The Dance of Forgiveness  
Luke 15:1-32
Sept. 27, 2014, at The Gathering – Orlando
Susan Pendleton Jones
 

Scripture tells us that “All the promises of God find their YES in Jesus Christ.” We live in the hope of such a YES. We long for a sense of home and belonging, for meaning and purpose, for belief that the world is ultimately destined for reconciliation and wholeness. We yearn for the YES of God. Yet so much of our world, and our own lives, seem marked by the NO – by bitterness and brokenness, destruction and division, sin and shame. Often the fault lies beyond us, but sometimes we are the ones at fault. Genesis 4 reminds us that “Sin lurks at the door.”

The Apostle Paul calls us “clay jars” – fragile, vulnerable, easily broken. And yet God’s desire is to use us, clay jars that we are, to be HIS vessels – to be his instruments, his ambassadors, conduits of his love, his grace, his forgiveness to the world.

So the question for this morning is: how do we as Christians live into a future not bound by the brokenness of the past?

We begin by claiming the church’s word – Forgiveness – and we commit to living into it, realizing that it has to be practiced over and over throughout our lives. Forgiveness is a process, it’s like a dance, even if somewhat awkward at times, because it takes practice, patience, movement, and grace. Greg and I have identified 6 primary steps in this dance – and each of them relates to a particular passage of scripture that helps to enlighten each of the steps.

The DANCE of FORGIVENESS

We must be willing to speak truthfully and patiently about the conflicts that have arisen. (James 1:19 – Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger). This isn’t easy, and there may not even be agreement about what has happened to cause the division and brokenness. So we need not only truthfulness but also patience, the virtue the ancient theologian Tertullian called “the mother of mercy.” When we try to be patient AND truthful, we can discern more clearly what has happened. (Comedian Bill Cosby put it this way: Parenthood is really tested when you have at least 2 children. Because if you only have 1, you know who broke the lamp.) Getting to the truth is often tricky.

We must acknowledge both the existence of anger and bitterness and have a desire to overcome them.(Ephesians 4:26 – Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your wrath.) Whether the emotions of anger and bitterness are our own or belong to the other person, it does no good to deny them. Anger can be a sign of life, of passion; we should be more troubled by those whose passion is hidden, or worse, extinguished. Even so, we can learn to overcome and let go of anger and bitterness as we begin to live differently through practices that transform hatred into love.

Several years ago a friend of mine was abducted in a grocery store parking lot. At gunpoint she was taken to an ATM and then was forced into the trunk of her car. Trapped in the dark trunk for hours, she focused on one small beam of light coming into the back of the trunk – and she prayed over and over. Her worst fear was that her abductor was going to drive the car into a lake and leave her to drown. Finally after driving for more than 5 hours, her abductor let her out of the drunk after midnight in a remote part of South Carolina. There she ran toward the light of a home off in the distance, but she was so traumatized that she couldn’t speak. The people there kept her safe until her husband arrived hours later at dawn. They caught the young man who had abducted her and over the next few months, she met his family, she learned of his background, and she ended up testifying on his behalf in court. “I want him to get help, she told the judge. He needs a chance for a better life.” She still fears being alone – and she doesn’t go out at night anymore. She bears the wounds of this trauma, but she has discovered for the sake of her captor and for her own healing – that she needed to channel her anger into a path toward forgiveness.

Summon up a concern for the well-being of the other person as a child of God. (Matthew 5:43-44 – You have heard it said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I saw to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”) Sometimes our partner in the dance of forgiveness is a total stranger; at other times, they are intimately involved in our lives or may be people from whom we have become estranged. Either way, seeing the ones on whom our bitterness focuses as children of God challenges our tendency to perceive them simply as enemies, as rivals or threats. It may be difficult for us to pray for them, but this is the beauty of intercessory prayer – even when we cannot pray, others can pray for them on our behalf. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln spoke kindly about the South at a moment when feelings were most bitter. Asked by a shocked bystander how he could do this, Lincoln replied, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Recognize our own complicity in conflict, remember that we have been forgiven in the past, and take the step of repentance. (Matthew 7:1-5 – from the Sermon on the Mount. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged – first take the log out of your own eye before you take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”) This doesn’t mean ignoring differences between victims and victimizers; people need to be held accountable for their actions, and some people need to repent and ask forgiveness while those who have been victimized struggle to forgive. Even so, in all but the most extreme cases, we also need to recognize and resist the temptation to blame others while exonerating ourselves. All too often we see the specks in other people’s eyes while not noticing the log in our own. It’s not surprising that the very first sin in scripture is blaming others. In Gen. 3 as soon as Eve eats from the apple she blames the serpent and after Adam eats, he blames not only Eve, but he also blames God as the one who gave Eve to him in the first place. “This woman whom you gave me, God, she gave me the fruit of the tree.” Notice also, that here for the first time, Adam and Eve realize they are naked. “Who told you you were naked?” God asks. Blame and Shame go hand in hand. It is difficult to recognize our own complicity in sin.

Make a commitment to struggle to change whatever caused and continues to perpetuate the conflict. (Matt 18 – pastoral process)

Forgiveness does not merely refer backward to the absolution of guilt; it also looks forward to the restoration of community. Forgiveness ought to usher in repentance and change; it ought to inspire prophetic protest wherever people’s lives are being diminished or destroyed. Forgiveness and justice are closely related. In his book  No Future Without Forgiveness, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes two forms of justice: retributive (an “eye for an eye” that evens the score, settles the debt) and restorative justice which seeks healing and wholeness as far as possible. Redemption is the goal of restorative justice.

Confess our yearning for the possibility of reconciliation.

(II Corinthians 5:17) Sometimes a situation is so painful that reconciliation may seem impossible. At such times, prayer and struggle may be the only imaginable options. However, continuing to maintain reconciliation as the goal – even if this is “hoping against hope” for reconciliation in this life – it is important because it reminds us that God promises to make all things new – the promise of the New Jerusalem in Rev. 21:5: “Behold, I am making all things new.”

Greg and I describe the process of forgiveness as a “dance.” Jesus described forgiveness through story-telling – using spoken parables, but he also enacted parables by the way he lived. His most well-known parable – that combined both of these (how he lived and stories he told) – is the scripture passage I would like us to focus on this morning, from the 15th chapter of the gospel of Luke.

Eating together was a very intimate act in first century Palestine. There was a strong tradition of hospitality, then as now.  When you shared table fellowship with someone it was a sign of full acceptance of the other person – “I believe in you; I will stake my reputation on you.” Eating together was a sign of welcome, of embrace, even a sign of forgiveness. Scripture tells us that Jesus did this with sinners and tax collectors, sometimes even with prostitutes and other outcasts. His eating with them was a sign of God’s forgiveness of them – he was offering them a place at God’s table. The Hebrew scriptures warn about associating with these kinds of people, so the religious leaders of Jesus’ day – wanting to uphold purity laws and maintain good order – were deeply offended by Jesus’ actions – they thought his behavior was offensive to God.

To help the scribes and Pharisees understand why he lived this way, Jesus tells them a story – no, actually he told them three stories that are found in Luke 15. The first two are about lost objects – a sheep and a coin – the first with a focus on the shepherd who goes out to find the lost sheep, and the second about a woman who searches and searches until she finds the lost coin. The third story is about two brothers and a forgiving father. We are invited to discover in this story the wonderful YES of God’s forgiveness and God’s love that allows us to live into a future not bound by the brokenness of the past.

Which of you having 100 sheep and losing one of them would leave the other 99 and go out into the desert, over the cliffs, in the heat of the day and the cold of the night, in search of that one sheep that is lost? And which of you having 10 coins but losing one, will light the lamps, sweep the house, look high and low, to find that one lost coin? Who would do that? None of us. But God would. “Let’s go out after any who are lost – even if it means risking the 99 sheep just to re-gain one – or even if it takes extra time and effort to look endlessly for one lost coin.  “We must,” God says, “because we cannot fully rejoice until everyone has been brought back home.”

These stories tell us about the character of God. They give us a brief glimpse into the heart and mind of the one Jesus called “Father” – Abba.   Though the final parable is usually called The Prodigal Son, it’s really more about the Loving Father AND his TWO Prodigal Sons.

You know the story – the younger son asks for his share of the inheritance, essentially wishing his father dead, ends up squandering the money on prostitutes, and when he finds himself penniless, hungry and feeding pigs, he realizes that even his father’s servants are better off than he is. So he comes to himself. We don’t know exactly what this means: is it repentance, is it a new sense of self-awareness, maybe it’s a deep desire to go home – hoping to be welcomed back by his father. What we do know is that the younger son rehearses his speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”

And then the amazing homecoming – While the son is still far off in the distance his father catches a glimpse of him and he is filled with compassion. The father runs, puts his arms around his son and kisses him. Then he calls to the servants: “Quickly, bring a robe – the best one – and a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. Get the fatted calf and kill it, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now is found! And they began to celebrate.

Jesus tells the Pharisees when one sinner repents, God rejoices so exuberantly, so freely, that heaven itself joins in a song of praise. “Come, rejoice with me, for this one who was lost, now is found. Let’s have a party; let’s slaughter the fatted calf. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.” That’s what God says.

What we learn in the third parable of this trilogy is that the loving Father goes out from the house, not only looking for the younger son – the one who was very much like those sinners and tax collectors – but he also goes out after the elder son, the son who seems an awful lot like those scribes and Pharisees. The elder son refuses to come in to the party, so the father goes out after him, too. He invites the elder son to come in just like he did the younger son – the Father wants both of his sons to feast and rejoice with him. But the story ends as a cliff—hanger. We don’t know in the end, if the elder son – who represents those religious leaders – obeys his father or not. If the scribes and Pharisees are listening carefully they realize they are actually missing out on God’s party.

When we began commissioning artwork for our new building at the Divinity School at Duke, we found a sculptor who had read Greg’s book on forgiveness and who noticed in his office a framed copy of “Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son.” “That should be our theme.” she said. So we sat with her and read Luke 15 over and over and over. How do we portray this Prodigal Son story in one frozen frame – in one sculpture? First we realized that the story in incomplete without both of the ungrateful sons in it. Then we discussed how it is that the father ties the story together. So, we decided, the sculpture must have all 3 figures, the frail, crook-backed father in the center with his right arm around the younger son who is penitently kneeling beside him with his left arm around the father’s back, his left hand resting on his father’s heart. The elder son is standing tall on the other side of the Father, arms folded across his chest, leaning back, looking away. You can hear the elder brother saying: “I’ve been with you always. I have never disobeyed you, but you have never even given me a goat to celebrate with my friends. It’s just not fair!”

But the father’s left hand is reaching out to the elder son, trying to draw him in, the older brother’s body is taut, tense, angry and bitter. Yet the father is looking at him with a pleading, hopeful look. And there you have it. The “is” and the “ought.” Reconciliation achieved between the father and the younger son – but also much work still left to be done. There is still the aching, still the consequences of sin which linger – the elderly father now is much more frail and weary-worn, the younger son has his empty pockets, his bruised ego, and the knowledge that he has deeply hurt his father. And yet there is the vision of what can be, as the father continues to reach out to the elder son and invite him into the party. We are called to live as “aching visionaries” – as those who yearn for God’s Kingdom to come in all its fullness.

God’s love is wide and deep enough to embrace all, drawing all of us in to celebrate, making a place for everyone at God’s table – those who know they are lost and admit they need help – and those who are too stubborn or too blind or too self-righteous to see their own need. This is why God’s grace is amazing – because it reaches out to all – those who are clearly lost in sin and cannot find their way AND those, like the Elder brother who don’t even know they are lost. Like him, they allow the world to contract – focusing inward on themselves – on petty slights, hurt feelings, thoughtless oversights. It’s so much more fun to be angry and resentful, to feel unappreciated like that elder brother and say: “It’s just not fair.”

Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and well-known author wrote these words about anger and resentment:

“To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the end of the banquet is you!”

“Feasting on forgiveness” rather than on bitterness, anger, or revenge, allows us the freedom to live into a future not bound by the brokenness of the past. It gives us hope. It gives us strength for tomorrow.

A wise friend once said. “Our ability to experience Joy is discovered in our capacity to forgive.” Only when we come to the point where we can forgive others for the wrongs done to us – only when we truly know ourselves forgiven by others and by God, can we experience joy in all its fullest. Feasting on forgiveness renews in us that sense of joy. These parables are evidence that God’s mercy – that the searching heart of God – is actively at work. It is this mercy – this amazing grace – that gives us reason to rejoice, to feast on forgiveness.

But it’s not a “one and done.” Forgiveness is an on-going practice that takes hard work. The only way to do it well is to have others in your life who walk with you and help you live it – who help us learn the practices, the dance steps, of forgiveness. And who help us unlearn bad practices – it involves both support AND accountability. John Wesley called these kinds of groups bands and class meetings, we call them “holy friends.”

Holy friends are those people in our lives who challenge the sins we have come to love, who affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim, and who will help us dream dreams we otherwise wouldn’t have imagined.

Holy friends challenge the sins we’ve come to love. We usually feel ok when people we respect and trust tell us not to do things that we already know are wrong, partly because our consciences are usually already working on us. It is much harder to have people tell us to stop doing things that are wrong when we don’t fully think we are wrong. Sometimes we rationalize things and say that what we are doing really “isn’t so bad” or maybe we think “well, nobody’s going to get hurt, so why not?” or we might be so self-deceived that we don’t even realize the harm we are causing.  It’s like the story of Nathan and David from the Old Testament. David was guilty of having an affair with the wife of another man and then orchestrated the killing of her husband to try to cover things up. When the prophet Nathan described a similar situation to King David, David said that the man should be held accountable and punished. Nathan was brave enough to say to the king, “Thou art the man.” We need friends in our lives who take the risk to hold a mirror up to our faces and make us look into it, even when we don’t want to. Often we don’t like for others to hold us accountable, but we know in the end that they are doing it to help make us better people. And they need us to do that for them as well. Holy friends challenge the sins we’ve come to love.

Holy friends also affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim.  It’s nice when people tell us that we’ve done a good job, but it is no surprise if they are talking about something that we know we’re already good at doing. Holy friends are people who know us well enough to try to cultivate in us gifts that they can see, but that we often can’t. Sometimes we’re afraid to try new things, sometimes we play old tapes of voices from the past who have told us we can’t achieve much, other times we just become complacent and are happy to continue doing what is familiar and safe. People who know us well will help us live into the new future that God is creating – and will give us the courage to move beyond our fears and limitations. They will say to us things like: “I see God working in your life in this way…have you ever considered becoming a lay leader? or ministering in the soup kitchen? perhaps is God calling you into the ministry? You seem to have a gift with children, have you ever helped a child learn to read?” We need people in our lives, like the Apostle Paul had his friend named “Barnabas” (whose name means “encourager”), who provide the kind of support and encouragement that help us follow God’s call. And they need us to do that for them as well.

Finally, Holy friends help us dream dreams we otherwise wouldn’t have imagined. In Ephesians 3:20 the Apostle writes: “…by the power that is at work within us, [God] is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Holy friends help us not only begin to believe this, but also to live it. It would be enough to say that God can do all we could ask or imagine, or even more than all we could imagine – or far more than all we could ask or imagine – but that’s still not enough. Paul intensifies it three times over saying: God can do abundantly far more than all we could ask or imagine – it’s terrible grammar but amazing theology.

We need holy friends in our lives who can help us live into that “abundantly far more than all” kind of future – the “life abundant” that Jesus has promised to all who follow him. Holy friends teach us how to listen to God more carefully because they take the time to get to know us well, we come to trust them with our most intimate concerns and needs, and friendship with them gives us a glimpse into what friendship with God is like.

In the book of James, chapter 5, we see the early church trying to live faithfully before God after the death and resurrection of Jesus. They are  living as Holy Friends – they pray for one another, they sing together, they get to know each other well enough to confess their sins to each other, they pray for healing and wholeness in each other’s lives. Forgiveness in scripture is often linked to healing. In the same way that Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors to offer them God’s forgiveness, he was also offering them the healing presence of God in their midst – for the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet that Greg spoke of yesterday – Jesus says to her, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Salaam – shalom.

Jesus often links a healing miracle with the forgiveness of sins – a healing of the whole person – body, mind and soul. In the NT, there are 7 miracles that Jesus performs on the Sabbath: healing the man with the withered hand, giving sight to the man born blind, exorcising a demon from the man with an unclean spirit, healing a man of leprosy. Jesus breaks the Sabbath commandment with each of these miraclesand again he incurs the wrath of the religious leaders of the day. Yet he doesn’t perform other miracles on the Sabbath – he doesn’t turn the water into wine, he doesn’t feed the 5000, he doesn’t raise Lazarus, he doesn’t walk on water or still the storm at sea on the Sabbath. What do the seven Sabbath miracles have in common? In them, Jesus meets a particular person with a particular need for healing, and he makes them well. In effect, he is saying: it is worth breaking one of the 10 commandments to bring healing to a person’s life. “Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Jesus’s touch provides the healing of body and mind, and his offer of forgiveness provides the healing of the soul – even if it means breaking the Sabbath commandment. Jesus always puts people and their needs over principles and rigid rule following.

We can live into a future not bound by the brokenness of the past because the forgiveness we know in Jesus brings healing to our lives through the power of the HS, his grace comes to us through the gift of holy friends, and receiving and claiming this grace for ourselves gives us reason to rejoice – to feast on forgiveness rather than bitterness, anger or revenge.

Toward the close of her hauntingly beautiful novel Beloved, Toni Morrison tells of a conversation between Sixo and Sethe. Both had been slaves all their lives – Sixo had met a woman a few years back, a woman he called the “30 mile woman” because he had to walk 30 miles to see her and spend time with her. He tells Sethe what this woman had meant in his life – how she had met him in all his brokenness and, over time, had mended his life. “She take the pieces that I am,” he says, “and she give ‘em back to me, in all the right order.”

God is like that.

God takes the pieces – all the broken pieces of our lives – gathers them up, puts them under the blessing of his forgiveness and then offers them back to us renewed and whole – in all the right order – so that we may live in the world as the Body of Christ – broken, but forgiven and redeemed. Amen.

 
 
The Dance of Forgiveness  
Luke 15:1-32
Sept. 27, 2014, at The Gathering – Orlando
Susan Pendleton Jones
 

Scripture tells us that “All the promises of God find their YES in Jesus Christ.” We live in the hope of such a YES. We long for a sense of home and belonging, for meaning and purpose, for belief that the world is ultimately destined for reconciliation and wholeness. We yearn for the YES of God. Yet so much of our world, and our own lives, seem marked by the NO – by bitterness and brokenness, destruction and division, sin and shame. Often the fault lies beyond us, but sometimes we are the ones at fault. Genesis 4 reminds us that “Sin lurks at the door.”

The Apostle Paul calls us “clay jars” – fragile, vulnerable, easily broken. And yet God’s desire is to use us, clay jars that we are, to be HIS vessels – to be his instruments, his ambassadors, conduits of his love, his grace, his forgiveness to the world.

So the question for this morning is: how do we as Christians live into a future not bound by the brokenness of the past?

We begin by claiming the church’s word – Forgiveness – and we commit to living into it, realizing that it has to be practiced over and over throughout our lives. Forgiveness is a process, it’s like a dance, even if somewhat awkward at times, because it takes practice, patience, movement, and grace. Greg and I have identified 6 primary steps in this dance – and each of them relates to a particular passage of scripture that helps to enlighten each of the steps.

The DANCE of FORGIVENESS

We must be willing to speak truthfully and patiently about the conflicts that have arisen. (James 1:19 – Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger). This isn’t easy, and there may not even be agreement about what has happened to cause the division and brokenness. So we need not only truthfulness but also patience, the virtue the ancient theologian Tertullian called “the mother of mercy.” When we try to be patient AND truthful, we can discern more clearly what has happened. (Comedian Bill Cosby put it this way: Parenthood is really tested when you have at least 2 children. Because if you only have 1, you know who broke the lamp.) Getting to the truth is often tricky.

We must acknowledge both the existence of anger and bitterness and have a desire to overcome them.(Ephesians 4:26 – Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your wrath.) Whether the emotions of anger and bitterness are our own or belong to the other person, it does no good to deny them. Anger can be a sign of life, of passion; we should be more troubled by those whose passion is hidden, or worse, extinguished. Even so, we can learn to overcome and let go of anger and bitterness as we begin to live differently through practices that transform hatred into love.

Several years ago a friend of mine was abducted in a grocery store parking lot. At gunpoint she was taken to an ATM and then was forced into the trunk of her car. Trapped in the dark trunk for hours, she focused on one small beam of light coming into the back of the trunk – and she prayed over and over. Her worst fear was that her abductor was going to drive the car into a lake and leave her to drown. Finally after driving for more than 5 hours, her abductor let her out of the drunk after midnight in a remote part of South Carolina. There she ran toward the light of a home off in the distance, but she was so traumatized that she couldn’t speak. The people there kept her safe until her husband arrived hours later at dawn. They caught the young man who had abducted her and over the next few months, she met his family, she learned of his background, and she ended up testifying on his behalf in court. “I want him to get help, she told the judge. He needs a chance for a better life.” She still fears being alone – and she doesn’t go out at night anymore. She bears the wounds of this trauma, but she has discovered for the sake of her captor and for her own healing – that she needed to channel her anger into a path toward forgiveness.

Summon up a concern for the well-being of the other person as a child of God. (Matthew 5:43-44 – You have heard it said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I saw to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”) Sometimes our partner in the dance of forgiveness is a total stranger; at other times, they are intimately involved in our lives or may be people from whom we have become estranged. Either way, seeing the ones on whom our bitterness focuses as children of God challenges our tendency to perceive them simply as enemies, as rivals or threats. It may be difficult for us to pray for them, but this is the beauty of intercessory prayer – even when we cannot pray, others can pray for them on our behalf. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln spoke kindly about the South at a moment when feelings were most bitter. Asked by a shocked bystander how he could do this, Lincoln replied, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Recognize our own complicity in conflict, remember that we have been forgiven in the past, and take the step of repentance. (Matthew 7:1-5 – from the Sermon on the Mount. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged – first take the log out of your own eye before you take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”) This doesn’t mean ignoring differences between victims and victimizers; people need to be held accountable for their actions, and some people need to repent and ask forgiveness while those who have been victimized struggle to forgive. Even so, in all but the most extreme cases, we also need to recognize and resist the temptation to blame others while exonerating ourselves. All too often we see the specks in other people’s eyes while not noticing the log in our own. It’s not surprising that the very first sin in scripture is blaming others. In Gen. 3 as soon as Eve eats from the apple she blames the serpent and after Adam eats, he blames not only Eve, but he also blames God as the one who gave Eve to him in the first place. “This woman whom you gave me, God, she gave me the fruit of the tree.” Notice also, that here for the first time, Adam and Eve realize they are naked. “Who told you you were naked?” God asks. Blame and Shame go hand in hand. It is difficult to recognize our own complicity in sin.

Make a commitment to struggle to change whatever caused and continues to perpetuate the conflict. (Matt 18 – pastoral process)

Forgiveness does not merely refer backward to the absolution of guilt; it also looks forward to the restoration of community. Forgiveness ought to usher in repentance and change; it ought to inspire prophetic protest wherever people’s lives are being diminished or destroyed. Forgiveness and justice are closely related. In his book  No Future Without Forgiveness, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes two forms of justice: retributive (an “eye for an eye” that evens the score, settles the debt) and restorative justice which seeks healing and wholeness as far as possible. Redemption is the goal of restorative justice.

Confess our yearning for the possibility of reconciliation.

(II Corinthians 5:17) Sometimes a situation is so painful that reconciliation may seem impossible. At such times, prayer and struggle may be the only imaginable options. However, continuing to maintain reconciliation as the goal – even if this is “hoping against hope” for reconciliation in this life – it is important because it reminds us that God promises to make all things new – the promise of the New Jerusalem in Rev. 21:5: “Behold, I am making all things new.”

Greg and I describe the process of forgiveness as a “dance.” Jesus described forgiveness through story-telling – using spoken parables, but he also enacted parables by the way he lived. His most well-known parable – that combined both of these (how he lived and stories he told) – is the scripture passage I would like us to focus on this morning, from the 15th chapter of the gospel of Luke.

Eating together was a very intimate act in first century Palestine. There was a strong tradition of hospitality, then as now.  When you shared table fellowship with someone it was a sign of full acceptance of the other person – “I believe in you; I will stake my reputation on you.” Eating together was a sign of welcome, of embrace, even a sign of forgiveness. Scripture tells us that Jesus did this with sinners and tax collectors, sometimes even with prostitutes and other outcasts. His eating with them was a sign of God’s forgiveness of them – he was offering them a place at God’s table. The Hebrew scriptures warn about associating with these kinds of people, so the religious leaders of Jesus’ day – wanting to uphold purity laws and maintain good order – were deeply offended by Jesus’ actions – they thought his behavior was offensive to God.

To help the scribes and Pharisees understand why he lived this way, Jesus tells them a story – no, actually he told them three stories that are found in Luke 15. The first two are about lost objects – a sheep and a coin – the first with a focus on the shepherd who goes out to find the lost sheep, and the second about a woman who searches and searches until she finds the lost coin. The third story is about two brothers and a forgiving father. We are invited to discover in this story the wonderful YES of God’s forgiveness and God’s love that allows us to live into a future not bound by the brokenness of the past.

Which of you having 100 sheep and losing one of them would leave the other 99 and go out into the desert, over the cliffs, in the heat of the day and the cold of the night, in search of that one sheep that is lost? And which of you having 10 coins but losing one, will light the lamps, sweep the house, look high and low, to find that one lost coin? Who would do that? None of us. But God would. “Let’s go out after any who are lost – even if it means risking the 99 sheep just to re-gain one – or even if it takes extra time and effort to look endlessly for one lost coin.  “We must,” God says, “because we cannot fully rejoice until everyone has been brought back home.”

These stories tell us about the character of God. They give us a brief glimpse into the heart and mind of the one Jesus called “Father” – Abba.   Though the final parable is usually called The Prodigal Son, it’s really more about the Loving Father AND his TWO Prodigal Sons.

You know the story – the younger son asks for his share of the inheritance, essentially wishing his father dead, ends up squandering the money on prostitutes, and when he finds himself penniless, hungry and feeding pigs, he realizes that even his father’s servants are better off than he is. So he comes to himself. We don’t know exactly what this means: is it repentance, is it a new sense of self-awareness, maybe it’s a deep desire to go home – hoping to be welcomed back by his father. What we do know is that the younger son rehearses his speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”

And then the amazing homecoming – While the son is still far off in the distance his father catches a glimpse of him and he is filled with compassion. The father runs, puts his arms around his son and kisses him. Then he calls to the servants: “Quickly, bring a robe – the best one – and a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. Get the fatted calf and kill it, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now is found! And they began to celebrate.

Jesus tells the Pharisees when one sinner repents, God rejoices so exuberantly, so freely, that heaven itself joins in a song of praise. “Come, rejoice with me, for this one who was lost, now is found. Let’s have a party; let’s slaughter the fatted calf. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.” That’s what God says.

What we learn in the third parable of this trilogy is that the loving Father goes out from the house, not only looking for the younger son – the one who was very much like those sinners and tax collectors – but he also goes out after the elder son, the son who seems an awful lot like those scribes and Pharisees. The elder son refuses to come in to the party, so the father goes out after him, too. He invites the elder son to come in just like he did the younger son – the Father wants both of his sons to feast and rejoice with him. But the story ends as a cliff—hanger. We don’t know in the end, if the elder son – who represents those religious leaders – obeys his father or not. If the scribes and Pharisees are listening carefully they realize they are actually missing out on God’s party.

When we began commissioning artwork for our new building at the Divinity School at Duke, we found a sculptor who had read Greg’s book on forgiveness and who noticed in his office a framed copy of “Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son.” “That should be our theme.” she said. So we sat with her and read Luke 15 over and over and over. How do we portray this Prodigal Son story in one frozen frame – in one sculpture? First we realized that the story in incomplete without both of the ungrateful sons in it. Then we discussed how it is that the father ties the story together. So, we decided, the sculpture must have all 3 figures, the frail, crook-backed father in the center with his right arm around the younger son who is penitently kneeling beside him with his left arm around the father’s back, his left hand resting on his father’s heart. The elder son is standing tall on the other side of the Father, arms folded across his chest, leaning back, looking away. You can hear the elder brother saying: “I’ve been with you always. I have never disobeyed you, but you have never even given me a goat to celebrate with my friends. It’s just not fair!”

But the father’s left hand is reaching out to the elder son, trying to draw him in, the older brother’s body is taut, tense, angry and bitter. Yet the father is looking at him with a pleading, hopeful look. And there you have it. The “is” and the “ought.” Reconciliation achieved between the father and the younger son – but also much work still left to be done. There is still the aching, still the consequences of sin which linger – the elderly father now is much more frail and weary-worn, the younger son has his empty pockets, his bruised ego, and the knowledge that he has deeply hurt his father. And yet there is the vision of what can be, as the father continues to reach out to the elder son and invite him into the party. We are called to live as “aching visionaries” – as those who yearn for God’s Kingdom to come in all its fullness.

God’s love is wide and deep enough to embrace all, drawing all of us in to celebrate, making a place for everyone at God’s table – those who know they are lost and admit they need help – and those who are too stubborn or too blind or too self-righteous to see their own need. This is why God’s grace is amazing – because it reaches out to all – those who are clearly lost in sin and cannot find their way AND those, like the Elder brother who don’t even know they are lost. Like him, they allow the world to contract – focusing inward on themselves – on petty slights, hurt feelings, thoughtless oversights. It’s so much more fun to be angry and resentful, to feel unappreciated like that elder brother and say: “It’s just not fair.”

Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and well-known author wrote these words about anger and resentment:

“To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the end of the banquet is you!”

“Feasting on forgiveness” rather than on bitterness, anger, or revenge, allows us the freedom to live into a future not bound by the brokenness of the past. It gives us hope. It gives us strength for tomorrow.

A wise friend once said. “Our ability to experience Joy is discovered in our capacity to forgive.” Only when we come to the point where we can forgive others for the wrongs done to us – only when we truly know ourselves forgiven by others and by God, can we experience joy in all its fullest. Feasting on forgiveness renews in us that sense of joy. These parables are evidence that God’s mercy – that the searching heart of God – is actively at work. It is this mercy – this amazing grace – that gives us reason to rejoice, to feast on forgiveness.

But it’s not a “one and done.” Forgiveness is an on-going practice that takes hard work. The only way to do it well is to have others in your life who walk with you and help you live it – who help us learn the practices, the dance steps, of forgiveness. And who help us unlearn bad practices – it involves both support AND accountability. John Wesley called these kinds of groups bands and class meetings, we call them “holy friends.”

Holy friends are those people in our lives who challenge the sins we have come to love, who affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim, and who will help us dream dreams we otherwise wouldn’t have imagined.

Holy friends challenge the sins we’ve come to love. We usually feel ok when people we respect and trust tell us not to do things that we already know are wrong, partly because our consciences are usually already working on us. It is much harder to have people tell us to stop doing things that are wrong when we don’t fully think we are wrong. Sometimes we rationalize things and say that what we are doing really “isn’t so bad” or maybe we think “well, nobody’s going to get hurt, so why not?” or we might be so self-deceived that we don’t even realize the harm we are causing.  It’s like the story of Nathan and David from the Old Testament. David was guilty of having an affair with the wife of another man and then orchestrated the killing of her husband to try to cover things up. When the prophet Nathan described a similar situation to King David, David said that the man should be held accountable and punished. Nathan was brave enough to say to the king, “Thou art the man.” We need friends in our lives who take the risk to hold a mirror up to our faces and make us look into it, even when we don’t want to. Often we don’t like for others to hold us accountable, but we know in the end that they are doing it to help make us better people. And they need us to do that for them as well. Holy friends challenge the sins we’ve come to love.

Holy friends also affirm the gifts we are afraid to claim.  It’s nice when people tell us that we’ve done a good job, but it is no surprise if they are talking about something that we know we’re already good at doing. Holy friends are people who know us well enough to try to cultivate in us gifts that they can see, but that we often can’t. Sometimes we’re afraid to try new things, sometimes we play old tapes of voices from the past who have told us we can’t achieve much, other times we just become complacent and are happy to continue doing what is familiar and safe. People who know us well will help us live into the new future that God is creating – and will give us the courage to move beyond our fears and limitations. They will say to us things like: “I see God working in your life in this way…have you ever considered becoming a lay leader? or ministering in the soup kitchen? perhaps is God calling you into the ministry? You seem to have a gift with children, have you ever helped a child learn to read?” We need people in our lives, like the Apostle Paul had his friend named “Barnabas” (whose name means “encourager”), who provide the kind of support and encouragement that help us follow God’s call. And they need us to do that for them as well.

Finally, Holy friends help us dream dreams we otherwise wouldn’t have imagined. In Ephesians 3:20 the Apostle writes: “…by the power that is at work within us, [God] is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” Holy friends help us not only begin to believe this, but also to live it. It would be enough to say that God can do all we could ask or imagine, or even more than all we could imagine – or far more than all we could ask or imagine – but that’s still not enough. Paul intensifies it three times over saying: God can do abundantly far more than all we could ask or imagine – it’s terrible grammar but amazing theology.

We need holy friends in our lives who can help us live into that “abundantly far more than all” kind of future – the “life abundant” that Jesus has promised to all who follow him. Holy friends teach us how to listen to God more carefully because they take the time to get to know us well, we come to trust them with our most intimate concerns and needs, and friendship with them gives us a glimpse into what friendship with God is like.

In the book of James, chapter 5, we see the early church trying to live faithfully before God after the death and resurrection of Jesus. They are  living as Holy Friends – they pray for one another, they sing together, they get to know each other well enough to confess their sins to each other, they pray for healing and wholeness in each other’s lives. Forgiveness in scripture is often linked to healing. In the same way that Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors to offer them God’s forgiveness, he was also offering them the healing presence of God in their midst – for the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet that Greg spoke of yesterday – Jesus says to her, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Salaam – shalom.

Jesus often links a healing miracle with the forgiveness of sins – a healing of the whole person – body, mind and soul. In the NT, there are 7 miracles that Jesus performs on the Sabbath: healing the man with the withered hand, giving sight to the man born blind, exorcising a demon from the man with an unclean spirit, healing a man of leprosy. Jesus breaks the Sabbath commandment with each of these miraclesand again he incurs the wrath of the religious leaders of the day. Yet he doesn’t perform other miracles on the Sabbath – he doesn’t turn the water into wine, he doesn’t feed the 5000, he doesn’t raise Lazarus, he doesn’t walk on water or still the storm at sea on the Sabbath. What do the seven Sabbath miracles have in common? In them, Jesus meets a particular person with a particular need for healing, and he makes them well. In effect, he is saying: it is worth breaking one of the 10 commandments to bring healing to a person’s life. “Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Jesus’s touch provides the healing of body and mind, and his offer of forgiveness provides the healing of the soul – even if it means breaking the Sabbath commandment. Jesus always puts people and their needs over principles and rigid rule following.

We can live into a future not bound by the brokenness of the past because the forgiveness we know in Jesus brings healing to our lives through the power of the HS, his grace comes to us through the gift of holy friends, and receiving and claiming this grace for ourselves gives us reason to rejoice – to feast on forgiveness rather than bitterness, anger or revenge.

Toward the close of her hauntingly beautiful novel Beloved, Toni Morrison tells of a conversation between Sixo and Sethe. Both had been slaves all their lives – Sixo had met a woman a few years back, a woman he called the “30 mile woman” because he had to walk 30 miles to see her and spend time with her. He tells Sethe what this woman had meant in his life – how she had met him in all his brokenness and, over time, had mended his life. “She take the pieces that I am,” he says, “and she give ‘em back to me, in all the right order.”

God is like that.

God takes the pieces – all the broken pieces of our lives – gathers them up, puts them under the blessing of his forgiveness and then offers them back to us renewed and whole – in all the right order – so that we may live in the world as the Body of Christ – broken, but forgiven and redeemed. Amen.