The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“Say It Like You Mean It”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 9: 2-8
And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he then said to the paralytic—’stand up, take your bed and go to your home.”And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.
If you raise children, you will say the dumbest things. Children bring this out in parents; it is not our fault.
You are going to say things like, “what were you thinking?” Which all children know means, “why were you so dumb?” Children know that if they really were dumb then they wouldn’t understand the question.
We tell children to play nice, be nice, sit up straight, be quiet. None of these are effective but it is a parental obligation to utter nonsense.
My all-time favorite is when a parent intervenes in a spat and separates warring parties. In this moment we take on the power of the Supreme Court and demand justice. We say, “tell him, you’re sorry.” To which every intelligent child responds with the most sarcasm their little hearts can muster, “sorrrrreeeeee.”
In this moment of the sarcastic sorry, the truly dumbest, the ultimate of inanity is offered by well-meaning parents. “No,” we demand. “Say it like you mean it!” Here the future stars of film and stage are born. These are the ones that mutter “sorry.”
I love this moment for its irony. Penance, remorse, can never be conjured or forced. We all know this. But in the heat of the moment we forget. We all know what we can bring is punishment, but not penance, not apology. You can demand an apology, this is never sincere. There is something in forgiveness and mercy and true apology, something so close to love, it can only be offered in freedom. Forced mercy is untrue.
The one who is wronged can rail against their offender, demanding amends be made. But no good comes of this. The offended are never satisfied by a forced apology and the would-be offender just feels attacked. The forced path only to more misery. This is the reason Jesus said quite clearly, “turn the other cheek.”
For this reason most forgiveness is indirect. We make amends for our misdeeds, not in the moment of error or failure, nor with the one we hurt. We make amends with others, with acts of kindness or honesty where our mistake, now seen, is not repeated.
This is true with the forgiveness we give. We can be the friend who hears the confession and says, you are better than that; let this go. Too often by the time we see our misdeed the one we hurt is gone or has died even. Penance in the moment often makes things worse. We add insult to injury.
If I were to choose one teaching of Jesus in Matthew, the most important one, it is this one, the matter of mercy and forgiveness. This little story we read today, so innocuous, is like a key. It can open the whole of the gospel to us because it’s about forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the key to the gospel of Matthew. To get this key, though, we need to consider two things today. We need to pay attention to blasphemy and we need to consider power, the power to forgive. We need to figure out why the scribes were so upset; and what is this power Jesus offers to us?
Blasphemy is not a common term today. No one shudders at the word. Indeed we often pride ourselves with saying things that are shocking—being a bit blasphemous. As not being part of our vocabulary, we may need to see it in deeds more than in words, in culture more than religion.
When I was a junior in high school the football team wanted to beat me up. Think five big burly youths, linemen, surrounding me in the hallway, muscles flexed. One of them, with an outstretched finger, accused me of being a communist, unpatriotic, unamerican. It was clear they were there to put me in my place.
You see, word had gotten around. Each morning in first period I rose with the rest of my class, but instead of putting my hand over my heart, I clasped them together; instead of saying the pledge of allegiance, I remained silent.
Word had reached the football team and they were here to correct this sacrilege. In the heat of the moment, and it was a rather hot day to begin with, they said, “why not? Why don’t you take the pledge?” I asked them, “Do you really want to know?” And they said, “Yes,” so I told them why. I spoke of my struggle with the legacy of slavery, the trail of tears, the conquering of Mexico. This was tough for me and I wasn’t sure I wanted to swear an oath if that is what America is all about.
In that moment a funny thing happened. They all looked at each other and said, “alright.” And that was it. They decided not to beat me up.
Blasphemy makes people mad. And I was being blasphemous. We saw a great example of this offense in what Colin Kaepernick did five years ago. Only his blasphemy was not in first period but on major networks. People got mad. How dare he take a knee during the national anthem. It was unamerican; it was going against the flag and God and country. It was sacrilege.
To know what the scribes were thinking and feeling you need to tap into the rage and anger over Colin Kaepernick taking a knee. Matthew says, Jesus knew their thoughts. Sometimes people think Jesus was a mind reader. I don’t think so. I didn’t have to read the mind of the football team; they were none too pleased; it was all too clear.
On one level the blasphemy of Jesus is that he contradicted a religious, cultural moray, something any good Jew of the day must believe and follow. What he contradicted was “Only God forgives.” To atone for your sins you make offerings to God.
But his real blasphemy, what got the scribes mad, is about our role, how we can forgive. You see, if we can, then our trust in hatred, our indifference, our love of punishment comes into question. When you challenge hatred, sparks fly.
As if the offense of Jesus were not enough, Matthew really pours gasoline on the fire with a claim: we all have the authority as human beings to forgive sin as well. It is as if he turns the whole understanding of justice and mercy on its head. Forgiveness is not about God, nor the cross, nor the empty tomb, or the resurrection. It’s not in the temple or the offering or the priest or Rome. Forgiveness is in our hands; we can forgive and be forgiven.
You would think that if this little story is so important, if it does have the prominent place I’m claiming, this being the key to the teachings of Jesus, you would think this would be our core belief. But it is not. This is not our core belief, nor how we live. Unfortunately, we are more a living legacy of the Apostle Paul with God forgiving all our sins, Jesus atoning for all our misdeeds, and wiping away all the stains. The cleanup work is all done by Jesus not us.
Hence, what I am about to say should strike you as a bit blasphemous. As we are more a legacy of Paul, it should strike our ears as strange when I say, we have this power. The power to forgive each other, to be the ones who atone, who make amends, to do this we must overcome hatred and our need to condemn or punish. We live the opposite really. We are much likely to point out the sins of others than we are to make a path of freedom; we are much more likely to punish or condemn than we are to amend or atone for one another.
In September of last year we had a vigil in the front of the sanctuary for Racial Reconciliation. There was a large banner hung across the front of the church: Presbyterian Affirm Black Lives Matter. It was controversial/blasphemous to some. Who are we to say that; who are we to make such a claim? And why should we say it?
Before the rally I had a number of conversations with the Rev. Ron Owens, the Pastor of New Hope Baptist Church here in town. As many of you know, Ron has dedicated his life to racial justice, to reconciliation.
Before the vigil I told Ron that we—as a congregation—need to say some things. We are not here to define racial justice or demand racial justice or even to alleviate social injustice. Our need to speak was a bit more modest. We need to confess, to be silent no more about systemic racism. Mainly we need to be honest that time does not overcome hatred, only love does that. We need to get busy on this path where love conquers hate. Once we are done talking, you can talk if you want to, I said. Offer us a blessing if you choose.
You see I asked him to consider this moment because of what Matthew claims. I believe Ron has the power to forgive. He is a human being at that moment who can do that, can offer that. He has the power to forgive because that is what Jesus gives to us. This is the power of Matthew’s gospel.
And like the scribes, what I am saying here may indeed cause offense. You might be thinking, “who are you to tell me someone forgives me for something I don’t believe is my sin or my fault or even my concern?” And with this we are at the heart of the gospel of Matthew. Who was Jesus to tell the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven?”
This is why our little story is the key. To find the faith in mercy and confession is to find real freedom and this is our power. We are the ones who can atone. This is the reason why Jesus will say, “Pick up your cross and follow me.” You have a cross too.
The gospel of Paul where God forgives all, and Jesus atones for all, where all the work of mercy is done on his cross and made clear in his tomb, is much easier to accept. We don’t need to atone for slavery with Paul. With Paul we don’t need someone like Ron Owens offering a blessing. In fact we don’t need to create a moment where we begin to make amends for the legacy of racism and greed and violence that shapes so much of our nation’s history. Time takes care of that.
“Who can forgive sins but God?”
According to Matthew, we do. And we will find freedom if we confess to one another and make amends to one another.
On that night in that place, it was his power to choose, to speak or be silent. He spoke. He blessed us. And in that moment, we are at the heart of the gospel: we can atone for one another.
Truth be told, we have a few more sins to atone for, more misdeeds to remedy. But it was good start. This path to freedom, though, is all about finding new life. To live beyond the need of hatred, the need to punish and condemn, to find freedom in forgiveness, to find this power, this is faith.
And such is the path of living the life of Jesus. Someday, maybe we can mean it when we say “sorry” and be assured the words “you are forgiven” are just as true. Someday we can be assured because these words came from each other, spoken on the earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
- Isaiah 43:18 - 25
- Matthew 9:1 - 8