Mercy Within Mercy

Not long ago, a nationwide study surveyed people’s attitudes about forgiveness.

The study found 75 percent of Americans feeling “very confident” that God has forgiven them of their sins and trespasses.

But that rosy outlook turned muddy for interpersonal relationships. Only about half of the people surveyed felt certain that they’d forgiven others. While the Lord is an over-the-top, out-of-this-world forgiver of debt, ordinary folks like you and me apparently struggle to forgive our debtors.

No surprise there!

It’s surely difficult to forgive those with whom you are upset or angry, and it’s sometimes downright impossible to forgive yourself!

But whenever and however forgiveness happens, the study found an unexpected link between forgiveness and health. Forgiveness certainly is a vital component of spiritual health. And guess what? The more inclined you are to offer forgiveness, the less likely you are to suffer stress-related illness, which I can tell you from personal and pastoral experience covers a lot of medical ground.

Forgiveness is thus more than just a good idea. Forgiveness is necessary for physical health, too – right up there with eating well, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep.

You and I must hone our ability to forgive because, sooner or later, we all feel the sting of hurt that others consciously and unconsciously inflict. That pain is felt within the walls of the Church as much as it’s felt beyond the fellowship of believers. Which explains why Jesus constantly makes such a big deal of forgiveness!

In teaching us how to pray, Jesus instructs us to ask God to forgive our sins and trespasses and to forgive those who sin and trespass against us. Jesus well knows that forgiveness of relational debt is where we live, move and having our Easter being. The real challenge of the empty tomb is whether we know forgiveness, celebrate forgiveness, and practice forgiveness with the gusto of Jesus!

Thanks be to God, the Lord doles out heaping helpings of forgiveness to all those who, like the woman in this morning’s Scripture lesson, spend their days literally crying for merciful release from missteps of what they have done and what they have failed to do.

Listen and watch for the grace and peace of compassionate forgiveness in the Word of the Lord proclaimed in the Gospel of Luke.

It’s one of the head-scratchers of faith:

The arrival of God’s kingdom in Christ and the Good News of the Gospel he brings exert the greatest pull and mightiest impact on those who know without question how desperately they need the grace and mercy of forgiveness.

And the high and mighty of the world are usually the last to feel that way.

The one who has been forgiven much has much for which to feel grateful, and therefore is far more likely to be full of love than those who think they need little to no forgiveness.

Simon, the party host, is among that clueless and loveless lot.

Despite outward appearances, Simon in reality is a not-so-very-nice person who actually has at least as much bile souring his soul as this desperate woman crashing his party ever did! What Simon cannot and does not realize is that his own dearest longing should be to have Jesus glance back to repeat what the Lord says to the tearful woman: Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.

Of course, as a “good” Pharisee, Simon wouldn’t welcome those liberating words. He’d get hung up on the apparent blasphemy of Jesus taking on the prerogative of God to grant forgiveness, and he’d join the clucking tongues and wagging heads of his guests in denouncing the tawdry scandal such wild-eyed heresy.

That’s sad.

And it’s also a warning to those of us even yet today who think forgiveness is more desperately needed for others than for ourselves.

Let’s be clear: Forgiveness is never something somebody else needs more than you or I do.

Each and every one of us – man, woman and child – must pine for that loving look and pardoning word from Jesus.

This poor woman isn’t a worse sinner than Simon, his guests, or any of us. What she is, though, is a far better seer. Unlike Simon, she sees her sin for what it is. She counts her spiritual debts down to the penny and doesn’t try to minimize them. Rather than trying to hide her mistakes, she grieves openly for her failures.

And in sharing the parable, Jesus invites Simon, and us, to see our sin with a clearer vision – to see that the molehill of sin in our hearts is actually a mountain of depravity. Having a right and honest perspective on the magnitude of sin straightens up a radical posture of gratitude toward God, who has such great love for us that our sins are forgiven long before we ever acknowledge our need for forgiveness.

Simon and company do not understand that kind of love and cannot take the Lord’s word of forgiveness to heart. Their need for clemency never crosses their mind, and since they feel no need for such compassion, the ideas of extravagant forgiveness and prolific love are purely abstract concepts and matters of jurisdiction.

But this woman who admits her neediness and takes the risk of loving experiences the transforming power of mercy.

As much for her as for us, it’s only when we hit rock bottom that we sense our own desperation and see the raw humanity in ourselves and in others.

It’s only when we become willing both to offer mercy to others and receive it ourselves that such amazing grace can transform us into new creations. Such great kindness, such great mercy, is the thing – the deepest thing – that God reveals to us in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

The Lord’s mercy frees us to be who we truly are as beloved children of God, and the Lord’s mercy enables us to overcome our separation from God and one another. That, in turn, allows others to see themselves as children of God, too!

We all are broken by something.

We all have hurt someone and been hurt by someone.

We all share the state of brokenness – even if our brokenness is not the same.

And in the eyes of God and the heart of Christ, we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.

There is strength, even power, in understanding your brokenness, because embracing your brokenness stirs your need and desire for mercy – and, hopefully, a corresponding compulsion to show mercy.

Mercy actually is the true and only nature of God. God is mercy, within mercy, within mercy – layer, upon layer, upon layer of love that flows mightily through all of Creation. The love that created you, the love that now sustains you, is the love that the Spirit now leads you to share.

William Shakespeare knew something of that love. He writes:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

May it be so, for Christ’s sake, as you and I seek and labor, in a wildly polarized world, to strengthen the ties that bind us together in divine community – no matter who any one of us voted for last week, no matter who ended up coming out on top, no matter how vile the political rhetoric and falsehoods were and likely will continue to be.

Binding up the wounds and improving the spiritual health of an entire nation hinges not on righteous judgment or moral indignation but on our ability, willingness and courage to know, celebrate and practice forgiveness with the passion of Christ.

Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, November 8, 2020. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by Claire Gibson, Scott Hoezee, Thomas Merton, and Bryan Stevenson inform the message.

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