Date: January 22, 2017
Title: “Jesus Forgives…So What?”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: John 8:2-11
It has been 11 years since Terri Roberts’ life changed forever. In October of 2006, her 32 year old son Charlie walked into an Amish school in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and shot ten young girls, killing five of them before killing himself. “I heard sirens and I heard helicopters,” Roberts said, “and I looked at my husband who just kept saying ‘It’s Charlie.’” Shaking my head, with tears in my eyes, I said, “It could not be. But it was. It truly was. It was our son.”
Roberts’ initial reaction was that they had to move away. But the Amish came to her the night of the shooting to say they wanted them to stay. Some of them even attended Charlie’s funeral. “There are no words to describe how that made us feel that day,” Roberts said, “for the mother and father who had lost not just one but two daughters at the hand of our son, to come up and be the first ones to greet us – wow. Is there anything in this life that we should not forgive?”
Terri Roberts now shares this message with those who have experienced similar trauma. And for years, every Thursday she would care for the most seriously wounded survivor of the shooting. A trauma therapist working with the community said, “I find what Terri did for that little girl an incredibly moving event. You have this mother who raised a son who did this horrific damage to this young woman and the mother has the courage and the spiritual fortitude to come back and care for the young woman, and the parents of the injured one welcomes her into their home. It is a powerful story.”
Asked what she would say to other victims of violence, Roberts says: “There is always hope. You must walk into the future knowing that each day there will be something to be thankful for, and you cannot live in the sorrow 24-7. Ask God to provide new things in your lives, new things to focus on. It won’t take the place of what is lost, but it can give you a hope and a future. It is a future only made possible by forgiveness.”
Today we continue our sermon series following Christmas where we ask So what? So what difference does Jesus make? And today, it is all about forgiveness. Did you know, the New Testament uses three different Greek words to teach about forgiveness. The first word, apoluou, means to let go, or to loose. The second, charizomai, means to be gracious. And the third, most frequently used word, aphiemi, means to pardon, to let go, or to send away. Clearly the point the New Testament writers are trying to make is that in forgiveness, barriers are removed as sins are sent away and people learn to live in grace. Forgiveness is central to the Gospel message. Faith, hope and love are important in faith, yet all of them require a certain amount of forgiveness. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, so instrumental in South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission following the fall of apartheid, suggests that “Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.”
That was certainly the case for the woman in John’s story today. Caught in the very act of adultery, the woman is dragged before Jesus and the judgmental crowd. Now it has always been interesting to me to note that the woman is dragged there alone… surely she had a partner in her sin? In any event, she is facing a death sentence, expecting no mercy for her transgression, when she is surprised by forgiveness and freed by grace. In this story Jesus points out the truth we all know at the bottom of our hearts – that none of us stands apart from the need for forgiveness.
All of us have fallen short of the glory intended for us. All of us from time to time choose broken relationships, we choose to break trust, to break integrity, to break hope. All of us need to receive God’s forgiveness. And all of us are called to pass it on. When we say “Jesus forgives”, there is a huge so what? involved in that. God in Christ chooses to inhabit all of human life as Jesus teaches us what it is to be fully human. In part, that means recognizing the fragile humanity we share. Martin Luther King Jr. got it right when he said “Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a constant attitude.”
Forgiveness must become a constant attitude for us. We have to begin by accepting God’s forgiveness, claiming it as our own, knowing as Bernard Meltzer puts it, “When you forgive yourself, you in no way change the past. But you sure do change the future.” That may be the greatest “So what” in all of Jesus’ acts of forgiveness – it may not change the past wrongs we have committed; it may not fix the brokenness we have caused. But it will change the future possibilities we embody and it will offer the wholeness we crave. Yet, God does not want us to stop where it all starts. As forgiven people, we are, in turn, to be forgiving. Again, in Tutu’s words:
To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. When I talk of forgiveness, I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person. With forgiveness, you can be a better person than one being consumed by anger and hatred. You can be a better person than one living the life of victimhood, perpetually chained to the one who hurt you. With forgiveness, you can be a better person, one who is able to move on.
Throughout the Gospel we see that wherever one is lost, God grieves because the rest are incomplete. As long as one of our sisters or brothers is broken by the world or cast aside as irrelevant, then we are at a loss and God’s heart is broken. Annie Dillard considers the power of forgiveness when she writes:
The Gospel of Luke ends immediately and abruptly after Jesus’ Ascension outside Bethany. The skies have scarcely closed around his heels when the story concludes with the disciples. What a pity, that so hard on the heels of Christ comes the Christians. The disciples turn into the early Christians between one rushed verse and the next. What a pity, for who can believe in the Christians? They are like us. They are just like us, taking all the detours we take. Who could believe in us? Unless, of course, Jesus washing the disciples’ feet means what it could possibly mean, that it is all right to be human, that God knows we are human, full of error, prone to the detours of life. And that God loves us anyway.
God loves us anyway. That is why Jesus forgives. And that is how we can forgive as well. So what? So there! Thanks be to God. Amen.