And because of that, we can tell ourselves that while we may not be Mother Teresa or Desmond Tutu, neither have we killed anyone, or tripped any little old ladies, or robbed any banks. The “real sinners” are the ones in courtrooms and hourly motels and smoky backrooms. But I’m just living my life, doing my best, going on as well as I can. I’m okay and you’re okay. I’m not a sinner.
But there comes a time when we stop playing the comparison game, stop deceiving ourselves, and simply be honest. There’s a story about an old monk living in the desert in the early centuries of Christianity who was approached by a much younger monk who asked him, “Haven’t you earned your passage to heaven by now? Your asceticism is so great, your penance so ardent, your wisdom so obvious.” To which the older monk replied, “If I had three lifetimes, I still couldn’t shed enough tears for my sins.” What the wise old desert monk knew better than the younger monk, and most of us, too, I think, is that our admission of sinfulness and the need for forgiveness isn’t about how I stack up against the people around me, and neither is it an exercise in self-loathing, as though it’s about hating myself. No, to acknowledge that we’re a sinner in need of forgiveness is simply a statement of reality. We have, each of us, done things we ought not to have done, and we have not done things we ought to have done. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We stand in need of the forgiveness of God, and so we pray for it.
But Jesus doesn’t leave it there. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us,” he teaches us to pray. Essentially Jesus ties together our experience of the forgiveness of God the Father with our forgiveness of others – that our embrace of God’s forgiveness, and our experience of its healing, is tied to our response. We cannot claim to have truly received God’s forgiveness if we refuse to forgive someone else who has hurt or wronged us. We can’t say we have truly accepted the gift of God’s forgiveness if we hold onto old hurts and grudges and scars. It’s like the great Anglican poet and priest George Herbert once said, “He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass if he would ever reach heaven, for everyone has need to be forgiven.”
In my experience, despite its centrality to our faith, Christians aren’t all that much better at forgiveness than non-Christians. And our struggle to be people who are ready to forgive is tied up with two huge misconceptions about what forgiveness entails. The first misconception is that the person who hurt us needs to somehow “deserve” our forgiveness, and the second misconception is that forgiveness equals forgetting. Maybe one or even both of these ideas are why you’ve held on to that grudge, that old hurt, for years and years. Maybe they are why you haven’t spoken with your mother or brother or friend for years, because you’re waiting on him to show that he deserves to be forgiven, that he’s repentant, that he knows he hurt you. Or else, you just can’t forget what she did, and even trying to forget her entirely doesn’t work either. The sin was too big, the scar is too deep. And so forgiveness eludes you.
Well, here’s the thing. Both of those ideas are holding you back from forgiving because they aren’t true. Forgiveness doesn’t depend on whether someone deserves it. You can forgive someone long before they even know they need it, because forgiveness is about you, not them. It’s about your decision to not be defined by what they did, and to not let it keep choking your soul. They may one day repent from what they did and show their remorse, and then you can work on reconciliation, but forgiveness only requires you to act.
And forgiveness is definitely not about forgetting. Sin is consequential, and trying to forget it is not what forgiveness is about. After Jesus rises from the dead, does he appear to the disciples with amnesia about what happened to him on the cross? No! He comes to them still bearing the terrible wounds of the nails and spear. He has not forgotten, not at all. He remembers, but he refuses to let sin have the last word in the story, and so he speaks words of peace. Because forgiveness is about remembering in a way that is truthful and honest, but in a way that throws a great monkey wrench in the eternal wheel of retribution and vengeance.
I think we confuse forgiveness with being a culmination, a conclusion, a happy ending. We think it comes at the end of some long process when everything is ready to be right again. But the truth is that forgiveness is really just the beginning. It is how relationship starts, or at least starts over. Just look at all the times Jesus forgives in the gospels. When he forgives the sins of people, be they sick or lame or disciples or even his executors, it is a catalyst for something new. Forgiveness is how healing begins, how relationship begins, how salvation begins. It isn’t the ending, it’s the beginning.
It’s time we woke up to this huge and world-changing thing Jesus taught us to pray. Because when we pray this, we are saying we believe in the way of God, not the way of revenge. When we pray this, we are saying we think forgiveness is holy and powerful, and not something we do because we’re brain damaged. When we pray this, we are admitting that we will never really comprehend the grace of God’s forgiveness until we share the grace of forgiveness with others.
You came to church today and I have a strong feeling that there is someone in your life who you either need to forgive, or from whom you need forgiveness. We all have that person, that place of hurt and pain. And what Jesus wants you to know is that your experience of God – your experience of God’s mercy, God’s goodness, God’s forgiveness – is connected with what you do with that broken relationship. The longer you hold on to that pain, the longer you will prevent yourself from knowing God’s full mercy. So I’m asking you, when you leave here, to remember the words that the Lord Jesus taught you: forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. And then live it.
 Rowan Williams, Where God Happens (Boston: New Seeds, 2005), p 29.
 As quoted in Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian Life (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 83
 Hauerwas and Willimon, 84.