Rev. Judith Walker-Hutchinson - Ash Wednesday

Remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.'

Repent! And be quick about it, while you still have time. Sermon over.   

Or at least it might be if this service didn’t raise questions about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  We don’t stop at ‘remember thou art but dust and to dust you shall return’, if we did it would leave us with some kind of massive, depressing, existential crisis

What we go on to say is

‘...turn away from sin and turn to Christ.’

we do that because we are asking for God’s forgiveness.

So perhaps the first question we should be asking ourselves in this reflective time of Lent is ‘what is forgiveness?’

To philosophers forgiveness  is a problem, it’s a paradoxical notion that can’t be made any sense of.  There are two reasons why philosophers find forgiveness puzzling:

the first is that if we take it really seriously we have to see forgiveness as something distinct, different from excusing, justifying or accepting.  As Christians we often feel under enormous pressure to forgive or at least to be seen to be forgiving but often what we are doing is excusing, justifying or accepting, but they are all ways of coming to see that actually there isn’t anything to forgive.

Forgiveness, real forgiveness is coming to see an action as not justified, not excused, not acceptable and then still not holding it against you.

And that raises the second reason that philosophers find forgiveness puzzling, because that space where something has happened to you that is not justified, excusable or acceptable is the space where blame should stand.  If we don’t see blame where it is justified then surely what we’re doing is not taking wrongdoing seriously and if we don’t take wrongdoing seriously we wouldn’t be holding each other accountable as responsible human beings and civilised society would collapse.

When we are hurt by another we have an emotional response and if the hurt is deep the emotion is deep and there may be perfectly appropriate deep resentment -

that’s where the process of forgiveness begins, when you decide that you intend to try to give up the resentment to which you are entitled.

The  philosophical puzzle is why on earth would you do that?

Many people say it’s important to forgive so that you, the victim, are not eaten up by resentment, forgiveness is good for your own mental health. But actually you can stop the hurting, you can let go of the anger even if your view of that person will never be the same again – that’s not forgiveness.

Forgiveness involves seeing that person as you did, unaffected by the action they committed that has caused you hurt. It doesn’t involve changing your view of the wrongdoing but you have somehow overcome the justifiable resentment.  This is not as simple as having the offender pay off a debt, or suffer a punishment.  It’s not about somehow keeping a tally as to what the other person deserves. It hasn’t got anything to do with working out what they have to do to put the situation right. It’s not something that is done through obligation -  it is a discretionary giving to another person something that in very many senses they are not due. Seeing someone as better than their action warrants you seeing them. 

Forgiveness real forgiveness, not excusing, justifying or accepting, when we really think about it, is a truly radical act.

And sometimes for us that is just too hard a journey to make.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is often held up as a great example of the process of forgiveness, in fact it was more about amnesty and recompense.  The mixing up of forgiveness with the necessary finding of a way to move forward together as a nation put many of the victims under unfair pressure to make public declarations of forgiveness when they hadn’t gone through the necessary painful journey towards forgiving.

Forgiveness can’t happen simply because we want it to, or because we think it should. The impact of a wrong is emotional and what is needed is a change of heart in the forgiver,  a willingness to see the other person as no less a human being, as worthy of our forgiveness, worthy of relating to person to person. But we know that as human beings there will be things, things that happened in the past, things that are happening in the world now, that we think should not be forgiven or that we simply cannot forgive.

And yet we know from Scripture that God does forgive, and that he forgives time and time and time again.

We heard in our reading from Joel

“… return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and merciful.”

And we do return to the Lord every time we come to worship and prayer we ask him to forgive us. But  especially today when we bear Christ’s cross to show that we want to turn to him, I wonder if when we stand before God in that space where blame should be  - do we measure God’s capacity for forgiveness by our own? How many times have you stood in that space and felt unworthy of God’s grace? Or how many times have you doubted that God really will forgive you?

 As we’ve really thought about forgiveness we have seen that the only reasonable explanation for why we would want to forgive is that we want to see that person as worthy of that forgiveness and that we are willing to remain in relationship with that person. And surely the only reason we would continue to forgive and forgive, (perhaps something we can most closely relate to when, for those of us who are parents, we think about our children), the only reason to be continually and repeatedly willing to wipe the slate clean - is love.

Scripture tells us time and time again that if we ‘repent’ in other words if we turn to Him, God will forgive us and that can only be because He loves us, because his nature is to love, because his very essence is love and his capacity for forgiveness, his open heart, is limitless.

He is not excusing, justifying or accepting, but radically forgiving.

And the nature of forgiveness is that we do not have to earn it, we do not have to tally up points in order to be worthy of it, we simply have to want it, to be willing to be in relationship with God,  to turn to the God who loves us and will go on loving us even though, or perhaps because, he knows us to the very core.

‘Rend your hearts and not your garments”

“Return to me with all your heart.’

the God of forgiveness calls to us