Sermon: On Forgiveness and Harmony

[Sermon given on Sunday, July 12, 2016 (Proper 6 – Year C) at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, MO by the Rev’d. Fr. Marcus G. Halley]

And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.

Luke 7.37,38 (NRSV)

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father, from Jesus Christ our Risen Lord and Reigning Savior, and from the Holy Spirit who empowers and enlivens our time together.

This morning I want to talk about “forgiveness.” I want us to reflect on “forgiveness” in terms of not only what it means for us down on the inside, but also what it calls us to do on the outside. I remembering an old hymn growing up that says:

Jesus on the inside
working on the outside
Oh, what a change in my life!

Who we are and what we do are connected and what we receive and what we give are linked. Receiving the grace and love of God is never about hoarding it. God calls us into community in order that we might grow up into the full stature of Jesus Christ and be conduits of God’s love for this love-starved world. That’s what it means to be the Body of Christ – that we live like Jesus; love like Jesus; walk, talk, and act like Jesus. Church is the place where we learn how to do that, and as hard as it is sometimes to stay in community in the church, staying is precisely what we are called to do.

We are called to see what we hold in common even as we hold the tension of our differences. We are called to see Christ and him crucified[1] for he alone is the focus of the Church. He is our axis, our anchor in the midst of turbulent seas, the object of all our affections, as Gospel legend Richard Smallwood suggests, “Jesus, is the center of my joy.” It is easy to fall apart when we disappoint one another if we make one another the center of the community. But when Jesus is the center, we are drawn closer to one another, even in our differences and disagreements, as we are drawn deeper into the heart of God.

Drawing together of disparate communities is one of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, it’s what God has always done. Jesus fulfills the ministry that God began from the very beginning calling individuals, families, communities, and nations. The very first book of the Bible suggests that God created humanity for the sake of relationship and community. The Church understands relationality and community to be the very nature of God as Holy Trinity – Father, Son, Spirit in an endless dance.

Jesus didn’t come only to love us individually. He came to love the whole world out of our isolation and into the family and community of God. The book of Ephesians suggests that Christ came to break down the dividing walls.[2] Jesus came that we might see one another and love one another. Jesus calls us to experience the beauty of one another.

The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel is particularly interested in those on the margins, and he even spins margin on its head. He associates with sinners, the poor, the sick, the oppressed, women, and even noble Pharisees. He challenges the margins in every heart to stretch the arms of our love wider and wider until we can embrace every person. He places himself at the center of the community in order that people from radically different walks of life can learn to walk together. That’s the glimpse of God’s peace – togetherness and harmony.

One of the things I learned when I was in the Johnson C. Smith University Concert Choir or when I a member of St. Paul’s Choir in Atlanta was that the key to harmony is the ability to listen to someone else. The same holds true, not only for the world generally, but for those of us who are called to follow Christ. We are called to listen, to hear one another’s stories without passing judgment, without applying labels, without making it all about us. That’s both hospitality and evangelism. It is hospitality in the sense that it encounters the stranger in good-faith as a fellow wanderer while it makes space within us for that which is not us and it is evangelism in the sense that it seeks to connect our stories to one another and ultimately to God’s story of forgiveness, love, and reconciliation.

It doesn’t take very long to realize that we are witnessing a full-scale meltdown in our society and I believe that is rooted in our fundamental inability to listen to one another. Instead of listening to understand, so many are listening to debate or rebut. We cavalierly toss around harsh words like verbal hand grenades. All the while the ties that bind human hearts together as one family begin to fray and, in a time when we need to come closer, we are moving further and further apart.

But finally comes the Savior into our midst, to sit down at our table to commune with us. And he brings with him an opportunity to reflect both on who we are and who we aspire to be.

A few weeks ago I had the wonderful privilege of going away for a few days to visit Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York for a few days of retreat and holy listening. The journey from here to there took all day, two planes, one bus, and a train, but as I neared the monastery I felt my heart begin settle and open. I didn’t know what I was going up there for, but I had this deep sense that God was going to meet me there.

For several days a few other young church leaders and myself reflected on the challenges of new ministry – fumbling over mistakes, battling insecurities and depression, wrestling with holy things, and struggling to find our authentic voices. We entered the worship life of the community, praying Matins at 7:00am, Mass at 9:00am, Diurnum (noon day prayer) at 12:00pm, Vespers at 5:00pm, and Compline at 8:10pm with spaces in between for deep silence and holy listening.

I was glad to have the space. So much of my life is noise – emails, phone calls, tasks, projects, meetings – all good stuff, all necessary, but noise nonetheless. I’m sure there are some here who can resonate with that experience – the “devastating dailyness” of our lives, the endless lists of things to-do, the inability to sit and be in the presence of God who calls us “beautiful” and “beloved” and calls to us, “arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”[3]

In the stillness of that holy place I quickly realized that I had become anxious, that I had allowed the fear and the anxiety of the world around me to invade me, that rather than holding on the grace of God with both hands, I had picked up other things along the way. Fear, not Jesus, was my focus.

It wasn’t until I allowed myself the space to hear that “I heard the voice of Jesus say come unto me and rest. Lie down, thy weary one, lie down thy head upon my breast.” I wanted to be the Pharisee, so confident, or one of the disciples, so present, but Jesus was calling me to be the brave and vulnerable woman with the precious alabaster jar of oil, to fall down at his feet, to break open that which was most precious to me, and to weep.

So much of what I hear beneath the shouting around us is fear and sadness. Fear of the future or sadness because of the past. Both of these emotions are real and we need to offer ourselves the space to feel them and process them. We do have much of which to be afraid and much in our past of which to be sad. But we have so much more to believe in. We who are called by Christ are called into a higher truth, one that supersedes sadness and fear – we are called to faith. This brave woman, with her precious alabaster jar of oil, pushed through the sadness and shame of whatever she might have done that labeled her a sinner. She pushed beyond her fear of what people might say into the very presence of the one who said “peace, my sister, peace.”

That’s what forgiveness is – the restoration of peace. We get there by telling the truth, by being brave and vulnerable, by naming the places where we are hurt or the where we have hurt others, but most of all by opening our hearts to love again.

Fear and anxiety work by closing our hearts to love and ultimately by closing our hearts to God. Instead of seeing one another as friends, we see enemies. Rather than relating to one another as family, we see opportunities for conflict. Forgiveness seeks to restore the balance that has been broken in order that the peace of God might reign in our hearts.

And the forgiveness we seek from God places a claim on our lives. We who follow the pilgrim way of Jesus are called to be conduits of forgiveness and reconciliation. To deny forgiveness to someone else is to deny God’s grace in our own lives. There is no way around that. “Forgive us our trespasses” is tied to “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” To put that another way – we are called to restore balance with others even as God restores balance in our own lives. We are called to be peace-makers in a world desperately in need of reminders of peace and whispers of beauty.

The only way we can live together is by making peace with one another. We say it to one another, we rehearse it in this liturgy every Sunday, and over time that constant exposure to peace restores our original wiring, the original goodness, the original blessing that God planned for us from the very beginning – paradise beyond measure, peace that passes all understanding, and perfect love that casts out all fear.

I don’t know, tell me what y’all think. I’d love to hear how you experience God’s forgiveness in your life.


[1] 1 Corinthians 1.23

[2] Ephesians 2.14 (paraphrased)

[3] Song of Solomon 2.10 (NRSV)

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