“The Wideness of God’s Mercy”

I stand in this pulpit, on this 17th day of September, exactly 34 years after my ordination to ministry in Essex, Massachusetts.  That my ordination anniversary coincides with my retirement day in Littleton feels like it’s a wheel come round – a circle. 

So in that spirit, I am going to preach – again – the first sermon that I ever preached when I was a divinity school student.  This is admittedly self-serving, in that I’m seeking that classic sense of closure in my own life.  I still remember vividly getting up in front of fellow students from my preaching class – a very tough audience – standing with wobbly knees, and sharing my understanding of the Gospel, one which I hope I have shared with you over the years.  


John 1:29–34

The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.”  And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.  I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’  And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” 

How many of you have ever told a “little white lie”?  Or stolen from the proverbial cookie jar?  I certainly have.  And even though I was afraid of being caught, I always felt relieved when someone found out and scolded me.  I only had to say “I’m sorry,” and my parents would forgive me.

As we get older, though, someone may not be there to forgive.  Whenever I make what I think is an unforgivable mistake, I say to myself, “You have to learn to forgive yourself.”  And sometimes that works.  In Sunday School I was told that I was forgiven because Christ died for my sins.  But what did that mean?  I heard about “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  But the words and their meaning were lost on me.  They were too abstract.  I wanted someone right then and there to tell me “everything’s okay” – that I’m okay.  If no one else could do it for me, then I would try to forgive myself.

How many of us still feel that way today?  How often do you hear yourself say, “If only I hadn’t done that, things would be so different.”  Don’t we still long for someone to be with us, right here and now, to say “it’s okay, you’re forgiven.”  Years may have passed since we made the mistake, chose the wrong path, made the wrong decision.  

How many of us live with memories of things that can never be changed?  How many of us are still waiting to be forgiven?

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

What do those words mean to us?  Do we truly believe in them?  God loves us so much that God sent us Christ.  God calls us to repent and God forgives us.  It sounds so simple.  Yet why do we have such a hard time accepting it?  Why can’t we let ourselves be forgiven?

In 1986 for my field education requirement, I worked as a student chaplain at the women’s prison at MCI-Framingham.

Prison is not a place we usually associate with forgiveness.  Prisons are supposed to be for punishment.  People there serve their time and then are expected to “go and sin no more.”  Yet most of them return – often within a few weeks.

A huge percentage of those incarcerated are drug addicts or alcoholics.  Many have been physically abused, often since childhood.  Their offenses range from trespassing and drug-dealing to theft and murder.  While serving their time, most of the women receive drug counseling, but once released they often return to old habits.  Even if the women are able to find jobs after leaving Framingham, they now have the infamous label “ex-con” or another derogatory term for those who have been incarcerated. 

THEY can’t forget it.  Few people will LET them forget it.  All of these women have made mistakes that they would like to forget.  But they can’t.

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

I worked as part of a team of chaplains, most of them Catholic sisters.  My favorite was an elderly woman named Sister Martin.  Sister Martin wore a long white flowing habit and a gleaming gold cross on a chain around her neck.  Her teeth were crooked and decayed, and when she smiled, her eyes would crinkle at you through small silver glasses.  Sister Martin would visit the prison twice a week, spending up to twelve hours a day making rounds to every unit.  Women would see her coming and they would blow her a kiss down the hall, or give her a smile, a handshake, or a hug.

Sister Martin was one of the Dominican Sisters of Bethany, a small order founded in France.  The order was established:  “To found a new religious family in which all the sisters coming from any past, such as normal Christian homes with all the qualities usually demanded for religious life, or those coming from broken homes, prostitution, drugs, and prison, are fused together in God’s love.  A woman is accepted into the order regardless of her background.”

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

Forgiveness doesn’t come easily to women in prison.  Few of them know what it is to be forgiven – they’ve been making mistake after mistake since childhood.  I listened to many of their stories, and I learned more than I ever wanted to know about theft, drug-dealing, and prostitution.  What these women regret most is the way they’ve disappointed their parents and how they’ve hurt their own children’s lives.  Sometimes their families will give them a second, or a third, or a fourth chance to change and try again.  But after the fourth or fifth time in prison, there’s no one left who believes they can change.  So they stop believing it too.

One of my friends once asked me, “How can you forgive these women for what they’ve done?”  I replied, “Once you know all they’ve been through, it’s easier to be understanding and forgiving.”  

But that’s not the point.  Because it’s not up to me to forgive.

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

While I worked at the prison, I met a woman I’ll call Carol.  She was serving a ten-year sentence.  Carol had one of the more responsible jobs at the prison, as a clerk and typist.  She was hard-working and respected by both the staff and those incarcerated.  She had long brown hair, blue eyes, and two scars on her face that her boyfriend gave her.  She usually kept to herself, but she always had a smile for anyone who took the time to say hello.

When I first met Carol, she was feeling especially depressed.  Because of her long sentence, she had just given up her five-year-old daughter for adoption.  For the first couple years that she was in prison, her daughter Mary would visit her two or three times a month.  After the adoption, she would be seeing her daughter only four times a year.

She once showed me photographs from one of Mary’s visits.  The two of them are sitting with their arms around each other on a sofa in the children’s visiting room.  Mary had on a pretty white dress and fancy shoes.  Both mother and daughter were beaming, and their smiles looked identical.  Carol glowed with pride as she showed me the photos.  Then her eyes welled up, and she put the pictures back in her jeans’ pocket.

I had never asked Carol what she was doing time for.  Because of her long sentence, I assumed it was for a string of crimes, maybe armed robbery, or even for being an accomplice to murder.

Then one day I found out that Carol was in prison because she had killed her infant son.  Whether she was drunk, or high, or even sober – she killed her son.  She lost her temper and hit him one too many times.

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

How does a woman like Carol forgive herself for what she’s done?  I don’t think she can.  I don’t think ANY of us can forgive ourselves.  How dare we even TRY. 

Forgiveness is something not of this world.  It’s a divine gift, given to us on a cross.

God has given us the ultimate gift, God’s blessed Lamb, through whom God says to us, “No matter what you do, I will FORGIVE you.  No matter what you do, I will LOVE you.”  

God’s love and forgiveness are greater than we can ever imagine, and it’s only through that boundless love and forgiveness that we make our feeble human attempts to forgive ourselves and others.  

Ultimately, our human attempts will fail.  And THEN will we find God – waiting, loving, forgiving – and forgiving us more.  Forgiving you, and me, and forgiving Carol.  How great a gift!  

Behold, the Lamb of God.  


So in the spirit of that sermon I preached then, and now, I pray our church will continue in the ministry of love and compassion and acceptance and forgiveness – in all the ways that we live out the Gospel – whether by supporting the Concord Prison Outreach project that’s happening here next weekend, or through reaching out in the many ways that our church does.  You all are a blessing to me, to our community, and our world.  Amen.