You might remember the incident in South Carolina a few weeks ago when a young man, Dylann Storm Roof, opened fire while attending a Bible study group, killing nine people. Felicia Sanders survived the attack by pretending to be dead, but lost her 26 year-old son. At a bond hearing she told Dylann, “You have killed some of the most beautiful people I know. Every fibre in my body hurts, and I’ll never be the same.” And then remarkably she forgave him.

Now, how powerful is that? What incredible strength that must have taken. What incredible faith she must possess in order to be able to do that. But then forgiveness is so powerful. That is why Nelson Mandela was such a giant. But that is another story.

In our gospel reading we hear the story of Jesus at the house of Simon the Pharisee. A woman of dubious reputation, who is an uninvited guest, enters and falls at the feet of Jesus. She anoints his feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair. Jesus forgives her of her sins. The woman is transformed, but then that’s what forgiveness does to you. It is a powerful story, and a story that is as full of meaning as any story in the New Testament.

The fact that this woman apparently just walked in off the street was not unusual for those times. In our modern Western society doors are kept firmly shut and only those invited would ever come in for a meal. In the time of Jesus doors would often remain open, allowing anyone to call in and they would be warmly received. There was a very strong emphasis on hospitality, in a sense that is quite foreign to us today.

What was unusual was that this woman lets her hair down and wipes the feet of Jesus. No decent woman would ever let her hair down in public, let alone wipe a man’s feet with her hair. But that is one of the delightful points about this story and why it is so meaningful. With Jesus social convention is thrown out the window; the forgiveness and love he brings to the world set new standards. He is telling us that God does not want us to live by a code that is a straitjacket of convention, regulation and suppressed love, as epitomized by the Pharisees,  but a code of genuine, spontaneous, heartfelt love, epitomized in the act of forgiveness. That is transforming, both for the giver and the receiver. That is the beauty of forgiveness – everyone is a winner.

There is the story of a woman, Pascale Kavannagh, who lives in New Jersey. As a child Pascale endured constant torment from her mother. Her mother had had an abusive childhood and this was reflected in her treatment of her daughter. Her father tried to intervene but he copped it as well. When she finished school she left home in order to get away from her mother.

A few years later her mother suffered a massive stroke. Pascale went to see her in hospital and was shocked to find her mother unable to communicate or even understand language. As her father had died, Pascale was the only relative capable of caring for her mother and she felt duty-bound to help. She sat by her mother’s side around the clock, reading to her and just talking, though not sure if her mother could understand anything.

At first she felt angry that her mother had put her in this situation, especially considering the relationship she had with her mother. But as the months went by, her anger at her mother slowly dissipated. Finally, one day an exhausted Pascale suddenly laid her head on her mother’s lap. She says, “The hatred went away. It was just gone. For the first time, I stopped condemning her. And that gave me peace.”

Forgiving her mother also helped Pascale let go of other resentments, such as the rift with her ex-husband, with whom she had split a few years previously.  “I have become less interested in holding on to all forms of bitterness,” she says. Pascale’s mother remains in a vegetative state, but Pascale visits her weekly. She observes, “I see now that forgiveness is as much as about what you receive as what you give.”

For me, that says it all. Practising forgiveness is not easy. Mahatma Ghandi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” And that is why it is so powerful and is such an agent of change when relationships are threatened. Jesus understood this so very well which is why forgiveness was the cornerstone of his teaching.

Rev Warner Wilder - August 16th - 2015