I have a story to tell you, about the less-than-triumphal first appearance I made in a pulpit. I was a first-year seminarian, doing my field work at the old First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts. When they invited me to preach my first sermon on such an important day as Palm Sunday, I was thrilled.
So I stayed up most of the night before, packing everything I knew about religion and life into that one sermon. Since I didn’t know much, I probably succeeded. One thing I failed to do, however, was remember daylight savings time. And that night the clocks were set ahead. So when I awoke, I wasn’t late yet, but cutting it close. So I dashed off in my dilapidated car. It was pouring rain. Halfway to church, I went through a huge puddle. The car stopped, and refused to go again. For half an hour I stood on the roadside, getting soaked, trying to flag down a good Samaritan. Finally a passing policeman took pity on me, drove out of his way, and delivered me to the door of the church.
The service was already underway. Horrified ushers signaled the minister that I’d arrived. Then one took this sodden seminarian to the rummage closet, to find some dry clothes. Another fetched a choir rote to throw over me. But there was nothing to be done about my waterlogged shoes. Splooch. Slop. Down the aisle at the offertory the ushers escorted me. Now, Jesus is said to have entered Jerusalem on a donkey. But it was I who felt like an ass as I entered that chancel! My soggy manuscript had been done in ink that had all run together. All I could do was incoherently stammer, ramble, and finally bray for mercy, until the minister rescued me by announcing a last hymn and pronouncing a benediction.
At the door, the first person to speak to us was the wise, elderly Clerk of the Parish. “John,” she said, looking us both in the eye, “you must preach for us again, another time.” It took months before I could do so, and years before I could even tell the story, much less laugh or forgive myself as much as the people clearly forgave me that day. But ever since then, I’ve associated Palm Sunday with two themes: failure and forgiveness.
Originally the title of this sermon was to have been “The Courage to Fail.” But then I heard two homeless people reading our sign board in front of the church. “Hmph!” said one. “Failing don’t take courage—I’ve found it easy.” And then I realized: so have I, in many ways. I suspect you have too. If not at preaching, then at something else. At meeting the expectations of others. Or your own. At work or in love, in public or in private, we all fail, uncourageously, more often than most of us care to admit. We not only fail to be the persons that we’d like to be, we even fail just to be ourselves.
It’s spiritually instructive to contemplate failure. I’m hardly the first preacher to point it out, but the story of the crucifixion of Jesus, though it begins in triumph, quickly becomes a story of failure. For if the mission of Jesus was to convert the city that received him with Hosannas, waving palm branches, then he surely failed. If his purpose in the temple, driving out the money-changers, was to make it truly “a house of prayer for all people,” then he failed there, too. It wasn’t long before the chief priests were bribing Judas and the crowd shouting, “Crucify him! Give us Barabbas!”
Even with his closest disciples, Jesus largely failed. If his purpose in gathering them, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel, was to make them an exemplary new community, he surely failed. One betrayed him. When he was arrested, most ran away. Even Simon—Peter, “the rock,” on which Jesus hoped the new community would be built—even he denied three times that he even knew Jesus. What he didn’t fail at was forgiving. Even at the end, as he gave up his spirit, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And so his forgiving and compassionate spirit, which had entered into others as their lives had entered into his, couldn’t be contained in the grave. Summoned by the women who had gone back to the tomb to grieve, and to anoint his body, the body of his disciples soon regathered, to experience that spirit, wherever two or three remembered or gathered in his name.
Yet what Jesus succeeded at—perhaps the only thing he truly succeeded at—is just what we most fail at. Forgiving. Forgiving others. Forgiving ourselves. We even crucify poor Jesus again by thinking that what he did with forgiveness was preach it, command it. Phooey! Why, we can do that! “Everyone says that forgiveness is a lovely idea,” wrote C. S. Lewis, “until they themselves have something to forgive.”
In fact, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned about forgiveness, it’s that preaching forgiveness to anyone can almost always be counted on to fail—even when we’re preaching to ourselves. “Why the hell should I?” something inside cries out. “What do you know about my hurt, or what I’ve suffered, or what I’ve lost?” And the stony heart hardens. Just as Pharoah’s heart is said to have hardened each time Moses said to him, “Let my people go!” Or, as Daniel puts it, “To us, O God, belongs confusion...because we have sinned against thee; to our God belong mercy and forgiveness, because we have rebelled against...[God’s] servants the prophets.”
Now, when I talk about forgiving, I don’t mean excusing. That’s one confusion. Excusing one another, and ourselves, is something that we have to do all the time, if we’re to be functional, civil, and humane. It’s like the old distinction between venal and mortal sins. We excuse the former, the little offenses. We let them go, like so much dust, or so many grains of sand, blowing around and tossed at us, threatening to dent our composure or gum up the works of our souls. Being slow to anger or to take offense can be the sign of a mature, composed, and gracious soul.
Talk of forgiving, however, should probably be reserved for the big offenses—the stones thrown for which there is no excuse. That can suddenly or cumulatively kill or mortally wound a relationship. Which can seal up part of the heart like an empty tomb.
At times there might be a kind of grace in getting angry, the way Jesus did when he was offended to find the Temple made “a robber’s cave.” In fact, avoiding anger and practicing denial may be two of the chief ways that we resist grace. We cop out, avoid confrontation.
Yet how, in retrospect, are we to forgive ourselves for this? Or forgive ourselves our failures to forgive? Perhaps by realizing, first of all, that if and when forgiveness does comes, it will come by grace. Not by our effort or by any exhortation. For if there is an “ought” in forgiveness at all, it’s no “ought” of obligation; it’s an ought of opportunity. We “ought” to forgive in the way that we ought to lay down a heavy burden. In the way we ought to allow ourselves to accept a hug when we’re lonely, a cool glass of water when we’re thirsty.
It comes like a miracle. Like manna in the desert. Like an angel in the empty tomb of the heart. By surprise. Raising new life from death. Breaking through the normal calculus of evenhandedness and justice. There may be things we can do to make the miracle possible. Necessary but not sufficient conditions of faith, as it were. Like realizing the futility of revenge. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, says Tevye, and soon we all shall be eyeless and toothless. Like turning, not away, but back. Back in anger. Back in sadness. Back toward the tomb in the heart. Back toward relationship instead of away. Back toward the depths within our own souls.
In those depths, we may even be able to let go of some illusions about ourselves. That we are innocent victims. That it’s only others who are unjust, cruel, deceitful or sinful. “Forgiveness,” said Neibuhr, “is a possibility only for those who know that they are not good, who feel themselves in need of...mercy, who live in a dimension deeper and higher than that of moral idealism, who feel themselves as well as their fellow [human beings] convicted of sin by a holy God and know that the differences between the good [person] and the had [person] are insignificant in [God’s] sight.”
We may not be sinful by nature. Much less born into the world by a sinful process. But we are born into a world in which the manifold sins of oppression, pollution, exploitation, racism, sexism, and other narcissisms are all present before we arrive. Such sin is not original with us; we do not choose it. But it traps us.
And here is the paradox: until we accept the deep truth that we all share this condition, we may be trapped indeed. Trapped in pride and illusion. Only in humbly accepting that we share this condition even with those who have wronged us can we forgive others and allow ourselves to be forgiven. As C. S. Lewis said, “The first step toward being humble is to admit that one is proud. And that’s a biggish step, too.” Yet it is another necessary condition for forgiveness to occur.
I’m aware that talk about “sin” is risky. It can be abused, used to trap people in neurotic guilt-feelings, from which a helpless “I” can see no release. But the idea of sin can also be used in another way: to name and analyze what really separates us from one another and from the ground of our being. To name real guilt (which can be useful) can change us, because (when humbly acknowledged) it can be forgiving to realize what is actually separating us from one another and from the ground of our being. But real guilt, when realized, can change us. Because it can be acknowledged. And then it can be forgiven.
More profound and more difficult than the rational virtue of tolerance is the life lived in this awareness. In it, the chasms between us and the splits within us are not bridged directly, or by our own efforts. They are not always resolved soon, or even on the historical level. There’s no doubt about it. Forgiveness—even contemplating it—entails risks, too, the risks that we will let someone—even ourselves—off the hook too easily, perpetuating destructive or self-destructive. Risks of emotional exposure. Of leaving the score uneven. Of being called upon to be open to its working in us not just once, or twice, or seven times, but “seventy times seven.” Peter couldn’t do it. In all likelihood, neither can you or I. Like the psalmist, we may we find ourselves saying, “It is high; I cannot attain unto it.”
Or we may find ourselves praying: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Forgive us our slow, slow forgiving. Forgive us infinitely more than we have forgiven.”
“Those who risk and fail can be forgiven; those who never risk and never fail are failures in all their being. They are not forgiven because they do not feel their need for forgiveness. Therefore let us dare courageously not to be conformed to this age, but to transform it—first in ourselves, then in the world, and both in the spirit and power of love.”