God of Grace, open our ears to hear your word of forgiveness, open our eyes to see those in need, open our lives to love one another as you love us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

What does Grace look like?

Did you hear the story of John Oliver, the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight? He was doing a story on debt collectors. His story focused on the predatory collectors who buy up debt from banks at a hugely reduced rate – cents on the dollar and then use threats and other aggressive tactics without even verifying the details of the debt. To further explore how this worked, Oliver decided to form a debt collection company of his own. It cost only $50 to set it up. They called it “Carp.”

According to Oliver, soon after its creation, this company was offered a portfolio of medical debt – that’s the debt of people who can’t pay their doctor and hospital bills -- worth almost $15 million dollars at a cost of “less than half a cent on a dollar, which is less than $60 thousand dollars. They bought it and soon afterwards, they received the list of names, addresses and social security numbers of the people who owed that debt: it was nearly 9,000 people.

Oliver said, “We bought it, which is absolutely terrifying because it means if I wanted to, I could legally have Carp take possession of that list and have employees start calling people, turning their lives upside down over medical debt,” said Oliver.

But…instead of doing that – he forgave the debt.

Imagine the response of those 9,000 people. They – or a loved one - had suffered from a medical challenge that cost so much they couldn’t pay their medical bills. If a predatory creditor had bought their debt, they would have been harassed and terrorized. Instead, their debt was paid.

That’s a story of grace.

Oliver’s action parallels a story that Jesus tells about the creditor who had two debtors – one owed a lot and one owed just a little. The creditor forgave both debts. Jesus asks the Pharisee who had invited him into his home: Which one will love him more? The Pharisee said, “The one who was forgiven more, I suppose.” Jesus complimented him – you got it right!

But then Jesus compares the Pharisee’s hospitality – or rather lack of hospitality and care – to the outpouring of love of the woman at his feet. Imagine the scene – homes in the middle east in that day had open courtyards and were more accessible to people just walking in than a Minnesota home today, but it still would have been surprising for an uninvited woman to come into the room and kneel at the feet of one of your guests and not only wash his feet with her tears– but then to take down her hair – which was considered very private - and to wipe his feet. While everyone else around the table is probably embarrassed and trying to ignore her, Jesus explains her actions as the actions of one who has been forgiven much and who was responding with love.

That’s grace.

Jesus forgave her. She responded with love. And then Jesus reminded her – you are forgiven. Get up! You are healed and set free to live.

That’s grace.

At the beginning of the service, we invited you to pick up a rock and hold it in your hand for the whole service. Now I want you to take a look at the rock in your hand. You probably didn’t think much of it at first – except maybe wondering what in the world Pastor Pam was going to have you do with that rock. It’s not real heavy so you probably didn’t think much about it – until you had to try to open the hymnal. Some of you may have set them down. That’s ok.

But think about how that rock would change your life if you could not set it down. You would have to do everything with one hand. Holding that rock would start to get old fast. Maybe you would try to pry the rock from your hand. Maybe you would try to take some medicine. But what if nothing worked. The rock was still with you. But then, one day – due to nothing that you tried and nothing that you did or said, suddenly, Jesus says, “your sins are forgiven” and the rock is gone. You are set free.

That’s what God’s grace is like. Because of God’s love for you, Christ forgives you and sets you free from all of the rocks – sins – problems – challenges –all the actions/words and things that weigh you down. Forgiveness sets you free. And you, like the woman in the Gospel story, are free to love. That’s good news!

But now imagine that that rock was not something that you did – it wasn’t a sin or anything that YOU did but rather was a grudge that you held against someone else, a grudge that you refused to forgive. They had wronged you and you decided you were not going to forgive them… end of story. Except….you didn’t notice that that grudge became a rock in your hand. And it kept you from being the person God made you to be. You tried to ignore it. You tried to work around it. But that grudge, that rock, affected everything you did.

You may be familiar with the amazing story of reconciliation in South Africa. Forgiveness – not getting even, not getting revenge -- was the key to stopping the bloodshed in that country. But the reconciliation commission discovered something amazing. Not only was reconciliation good for the country, but, as Bishop Desmond Tutu describes it, the act of forgiveness is essential for our own wholeness.

Forgiveness. It’s something that we need – and God gives it freely. No cost. Your debt is paid by the love of Jesus. Nothing more is required -because Grace is the free gift of God. But we want and need to respond – with love.

Today, as you come forward to receive Christ’s gift of his body and blood, remember that you have been forgiven already by Jesus and now Jesus wants to set you free. So I invite you to bring the rock in your hand – and let it go. Christ has set you free to love and forgive yourself and your neighbor, your spouse, your child, your brother or sister, your co-worker, your friend. You have been forgiven. You are set free to love and to forgive.

That’s what grace looks like.

Thanks be to God!

Pastor Pamela Stalheim Lane
Faith-Lilac Way Lutheran Church
June 12, 2016