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Forgiven and Forgiving
Luke 7:36-50  August 30, 2020

There was an interesting finding by the Pew Research Center in response to revelations of the massive information mining done by NSA through our web servers.

Pew found that while the majority of Americans are bothered that the government tracks their internet habits, their biggest fear is this information might become known by their employers, families and neighbors.

Apparently, many of us are guarded about secrets of our heart.

Being honest, vulnerable and personal with Jesus and with those closest to us is hard, but it is the key to peace of mind and health.

None of us view ourselves as a judgmental Pharisee who would ridicule and condemn the woman in today’s narrative.

But we might have some private histories, attitudes or behaviors with which we condemn ourselves.

Unfortunately, many of us have ignored, rationalized or glossed them over rather than squarely face them so that we can receive God’s forgiveness and forgive ourselves.

Mahatma Gandhi said “the weak can never forgive; forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Yet John Hopkins and others report that holding grudges against others and self-blame for our own failures and past wrongs lead to emotional diseases like depression, and physical manifestations like high blood pressure and heart disease.

As Lewis Smedes said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

But forgiveness can be uncomfortable work that we naturally avoid.

I’m not the first commentator to see Simon’s dinner with Jesus as a possible set-up.

Inviting an itinerant rabbi with a reputation as a troublemaker to dinner with the community’s elite seems unlikely.

It could be they were trying to trap him by what he said to them, or catch him in an inappropriate response to the sinful woman.

We may not be trying to discredit Jesus as blatantly as Simon and his friends, but we should consider how we keep him at arm’s length by not honestly facing our histories, our deeply-held attitudes, and then truly repenting so we can forgive ourselves and so we can forgive others.

We don’t know why the woman earned the reputation of being a sinner.

But her exuberant gratitude and praise for the forgiveness she experienced through Jesus became one of the favorite stories for the early church, earning her mention in all four gospels.

Simon was a community leader who had invited other prominent men from his village.

With the order of their seating carefully assigned by social standing, the men would lounge on cushions around a low u-shaped table, leaning on their left arm and eating with their right hand.

Women would never be included at the table, and except for serving the men would not be admitted to the room in which they dined.

So, the sinful woman took a great risk by barging into the dining area just so that she could draw close to Jesus and offer him praise.

Since she came prepared with perfume, it is likely that Jesus had already met her, had already forgiven her sins, and that she was now unable to hold back her gratitude, uncaring of the shock and disapproval of everyone else.

Some things, you see, are so good that it’s hard to believe they’re true, which leads Jesus to repeat the words of forgiveness so they can sink in.

Her praise was personal and without pretense as she showed her neighbors that she recognized that she had been a sinner, and that she needed forgiveness.

Where does one go when told to go in peace as Jesus instructs the woman at the end of our story?

What she needs is a community of forgiven and forgiving sinners – like a church that says “no matter who you are or where you’ve been on your life’s journey, you are welcome here”.

I confess that at about this point in the story I am thinking to myself, “You know, unlike this woman, I don’t really have that much sin to confess.

“I mean, I may have a few misdeeds here and there, but as I run through the big sins I’m pretty much in the clear.

“Murder? No.

“Swindling widows and orphans? No.

“Assault and battery?  Breaking and entering? Drunken brawl? No, no, and no.

“Lust? Well, sure, but doesn’t everyone a little bit?

“Holding resentments? … well, maybe some, but only against folks who really deserve it.”

If I try to manage sin like Simon and his Pharisee friends, then I become very rigid in my outward life, and brittle in my relationships as I try to behave perfectly and demand perfection from others without having the closeness to God that makes moral behavior and compassion more natural.

But remember that we understand sin as a break in relationship between us and God.

The wider that gap between myself and God, the more anguished and dissatisfied is my experience of life – no matter how pure I act on the outside.

Jesus offers a healing of that gap … a release from sin.

Even though we will never have perfect attitudes or behaviors, he shows us God’s love and forgiveness, even as he corrects our course in life.

Like the sinful woman, once we experience his healing, we can’t help but rejoice.

But we find it very hard to fess-up in such a personal way.

I’ve been thinking about Alabama Governor George Wallace who faced-down National Guard troops to block the entrance of African Americans Vivian Malone and James Hood to the University of Alabama.

President Kennedy had sent the troops to escort them to classes, but Governor Wallace had his own troops, including Bull O’Connor who would soon turn dogs, Billy clubs and fire hoses on demonstrators.

Surrounded by blue-helmeted policemen, Wallace blocked the university entrance proclaiming on national television, “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!”

It must have been a heady time for Gov. Wallace who overnight found himself a national celebrity attracting cheering crowds wherever he went.

The racist violence that Governor Wallace fueled eventually backfired when a 1972 assassination attempt by Arthur Bremer left him partially paralyzed and in constant pain.

While recovering in a Maryland Hospital, Wallace was visited by Shirley Chisholm, who at the time was the only African American member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Despite Wallace running what was described as the most racist gubernatorial campaign in Alabama’s history, Chisholm traveled to his bedside to him prayers and encouraging words for his recovery.

Then something happened to George Wallace, who soon after announced that he had become a born again Christian and after a couple of years he changed course and began a string of personal apologies to civil rights leaders for his past actions as a segregationist.

He said that while he had once sought power and glory, he now realized he needed to seek love and forgiveness.

A church that’s faithful to Jesus is not a sanctuary for saints.

It is a hospital for sinners … people who know their un-righteous thoughts, their pettiness, the responsibilities they’ve shunned, but who also know the freedom that comes from releasing resentments, guilt and shame.

Although he endured around-the-clock pain from Arthur Bremer’s bullet, in 1992 George Wallace wrote a letter of forgiveness to the man.

Then in 1996, Wallace met face-to-face with Vivian Malone and James Hood, the two black students he had blocked at the University door, and asked for their forgiveness.

Speaking to Vivian Malone, Gov. Wallace said, “You are an icon of the civil rights movement, and you conducted yourself with great dignity and grace.”

His eyes filled with tears as she reached over and touched his hand as a gesture of forgiveness.

How different would our nation be today if our people could repent like George Wallace, and reach across the table like Vivian Malone?

How different would our lives be if we could repent our personal sins?

As I frequently say, God loves you just as you are, but too much to leave you this way.

Simon and Jesus offer a stark contrast.

Simon was focused on the woman’s past, whereas Jesus was only concerned about her future.

Simon was not a bad guy … he was just trying to be good and respectable, which in turn led him to judge others by his perception of goodness and respectability.

When we judge others that way, we close our hearts to the sacredness of their life and how God may be working within and through them.

When we judge ourselves that way, we repress our shame for all those secret sins we ourselves have committed, and for all those responsibilities we’ve shirked … and then we have to expend enormous effort to protect ourselves from our feelings.

I invite you to be very deliberate in bringing your guilt, blame and shame to Christ.

For most of my life I blamed my parents for some things they had done, but recently in prayer I was shown what their life was like at the time – two young people freshly traumatized by the war, my dad engaged in a tense conflict with his parents and my mother living in a strange new country raising a child.

From this vantage point I could release my judgement of them.

But God went a step further, showing me that while justifying some craziness in my early life, I had exaggerated my parents’ flaws – over and over telling myself stories that were not quite true.

It was a moment of forgiveness for my parents and liberation for me.

And maybe you have bigger things or lesser things that have haunted you.

We each can follow the lead of the sinful woman in today’s narrative – taking our sins, failures, short-fallings to Jesus.

Jesus offers a healing, peace-building alternative to the Simon living in each of us – freeing us so that we will praise God with all our heart.

Forgiveness is like a breath of fresh air.

Forgiveness works at the mental, emotional and spiritual levels to change our hearts and so change our lives.