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Being reasonable is not enough when it comes to forgiveness

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on September 14, 2020 at 1:35 PM

Matthew 18:21-35


When is enough finally, enough, Jesus? That’s what Peter’s asking this morning. Fresh off hearing how we’re invited to confront our siblings in Christ when they have harmed us and welcome they back if they change their ways, Peter says what some of us were thinking.


So Jesus, um, some people mess up A LOT. They keep doing the same stupid thing over and over. And they don’t get any better. It’s exhausting and it hurts people and it makes the church look bad. Not to mention, welcoming them back over and over doesn’t seem really fair to people who make good choices most of the time. So when is it all enough? When can we stop accepting them back? How about seven mistakes? That seems pretty reasonable- even generous.


But it’s not enough, Jesus says. How about seventy times seven! Being reasonable is not enough when it comes to forgiveness. When you’re dealing with your siblings in the faith, forgive so many times that you lose count. Forgive so much that people around you start thinking you don’t know what you’re doing. Then forgive some more. I tell you, you don’t ever get to write someone of as a lost cause. You don’t ever get to stop forgiving.


Now let me tell you a story, Jesus says (which is what he always seems to do when he’s telling us something hard to take in!) So there was once a head servant, Jesus says, who owes his master more money than he can ever repay- think like 100 years of paychecks. Now it’s time to settle up and the servant can only pray for a miracle. He can only plead for mercy from the king because he can’t get out of this mess any other way. And this king looks at the debt that was owed and he looked in love at the face of his servant. And in an act of mercy too extravagant to make sense, he forgave the debt.


It was amazing! That head servant was set free. But instead of letting the king’s extravagant generosity overwhelm him, instead of letting this mercy teach him how to live, that first servant goes right out and finds someone who owes HIM a little bit of money. And he throws that guy in prison until he can pay the debt.


And the master is horrified. Horrified that the head servant learned nothing by his extravagant mercy. So that master reinstates the debt and tortures the servant.



Now, I don’t believe that God will torture us when we fail to forgive others or when we try and just aren’t able to yet, but parables tend to use exaggeration to make a point. Jesus wants the disciples to understand how incredibly seriously God takes forgiveness. This is my command, Jesus says. It isn’t optional! You are entrusted by God with the gift of forgiveness so that you can release others, not so that you can withhold it to purposely make them suffer.


Because, Jesus says, my forgiveness is supposed to fundamentally change how you live in the world and how you encounter others who are hurting like we are. Forgiveness is supposed to re-make us in the image of the loving God we serve. And that God is both relentless in upholding justice, and merciful beyond measure when it comes to setting people free.


Because forgiveness is meant to do both. Too often we think that forgiveness means tolerating the bad things people do and saying everything is ok. But that’s just ignoring something. Forgiveness forces us to take evil and sin seriously first- to call a thing what it is. Just like the king acknowledged the debt of the servant and made him look it square in the face.


But forgiveness also means taking the life of your neighbor even more seriously. It doesn’t mean being soft on sin, but it means valuing the life of your neighbor so highly that you are willing to release them from the burden of your anger so that they may have life.


When our sibling in Christ sins- or even when they participate in systems that harm others- we need to say that what was done was not right. It was not what God intended. And we will still need to take action to restrain those who do evil to keep them from harming others. We may need to force those who have done evil to fix what is in their power to fix.


But in all this, we are commanded to love those who have harmed us so much that we pray and work for their turning around, for their health. Jesus says- look on your neighbor with the love that I looked on my servant who had too much to forgive. And see their life more than their sins. Pray that they will be restored the person to who God intended them to be. Don’t do it because it makes sense, do it because I have made you to be people who forgive as you’ve been forgiven, people who love like you’ve been loved. And do it together as a community.


This is not easy and it’s not supposed to be. This is not our regular way as people- but it is God’s way. And as much as I’ve read Scripture, God’s way always seems to make things harder and less like our gut tells us to react. But God’s way is also the way that rescues us and our fellow servants of God from the pain we cause each other. It’s the way that helps us live again in freedom and love. So being people of forgiveness is simply who Jesus made us to be.


But we don’t have to do it from our own strength. And thanks be to God, because we probably know how well that turns out! When forgiveness is hard, the only hope we have is to accept the gift that God gave us first. And perhaps that is the hardest step for some of us. To know that truly, our God loves us beyond our failures. By the cross- and by the love that led him to the cross- Jesus set us free from those mistakes that we can never undo and those debts to others that we have no hope of ever repaying. Jesus values our life and our future so much that he releases us from those things that we can’t release ourselves. Not because those things weren’t wrong, but because Jesus doesn’t want them to define who we will be or what we will do.


And when we cannot trust this forgiveness- when it can’t become real in our souls and our lives, Jesus draws us to worship, to be with our community in whatever way the season allows, so we can admit our failings and hear forgiveness pronounced for us. To hear the pastor tell us, “Cling to this promise: the word of forgiveness I speak to you comes from God. In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.” Here Jesus tells us that our lives are always more important than our mistakes.


He sets us free from the burden of what we have done so that we can be changed. So that we can live our lives so rooted in the forgiveness we receive so that we recognize the same need in others. And responded with mercy. So that, together with the whole Christian community, we may be people who reflect the extravagant forgiveness of our God. For the sake of our neighbor and for the sake of our world.


You can't keep score at my party

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on March 8, 2016 at 12:35 AM

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32



This morning, we find ourselves at the table with Jesus, where he’s enjoying the company of the wrong people. The people who weren’t good enough for an invitation anywhere else. The people who were too poor or too rowdy or who were caught up in a profession that wasn’t all that good and holy. And we know Jesus didn’t just do this once- it kind of became a habit. He kept eating with these kind of people and had the audacity to treat them like actual human beings.


And the good people got ticked off. And they’re doing what good people too often do- grumble and complain, wondering why Jesus would waste his time and risk his reputation on these unclean ones. And I’m sure that Jesus got tired of explaining himself and getting into a debate that would never end, so he just shut them up with story. A story they had to live into and find themselves in.


And it’s a story that we know so well we barely hear it anymore. It’s about a family with an irresponsible son and a father who is embarrassingly good. So good that people probably ridiculed him because he was willing to welcome back his messed up son who had wasted every last scrap of what his father had given him. And he didn’t just let him come home to stay- he ran out to meet him and gave him gifts that he was too irresponsible to be trusted with. Instead of giving this son a lecture and some strict rules, he gives him love and celebration.


And the folks listening to the story probably thought- “This is exactly the kind of crap we’re complaining about, Jesus. Enjoying people before they do right. That’s irresponsible. It’s unfair. They deserve a lecture, not a welcome.“


But Jesus just smiled. Because this story wasn’t about what was good or moral or even deserved- it is about what was needed. This was a father who knew his sons. Loved his sons. And he knew a lecture wasn’t going to change a darn thing. Lectures you can tune out. But you can’t fully tune out love, even when you want to. Love breaks your heart open.


So at that moment, when his son was broken and hungry and ashamed, the father knew he couldn’t bear a lecture. Couldn’t bear the coldness of his father merely being polite in letting him come back. He couldn’t be welcomed back into a relationship unless his father did something so full of obvious love that it took his breath away and took him against his will back into this family that he had no business being a part of.


There would be time for hard words to the younger son. There would be time for him to hear what was expected of him, time to make amends. There would be time to bear fruit worthy of a son of so loving a father. But when he was hurting and broken, he needed love first. He needed someone to take complete joy in his presence and honor him for all that he would become. He needed an embrace that ran out to meet him.


You see, these are not the ONLY words of the father to this son, but they are the words that are needed in the moment. Because when we are broken, God gives us what we need, rather than what we deserve.


This is how Jesus’ love always is for the one who is falling apart, who has drifted far away, who has messed up. And this is something we rejoice in. And it’s usually the part of the story that we talk about. But I don’t think it’s the main reason Jesus told it. Because he told it to people a whole lot more like the elder brother. Those who were asking, “so what about us? “


What is the love for those who have stuck around? Who have tried to follow and not done a horrible job at it? What about us who have worked hard to be faithful? We’re not perfect, we’ve done some bad stuff, but like him we may not have done something so publicly bad and wasteful and sinful like this other guy. And sure, all sins are the supposed to be the same and we’ve lied and coveted and stuff, but can’t we get past being politically correct and just admit that we haven’t made as many bad choices, we may ask.


But Jesus just keeps telling the story. The story of the elder brother, the one who is supposed to know better and behave better. The one who has hung around the father long enough that he should have known his heart by now.


And instead of celebrating that his dad was doing the thing his dad did best- welcoming and celebrating and loving without limit- the elder brother can only see his father wasting his inheritance on a kid who was immature and irresponsible. Wasting his goodness on someone that wasn’t worth it. Instead of this brother understanding that HE is also loved by a father whose love is good enough and wide enough to love even his idiot brother, the elder brother just sees unfairness.


But thankfully, even though this brother wants to live by what s fair and wants to pout outside the party, this loving father doesn’t treat the older brother like he deserves, either. He deserves to be ignored and left outside because of his questioning of his father. But the father knows he needs his dad to come to him again. To assure him of the love that he’s questioning.


It may be a quieter assurance, not as much of a celebration as he was hoping for, but his father reminds him, “I delight in you.  I delight when you follow me and live wth me.  I love you so much that even in the midst of a party for your brother, I am standing here with you, loving you and inviting you to celebrate with me. But right now we need to rejoice.  Because we have family that you thought was gone forever. You have a brother to share your life with.  I dearly want you to be family to each other and to know how much I love each of you.  Sitting down to the table with me isn't about deserving it.  It's about enjoying the love I give you.  And enjoying me.  And you don't get to do that when you're keeping score!  So get over yourself and let me love how I will love. Enjoy this love instead of trying to control it. And get yourself inside to this feast!”


They seem like harsh words, not extravagantly loving ones, for a son who had done all the responsible things. But they are the only words to break through this brother’s pride and open his heart to the father’s love. The point is not to focus on following all the rules so perfectly, the father says. The point is to love who I love and to be family together. That’s what I want more than anything. So quit your being responsible and just love your brother!


And just as the older brother is left with his mouth wide open in surprise, I’m sure the good religious people were left speechless. Because Jesus says what simply does not make sense. Jesus tells all the rule-abiding folk that their relationship to these ones he’s eating with is what really matters. God is the father who loves both his sons so desperately that their relationship to each other and to him is more important than their virtue.


So all these folks I’m eating with are your family, Jesus says, whether you like it or not. They are your nutty, inconvenient, irresponsible family. And you may do all sorts of good things in the world, live by all sorts of good rules, but if you don’t recognize these as your brothers and sisters and know the love I have for them, you don’t really know who I am. And then you don’t get to enjoy how good my love is. So get to know your brothers and sisters, they can tell you about how good my love is. They can tell you how extravagantly good it is to be welcomed when you don’t deserve it or don’t ever think you will be welcomed. Learn about my love from them. And then celebrate with them. Because then you can celebrate with me.


Because there’s a party. It’s happening whether you like it or not. I’m going to keep loving your brother and you like this even if you think it’s a bad idea. So come and eat and enjoy the love that you get to live in and come meet the rest of your family who gets to live in this love with you.


Ditch the rules and fall in love. . .

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on June 17, 2013 at 11:45 AM

Luke 7:36-8:3


They stopped using her name around town.  She was only known as “that woman.”  Parents told their kids to stay away from her.  She wasn’t invited into people’s homes.  People didn’t speak to her if they could avoid it.   She was an example not to follow, not a woman to be spoken to.  No one saw her face anymore, they only saw her sin. Her whole life was defined by what she had done wrong.  And people expected her to just keep messing up.  


Everyone but Jesus.  Jesus sees this woman’s need to be forgiven and set free from her past.  He forgives this one because shame and sin had robbed her of love and life.  Her sin had cut her off from the community and had taken away who she was.  So Jesus set her free and loved her back into life.


And that all happened in a moment we don’t even see- it happened before we meet her this morning. We don’t know what Jesus said to this woman.  How he was able to let her know that she was set free.  We don’t know what he did to tell her the good news that we all long to hear- the things that trap us and keep us walled from others are done away with, that the shame and the fear and the unworthiness that we live with are destroyed.  Jesus had done something to let this woman know that she was loved and she was no longer defined by her past.  That she was delighted in, she was believed in and God trusted and knew that she could be changed.  


I don’t know what those words of Jesus were, but maybe it’s not ours to know.  Those words that set us free are so personal, so unique, that Jesus’ words to this woman may mean nothing to us.  But they meant a new life for this woman.  


And we know they meant new life for her because this morning, we see the new life that had been broken open inside her.  She shows up in the middle of a respectable dinner party to do the unthinkable- to cry tears of joy on Jesus and care for him in ways that were, frankly, awkward and out of place.  In ways that made others whisper and stare.  As ridiculous as it is, she comes to pour out the love that Jesus has given to her.  It simply flows out since she has been given a new life.


But Jesus simply smiles.  Instead of whispering about her, he honors her.  Loudly and publicly.  Honor the beauty of her repentance and joy.  And Jesus lets her gift, however awkward and strange it is to those around her, be celebrated and rejoiced in.  Jesus delights in the fact that this woman knows the truth he brings for all people- that she is treasured and she can live in that love to be all that God created her to be.


And from now on, in her community she will no longer be the one called sinner, but the one who loves Jesus well.   She will now be the one known for how well she loved and welcomed Jesus and she will be one who is an example of love for all of us. Her story has changed into God’s story for her.


And this story in Scripture would be great if it stopped there.  But it would have been a story that many of us could ignore.  Because although we’ve all messed up, many of us in this room haven’t done things that are so sinful that they define us publicly.  Many of us have followed the rules well enough that we still have the luxury of covering up our sins.  We have the luxury of feeling that we’re doing well enough.  Like Simon the Pharisee, the man who invited Jesus to dinner that day.  


But Jesus doesn’t leave well enough alone even with those of us who look like we have it together.  He has an annoying way of knowing what’s going on in our minds and he knows that Simon is looking down on this woman, even if he doesn’t mean to.  Jesus knows that Simon sees himself as different than her, as more deserving of Jesus’ attention and maybe his love.  So Jesus does what he does best to teach us- he tells Simon a story.  Suppose someone owes $500 and another owes $5 million.  And they both are forgiven.  Who will love the one who forgives their debt more?  Whose life will be changed more?  Who will know the reality of being set free more?  


And if someone who has written a bad check and another has gambled away his life savings and both are forgiven, who will understand the joy of forgiveness more?  And if someone had said something mean to their spouse and another had completely destroyed their relationship and both are forgiven and given another chance at love, who will feel the reality of that love more?  Who will know better the reality of a love they have no right to deserve?  Who will be able to get caught up in the utter joy of forgiveness?  Who will understand what it means to have life given back to them, life in my name?  


Jesus tells Simon- someone who has been forgiven a great debt knows what it means to be set free.  Knows what abundant life is because it’s something they didn’t think they’d ever have.  They know what forgiveness can do, how it can change their lives. They have felt love and forgiveness and life at the depth of their soul.  


I want you to feel like that, too.  I want you to be set free, set on fire, to live life out of a love so remarkable that it gives you your life back.  Because that is the love that I am.


Yes, you’ve done well in following God’s law, Simon.  I’m not disputing that.  I take joy in that.  But when you haven’t fallen into such a desperate place, you also haven’t been in a place where you can understand the love I have for you that changes all that is possible for you in the future.  I’m not saying that you need to sin in order to get to a desperate place, but stop and rejoice with this one who was there.  Learn from her how good and freeing my love is.


So Jesus tells Simon and many of us, “I know the good you have done.  I know you’re pretty decent at following the rules and that you’re doing pretty well not getting into big trouble.  But the thing is, I’m not keeping score of that.   I just want you to fall in love with me.  So that you can live out of that love.


The rules you are working hard to live by are important, but only because they point to how to live out love.  So, ditch the rules and surrender yourself to the love I have for you.   Not a sentimental love- but one that allows you to do anything for the life of another.   A death-defying, life-giving, extravagant love.  It is beautiful and strange and world-changing.  


This kind of love is terrifying and makes you leave behind all that you hold onto to keep you safe.  It makes you do things that will make people stare and makes you do more wondrous things that you can imagine.  It breaks you open and frees you and changes your life.  


Jesus tells Simon and all of us, I want to call you to a love that you do not know yet.  I am calling you to be passionately in love with the world and with me.  And the only way you’re going to do that is to be in the presence of someone who knows what that love feels like.  


So when you don’t have a clue how to surrender to that love, then watch your sister.  She’s met this love and she’s been set free.   This love has become her story and her life.  So listen to her and watch her and learn from her.  


Jesus tells us the surprising truth that we need our brothers and sisters- all those who have traveled more painful paths than we might have and messed up more than we have.  We need this beloved woman who we don’t want to be near and who interrupts our comfortable dinner.  Jesus tells us that we cannot be whole without her.  


We don’t need her so that we can do good things for her.  We don’t need her so that we can save her.  We need her to teach us what love looks like.  To break us open.  To make us long for the same kind of love that she has felt.  


So perhaps instead of praying that God would keep us safe, we should pray that God would make us love like this woman.  Perhaps we should be praying that God would surround us with people who have been broken and then healed.  Take us to those places where we can meet our brothers and sisters who have been transformed by your love.  Perhaps we should pray to be broken open with the reality of God’s love for us.  And when we are in love with you, God, make it consume us so that we can let it overflow in ridiculous ways.  


Make us fall so in love with you that we welcome those who are left out.  That we rejoice in those who no one loves.  That we speak joy to those who have no hope left.  That we step into violent places believing there can be peace.  And that we delight in those who have no clue how much God already delights in them.  


So let us pray, take us to broken places, Lord, so that we may learn what your love is.  So that we may see your love at work.  So that we may learn from our brothers and sisters.  So that we might fall in love with you and lose ourselves in your love for us. 


Forgiveness as followers of Jesus

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on September 13, 2011 at 12:00 AM

Forgiveness.  We walk into church today, Sept. 11th,and have to hear about forgiveness.  I didn’t do this on purpose- these are lessons appointed for our church at least 15 or 20 years ago.  They just happen to coincide with September 11th this year, just happen to fall when most of our country is focused on that terrifying and horrible day 10 yearsago.  So it’s tempting to feel like these lessons mean we need to talk about forgiveness as a nation today- to forgive those who committed such horrible acts or to say strongly that these are things that cannot be forgiven.  But for all of us tempted to go there just because today is September 11th, listen again to the passage. 

‘Lord,if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

There are big questions of forgiveness in our world and in our lives, but today on this solemn day, we get the blessed relief of only having to deal with how to deal with our fellow church members.  You see, today’s lesson follows right after Jesus teaches the disciples how they are to act toward each other when they mess up- how they should correct their brother or sister in the faith directly and even take thestrength of the community with them if their brother or sister cannot hear it as truth.  But Peter wants to know when the limit comes and when they can finally stop correcting this member and just throw them out.  When is enough finally enough, Jesus?  How nice do we need to be about this? 

Becaue messing up seven times and being corrected seems pretty generous- at least better than the three strikes we usually offer folks.  Because Peter figures that followers of Jesus should be a little more gracious with each other than the rest of the world.  But reasonable and even generous is not enough, Jesus says.  When you’re dealing with your brothers and sisters in the faith, forgive so many times that you lose count.  Forgive a ridiculous amount.  Forgive so much that people around you start thinking you’re crazy.  Then forgive some more. 

Now, even though we know this is inthe Bible, I think this is one of those verses that we wish had an asterisk next to it.  We get that forgiveness is a good thing, a God-like thing, and we like it when we receive it.  But sometimes people mess up too many times and we get tired of correcting them only to have them do the same thing again.  And some things are simply too terrible and we don’t want to forgive and we don’t think we should have to forgive. 

I think some of our trouble with forgiveness is that we often have the wrong idea about what forgiveness really is.  Too often we think it means tolerating the bad things that people do.  We think it means saying that what was done wasn’t REALLY all that terrible.  And when it has to do with something illegal,we think of forgiveness as being “soft”- of allowing people to get away with things they shouldn’t so that they never learn or change their behavior. 

But, Jesus tells us, that’s not what forgiveness means.  So he tells us a story.  Because we can dismiss words, but stories have a way of working on us even when we don't want them to. 

There once was a slave who owed the king a debt, a debt so ridiculously large that there’s no way he could have ever paid it.  It was a burden that always weighed on him, for he knew it would have taken him 2,000 years of paychecks to pay it back.  And one day,the king decides that since the slave could not pay, he and his whole family were to be sold to pay the debt. 

At this the slave fell at the king’s feet.  He knew had no way out of the debt; that he didn’t deserve any leniency, and he knew that the king had every right to sell his family to restore the debt. And yet, he pleads with the king, as one desperate for his life and for the life of his family.  Somehow I will make it up to you, he cries.  Please,give me time.  Don’t take away everything that I have.  And the king looked at the debt that was owed and he looked at the face of his slave.  And in an act of mercy too extravagant to make sense, he forgave the whole debt. 

You see, forgiveness doesn’t mean ignoring evil and debts and saying they don’t exist.  The king acknowledged the debt of the slave and even showed him the consequences of it.  And yet, he saw the life of his slave as even more important than the debt.  And the only way to give him his life back was to forgive the thing that was impossible to pay. 

Forgiveness means still taking evil and sin seriously- there would be no reason to forgive if the thing done to us were not so bad.  But it also means taking the life of your brother or sister even more seriously.  It doesn’t mean being soft on the sin, but it means valuing the life of your brother or sister so highly that you are willing to release them from the burden of your anger so that they may have life. 

This still allows us to take sin seriously.  When our brother or sister sins, we still need to say that what was done was not right.  It was not what God intended.  And sometimes we will need to take action to prevent this person from doing further things that harm others.  But we are not allowed to take the sins of our brothers and sisters more seriously than their life and health. 

We will still need to restrain those who do evil.  We may need to force those who have done evil to fix what is in their power to fix.  And, with them help of God, we will need to teach them again the good and life-giving ways. But in all this, we also commanded to love the sinner so deeply that we only want their health. In all we do to our neighbor, the point is always to restore the person to who God intends them to be and to restore them to the community when possible. 

This is what Jesus commands of us as we deal with our brothers and sister in the faith.  This isn’t optional.  It is simply a part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Now I don’t know how it is we’re supposed to do this.  I know that people have done things to me that are very mild and I don’t very much want to forgive them.  So I don’t have any magical ways to make this easier.  It’s not easy and it’s not supposed to be- for it is not our way, it is God’s way.  And as much as I’ve read Scripture, God’s way always seems to make things harder and less like our gut tells us to react. 

And so, the only hope we have to forgive, short of having our brains re-wired, is to accept the gift that God gave us first.  And perhaps that is the hardest step.  To know that truly, our God loves us beyond our failures.  Our Lord, by his love and by his cross, has set us free from mistakes that we can never undo and debts that we have no hope of repaying.  It's hard to believe sometimes.  So when we can’t trust that grace to be true, Jesus urges us to hear the words of forgiveness proclaimed in worship.  Jesus beckons us to touch the baptismal waters, where God said that our life would always be more important than our mistakes.  And Jesus begs us to come again and again to the meal that proclaims forgiveness for all the unworthy. 

And then, when we’re filled up with the joy of being set free, Jesus sends us back into the world as forgiven folk to share that freedom with those who need it, whether they know it or not.  So, whether it’s hard or not, this is what Jesus calls us to and commands us to do. 

He commands us to forgive when the other person doesn’t deserve it, when it’s foolish, when we know full well the person is going to do the same stupid thing again to us.  We're not called to forgive because it makes sense, but simply because it is necessary for our brother or sister’s life. 

Now, Jesus calls us to forgive our brothers and sisters in Christ- he tells us that this is how we are to act toward each other.  And yet, I can only believe that the one who went to the cross so that we might know forgiveness meant that acting this way toward our fellow church folk was only the beginning.  It was a way to train us in the ways of God-to give us an easy place to start as we begin to learn what it is like to love like God.  A place to start so that we might let this forgiveness flow over into a world that needs to be set free. 

And yet, I don’t know what this teaching of Jesus means for our foreign policy.  I don’t know what it means in all criminal cases.  I only know that for us who follow Jesus, we are commanded to take the lives of our brothers and sisters so seriously that mercy always wins over harshness, that life and health win over death.  And we are commanded that we do everything in our power to act to them like God has acted toward us.  And when we are too weak to do that, we are called to receive again that gift of forgiveness so that we might let our mighty, merciful God forgive where we cannot.