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Forgive Us Our Sins

The prayer book I use for Ordinary Time operates on a four-week cycle of prayers, beginning with a daily movement through the sentences of the Lord’s Prayer—the words given by Jesus in response to a request as simple as it was (and is) drenched in desperate need: “Teach us to pray.” This morning’s sentence was a very timely one: Forgive us our sins. Timely because, well, I can’t really think of a time when I don’t need to forgive or to be forgiven. 

The Scriptures from this morning’s prayers each offered a rebuke and an invitation into living this deeply transformative reality of forgiving and being forgiven.

Psalm 103.8-14

The Lord is compassion and love,

slow to anger and rich in mercy.

The Lord will not always chide,

will not be angry forever.

God does not treat us according to our sins

nor repay us according to our faults.

What a thing, to not be treated as we deserve, to not be repaid according to the grim calculus that makes such intuitive sense to us. We love to talk about what faults deserve. We see this plastered all over social media every day with people regularly being named and shamed for their real or imagined trespasses, their real or imagined culpable ignorance, their real or imagined transgression of boundaries that people who are smart and good and right like us stay admirably within.

Yes, we love to talk about what faults deserve and to ensure that they receive their just rewards. Until it comes to our faults. Then we’re not so eager for the calculus to be so inflexibly applied. Then there were extenuating circumstances. Then we were misunderstood. Then someone else made us do it. Maybe the devil.

Psalm 103 reminds me that forgiveness begins and ends with a God who is not a calculator when it comes to faults. It begins with the character of God. The Lord is compassion and love. Slow to anger. Rich in mercy. Such marvelous ways to be slow and rich. 

For as the heavens are high above the earth

so strong is God’s love for the God-fearing;

As far as the east is from the west

so far does he remove our sins.

I looked across the horizon as I drove my motorcycle in to work today, as I felt the cool summer morning air on my skin. We have big skies here in Alberta with the flat plains stretching to the eastern horizon and the Rocky Mountains barely visible to the west and the south. It’s a lot of sky to take in. And on summer morning like this, it’s breathtaking.

As I rode, I thought about the sheer scope of this landscape. I thought about Psalm 103 and about the decades worth of accumulated sins that I have stored up. I looked east and I looked west and I thanked God for a love strong enough to place such a life-giving distance between what I deserve and what I receive.

As parents have compassion on their children,

the Lord has pity on those who are God-fearing

for he knows of what we are made,

and remembers that we are dust.

Many parents know what it is to have compassion on children who seem determined to wander blindly down countless dead ends. We have compassion on our kids because we know that they so often can’t help themselves. Their brains are still being formed. They lack the capacity for rational decision-making that we (are pleased to imagine that we) have. They are yanked around by a combination of instinct and impulse, defiance and desire. We know that they are the products of so many factors that neither they nor we can understand. They can’t help themselves. Except when they can. And even then, a decent parent will never stop loving, never stop giving, never stop trying to get through to them.

And never stop forgiving. Because we know what they are made of, what we are made of. We are dust, all of us. Here for a while and then gone. Yanked around by God only knows what. We know that it’s because we are made of such small and transitory stuff and because causing pain comes so naturally to dusty creatures like us that we need this thing called forgiveness.

Mark 11.25

Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.

I was struck this morning by the absence of one party in Jesus’ command here. Jesus talks about me and he talks about my Father. But he doesn’t talk about the person I’m supposed to forgive. This is surely an oversight, right? Surely there’s a missing clause that belongs after “against anyone”—something like, “If you have anything against anyone, and if they have demonstrated appropriate remorse and penitence and have come to you with regret, brimming with tear-stained sorrow…” Or something like that.

But, no. Jesus will not tolerate my wordy qualifications of forgiveness. He will not allow me to measure out forgiveness according to the merits of my neighbour. He will not let forgiveness be a reward that I bestow. He will not yield to my desire to make forgiveness mostly about me and my woundedness. The criterion for forgiveness, it seems, is my having something against someone. This is the poison to be removed; this is the disease to be cured. Jesus knows that I must forgive for the sake of my own soul.

And to make the point even more starkly clear, he reminds me that forgiving is inextricably linked to being forgiven by my Father in heaven. An uncomfortable reminder, that.

Ephesians 4.30-5.2

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Be imitators of God, Paul says. Which apparently involves putting away all of the things that come so naturally and greedily to me (wrath, anger, wrangling…I’m quite skilled at wrangling) and to be like God.

Kind. Tenderhearted. Forgiving. Again. Always, this business of forgiveness…

These things are summed up in one, unsurprising yet profoundly liberating word that spills out of its boundaries with pregnant possibility. Love. Live in love, Paul says. As Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.  

Which brings us to the cross, where Jesus whispered these words as he was gasping his last few breaths:

 Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.

And with those twelve words, Jesus summed up and modeled the powerful and transformative forgiveness that we are to offer one another.

Forgive them. They don’t know why they cling to wrongs perpetrated against them the way they do, imagining that they offer some protection or insurance in a world so saturated with wrong-doing. They don’t know why they behave so selfishly and stupidly. They don’t know why kindness so often seems such a small and feeble thing to them. They don’t know why their hearts so easily harden rather than being the tender organs that the world so desperately needs. They don’t know the countless ways in which they inflict wounds upon each other. They don’t know why they would sooner kill the one sent to them rather than be welcomed into the peaceable kingdom.

There is so much that they don’t know. So I ask you to forgive them their sins, before it ever occurs to them to ask for it or to even recognize their need for it. And maybe, in being forgiven this extravagantly, they will begin to learn of the things that are possible in this world when forgiveness is freely offered.

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