Lament

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 119:73-80; 145, Lamentation 1:1-2, 6-12, 2 Corinthians 1:1-7, Mark 11:12-25


The Book of Lamentations was written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem hundreds of years before Christ’s birth. We revisit it during Holy Week because its theme of spiritual self-destruction is timeless. The author(s) of Lamentations believed God allowed the ruin of his people and their land because they had abandoned God and sinned shamelessly. Exiled and oppressed, the Jewish people sought vainly for consolation and mourned their foolishness.

Our modern understanding of salvation and sin as personal episodes distances us from the experience of communal lamentation.

Every so often some televangelist blames a natural disaster on  the sin of a community, but they always seem to be disasters “over there” – in New Orleans, Haiti, or some other place the preacher doesn’t live, and they always seem to be sins the preacher doesn’t commit – or admit. But the biblical prophets tell us the sins which most angered God weren’t attributable to individuals, and the just weren’t spared the repercussions. Hypocrisy, mistreatment of widows, orphans, and the poor, and other injustices – these angered God. We can’t point to one person and blame them for the plight of widows and orphans, so it’s easy to blame “the system.” But what is the system if not the cumulative response or neglect of individuals?

Our choice is simple: Repent now or lament later. Do we really believe no spiritual implosion looms on the communal horizon when we let industrial toxins disproportionately poison the poor? Or when our justice system prioritizes revenge over rehabilitation? Or when the most popular religious voices are teaching us faith is a means to tap into God’s limitless ATM? When no one is accountable, everyone is responsible.

By the time Jesus starts flipping the tables in our temple, it will be too late. The system will implode. But beyond that horizon is the promise of resurrection. As God eventually returned a contrite nation to Jerusalem, Christ restores our contrite hearts to the kingdom. Jesus taught that when we pray, we should forgive so we can be forgiven. Let’s recognize what we as a community need to be forgiven for.

Comfort: Resurrection is always on the horizon.

Challenge: It’s tempting dismiss injustice as “that’s the way things are.” You can’t fight every injustice, but can you pledge some of your time, talent, or money to combating at least one that doesn’t impact you directly?

Prayer: God of Mercy, accept my sacrifice of a contrite heart. Open my eyes to the ways I carelessly or ignorantly neglect the least among us, for in your kingdom they are the greatest. Amen.

Discussion: How do you feel about salvation as a community experience?

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Forgiveness First

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 27; 147:12-20, Genesis 39:1-23, 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:15, Mark 2:1-12


Jesus was speaking to a large crowd gathered in and around his home. “[S]ome people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and […] let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.'” The scribes present were offended that Jesus felt he had the authority to forgive sins. The man lowered through the roof may have been disappointed his faith was rewarded with forgiveness and not healing. His friends were probably not looking forward to carrying him back.

As he always seems to do, Jesus turns the situation on its head.

To demonstrate to the scribes the level of his authority, Jesus commands the man to pick up his mat and walk. What’s a little forgiveness compared to a miracle? While we have a suspicion Jesus intended to heal the man all along, his decision to first emphasize forgiveness is a powerful statement. In the text leading to this moment, Jesus seems increasingly frustrated the people follow him only for healings and miracles. While these are signs of his authority, they are only signs – which exist to point to something more important, something beyond our own satisfaction.

The most important healing Jesus offers is not of our mortal bodies, but of our eternal relationship with God. Some of us are convinced we are irredeemable (even though we hail Christ as our Redeemer!), and live our whole lives as if that was true. Others place blame on everyone else and live lives of petty grudges. Both situations demonstrate a lack of faith in forgiveness. These mindsets can be nearly impossible to shake. When we can fully accept that love and forgiveness are at the core of our beings and the center of our relationship with God, well … there’s the miracle.

Healing is not the end of the story, but the beginning. Once we accept God’s love and forgiveness, we can in turn love and forgive ourselves and each other. We heal the world. We are resurrected.

Comfort: The only thing standing between you and forgiveness … is you.

Challenge: Forgive someone. Don’t confuse it with excusing or justifying them. Forgive them as many times as you need to until it sticks.

Prayer: God of forgiveness, I step into your welcoming embrace. Thank you for loving me when I can’t forgive myself. I will accept your love even when I feel unworthy, because only your love heals me so I may forgive others. Amen.

Discussion: What do you need to forgive yourself for? Are you able to ask God to forgive you before you can forgive yourself?

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Good for the Soul

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 32, Daniel 9:3-10, Hebrews 2:10-18, John 12:44-50


Alcoholics Anonymous teaches us: “You are only as sick as your secrets.” The author of Psalm 32 knew this well. He wrote of his formerly deceitful spirit:

While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Today we might describe a secret as eating away at us or causing us to lose sleep. The longer we convince ourselves to keep our sins secret, the larger the role they play in our lives, yet somehow we convince ourselves an admission of guilt would be worse than the physical and psychological destruction we inflict upon ourselves. We fear the consequences of revealing our truths – often for good reason – but until we face them, we will not know peace. We want relief from our pain, but we turn to the bad medicine of substance abuse, anger, self-righteousness, or self-harm rather than swallow the bitter yet effective pill of confession.

Whether it is a one-on-one sacrament as observed by Roman Catholics and Lutherans or a community prayer and assurance of pardon during other Protestant liturgies, most Christian denominations practice some form of confession and absolution. Corporate confession is a valuable reminder of our ongoing need to evaluate and improve our behaviors and attitudes, but it is rarely a catalyst for deep change. Individual confession – to a priest, pastor, counselor, friend, or support group – forces us to confront truths in a personally meaningful way. Sometimes we have to admit them to others before we can really believe them. God’s forgiveness is always available to us, but first we must recognize what it is we need forgiveness for.

Guilt is a great weight. We can shift its useless burden from shoulder to shoulder, desperately growing weaker while trying to convince others we are strong … or we can confess our weakness. God’s forgiveness is not about shaming our weakness or balancing the load, but about teaching us to drop it entirely.  Each secret we speak is a weight we no longer carry.

Comfort: God’s forgiveness is always available, because He is more interested in loving us than damning us.

Challenge: Unburden yourself a little this week. Pick a sin or secret that troubles you and confess it to a trusted friend, minister, or counselor.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Discussion: Has anyone confessed a secret to you? How did it make you feel?

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A Stone’s Throw from Grace

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Genesis 26:1-6, 12-33, Hebrews 13:17-25, John 7:53-8:11


You don’t have to be a Christian to recognize the quote, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” It’s the pivotal line from a story in John’s Gospel. In this story, the scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman who’d been caught in adultery. The prescribed Mosaic punishment was death by stoning, but the Pharisees – knowing that stoning wasn’t exactly Jesus’s style – asked him what should be done. They hoped to trap him into contradicting the law so they could bring charges against him. Jesus paused for a bit, wrote something on the ground, and then gave his famous answer. One by one her accusers slipped away until only Jesus was left. He refused to condemn her, saying only “Go and sin no more.”

The inclusion of this story in John’s Gospel is not without controversy. It doesn’t appear in the earliest manuscripts, and many editions of the Bible are sure to note this. It’s kind of ironic that such a questionable story became one of the most recognizable. Why does this story compel us?

Perhaps because – authentic or not – it embodies an idea that it seems we need to hear and learn over and over again. If our relationship with God is about pointing out what other people are doing wrong, instead of humbly examining our own hearts, we aren’t getting the message.

Do we as a faith community need to hear about the reality of sin and immorality? Absolutely. Do we as a faith community need to point to and single out and shame it everywhere we (think we) see it? Absolutely not.

Why is it so many non-Christians (and former Christians) see the faith as full of people ready to cast stones? Well … they’re not entirely wrong. The loudest messages shouted from beneath the Christian banner tend to be ones of condemnation. Now loudest doesn’t mean exclusive or truest or most frequent, but it does disproportionately influence what people perceive and remember.

Christ’s message isn’t one of condemnation; it is of love. We all know John 3:16 and wave it around a lot to point out who is “saved” and who isn’t, but for some reason we don’t spend nearly as much time on 3:17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Condemnation cuts people off or turns them off, and neither wins anyone to Christ. But we like it. We struggle with (and succumb to) the same temptation as the Pharisees to twist scripture to justify punishing or imposing our will on others. Once Christianity became the dominant force of the Western world, we seemed to forget forcing the Good News on people is bad news.

Grace invites us in and asks us to leave the door open; religion is an excuse to shut people out. When Jesus tells us what is sinful, it’s not so we know when to punish or control other people; it’s so we know when we are creating a rift between ourselves and God. If other’s people sin does not affect us or exploit the innocent, it’s none of our business. In a culture where the Christian majority has learned to take offense at the idea of sharing public space with people who don’t share our faith or values (and we forget even within Christianity they are nuanced), it affects us far less than we like to think it does. Every one of us has enough planks in his or her eye to keep us too busy to worry about someone else’s speck.

We are forgiven. That is a thought that should be so humbling we can’t conceive of throwing stones. Instead, let us pass on the message of grace and love by being Christ’s open hands to the world.

Comfort: God’s love will deliver us from fear.

Challenge: Ask yourself what temptations you find hardest to resist, then ask what need is still not being met by giving in to them.

Prayer: In you O Lord I seek refuge and peace. Amen.

Discussion: What fears drive your behavior?

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Trickle Up Economics

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, Nehemiah 7:73b-8:3, 5-18, Revelation 22:14-21, Matthew 18:21-35


A slave owed his king more than a half a million dollars. Because he could not settle the debt, the king was going to sell off  the man and his family to recover what he could. The slave pleaded for some more time, promising he could come up with the money. The king showed mercy. On his way out of the palace, the slave ran into a second slave who owed him about a hundred dollars. When the second slave pleaded for patience, the first slave had him thrown into prison. The king, angered the first slave couldn’t show mercy in turn, had him tortured until his debt was paid in full.

Swap out talents and denarii for dollars, and this summarizes a parable Jesus told about forgiveness. The message is that we have been given a tremendous amount by God, so we should be able to muster at least a fraction of that forgiveness in kind.

This parable also gets at the heart of an important reason we find forgiveness so difficult: we don’t see ourselves reflected in other people as often as we should, and when we do we are likely to condemn them for the traits we hate in ourselves.

Sadly there is no shortage of “family values” advocates caught up in scandal for engaging in behaviors they declare immoral and campaign to make illegal. There are also plenty of people identifying themselves as progressive who turn out to be closeted misogynists and racists. And for some reason, rather than humbly reach across the aisle to establish a dialogue about how we can love and work through the human condition together, we continue to point at specks and ignore planks … all the while trading in actual morals for a sense of moral superiority.

And if right now anyone is thinking about someone else who needs to hear this, instead of how they themselves might be lacking in empathy and extrapolation, respectfully they are missing the point.

All the time we spend declaring and condemning is time we don’t spend listening and understanding. Maybe we can honestly look at someone and say we wouldn’t commit that particular sin or mistake, but when it comes to what we’ve been forgiven, a dime is as good as a dollar. Jesus didn’t leave the casting of the first stone to “he who hasn’t committed adultery” but “he who is without sin.” He didn’t die for some, but for all.

A lack of forgiveness – which necessitates a willingness to see ourselves reflected in our fellows – is a rejection of the forgiveness we have received. It can be difficult to see humanity in others when we are scared, angry, or ashamed but those are the times we need to try the hardest. The king could have said “it was smart of you to try to collect so you could pay me back” but he valued paying mercy forward more. Ultimately all debts are settled through the Prince of Peace, so let’s be generous with ours.

Additional reading: For more thought’s on today’s passage from Matthew, see Love and Forgiveness and Seventy-Seven Times. For more on empathy and extrapolation, see Invitation: Extrapolation.

Comfort: Forgiveness has more reward than cost.

Challenge: Talk with someone you are having trouble forgiving. If you can’t yet bring yourself to forgive, try to just listen.

Prayer: Merciful and loving God, may gratitude for your forgiveness fill my heart until it overflows into the world. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever condemned someone for something you were also guilty of? If so, how do you feel about that now?

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Tax Reform

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 88; 148, Nehemiah 9:26-38, Revelation 22:6-13, Matthew 18:10-20


Today’s passage from Matthew has been embraced by Christians as a model for discipline within the community. Jesus offers the disciples a model for addressing when a member of the church sins (or in some translations, more specifically “sins against you.”)

First, talk to the person one-on-one in a spirit of reconciliation. If that doesn’t resolve satisfactorily, have the conversation again but this time with the addition of one or two witnesses. If there’s still no repentance, take it before the church “and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In Acts and Corinthians we can read about how this model plays out.

And yet…

Bible scholars are divided on the authenticity of this passage. It’s unusually prescriptive for a saying of Jesus. It refers to a church which, while Jesus may have foreseen it, did not yet exist. It takes a shot at tax collectors as worth shunning, yet Jesus and his disciples shared meals and went to the homes of tax collectors. And perhaps most tellingly, it is immediately followed by Peter asking Jesus if forgiving someone seven times (which seemed generous compared to the rabbinical standard of three times) was sufficient, and Jesus answering we should forgive seventy times seven times.

The reality is, if someone threatens the well-being of a community from within, we may need a loving yet firm way of dealing with it. Forgiveness is not a blank check for endless tolerance of the unjust. The process described in Matthew gives multiple opportunities for repentance and reconciliation – and also allows for the chance the accused might actually be the wronged party. It discourages overreaction and public shaming. Like an employer’s performance improvement plan, it’s not primarily intended to be the way of driving someone out, but of finding a way to keep them in the fold. But like an improvement plan, it can be misunderstood, misapplied, and abused – especially when expulsion is the predetermined outcome.

What about more personal disputes? We like having an option to take people to task; Jesus is more about curbing that than endorsing it. We are less fond of forgiving them more times than we can count (OK yes, one could theoretically count to four hundred and ninety, but it’s a symbolic number). Just because a disciplinary process is available to use doesn’t mean we are required to use it. Shy of physical danger, it is entirely conceivable for two people who don’t get along, even if one has been wronged, to peacefully coexist in the same congregation. That’s pretty much the definition of forgiveness. And it seems most of Jesus’s teaching put the responsibility on us to make the sacrifice of peace rather than demanding it of someone else.

When someone owes you a sin tax, you are within your rights to follow the collection process to the bitter end. The whats, whys, and hows of it are between you, your debtor, and God. Just keep in mind that Jesus taught us to pray to be forgiven our debts as we forgive our debtors. There will be an audit.

Comfort: Forgiveness has more reward than cost.

Challenge: Being within your rights is no guarantee you are right.

Prayer: Merciful and loving God, teach me to focus more on what I owe than what is owed me. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever experienced someone being ostracized from a community? How did it make you feel?

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As we forgive…

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 88; 148, 2 Kings 9:17-37, 1 Corinthians 7:1-9, Matthew 6:7-15


If you found out you were going to die tomorrow, would you have time to forgive all the people who had wronged you?

When Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he included “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Some translations of this prayer use the word “sin” or “trespass” instead of debt, but the meaning is pretty clear; Jesus explains the prayer by telling them they will be forgiven in the spirit which they forgive.

That’s bad news for grudge holders.

The good news is forgiveness in this sense is not about how we feel – which is something we can’t control – but about how we act, which is something we can control. Like loving our neighbors doesn’t require any actual affection, forgiving our debtors doesn’t involve resigning ourselves to whatever trespass they’ve committed against us. In the long run for our own peace of mind and mental health it’s probably preferable to get to emotionally better places, but we don’t have to be there yet to do what Christ has us pray. Does that sound hypocritical? Christ’s instructions are indifferent to our emotions, so acting on those instructions when we don’t feel like it is not so much disingenuous as it is a testament to faithfulness.

Forgiveness is a vital component of faith. Jesus speaks of it many times. If withholding forgiveness can keep us separated from God, it must be sinful. Yet we seem to spend so much more time preaching, talking about, and judging each other on a list of Dos-and-Don’ts we can’t even agree on. We’re happy to quote Paul and tell fornicators and the sexually immoral they won’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but we don’t say much to address the people in the pews who refuse to let go of a neighborhood feud over fence height.

We love because we are loved. We forgive because we are forgiven. How we feel about it while we do it is not the point. How we feel about it afterward  might just nudge our hearts even closer to God.

Comfort: You are forgiven.

Challenge: You must forgive.

Prayer: [Recite the Lord’s Prayer]

Discussion: Does your ability to forgive someone depend on whether they seem sorry?

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Rest In Peace

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, 2 Samuel 1:17-27, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 25:31-46


“Don’t speak ill of the dead.”
– Ancient proverb.

“It’s easier to love someone who’s dead. They make so few mistakes.”
– Arnold, Torch Song Trilogy

After Saul and his son Jonathan died battling the Philistines, David wrote The Song of the Bow (today’s reading from 2 Samuel) as a memorial to them. He praised their might and bravery, their loyalty to each other, and the good they did for Israel. He didn’t mention Saul’s crazed and cowardly attempts to murder him, or the fierce division they had over his fate, or that his resulting exile weakened the nation.

Isn’t this the way of most memorial services? “Eulogy” literally means “good words” and we seldom hear anything else spoken at a funeral, regardless of the character of the deceased. At least for a time the bumps in the road of life are smoothed over as we attempt to comfort those left behind.

But not all our grief is for lost love.

Human relationships being complex, we often have unfinished business with the deceased. If this business pains us, we are left with options of denial or therapy  since resolution is no longer possible. Relationships revolving around the person we’ve lost may become more complicated as well.

Then there’s a third option: forgiveness. Death forces us to face we can’t control other people – something we won’t always accept while they live. A hoped for apology or behavioral change – which always seem to remain a possibility when someone is alive – can be an obstacle to forgiveness, because it makes forgiveness dependent upon that person. Yet we can control them no more alive than dead. The relief of forgiveness comes only when we realize it means changing ourselves, but that frequently means hard and humble work on our part.

Fortunately, we can do the work to forgive someone while they still live. On the flip side, we can offer amends any time – regardless of whether we feel like it – and avoid being the source of irresolvable grief. Either way, love as if it’s your last chance. Once we stop waiting, we really start living.


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s passage from Matthew, see Whatsoever.
Read a reflection on today’s scripture from Romans in Burning Love.

Comfort: Forgiveness is something you can choose right now…

Challenge: … but it may take a while to really get there.

Prayer: May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him. (Psalm 67:7)

Discussion: What impact has unfinished business with a deceased friend, for, or family member had on your life?

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Forgive and Remember

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 122; 149, 1 Samuel 14:16-30, Acts 9:10-19a, Luke 23:32-43


We don’t think we’re like other people. It’s cliché for someone in rehab to claim “I’m not an addict like the rest of them.” When someone else gets fired, they were lazy or inept; when we get fired the boss is a jerk. When a group we don’t belong to reacts to oppression, they are snowflakes; when we feel oppressed (despite possibly being in the majority) we’re standing up for what’s right. Even a thief hanging on a cross can find a reason to mock the savior hanging next to him.

Yet that same savior asked God to forgive his executioners. What’s the difference (besides not being Jesus)? Empathy.

Empathy is an ability to relate to the emotions and circumstances of others. It’s inseparable from forgiveness. To forgive we must understand what it means to be forgiven. To feel forgiven, we must first accept responsibility for the things we’ve done which need forgiving (not as popular a choice as maybe it should be) and then trust Christ to do what he said. If on some level we can’t accept Christ’s forgiveness (and it takes a real ego to think we’re the one person he can’t forgive), can what we call and offer as forgiveness be the real deal?

As long as we insist we would have been better, stronger, kinder, etc. having experienced the exact same life as someone else, true forgiveness eludes us. We don’t have to excuse misbehavior or abandon accountability, but neither of those is required to forgive. Actually, if we did, what exactly would we be forgiving?

When the Lord asked Ananias to attend to Saul, Ananias answered: “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.” Yet in the end he trusted the Lord to make a great evangelist of this villain. Is there any doubt Ananias knew the forgiveness of Christ?

Psalm 51 tells us God will not despise a broken spirit and a contrite heart. When we are willing to admit to our brokenness and receive forgiveness, our ability to forgive blossoms.

Comfort: God will forgive you.

Challenge: It’s up to you to accept that forgiveness.

Prayer: Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.. (Psalm 51:10)

Discussion: What are some examples of the difference between empathy and sympathy? Why is it important to know the difference?

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Forgive and Don’t Forget

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Jeremiah 32:1-15, Colossians 3:18-4:18, Luke 7:36-50


Paul was convinced that Christ’s return was a short-term proposition. As far as he was concerned, that was all the social upheaval that would be needed. In his letters to the Colossians and the Galatians, he declared that in Christ there was no distinction made between Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Long-term political and social reform simply wasn’t part of the equation. So when he advises wives to be subject to their husbands and slaves to obey their masters, he isn’t so much advocating for the social ills of sexism and human trafficking (though there’s no plausible argument he was against them either) as he is commenting on the world as it is but won’t be much longer.

Importantly, he also counsels masters to be just and fair, husbands not to be harsh, and fathers not to provoke their children. No matter what circumstances we find ourselves in – fair or unfair, powerful or powerless – we should conduct ourselves in a manner that shows our trust and dignity lie in Christ. The work we do; the words we choose; the attitudes we display; no matter our station in life all of these can be conformed to the image of Christ. We won’t do it perfectly, but perfection is not the expectation.

Ironically, one of the best ways to do better is to remember when we have done worse. We don’t do this to feel guilty, but to feel gratitude. Luke tells the tale of a sinful woman who came to Jesus while he visited and dined with a Pharisee. She washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. When the Pharisee tried to warn Jesus what kind of woman she was, Jesus pointed out she had shown him many more kindnesses than the Pharisee had: “Her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

Let’s remember what we have been forgiven. Every little detail. Then let’s return that gratitude and love by sharing it with all we meet.

Comfort: You are forgiven much.

Challenge: You are called to forgive.

Prayer:  Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Amen.

Discussion: How do you typically show gratitude?

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