Forgiving Victim

Thanks to Melissa Berkey-Gerard for sharing her “Generous Love” sermon!

Melissa Berkey-Gerard
Germantown Mennonite church
Luke 7:36-50 “Generous Love”

Every Sunday night, since Lent, twelve of us from church have been getting together for dinner, wine, and conversation. Ostensibly, this is a weekly study group, reading and discussing the work of James Alison, in a course called Jesus the Forgiving Victim. But it has become so much more than a theology geek club or book group. I’m not sure any of us knew what we were signing up for, even me, the organizer.

Even though I’ve read and taught this theology in the past, reading with this vulnerable community has soul, and speaks to my soul—feeds it. And well, maybe some of the warm feelings can be attributed to the wine which is pretty central to our gathering each week…

A little background –James Alison is a British Catholic theologian who believes that God is absolutely nonviolent, God comes toward humanity with absolute love, which is not dependent on humans being “good,” or believing a certain thing about God. Alison is absolutely convinced that this unconditional love and forgiveness is what can transform us, give us new lives. This love is what will move us away from doing violence to others, and toward the generous love that we see in the reading from Luke 7, where the woman cleans Jesus’ feet with her own tears and hair. Alison’s central example of love is of Jesus, who after being executed, comes back to life with absolutely no vengeance, only with forgiveness, for even a violent humanity.

So, as you can imagine, in our Sunday night group, we have done a lot of talking and thinking about forgiveness, so here goes- a sermon on forgiveness.

Did you just tune out when I said forgiveness? You’re probably not the only one. But come back, stay with me for a minute—I agree with you the word forgiveness is loaded, and actually makes most of us feel bad. If we think about forgiveness, we zero in on we have done wrong. The sin part, or the part where we hurt someone. Or we think about how we are supposed to forgive, forgive, forgive…and we have a hard time with that. And then we feel guilty. And so, we don’t really want to hear about or talk about forgiveness.

I think this may be why some people are uncomfortable with a prayer of confession too. During a time of confession, instead of freeing us from anxiety and stress, it just makes us feel bad. This might be a remnant of our upbringing, having to search our hearts for all of the sins that we did that week and need to bring to God. I know it’s still hard for me to not start doing an inventory of –you know– impure sexual thoughts–when we get to the prayer of confession, as the fourteen year old me starts to feel guilty.
Taken this way, it’s a real downer in the middle of the worship service. Why do we have to be reminded that we are bad? We already know it.

So today, I want to flip it, and look at it from the perspective of being forgiven. Our entry point into this new perspective is the story you just heard, of the Sinner Woman (Capital S—read “unclean”) who followed Jesus into a Pharisee’s house. This woman is filled with tears, and uses those very tears to wash his feet, and dries his feet with her hair. Something about him has moved her to flowing tears- enough tears to wash the dust and grime from his feet. Something pulled her to touch him, even though in the eyes of society, she was an unclean woman whose touch would defile him. She is not named, just called “a woman who was a sinner.” (although church tradition names her as Mary Magdelene. But we’ll stick with Luke here, where she is just plain old sinner woman)

What gave her the nerve to do this outrageous act? Despite the rules of society, she charged right at Jesus and went to work washing his feet. Something about Jesus moves her to touch him. Simon, the Pharisee uses the woman as a way to get at Jesus- he accuses Jesus—“If you were a prophet, you would have known this woman was a sinner. “

But, she knows that she is welcome to touch Jesus. She seems to sense that he didn’t play by those rules, that he didn’t observe the same borders. He did not live by the same system which defined who was clean and unclean. In other words, she knows that she is forgiven. And what is astonishing, and flips our assuptions on their heads, is that she is not forgiven AFTER she gets down on her knees at Jesus’ feet, or after she prays the sinners prayer, or confesses her sin. Instead, being forgiven, being unconditionally loved, is what touches off her outrageous sign of humility and love.

In this instance, forgiveness meant that this woman, clearly defined as a sinner, was welcomed by Jesus, and nothing was asked of her. She chose to wash his feet in response to this welcome, but it was not a prerequesite. Jesus didn’t walk into the room and wave his magic forgiveness wand over her after she said the prayer of salvation. She didn’t have to utter certain words, subcribe to certain beliefs, change her religion to Jesus’ religion. It’s not like in one moment she wasn’t forgiven, and then suddenly—bam—she is.

Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman predates her generous act of anointing him. And you can tell, because it’s precisely this forgiveness which frees her to do this audacious act. The move toward her in love existed before she made any move toward Jesus. So when he says she is forgiven, he is just telling her the fact. It’s like an after thought. “Oh by the way, as if you didn’t know already, your sins are forgiven.”

Another example of this is in the story of the prodigal son. Or, as my friend John Linton likes to refer to it, the story of the running father. In this story, it is the father who moves, even runs toward his wayward with an unrelenting love, before the boy asks for forgiveness. Again, after Jesus betrayal, execution, and resurrection, It is Jesus who moves first toward Peter the betrayer.

And it is Jesus who returns from death without vengenance for his killing, undoing the violence humanity does to one another, and did to him. His greeting when he came back?

“Peace be with you.”

And just like the running father, God’s movement toward us in love comes before any move we can make in God’s direction. Or even in the opposite direction. But it’s hard to remember that, to believe that, or to feel it.

As a way to get at this feeling of being forgiven, in one of James Alison’s essays, he asked us to pause in our reading, and remember a time when we had been forgiven. To take a few quiet moments and think of a time when we had been let off the hook.

I thought of a dear friend who forgave me for a few years of bad behavior on my part, which stemmed mostly from my ugly jealousy. I didn’t outright ask for forgiveness. But I received it from her. I sat with this memory.

Thinking about forgiveness on a human level took some of the fear out of it for me. Usually, when I think about forgiveness, I go to an old place in my mind, a place where I feel like I’m a bad person, just for being human. It’s an old belief, that we are always trying to rid ourselves of sin, and always asking for forgiveness for these sins. And it’s really hard to keep up, with remembering to ask for forgiveness all day long for all the little ways we fall short. But it seems like very important work, because it’s how we think we get God to love us—We ask for forgiveness and THEN God is accessible to us, when we are sufficiently clean and confessed.

Thinking about being forgiven took it out of that realm. Because I can look back on the memory, and know that my friend forgave me, and put it into the past, what I did to her was inconsequential. What I was able to focus on was the generosity that my friend had in forgiving me, and the expansion of our friendship that followed. Our friendship was forever changed, made more truthful and more vulnerable through that act. We are now much more honest with each other, more willing to help each other, more willing to be open about our struggles.

So, I’m going to now give you the opportunity to pause and reflect on the same thing. I will give you a minute now to bring to mind a time when you were forgiven by someone.


In James Alison’s words, remembering being forgiven is allowing yourself “to sit in the strange place of remembering being approached by a forgiving other, who is letting you go.” Remembering a person forgiving you may eventually help heal your image of God and understand Jesus as that forgiving person who comes toward you in love.

I hope you were all able to remember being forgiven. I want to invite you today, during our time of communion to hold that memory in love (if you want to). As you hear the words of institution, the invitation to the table. As you wait for your turn at the table. Turn the memory around in your mind. As you take a peace of bread, “Bread of life,” and dip it into the cup. The cup of forgiveness. Or as you remain seated and watch others take the Lord’s supper.

What did it feel like to be forgiven? To be let off the hook and not punished? What does it feel like to remember that moment now?

If you find it meaningful during communion, I wonder what it would be like to practice this every day for a few minutes? If anyone decides to try that out, let me know how it goes. I just came up with that idea yesterday so I haven’t had a chance to try it out, but I have a good hunch about it as a practice.

On the night Jesus was betrayed, he followed after the example of the sinner woman and washed his disciples’ feet. Then he offered them bread and the cup.

This table is a visible sign of God’s open armed welcome coming toward us, offering the bread of life, and the cup of forgiveness. What will it look like when our system of judgment of ourselves crumbles, when we find our selves forgiven? When we are freed to love with outrageous tears? I can’t wait to find out.