Sermon: "Forgiveness"

8 June 2008

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
June 8, 2008


Matthew 9:1-13

Thank you, Jane, for the sermon title, and for that reading.  As you may remember from last week, this summer I am preaching on the sermon titles the Confirmands suggested.  I’m matching them to the best lectionary text I can find, and Jane’s sermon here on forgiveness was next.  So what does Jesus have to say today about forgiveness?

Jesus says, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”  Well…  Welcome, sinners!  You have heard the call and now here you are.  I realize it may be hard for you to hear this as Good News.  It brings back the old days of Congregational preaching, when the good folk of Brookfield would have been treated to a long, pulpit-pounding sermon designed to bring you all to tears – and a deep conviction of your sinful nature.  But nowadays we are more like what a friend of mine – who was raised in a fundamentalist church – likes to call “Church Lite.”  We don’t like to wallow in guilt and negativity.

I know people who’ve left churches that were too focused on sin and our need for forgiveness.  There was one older man in my last church who came in to talk to his pastors because he was so deeply offended by any suggestion in prayer or sermons that we might need to confess our sins or change our ways.  “I am not a sinner,” he said flat out. And he proceeded to rattle off a long list of his good works – he didn’t drink or smoke, he took care of a relative who was an invalid, he volunteered at several charitable organizations, he never missed a Sunday in church, he was always reading something that was good for him – something spiritual or enlightening – and not frittering away his time watching mindless TV.  I suggested he might read Paul’s Letter to the Romans, if he wanted to understand the Christian theology of salvation by faith and not works, but he declined, saying he didn’t like the Bible, and especially not Paul, because it was all “too negative.”

I would argue that the truth is almost exactly the opposite – the righteousness that some people pursue, and which some claim to achieve, is really a very negative path.  It is a deadly trap – one that caught up Paul and other well-meaning Pharisees, and one that is still a danger to good church-going folks like us – those of us who keep on going to church even in the summer.  (I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty smug about it!)  But perfectionism is a kind of spiritual bondage that can lead to very real paralysis.  It’s the source of writer’s block, for instance.  And I was just talking this past week about sports – about how paralyzing it can be to play with too much caution.  You’d think it might be a good thing to be careful and avoid mistakes – but you never make a basket if you don’t ever dare to shoot the ball; you’ll never get to first base if you’re afraid to swing the bat! If you don't take risks and play aggressively, you'll never be able to compete at a high level.

This is why I find it intriguing that Jesus makes the connection in this text between the paralyzed man and sin.  “Which is easier,” Jesus asks,  “to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?”  God’s amazing grace sets us free to what Jesus calls “fullness of life” by giving us the courage to step out into the world, to stand up and make tough choices, and to risk failure.  I had an acting teacher back in San Francisco who would really get angry at actors if he sensed us holding back in rehearsal for fear of making a mistake.  “I want you to fail!” he would shout.  “I want you to fail and I want you to fail BIG and I want you to fail at least three times!  That’s why they cal it a rehearsal – if you’re not trying things that didn’t work you’re not doing your job!”

So was the paralytic in Matthew paralyzed more physically or spiritually, we might wonder?  The old King James Version of the Bible refers to the paralyzed man as “a man sick of the palsy,” which is a different image than what we might imagine – a quadriplegic in an electric wheelchair.  Back then Christopher Reeve never would have survived long enough for Jesus to work a miracle on him.  The man probably had something like cerebral palsy, which is caused (then as today) by brain injury or oxygen loss during birth.  It could have been quite mild even, in this man’s case – because in the absence of any “Judeans with Disabilities Act,” the man would have had very little hope of being included in a useful way as a member of his society.  According to the purity codes of Judaism, anyone with physical imperfection was not allowed access to the Temple, or to God, and was unlikely to be allowed to earn a living – other than begging in the streets.  And besides that, the Jewish theology of his day would have told him that he had ended up that way because he (or his parents) had sinned.

In case you’re tempted to believe it’s any easier to be disabled today, I want to share a story about one of my minister friends who has cerebral palsy.  I’ve actually got three very good friends who are ministers who have cerebral palsy, to various degrees, and for all of them, I know their faith was strengthened by their experiences of grace in spite of disability – or maybe because of it.  You met Sophia last summer, because she was here for General Synod and helped me serve communion in July.  But my friend Margie is older, and – born in the early 1950s – she grew up long before the politically correct phrase “differently abled” would have been used, and before kids with disability were allowed in the public schools.  She heard herself referred to as “that poor little crippled girl,” and her parents were encouraged to send her off to an institution, where she was treated as if she were mentally disabled – not just stiff and awkward in her walking.  She taught me a lot about forgiveness, because I saw how the unconditional love of Jesus had so liberated her from the angers and resentments of her past.  She got her Ph.D. the same day I got my first Master’s, and we all saw her fall down the chancel stairs of the church where we graduated.  They were low and carpeted, like ours, so she wasn’t hurt.  But I also saw the Body of Christ rise as one to her aid – as our whole class rushed off the front pews to help her get up again.  We were all laughing, because God’s grace is like that.  It helps us all stand up and walk again when we stumble and fall.

Matthew the tax collector knew God’s grace as well – and the joy of forgiveness – because tax collectors in Jesus’s day but were looked on as even worse sinners than the disabled.  Jewish peasants despised the tax collector – because he was a collaborator with the occupation army.  He enriched himself at his neighbors’ expense, and would take a huge “cut” of the taxes for himself.   He was not so much like a respectable IRS agent, but would have been a lot more like the punk a mob boss might send out into a neighborhood to collect protection money.  So tax collectors were among the wealthiest and most hated people in any village.  And though there wasn’t much anyone could do to get back at the Romans, townspeople could direct their anger and outrage at the tax collectors by shunning them and denying them access to their God through the faith community.

My point is, Jesus was doing the unthinkable in these stories.  He was not just being kind – he was forgiving everything.  He was going a little overboard, according to some people.  He was loving sinners BEFORE they did anything to change their ways.  I loved what Greg Carey, Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary wrote about this text:  “Jesus' companionship with sinners appears to be just that, companionship and not treatment. Jesus has many harsh words to say in the First Gospel, but he directs none of them at sinners. His inaugural message is a call to repent … He pronounces woe against the scribes and the Pharisees (chapter 23). In the First Gospel Jesus not once reproves sinners. He does not criticize them. He does not demand their repentance. He simply eats and drinks with them.”  So for Matthew, the hated tax collector healed and changed by the love of Jesus, forgiveness is at the very heart of the Gospel.  Receiving and giving forgiveness becomes the very definition of a Christian – NOT perfection that comes from the pursuit of righteousness.

Poet Maya Angelou was being interviewed on one of those so-called Christian TV networks, but they were giving her a bit of a hard time because she’s a more progressive Christian than some, and – like our church– she has been “open and affirming” to gay and lesbian Christians.  So the interviewer was grilling her pretty hard and finally asked, “Are you even a Christian?”  And she said, “Are you?” To which the indignant interviewer said, “Well, of course.”  And Angelou said, “Really?  … Already?”   To be a Christian is not so much to be a member of an exclusive club as it is to be admitted as a patient in a hospital for sin-sick souls.  A poem by Carol Wimmer that is often mistakenly attributed to Maya Angelou, called “I Am a Christian,” says a lot about why it’s good news and not bad to learn that we are all sinners. Jesus came to love us in spite of ourselves, and to save us ANYWAY.

“I Am a Christian”


When I say.... "I am a Christian"
I'm not shouting "I'm clean livin."
I'm whispering "I was lost,"
Now I'm found and forgiven.

When I say..."I am a Christian"
I don't speak of this with pride.
I'm confessing that I stumble
and need CHRIST to be my guide.

When I say... "I am a Christian"
I'm not trying to be strong.
I'm professing that I'm weak
and need HIS strength to carry on.

When I say... "I am a Christian"
I'm not bragging of success.
I'm admitting I have failed
and need God to clean my mess.

When I say... "I am a Christian"
I'm not claiming to be perfect,
My flaws are far too visible
but, God believes I am worth it.

When I say... "I am a Christian"
I still feel the sting of pain,
I have my share of heartaches
So I call upon His name.

When I say... "I am a Christian"
I'm not holier than thou,
I'm just a simple sinner
who received God's good grace, somehow.


Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


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