by Leah Rosso
John 3:14-18; John 7:53-8:11
One Sunday a pastor gave a sermon about forgiveness. Toward the end of the service, He asked his congregation, "how many of you need to offer forgiveness to someone"?
About half of the people held up their hands. He then repeated his question and more hands went up. He then repeated his question again and everyone responded, except one small elderly lady.
"Mrs. Jones?" inquired the preacher, “You don’t have anyone you need to forgive?”
“No one.” she replied, smiling sweetly.
"Mrs. Jones, That’s very unusual. How old are you?" "Ninety-three," she replied.
"Oh Mrs. Jones, what a blessing and a lesson to us all you are. Would you please come
down in front of this congregation and tell us all how you have learned to forgive in your
The little sweetheart of a lady tottered down the aisle, faced the congregation, and said "I outlived them all.”
If only it were that easy!
Forgiveness is something we could spend every week talking about because it affects all of us on so many different levels. There are the very small things- like someone double parking in the last spot at the grocery store; there are bigger things like friends who disappoint us or family disagreements that get blown up into year long quarrels; there are horrifying things like family members dying because of accidents or intentional violence; and then there are huge unimaginable things like the massacres that have happened in the Sudan, Iraq, even at Selma fifty years ago.
And what’s amazing to me, is that there are people who have experienced all different levels of violence who have been able to forgive their perpetrators.
In just a few weeks at St. Cloud State they will be hosting an exhibition called The F-Word; and the F-word the are referring to, is forgiveness. It is something that many of us resist on both micro and macro levels. And yet this project, the F-word Exhibition, gives voice to people in all different circumstances. People who were part of war; people whose loved ones were murdered; people who grew up in households of abuse; people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And what holds them all in common, is that they were able to forgive.
This morning we have this story about the Scribes and Pharisees trying to trick Jesus by bringing in a woman caught in adultery. They do this in front of all the people he is teaching, of course, because they are trying to trap him. And I’m always amazed at his response because it gives them all a way out. So often we read this story and we think that the woman is the one Jesus has saved— and clearly that is true. But when Jesus tells them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” He is also giving them a way out. He offers them the truth of his judgment of them— that not one of them is blameless— but he does so in a way that also shows them the immense grace of God. He’s showing them a different way to live— he’s teaching them about forgiveness. Those stones that they are carrying- both metaphorically and physically— are tremendously heavy. The way they are choosing to live— by judging people mercilessly and trying to kill the life around them— that kind of living is eating away at them bit by bit. So in one simple act Jesus not only forgives the woman, but he actively shows the Scribes and the Pharisees a way for them to live into forgiveness too— he teaches them to see her humanity next to their own humanity.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who won the nobel prize in literature in 1970, wrote:
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human-being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
We are all imperfect people— capable of great good and of great evil. And when we forget our imperfection— both for ourselves and for our neighbor— it is too easy to hold on to grudges, bitterness, and anger. When we forget that we are all God’s children, it is too easy to fall into our own trap of not forgiving each other and ourselves.
Mary Foley was able to see the trap of her own anger and bitterness. Her daughter, Charlotte, at the age of 15, was murdered while at a friend’s house. She just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. For a long time Mary just kept thinking about Charlotte and how much she had wanted to help people. She was planning to go into Social Work as a career and was always reaching out. These thoughts made Mary angrier and angrier as she focused on how unfair the situation was; as she wondered about why it had to happen. And then one day Mary realized that if she didn’t change course, she was going to become someone Charlotte wouldn’t have wanted as a mother. If she didn’t take steps to forgive her daughter’s killer, she was going to be trapped forever. When she finally was brave enough to admit to her husband that she was working on forgiving the killer, her husband responded, “I hope to get there one day too.”
Forgiveness requires of us a vulnerability that can be extremely scary. It requires us to give up certain ideas of justice and instead to embrace the life that Christ offers us. It is not an easy way out. Forgiving others is not disloyal to yourself or to those who have been hurt. It is not even something that we just know how to do. Forgiveness is like a muscle that we have to train over and over again.
Gratefully, we have the example of Jesus to follow. Jesus preached forgiveness when he was alive; he modeled it by forgiving those who hurt him and didn’t understand him, and even those who were in the act of killing him; and then when he returned to his disciples after his resurrection, he listed forgiveness as one of the main things to share with the world. This was not just one thing Jesus did— forgiveness is a central part of who he is and of who we are as his followers. Jesus calls us to forgive so that God’s love can be at work in the world.
There’s no doubt, the stones are heavy. These burdens that we carry around do no good to the people we don’t want to forgive— no one every changed their life because they weren’t forgiven. And the stones we carry endanger our own lives and health. We become people we don’t want to be— people who are unable to love— when we refuse to work on forgiving others.
So take some time this morning. As we spend some time in prayer, listen to your heart about who or what you may need to forgive. It may not even be a person. It may be an entire institution or a group of people or it may even be God. Take one small step today— asking for the desire to forgive; asking God to open your heart to understand or see the other person as a child of God; maybe even asking God to help you take the last step if it’s something you’ve been working on a long time and you’re ready to let go. Wherever you’re at, know that Jesus has been there in that spot before you were. That thousands of people all over the world have carried heavy burdens like the one you are carrying, and that forgiveness is possible.
During the Truth and Reconciliation trials in South Africa, Generals and Army officials of the Apartheid Regime were brought in to listen to stories of the family members they had killed. One woman was brought in and shared her story of how the General had made her watch as he killed her husband and son. She told the whole story, as this man who had done these horrible things sat on the witness stand, forced to listen to how this affected her life. And then the woman said to him, “Now that my husband is gone and my son is gone, I don’t have a family left to love and I have lots of love left to give. As retribution, I would like you to spend one day a month with me as my son. I would like to pour my love into you so that you will know that you are forgiven.” And then the General fainted.
Forgiveness can be hard to receive. It often means we have to forgive ourselves. We have to recognize the power of love. We are making our way through Lent to Holy Week, when we will find that the people who considered themselves faithful to God will ask for Jesus to be put to death by the Roman government. And even as Jesus hangs on the cross asking for forgiveness, God will once again say to us, I still have love to share. I still long to love you as my children. Come to me, find freedom, let your burdens go. You are forgiven.