|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.”