Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive
July 15, 2018 John 8:1-11
Rev. David J. Clark
Our sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer focuses on the petition: forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors. I grew up saying trespasses which always sounded to me like a small to mid-range infraction—bigger than a mistake but not some catastrophic criminality. The only thing I could relate it to was the No Trespassing sign in old man Johnson’s yard. If you stepped over he’d get mad but, in the grand scheme no big deal. I grew up thinking the prayer was asking forgiveness for the kind of sins that we good people might do. Nothing too bad, just normal stuff.
It was quite a shock when I moved to a church that said sins instead of trespasses. “Sins” reminded me that everything is included, the big stuff and the small.
It’s taken me a while but I’ve grown more accustomed to Bay Shore Church’s practice of saying “debts” instead of trespasses. Only once in a while, when I’m not reading it out of the bulletin, do I revert back to my old sinful or trespassing ways.
“Debts” is a far closer translation of what Jesus was getting at. First, there was an economic dimension to it all. In Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke 4 he said that he came to announce the year of favor of the Lord, which was another way of saying the Jubilee, the great time when all economic debts were wiped out and everyone started with a clean slate and the rich and poor were again on equal footing.
Lord, forgive us our debts was a dream for the crowds Jesus preached to. Get us out from this weight. If you’ve ever been in substantial debt, you know how it can feel like an enormous weight on your shoulders.
It also has a connotation of gaining forgiveness from our sins. The debt language got associated with sin al long time before Jesus. The Hebrew concept forgiveness of the Bible comes the language of financial debts. The image for finances and justice is the scales of justice. Remember the old timey scales where there were two plates on either side and when you put something on one, it creates an imbalance and needs a counter-balance on the other side, like a teeter totter. The idea was that if one person wrongs another in a relationship, an imbalance is created and balance must be restored. The concept Lex Talionis, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, is based on this. You took my eye, that is, you did something to me, I must retaliate and do something to you to restore balance.
It seems ancient, but listen to our own language. If I do something to you that you thought was wrong you might say, “I’m going to get even with you;” or “I owe you one;” “I’ve got a score to settle with you.”
The Bible starts out with a justification of an eye for an eye, but soon it recognizes that forgiveness is necessary for survival. Gandhi said an eye for an eye world will soon go blind.
What happens when everyone feels wronged and starts retaliating? When we are our own scorekeepers in a relationship it’s always easy to feel like people owe you, easy to justify retaliation in the form of all kinds of meanness.
Forgiving is to acknowledge that the scales are out of balance but to just reset them without retaliating in kind. Forgiveness isn’t a feeling, it isn’t saying something that was wrong is right and “okay.” Forgiveness isn’t forgetting—magically scrubbing the hurt from your mind or your heart. No, forgiveness isn’t any of those things. What it is, is a decision to not retaliate, to not try to settle the score. It acknowledges the wrong and says I’m not out for revenge. You owe me a debt but I’m going to let it go. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we go on as if nothing happened. Something bad did happen and I may never trust you again, if I ever do, trust has to be something that is earned over time not automatically granted.
Forgiveness is hard. If it were easy, the world wouldn’t be so screwed up. Deciding to let it go is just hard and it’s often a process that takes time. Deciding to let go of revenge fantasies is hard, stuff you spend your time thinking about doing but know you never would do because you are too good of a person, or you don’t want to face the consequences of what you have in mind. Forgiveness is to acknowledge those impulses and to choose not to act upon them, not to dwell on them. Like a boat sailing away, you just unload the thought and let it go.
There has been a wrong and you want them to pay the price of having wronged you. I remember hearing a preacher once quote the passage, “’Vengeance is mine’ sayeth the Lord,” are you willing to let God deal with your enemies instead of you, will you trust God with that much? It came at a time when I was really upset about an injustice that had come to me and They hadn’t yet paid a price so I thought, “No, I’m not ready to leave their justice to God because I know God. God is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and ready to relent from punishing. God will forgive instead of destroying them. And I wanted them to hurt, to make them feel as wounded as they made me feel so they’d learn their lesson and not treat people that way again. I didn’t trust God to do justice, I knew that God would show mercy, the same kind of mercy I hoped God would give to me. And that’s when I heard it.
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Uh, oh. I wanted, relied on God’s grace but was not willing to extend it. Jesus told a parable about the unforgiving servant who was forgiven a great debt but then went around extracting miniscule payments from everyone else. He was trying to get us to see that if we want God’s grace, we have to let it flow through us and stop seeking revenge.
The Lord’s Prayer really offers a jarring way of praying because when it talks about forgiveness it has a conditional clause. In effect it is saying, “God I pray for your forgiveness, but only give me the amount of forgiveness that I’m giving to other people.” Have you ever thought about how radical that is? Lord, limit the forgiveness you give me to the same proportion that I forgive others. If I decide to hold on to it, don’t forgive me at all. Again, the Lord’s Prayer is no anemic prayer. Every time we pray it, we can be reminded that we need to practice the art of forgiveness.
There are lots of stories about Jesus declaring forgiveness to people. In fact the Pharisees got upset with Jesus for telling people that their sins were forgiven because the law said only God could do that. He told sick people whom everyone had been taught were sick because of sin that God had forgiven them. He forgave Peter for denying him 3 times, and the other disciples for running away despite their vows of loyalty. He even forgave his crucifiers and all of humanity on the cross. “Father forgive them, for they no not what they do.”
One of the great stories about Jesus’ forgiveness is our lesson for today, the woman caught in adultery. The Pharisees who were no fans of Jesus tried to trap him. They bring this woman to him and charge her and even remind him that the Old Testament’s punishment was stoning her to death. The Pharisees figured Jesus would go soft on her, and therefore prove that he was willing to defy the Bible and was making up his own new thing. If he did that, they could have Jesus brought up on charges—and have him crucified—something they eventually did.
But Jesus wasn’t falling for the trap. He confounded the accusers. Instead of responding to their inquiries, Jesus squatted down and wrote something in the dirt. The Bible doesn’t say what he wrote. I always assumed that it was sins of the Pharisees or names of other dudes that had slept with this woman. One unsurprising thing about this story is that to convict the woman on the charges she was accused of, they were also supposed to bring an unimpeachable witness who was only bringing it up as a matter of justice (not a trap against someone else) and they were also supposed to charge the man. But just like it is now, people tend to impugn the “stormy” woman, demonizing her while letting the man go Scott Free.
The scholarly consensus was that Jesus writing in the dirt was just a way of saying, “I’m not playing your game.” Kind of like looking down at your fingernails to signify you are ignoring someone or like they used to do, hold up your palm to someone and say, “Talk to the hand because the ears ain’t listening.”
Jesus’ example teaches us not to get caught up in gossip and meanness. Just don’t participate. Tell people to talk to the hand because you aren’t going to get caught up in tearing people down. We don’t stone people any more but we do sling mud. Jesus actions say just don’t do that.
Jesus squatted down and wrote in the sand, but the Pharisees kept after him until Jesus eventually rose and said “Whoever is without sin let him be the one to cast the first stone.” And then he squatted down and wrote in the dirt more.
And then, you know how the old joke goes. A woman picked up a rock and beaned the adulterous woman right in the noggin. So Jesus said to her, “Mom! You’re not helping!”
No. One by one, the elders dropped their stones and walked away. I like the little detail about one by one. It gives the sense of each man struggling with his own conscience, his own heart, his own ability to pray, Forgive us our sin as we forgive those who have sinned against us. They weren’t harmed by her, they were only shaming and humiliating this poor woman to try to catch Jesus in a gotcha’! moment. It was disgusting. They used her. Their actions and abuse of this woman were not without sin and they knew it so they dropped their stones and walked away.
Suddenly it’s just Jesus and the woman alone and Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” He’s forgiving and gracious to a fault. This is the one who tells us to pray for forgiveness and to extend it to others.
So today we’ve given everyone a stone. It can represent some grudge, some wrong that’s been done to you. You want to throw it at least figuratively if not literally. A symbol of your desire to get back at someone, to even the score or to have them on the bottom so they will know what it feels like.
I’m sure if you search your heart you can find a way that the stone represents something real for you. Maybe it’s some slight, or betrayal, or disappointment or attack. The thing about stones is it’s hard to let them drop. We’d rather throw them and inflict damage.
Our story teaches us that for our own growth beyond where we are, our own sense of spiritual peace, we need to learn to let them go. We’ve placed some buckets up here so you can let your stone go. Just come up at some point during the offering and let it go. Or maybe you just aren’t there, quite yet and need to hang on to your stone. Like I said, forgiveness is a process and it takes some time, but it’s something to work toward. If so, keep your stone and keep working toward it. And when you are ready someday you can come to church and just slip into our meditation garden or somewhere else that’s meaningful to you and let it go.
Like the song says, let it go, let it go, let it go.
Lord, forgive us our debts only to the extent we are willing to forgive others.