The Thought of an All-Knowing..., Epiphany 7 (B) - 2003

February 23, 2003

The thought of an all-knowing God can be quite disturbing. If we really took seriously the words with which we begin each Eucharist, we might rush for the door: "Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid."

There's a story told of an Irish priest who, on election day, began his sermon by saying: "I've been told that I may no longer tell you which candidates the Church wants you to vote for. But I can say that if you vote for the wrong people, your bishop won't know, I won't know, but God will know!"

The thought of an absent-minded God seems ridiculous. While we may take some comfort in a belief that God will overlook our personal failings, we are less likely to accept that God would forget the misdeeds of "real sinners." Episcopalians don't really sin, do they? We may have failings, for after all, "we are only human."

Granted there are some Episcopalians, the High Church sorts, who "go to confession" and get a priest to absolve them. There's even a liturgy for it in the Prayer Book. That liturgy even permits lay folk to listen to a confession and to ask God to forgive the "sinner." For many of us the idea of a human being, even if he or she wears a "dog-collar," forgiving sins makes us uncomfortable. When prisoners on death row "get religion" we remain cynical. Surely God can't forget a cold-blooded killer? If God does, there's surely something wrong with God!

The Gospel today is familiar to us all. Jesus is teaching in a courtyard within the walls of a house. Hearing that Jesus is a healer, the friends of a paralyzed man put him on a stretcher and attempt to fight their way through the crowd. When that doesn't work they go up on the roof, remove the courtyard covering, and lower the man down. That must have caused quite a stir.

Notice that it was the faith-the "determination"-of the man's friends that amazes Jesus. "When Jesus saw their faith he said..."

And then Jesus says the wrong lines. Instead of saying, "You are healed," he says, "Son, your sins are forgiven." Jesus calls the sick man "Son". It's a young man. Young people have "failings". But "sins?" What on earth had he done? How can paralysis be the result of "sin"?

It all sounds so primitive. We could spend the next few minutes speculating on psychosomatic illnesses. Perhaps we could reach a conclusion that might bring the story into line with what we think about the mind and its effect on the body. If we did that, we would probably miss the "punch line."

Like many of us, the religious "police" in the crowd came out with the mantra, "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" They mutter: "Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy!"

Jesus knows what they are thinking. He poses a difficult question and then gives a shocking answer. He asks whether it is "easier" to say, "Your sins are forgiven" or to say, "Stand up, and take your mat and walk." Jesus claims authority to "forgive sins" in his capacity as "The Son of Man" and then orders the sick man to stand up and walk. "...they were all amazed and glorified God, saying 'We have never seen anything like this!'"

Most modern scholars suggest that what we now call "faith healing" was a reality in the ancient world as it can be today. It is so much easier for us to piously say that Mary was miraculously healed, even though the doctors gave her three months to live. It is much more difficult for us to believe that Mary has been forgiven, particularly if she had previously hurt us or offended us.

We easily skip over the words in the Lord's Prayer, " as we forgive those who trespass against us" or "as we forgive those who sin against us." It is the "as" which gives us trouble! After all, "forgive us our sins" ( trespasses ) means those minor failings we have as human beings.

The lessons today talk about a God who forgives and forgets. We've heard one of the writers of the Book of Isaiah speak for God. " Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old" says God in the words of a prophet. Isaiah reminds the people of their neglect of God in very vivid terms--do take these lessons home and read them again--but the passage ends by God saying "I am He who BLOTS out your transgressions for my own sake and I WILL NOT REMEMBER your sins." The writer of 2 Corinthians says, "For in him (Jesus) every one of God's promises is a 'Yes'."

The heart of the Christian faith is the "forgiveness of sins." In the Creed we say that we believe in baptism "for the forgiveness of sins." God not only forgives our sins, he blots them out. God does not remember our sins. God is eternally absent-minded.

There's a catch. There always is. We are to forgive those who sin against us. That means we are to forget all about "justice." Of course we can't erase from our memory what "Bill did to me" or how "Freda betrayed me." We are to grasp a very simple thing. If we remain angry and resentful and refuse to forgive sins done to us by others, we cripple ourselves. We become paralyzed and need to hear forgiveness. Only then can we get up and walk. Our poor Episcopal Church is divided in large part because people with different views can't stand each other, let alone forgive each other.

Most of us harbor resentment. We enshrine that hurt, as if it was a holy thing to be adored and visited much more often than we visit God and enter his shrine. We bore our friends to death with tales of betrayal. We hope the person or "thing" which hurt us will suffer in the end. We'll be damned rather than believe that forgiveness is for them from God, and certainly not from us.

How can we forgive and forget? So we cop out by saying that Jesus could forgive even those who crucified him "because he's God." We can say that perhaps God can forgive those who have hurt us, but we hope God won't!

The clue is in the collect for today. "O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing..." or "O Lord, who has taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth," the prayer makes us say. Note what follows. The prayer doesn't suggest that we have to delve deep into ourselves to find enough love to be forgiven and forget. That would be a self-defeating quest. Face it, we can't find enough love in us to say to those we resent, "Your sin is forgiven." We are not at all sure that would be right and proper. It might only encourage them to go on being the rotten people they are!

So we pray, "Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love." Notice that you have prayed that the Holy Spirit, the God who gets right into us, will POUR into our hearts a love which we don't have, and cannot have. In short we ask the God who blots out sins, who "does not remember," to take over and do in us that which we can't manage to do.

This is so important. That is why the Lord's Prayer makes such a big deal about our forgiving the sins of others. In a few minutes we will confess our sins together. A priest may forgive us our sins, or if there isn't a priest with us today we will pray that God will blot out all our forgetfulness of God. It is only when we forget that we are always walking in God's sight that we forget to love God and forget to love and forgive our neighbor.

Who is this fellow who claims to forgive sins? This "fellow," male or female, may be the priest who announces that God is forgetful. This "fellow" may be you or me who needs to "forgive and forget." Why? In order to be whole, to stand up and walk. In order to be a convincing Christian and be God-like, Christ-like: in order that we, together, may amaze the watching world by being the Christian Community, the fellowship of forgetful, forgiving, baptized people. For if we can't be a communion of the forgiven and the forgiving folk, what on earth do we have to say about Jesus? Amen.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Christopher Sikkema

Editor, Sermons That Work