Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 7)

Text: Luke 11:4a
Forgive us our sins, for we forgive everyone who does us wrong.

The hug of God

A young girl grows up in the country. Her parents a bit old fashioned, tend to overreact to her nose ring, the music she listens to, and the clothes that she wears. They ground her a few times, and she seethes inside. "I hate you!" she screams after an argument with her father. That night she acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed many times. She runs away. She just disappears.

She goes to the city. Her second day there she meets a man who drives the biggest car sheís ever seen. He offers her a ride, buys her lunch, arranges for a place for her to stay, gives her some pills, and even though she is underage, gives her a job (I think you can imagine what kind of job it was).

The good life continues for about a year and then she gets sick, and before she knows it she is out on the street. She finds herself sleeping in alleys and under bridges ("Sleeping" is the wrong word because a young girl on the street can never relax her guard.) The nights get cold, her sickness worsens, dark rings encircle her eyes, her cough is constant, her need for another "fix" is unceasing.

One night as she lies awake, frightened and cold, her pockets and her stomach empty, and with newspapers tucked under her coat to keep her warm, something jolts a memory. The farm with its blossoming trees. Her golden retriever chasing a ball. Sitting on her dadís knee as he told her stories that made her laugh. The smell of something delicious coming from the kitchen. Her bed with sheets and blankets.

"Why did I ever leave", she says to herself. "My dog back home has a warm place to sleep, is fed well and is healthier than I am". Sheís sobbing, and in a flash she wants to go home.

She rings home three times. The first two times she gets cold feet and hangs up before it is answered, the third time her call connects to an answering machine. "Dad, Mum, itís me. I was wondering about, maybe, coming home. Iím catching a bus out your way. Itíll get there about midnight. If your not there, well, Iíll just keep on going.

The bus ride takes several hours. All the way she is worried. What if her parents didnít get the message? What if her parents had written her off as dead long ago? What if they never wanted to see her again? She rehearsed a little speech that she would say, if her parents are there, "Daddy, I'm sorry. I know I was wrong. It's not your fault; it's all mine. Dad, can you forgive me?" She says the words over and over, her throat tightening even as she rehearses them. She hasn't apologized to anyone in years.

The bus finally arrives and she walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect. Not one of the thousand scenes that have played out in her mind prepares her for what she sees. Standing in front of a homemade banner that read "Welcome home!" are her brothers and sisters, several old school friends, a grandmother, even a great grandmother. Out of the crowd step her dad and mum. Her eyes begin to water and she begins her memorised speech, "Daddy, Iím sorry, I knowÖ" He interrupts her, putting his fingers on her lips, "Shhhh, child, no need for that. Welcome home." He holds out his arms and she is wrapped in his embrace and her mum hugs the both of them, tears of joy streaming down her face. (1)

We all have a desperate need to be hugged. People have a yearning to know they are accepted. Everyone needs to hear someone say: "I love you, I forgive you, I appreciate what you are doing." Children need to hear that. Parents need to hear the same thing. Husbands and wives need to hear it. Teachers, pastors and leaders need to hear it. We all need the hug of acceptance and appreciation and forgiveness.

Itís the kind of hug that says, "I love you and forgive even though you have hurt and upset me more times than both you and I care to recall". We need the hug of acceptance like hug the father gave his rebellious child as he welcomed her home.

If you had to pick out something that our world needs more than anything else, what would that be? What's needed in family life and in human relations of every kind? What's needed between nations, ethnic groups, political parties, between people in every kind of relationship? I think most people would say "peace" is what is needed. I would agree and add, "The peace that comes from forgiveness, where people put the past behind them, renew their friendship and get on with life".

If I were to ask: "What is the greatest good news you could ever possibly hear?" - this would have to be it - in a word, "forgiveness" Ė the kind of forgiveness that is generous, unconditional and downright unreal.
The parents in the story I related would have had every right to be angry, or to question why their daughter should suddenly turn up Ė what hidden agenda is there here.
They would have had every right to say, "You can come home but here are the conditions of your return".
But instead they welcomed her with a warm hug and the assurance of their love for her in spite of all the grief she has caused them.

Like the father in the story, God gives us the hug of forgiveness. God says to you at this moment, "I love you even though you aren't perfect. I forgive you for the sake of my Son, Jesus". That's the hug of God. It doesn't matter what your past record has been, the hug of God is for you. He no longer holds your sins against you. They are forgiven forever. He wants to hug each of us and show how much he loves us.

This hug from God is possible because of what Jesus has done through his death on the cross. God is a perfect God and so can only hug perfect people. Jesus made us perfect in God's loving eyes through giving his life for us and forgiving all of our sin. God's heart goes out to every one of us caught in sin.

We all know how destructive sin is in our lives. Everything that is good and beautiful is infected by it. From the tiniest baby, the most beautiful corner of nature, the happiest human relationship - no matter what, somewhere somehow sin adds its ugliness. There is no getting away from it. We experience it daily in our lives, in fact we experience it so much that we come to accept it as normal. The harm and hurt that we cause is not normal. Thatís not the way God intended us to be. He takes every bad thing we do, say and think seriously, in fact, so seriously that he sent Jesus to die on the cross for us.

Now that's what's so amazing about God. As Paul says: "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While were still sinners Christ died for us " (Rom 5:8). In Christ, Godís hug of sinful, imperfect people like us is the greatest thing that can happen to us.

And now that you have been hugged by God's amazing love and forgiveness, Jesus challenges each of us to pass on that hug as we forgive others. When someone hugs you, you hug them back. When God forgives you, you want to forgive others. It's not just a nice idea. It's a necessity of life. It's really what life is all about. It's what the world needs. It's what family life needs. It's what communities need. It's what you need.

Several years ago I read of a family whose small daughter was killed by a reckless teenage driver. It developed that the boy had been in trouble before, had no family who cared what he did, and was on the road to a criminal life.

Instead of being bitter, [which often happens in cases like this] these people of faith made this lad a member of their family. They became for him the family he had never known. Their love gave him a fresh start in life. They could see that it was senseless that their daughter should have died, but they could also see no sense in allowing another child to perish. They welcomed him into their home and hugged him as he had never been hugged before.

It's not easy to forgive. You can imagine how hard it was for that family. And you know how hard it is to forgive. Still, it's absolutely necessary to live the forgiven and forgiving life. When you forgive others, on account of Christ, you let the whole world know you are a forgiven person yourself. It's what Paul was talking about when he said, "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ, God forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived in Nazi Germany and was imprisoned for his stand against the Nazi regime. He wrestled with the command of Jesus to "love your enemies". How could he love those who were persecuting not only him but also people all over Europe? Bonhoeffer finally concluded that it was the "peculiar Ö the extraordinary, the unusual" quality of Christian love and forgiveness that set a Christian apart from the rest of the world. (2) As much as it might go against the grain to reach out with a forgiving hand to those who have offended us; it is the very nature of Christian forgiveness that urges us to do so.

As much as we might look for loopholes or for reasons not to forgive those who hurt us, Jesus leaves no room for doubt that just as God has forgiven us for our persistent and blatant wrong against him so also we are to forgive one another.

We may see that the other person is repentant but still believe he/she doesnít deserve forgiveness.
We may believe that since we are the ones who have been hurt therefore itís not our responsibility to try and heal the relationship.
We may believe that the hurt is so deep that it is unforgivable.
Even though we feel deeply hurt by the words and actions of someone of the family, a friend or a congregational member, and just as those parents were deeply hurt by the disappearance of their daughter, nevertheless an essential part of our Christian faith still holds true - that just as God forgives us so we ought to forgive those who sin against us. We say it in the Lordís Prayer, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." Or we could say, "Just as God has hugged us with love through his Son Jesus, so also we pass on that same warm hug of forgiveness to one another".

Thank goodness God still warmly hugs us even though we have been cold and hard toward others. Thank goodness he is loving and forgiving. As God has forgiven you, so also you forgive others. My encouragement to you today is to pass on the hug of God to one another.

(1) based on a story in Philip Yanceyís book, Whatís so amazing about grace? Pp 49-51
(2) The cost of discipleship, SCM 1959 p 136

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
20th June, 2004
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

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