There’s a lot of talk about acceptance/tolerance in the church today. We ask people to be more understanding of others, we create curricula of theological teachings that are so watered down so as to say not much of anything, and we assume that being Christians is the same thing as being nice.
But how would you like to be the one tolerated?
Tolerance is always a position for those who are in power. And the kind of power we have in the church is best exemplified in the One whose arms were outstretched on the hard wood of the cross. Put another way: We Christians do well to remember that we worship the crucified God.
Tolerance, therefore, is not something we should be in the business of. If the church is in the business of anything, it is the Jesus business.
And the Jesus business is run by forgiveness.
Hymn 560 in the United Methodist Hymnal is titled “Help Us Accept Each Other.” It is a catchy little tune of self-congratulation that is indicative of a church that no longer has anything left to say. If Jesus came so that we would merely accept each other, then there’s no good reason for him to die on a cross. You only kill someone when their very being in the world threatens to upend everything you think you know about the world.
Jesus died on a cross because his existence in the world called into question the powers and principalities that produce a vision of tolerance rather than an ethic of sacrificial love.
At the heart of Christianity is the proclamation that Jesus loves us even though Jesus shouldn’t love us. We all do things we shouldn’t do and we all avoid doing things we should do.
The “church of acceptance” leads to the fundamentally unchristian sentiment of “Love The Sinner, Hate The Sin.” We all know we’re supposed to love sinners, that’s what Jesus did. And yet, Jesus does not call us, his followers, to love sinners, but to love our neighbors.
The distinction is important. “Loving sinners” places us in the position of power in regard to others whereas “loving neighbors” reminds us that we, ourselves, are also sinners.
In the lexicon of the church this is made manifest whenever we gather at the table and hear: “Christ died for uswhile we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”
While we were yet sinners. Not before and not after. But right smack dab in the midst of our sins, God in Christ loves us and forgives us.
That’s rather staggering. It’s staggering because we simply don’t deserve it.
Consider the parables: More often than not they end with someone throwing our the ledger book, or offering mercy before an apology, or being invited to a banquet they have no business attending.
Or consider Jesus’ life: He pronounces forgiveness from the cross, reconciles with the abandoning disciples in the upper room, chooses the murderous Paul to be the CEO (chief evangelist officer) of the first century.
Jesus knows the prejudices we’re ashamed of (and the ones we’re proud of), Jesus knows the golden calves we worship instead of Him, Jesus knows our self-centeredness, and Jesus still says, “I forgive you.”
Jesus has seen all the emails we craft out of anger but are too afraid to send, Jesus witnesses the manifold ways we lie to our families and friends, Jesus is aware of our internet search histories, and Jesus still says, “I forgive you.”
Jesus is there with us in the comments we leave on Facebook, Jesus hears us when we scream in the car hoping no one else can hear us, Jesus knows about the biggest mistake we’ve ever made, and Jesus still says, “I forgive you.”
Perhaps, then, we should change the words to the aforementioned tepid tune in the church:
Help us forgive each other as Christ forgives us;
Teach us as sister, brother, each person to embrace.
Be present, Lord, among us, and bring us to believe
We are ourselves forgiven and meant to love and live.
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
Interior coffee shop: early morning.
Rain falls steadily against a window.
An assortment of customers in various states of caffeination are spread out among the tables and chairs.
A preacher sits alone in the corner. Computer and Bible are on the table, a subpar sermon is coming along splendidly.
He tries to focus on the matter at hand, but he can’t help but overhear a conversation from a nearby table.
“Can you believe he cheated on her?”
“Oh honey, that’s not the half of it. I heard he’s been living two lives between two houses with two different families.”
The preacher knows better than to eavesdrop, so he goes back to the flashing cursor on his computer. He’s able to jot a few ideas down, none of which will actually make it into the sermon. When, a few minutes later, he catches bits of different conversation at a different table.
“You know, the Ukrainians, they’re getting what they deserve. They elected that Zelensky and his liberal agenda. I think we would do well to have a leader like Putin here, someone tough who isn’t going to let anything get in his way.”
The preacher closes his computer and decides to leave before he overhears even more sinners talking about other sinners and their sin.
There are times when I like to think that we’ve come a long way since the time of our Lord, that we’ve progressed from some of our wandering recklessness.
And then I am reminded that, all things considered, not much has changed.
Do you think those Galileans suffered because they were worse sinners than other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will die like them.
What a grace-filled and hopeful word from the Word!
Robert Farrar Capon wrote that good preachers, and I would say good Christians, should behave like bad kids. We ought to be mischievous enough to sneak in among dozing congregations and steal all their bottles of religion pills, and spirituality pills, and morality pills, and flush them all down the toilet.
Why? Because the church has drugged itself into believing that proper behavior is the ultimate pathway to God. We’re addicted to the certainty that, as bad as we might be, at least we’re not as bad as those other people over there.
There’s a reason reality TV is still such a favorite past time within and among the wider culture. We feel better about ourselves when we get to see other people behaving badly. It’s also why we’re quick to post photos of our perfect little families, even though they acted like animals while we were trying to get that perfect photo, so that everyone else will know, with certainty, that we have it all together.
But the sad truth is none of us know what we’re doing – some of us are better at pretending we know what we’re doing. But at the end of the day we’re all making it up along the way.
And yet, we can’t help ourselves from comparing ourselves to others in such a way that we are superior to their inferiority.
The crowds bring to Jesus their query; they want to know if people get punished for their sins – they want to know what it takes to be guilty.
And here’s the bottom line: if the God we worship punished us according to the sins we’ve already committed, the sins we’re currently committing, and even the sins we will commit in the future, then none of us would be around to worship in the first place.
Or, to put it another way: If every bad thing happens because God does it to punish us, then God isn’t worthy of our worship.
Over the centuries the church has been a place of guilt. Make em feel bad about their behavior, scare them about punishments in the hereafter, and they’ll show up in droves to hear about it all again next Sunday. And the same is true in our wider culture; we’re all keeping our little ledger books in our minds about who has done what to us.
But the strange new world of the Bible, the strange new world we talk about week after week, isn’t obsessed with guilt. No, if it’s obsessed with anything, it’s obsessed with forgiveness!
Christ died for us while we were yet sinners!
The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world!
What then, should we make of Jesus’ quip about repentance? “No, I tell you; but unless you repent you will die like them.”
Of course there should be repentance – a turning back, a return to the Lord. We’ve all wandered away from the Way. But repentance is supposed to be a joyful celebration, not a bargain chip we can cash in to get God to put up with us.
Repentance is a response to the goodness God has done, not a requirement to merit God’s goodness.
We can certainly feel guilty about our sins, and maybe we should. But feeling guilty about our sins doesn’t really do anything. In fact, the more we lob on guilt, the more likely we are to keep sinning because of our guilt.
The only thing we can ever really do about our sins, is admit them. It’s a great challenge to be able to see ourselves for who we really are, sinners in the hands of a loving God, and then take a courageous step in the direction of repentance. But if we ever muster up the gumption to do so, it will be because we live in the light of grace.
Grace works without requiring anything from us. No amount of self-help books, no number of piously repentant prayers, no perfect family, perfect job, perfect paycheck, perfect morality, perfect theology earns us anything.
Grace is not expensive. It’s not even cheap. It’s free.
And, according to the wondrous weirdness of the Lord, grace is like manure.
Or, perhaps we should call it holy fertilizer.
This is classic Jesus here. The crowds approach with their question and his answer to their question is a story, a parable.
A man has a vineyard and in the middle of the vineyard he planted a fig tree. But for three years it produced not a single fig. So one day the vineyard owner says to the gardener, “I can’t take it anymore. This fig tree is wasting my good soil. Cut it down.”
But the gardener looks at his employer and says, “Lord, let it be. Why not give it another year? I’ll spread some manure on it this afternoon and maybe next year it will have some fruit.”
Short and sweet as far as parables are concerned and yet, even in its simplicity there are a bunch of weird and notable details.
For instance, why does the vineyard owner plant a fig trees among a bunch of grapes? Do you think he was trying to develop a new, and perhaps bizarre, variety of wine? Or maybe he was going to start the first Fig Newton distribution service in Jerusalem?
Strange. But perhaps nothing is stranger than the gardener. This gardener speaks in defense of a speechless fig tree.
And what does the gardener says, “Lord, let it alone for a year. Let me give it some manure.”
At least, that’s what it sort of says in our pew bibles.
But in Greek, the gardener says, “KYRIE, APHES AUTEN.”
Literally, “Lord, forgive it.”
Lord, forgive it!
These might be some of the most striking for from the strange new world of the Bible both because they proclaim the forgiveness of the Lord for not reason at all, and because they help us to see how little we can.
There’s a reason that, when we nail Jesus to the cross, he declares, “Lord, forgive them for they do not know what we are doing.”
Lent is the strange and blessed time to admit, we have no idea what we’re doing. That we are in need of all the grace and manure we can get.
The cross with this we adorn the sanctuary, in all of its ugliness, is a sign and testament to Jesus becoming sin for us – how Jesus goes outside the boundaries of respectability for us, how he is damned to the dump because of us, and how he ultimately becomes the manure of grace for us.
It’s wild that Jesus has the gall to tell this story at all, and that the divine gardener offers to spread some holy fertilizer on the fig tree, on us.
Only in the foolishness of God could something so nasty, so dirty, so grossly inappropriate, becomes the means by which we become precisely who we are meant to be.
God’s grace gets dumped onto the fruitless fig trees of our lives and get co-mingled in the soil of our souls. It is messy and even bizarre, but without it we are nothing.
Jesus doesn’t give a flip whether we’ve got a fig on the tree or not. He only cares about forgiveness, a forgiveness we so desperately need because we have no idea what we’re doing.
For, if we knew what we were doing, we would’ve solved all the world problems by now. But we haven’t.
We are fruitless fig trees standing alone in the middle of God’s vineyard.
We are doing nothing, and we deserve nothing.
And yet (!) Jesus looks at our barren limbs, all of our fruitless works, our sin sick souls, and he says the three words we deserve not at all: “Lord, forgive them.”
On Friday afternoon, the aforementioned Vladimir Putin addressed the people of Russia during a rally that was celebrating the 8th anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. While Russian forces attacked Kyiv and blockaded civilians in other parts of Ukraine, Putin assured his people that Russia was forced into this war into to get the Ukrainian people out of their misery.
And then he said, “And this is where the words from the scriptures come to mind, ‘There is no greater love than if someone gives his soul for his friends.’”
That a world leader used Jesus’ words to justify violence and bloodshed is not unusual. It’s been done again and again throughout the centuries. Even here in the US, it is a familiar refrain whenever violence is on the table. Presidents Trump, Obama, Bush, and Clinton each used the quote at one point or another during their years in office.
But Jesus spoke those words before mounting the hard wood of the cross, not before going to war. Jesus laid down his life for his so-called friends who betrayed him, denied him, and abandoned him.
Jesus laid down his life for us.
And even with a crown of thorns adorning his head, and the cross over his shoulder, he still says, “Lord, forgive them.” Amen.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
It is a long standing tradition in the church to begin the forty days of Lent with Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. We, in a sense, mirror the journey Jesus faced with our own attempts at wrestling with temptation while abstaining from certain items, behaviors, and practices.
It’s not the easiest section of the church calendar.
The hymns are all a little too on the nose, the sermons call to question all of our wandering hearts, and even the scriptures reject our desire to look at anything but the cross.
We, then, can do lots of things as a church during this particular liturgical season, but at some point or another we will all raise the question we’ve had since the very beginning of the church: “Who, exactly, is this Jesus?”
It was just a few weeks ago that we were worshipping the baby born King in the manger, with little angels and shepherds wandering around the sanctuary. It’s easy to worship that Jesus because in infancy there isn’t much for us to come to grips with. We can confess the wonder of the incarnation, but we’re not entirely sure what that has to do with you or me.
But then, here in Lent, it’s like the Spirit wants to smack us over the head with the truth of the Truth incarnate.
And we start with Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.
This vignette in the strange new world of the Bible tells us exactly who this Jesus is, and who he will be.
Oddly enough, it offers us a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos – it helps us see that the story of Christ will end just as it begins.
Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan and then he is led by the spirit into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
“Hey JC!” The devil begins, “If you are who you say you are, I’m gonna need to see some ID. No pockets in your robe? That’s fine. I’ll take your word for it, if you really are the Word. But, let me tell you, you look awful. I’m sure you’re hungry. Not a lot to eat out here in the wilderness. Why don’t you rustle up some bread from these stones. Who knows? That little parlor trick could come in handy down the road… what could be more holy than having mercy on the hungry and filling their bellies?”
And Jesus says, “It is written, we cannot and shall not live by bread alone.”
“So you know your scriptures!” The Devil says, “I’m impressed! And, frankly, I’m with you Son of Man. You can’t just give hungry people food for nothing. They’ll become dependent. No handouts in the Kingdom of God! But how about this? Would you like a little taste of power? And I mean, real power. Political power. Here’s the deal – I’ll give you the keys to the kingdoms here on earth, all of them. The only thing you have to do, and it’s really nothing when you think about it, I just need you to bow down and worship me.”
And Jesus says, “It is written, we shall only worship one God.”
“Okay, okay,” the Devil continues, “Don’t be such a buzzkill. So you won’t show compassion to the needy, even yourself, and you won’t go ahead and make the world a better place through political machinations. That’s fine with me. For what it’s worth, I can play the scripture game too, you know. So I’ll give you one more chance. Why don’t you leap from the top of the temple, give the people a sign of God’s power and might, for, doesn’t it say in the Psalms, ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ Just think about the kind of faith people will finally have if you show them one big miracle!”
And Jesus says, “It is written, you shall not put the Lord you God to the test.”
And then the devil leaves only to return at an opportune time.
That’s rather an ominous ending to a passage of scripture. But, no spoilers. Let stick with what we’ve got for now.
As I said at the beginning, we often use this story to give a little encouragement in resisting our own temptations. This is the time for someone like me to make a big pitch to people like you about whatever bad habit you need to drop. The time has come to shape up or ship out.
And, clearly, we’ve got plenty to work on. There are far too many people who fall asleep hungry at night, far too many children to have no bright hope for tomorrow, far too many communities that are falling prey to the devastating powers of loneliness.
But, if that’s all this story is supposed to do, if it merely exists as a weapon to wield against sleepy and dozing congregations about being better, then Jesus certainly could’ve been a little clear about what we should or shouldn’t be going.
Put another way: If Jesus’ temptations are really about our temptations, then it would’ve been better for him to have more lines in this passage than the devil.
Scripture is always primarily about God and only secondarily about us.
But we are vain and selfish little creatures and we assume everything is always about us, and only ever about us.
Jesus’ temptations are exactly that – Jesus’ temptations.
This isn’t a story about how we deal with our own temptations. It’s actually a story about how Jesus deals with the world – how Jesus deals with us.
Notice: the things the devil offers to the Lord, they’re all objectively good things – bread, politicalpower, miracles.
And yet, Jesus refused them. And he even used scripture to defend his refusals!
Perhaps if the devil offered Jesus an unending buffet at the golden corral, or the nuclear codes, or David Copperfield’s assortment of illusions, we could sympathize with Jesus’ dismissals. But the devil offered Jesus possibilities for transformation and Jesus said, “No, thank you.”
But here’s the real kicker, the truly wild part of this story: by the end of the Gospel Jesus will, in fact, do all of the things that the devil suggests.
Instead of turning some rocks into a nice loaf of sourdough, Jesus will feed the 5,000 with nothing more than a few slices of day old bread a handful of fresh fish.
Instead of getting caught up in all the political procedures to Make Jerusalem Great Again, Jesus reigns from the arms of the cross and eventually ascends to the right hand of the father as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Instead of pulling off a primetime Law Vegas magic special, Jesus dies, and refuses to stay dead.
For a long, long, time we’ve understood Jesus and the Devil to be figures on opposite ends of the spectrum – one good and the other bad. It even slips into out culture whenever you see a figure with an angel whispering in one ear and a red figure with a bifurcated tail whispering in the other.
And yet, at least according to this moment in scripture, the difference between the devil and Jesus isn’t the temptations themselves, but in the methods upon which those acts of power come to fruition.
And, though it might pain us to admit, the devil has some pretty decent suggestions for the Messiah – Why starve yourself Lord, when you can easily set a meal here in the wilderness? Why let these fools destroy themselves when I can give you control over everything and everyone? Why let the world continue in fear and doubt when you can prove your worth right now?
The devil, frighteningly, sounds a lot like, well, us. The devil’s ideas are some that we regularly discuss and champion.
What our community needs is another food pantry! What we need to do is make sure that we have Christians running for political offices! If only God would show us a miracle, then everyone would finally get in line and the world will finally be a better place.
But Jesus, for as much as Jesus is like us, Jesus is completely unlike us. For, in his non-answer answers he declares to the devil, and therefore to all of us, that power as we understand it doesn’t actually transform much of anything.
We can create a feeding program, but sooner or later we will introduce requirements for those who receive the food.
We can get Christians elected into the government, but at some point they will be more concerned with maintaining their power than pointing to the one from whom all things move and have their being.
We can witness miracle after miracle after miracle, but we will never be quite satisfied with what we receive.
We’ve convinced ourselves, since that fateful day with a certain fruit in a certain tree, that it’s up to us to make things come out right in the end. That, by amassing power, we can make the world a better place.
In the early days of the church, we got so cozy with the powers and the principalities that individuals were forced to be baptized in order to becomes citizens in the empire.
In the Middle Ages, the church required more and more of the resources of God’s people in order to get their loved ones out of purgatory all while cathedrals got bigger, as did the waistlines of the clergy.
And even today, our lust for power (political, theological, economic), has led to violence, familiar strife, and ecclesial schisms.
We believe, more than anything else, that if we just had a little more control, if we just won one more debate, if we could just get everyone else to be like us, that it would finally turn out for the best.
But it never does.
If we could’ve fixed the world with our goodness, we would’ve done it by now.
Or, conversely, some of the most horrific moments of history were done in the name of progress.
The devil wants to give Jesus a short cut straight to the ends that Jesus will, inevitably, bring about in his own life, death, and resurrection.
The devil wants Jesus to do what we want Jesus to do.
Or, perhaps better put: The devil wants Jesus to do what WE want to do.
But here’s the Good News, the really Good News, Jesus rejects the temptations of the devil, and our own, and instead does for us what we would not, and could not, do for ourselves.
Even at the very end, with his arms stretched out not he cross, we still tempt the Lord just as the devil did: “If you really are who you say you are, save yourself!”
And, at the end, Jesus doesn’t bother with quotes from the scriptures, nor does he provide us with a plan on how to make the world a better place, he simply dies.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge my with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
In the strange new world of the Bible the greatest triumph, the pinnacle of all moments, is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Easter. But Easter is not the “happy ending” of a fairytale. It’s not, “despite all the effort of the powers and the principalities, everyone lives happily ever after.”
There’s no resurrection without crucifixion.
But that’s also why there are far more people in church on Easter than on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Easter, for all of its wonder and all of its joy, is only the beginning of a new reality in which the entry point is, in fact, suffering.
Contrary to the cliche aphorisms of the so-called property gospel – if you pray hard enough, God will make you healthy and wealth – struggle is deeply embedded in the faith. It’s why Jesus warns about the cost of discipleship, constantly. It’s why Paul writes about suffering, constantly.
Struggles are present in the life of faith because, when push comes to shove, we usually look out for ourselves at the expense of our neighbors. Paul puts it this way: None of us is righteous. No, not one.
We simply can’t keep the promises we make, let alone the promises that God commanded us to keep. It doesn’t take much of a glance on social media or on the news to see, example after examples, of our wanton disregard for ourselves and even for ourselves.
The old prayer book refers to us, even the do gooders who come to an Ash Wednesday service, as miserable offenders.
And yet (!), God remains steadfast with us in the midst of our inability to be good.
That’s one of the most profound miracles of the strange new world of the Bible, and it is a miracle. That ragtag group of would be followers we call the apostles, who betray, abandon, and deny Jesus, they fail miserably and it is to them that the risen Jesus returns in the resurrection.
They were transfigured by the Transfigured One, and their journey of faith began in failure.
And so it is with us, even today. It is through our brokenness, our shattered souls, that God picks up the pieces to make something new – something even more beautiful than who were were prior to the recognition of our brokenness.
There is an ancient Japanese art form that will be shaping our Lenten observance this year at the church – Kintsugi. The story goes that, centuries ago, a disagreement broke out among an emperor and one of his servants which led to a tea pot being smashed into pieces. The emperor threatened to punish the servant but an artisan intervened and promised to make something of the nothing.
A gold binding agent was used by the artist to restore the broken vessel, and in so doing the artist brought to a new newness.
On the front of your bulletins you can see an example of this art form that was made with a broken cross – the gold ribbon brings the cross back together and it becomes more than it was prior to its cracks and fissures.
Like the Kintsugi master, Jesus renders us into a new newness. Jesus comes not to fix us, but to admire us in our potential and to help us recognize beauty even in, and precisely because of, our brokenness.
In church speak we call it redemption.
Psalm 51 had marked the season of Lent for as long as Christians have observed this particular season. It is a penitential psalm – a psalm that expresses sorrow for sin.
And yet, the psalm does not begin with a confession of sin – it begins with a request for forgiveness: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.”
That might not seem like much of a distinction, but it implies that the psalmist knows they have something worth confessing and that if the psalmist is to be helped at all then the sins must be taken away completely but someone else.
It means the psalmist really knows the condition of their, and our, condition. We all do things we know we shouldn’t do, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.
Some us are are pretty good at pushing that all aside and rationalizing the things we do or leave undone. But at some point or another the guilt begins to trickle in and we lay awake at night unable to do much of anything under the knowledge of who we really are.
But the psalmist sees it all quite differently.
Somehow, the psalmist knows that forgiveness has come even before the sin occurred.
The psalmist knows that God is the God of mercy.
For us, people entering the season of Lent, we are compelled to proclaim the truth that we are justified not after we confess our sins, but right smack dab in the middle of them. At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, God proves God’s love toward us that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, which includes everyone since Jesus has taken all upon himself in and on the cross.
The challenge then, for us, isn’t about whether or not God will forgive us.
The challenge is whether or not we can confess the condition of our condition.
That’s why Ash Wednesday is so important and so difficult. It is a time set apart to begin turning back to God who first turned toward us. It is a remarkable opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing with our lives right now and how those lives resonate with the One who makes something beautiful out of something broken.
Therefore, Ash Wednesday inaugurates the season of honesty:
We are dust and to dust we shall return.
We are broken and are in need of the divine potter to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves.
Judgment comes first to the household of God, so wrote Peter in an epistle to the early church. We, then, don’t exist to show how wrong the world is in all its trespassed, but instead we exist to confess that we know the truth of who we are all while knowing what the Truth incarnate was, and is, willing to do for us.
We can’t fix ourselves. In any other place and in an other institution and around any other people that is unmitigated bad news. But here, in the church, it’s nothing but Good News. It’s good news because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not even ourselves can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go.
Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.
Even the most broken piece of pottery can be made into something new by the divine potter.
I wonder, this Lent, what kind of church we would become if we simply allowed broken people to gather, and did not try to fix them, but simply to love them and behold them, contemplating the shapes that broken pieces can inspire?
I wonder, this Lent, what might happen if we truly confessed who we are all while knowing whose we are?
I wonder, this Lent, what kind of new newness we might discover through the One who comes to make all things new?
You and me, we’re all dust, and to dust we shall return. But dust is not the end. Amen.
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not be raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ — whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.
He boarded the plane, a well dressed 6 foot 8, and hoped for an emergency exit row in which he could stretch out his already too long legs during the flight. He was a pastor and a professor of theology and he knew better than to tell people, on a plane, what he did for a living.
He loaded his carryon above his head, sighed at his average sized seat, and squeezed himself in. And, of course, on this small plane with only two seats on each side, a man equally as large lumbered down the aisle and sat down right next to him.
The preacher stuffed another small bag under his seat, and closed his eyes.
“Is that a Bible?” His seat mate intoned.
The preacher looked down and saw the spine of the Good Book sticking out for all eyes to see.
“What are you, a preacher?”
“Something like that” he responded while crossing his arms and closing his eyes, again.
“Well, I’m not a believer” the man said.
“That’s fine,” the preacher said without opening his eyes, “Frankly, it doesn’t make much of a difference what you do, or don’t believe. Jesus has already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.”
The preacher thought that would keep his seat mate quiet for the remained of the flight. But he was wrong. Even though he sat there with his eyes clothes and arms crossed, the man started talking, and he didn’t stop.
First it was just the usual flying-next-to-a-stranger chit chat but eventually it turned serious, and the preacher’s seat partner started talking about Vietnam.
That’s when he opened his eyes and really listened.
The man went on and one, talked the entire flight, describing all the terrible things he did and how, went he came back, his country didn’t want him to talk about what he was told to do.
Eventually, the man said, “I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.”
And then the preacher leaned over and said, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”
“What you mean ‘confessed’? I ain’t confessing!”
“Sure you are, it’s what you’ve been doing the whole flight. And I’ve been commanded by Jesus that whenever I hear a confession like yours, to had over the goods and speak a particular word. So, if you have any more burdening you, nows the time to hand them over.”
The man said, “I’m done, that’s the lot of them.”
And suddenly, he grabbed the preacher, grabbed him hard like he was about to fall out of the plane, and said, “But I already told you – I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.”
The preacher unbuckled his seat belt, and stood up over the man and declared, “Well, that’s no matter. Jesus says it’s what’s inside of us that’s wrong with the world. Nobody really has faith inside them – faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one person to another. And I’m going to speak faith into you.”
The fasten seat belt sign lit up and dinged for the whole cabin to hear, and a steward came over and asked the preacher to sit down. However, he ignored it, and placed his hands on the man next to him and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins!”
“But you can’t do that,” the man whispered, while his eyes watered up.
“Oh yes I can, and I must, and I’ll keep doing it over and over again.” And he did. Only this time he said it louder, loud enough for all the other passengers to hear it, and the man became a puddle of tears and he wept over himself like a child.
The rest of the plane was silent, reverent even, knowing that something strange and holy was happening.
When the plan finally landed, the man leaned over to the preacher and asked to be absolved one more time, as if he just couldn’t get enough of the good news. So the preacher did it one more time and the man started to laugh.
He said, “If what you said is true, then it’s the best news I’ve ever heard. I don’t know if I can believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”
And the preacher laughed too, and said, “It takes a miracle for all of us. It’s too true to be good. That’s why we call it the Gospel.”
That’s a true story and I love it. I love it because its so good and true.
Notice, the preacher didn’t sit back and merely listen to the other man. He didn’t fill the voids of silence with drivel like, “I feel your pain,” or, “I know what you’re going through.” The preacher didn’t minimize the sadness with talk of duty or responsibility. He didn’t deflect away or even change the subject.
Instead, he offered absolution.
He, to use the language of Paul, took the man out of his sins.
It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.
Paul is worried about his friends in the faith, his Corinthian Christians – that’s what the whole letter is about. They’re drifting away from the path of the truth and the life and the way that Paul first shared with them.
He catches wind that they are no longer sharing the eucharist together, so he writes about the body of Christ having many members.
He learns that they are fighting constantly over who is the best and who is the worst, so he writes about Christ alone being the head of the body.
And here, in chapter 15, he gets to the heart of the matter – the resurrection of the dead.
Paul, if you can’t tell, is spitting logic through the pages of his epistle – “This is it you Corinthian Christians! It’s this or nothing! Everything, and I mean everything, depends on the truth of the One who is truth incarnate.”
He writes first of the story that he shared with them – Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.
It’s an announcement about things that happened – not a collection of generic religious principles, not a list of things to do or not to do.
The heart of the Gospel – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So Paul doesn’t pull any punches – If there is no resurrection from the dead, then we are all fools, and we are still in our sins.
It’s hard for us Christians, today, to hear the radical nature of Paul’s proclamation. We forget that this letter was written, sent, and read by Christians before any of the gospel stories were written down. We forget that without Paul’s witness and prayers and ministry, there’s a good chance that the Gospel would have stayed among the Jews alone and never spread to Gentiles like us.
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then the entire foundation of our faith has been in vain, and Christian preaching is nothing more than wishful delusions and empty gestures.
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then we mock ourselves with our faithless worship all while expecting people to live into a new world order that doesn’t really exist.
If there is no resurrection from the dead, then the only thing we can offer the world is a pious lie that leaves us completely and utterly hopeless.
But, let us remember: there is no such thing as “if” in the lexicon of God.
And yet, the desire for proof remains. We’re addicted to certainty, us moderns. We want clarity above all else, and we can’t imagine a world outside the binaries of our distinctions.
But what is life if not a mystery?
I can’t prove the resurrection. No one can.
Believe this, believe that, we say in the church. And somehow the genuine character of one’s belief has become the litmus test for Christianity. Which is made all the more strange when we consider the amount of doubt right smack dab in the Bible!
My former professor Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “What a lost people we must be to think that God really cares whether we believe in Him or not.”
You see, one of the most incredible aspects of what we call our faith is that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is not continent on our belief. Even in the days of our greatest doubts, Jesus is still Lord.
We can’t prove it; we can only trust it – we can only point to it, and to the results of it around us.
Consider – Mark’s gospel tells us that, on Easter, the women fled from the tomb and told nothing to anyone because they were afraid.
But they told somebody something, otherwise, none of us would be here.
We experience Easter even now, all these years later. Some of us rejoice in the Good News, and some of us are terrified by it. And yet, Easter is why we are here. We’re here because, one way or another, we have heard the call of the Risen Christ, even when we may not have known that was what we heard.
Maybe some of us are here because we’re looking for proofs. I say look around, and you will begin to see it.
The women who went to the tomb that Easter morning were looking for and expecting a dead Jesus. And the angel says, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead. He ain’t here! He’s in Galilee. Go!”
When Jesus mounted the hard wood of the cross, when he drew all things unto himself, he took all of our sins, past, present, future, he nailed them to the cross and left them there forever.
Therefore we are no longer in our sins, they do not define who we are, we have been set free forever and ever.
In church speak we call that absolution.
It is the proclamation of the promise that Christ made to us through his death and resurrection.
It is the declaration that even though Paul has a lot to say about sin, the only sins he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died – namely all of the them.
It is the conviction that Christ will keep coming back to us, banging us over the head if necessary with the only thing we really need – forgiveness.
God so loved the world that God got down from the throne and condescended to our miserable existence to reduce us from ourselves through the blood spilled on the cross.
God so loved the world that God broke forth from the tomb and left behind the chains of death so that death will never be the final word.
God so loved the world that God died and lived again in order that we might do the same and no longer live lives defined by our sins.
The preacher from the airplane absolution walked through the airport with his seat partner after their encounter with the Holy One of Israel. And right before they made for an awkward goodbye, the preacher handed the man his card and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow, or the next day, or even next week. When you stop having faith in it, call me, and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep doing it until you trust it.”
The next day the man called the preacher, and he kept calling the preacher every day thereafter just to hear the Gospel. In fact, he called the preacher once a day until the day he died. And later, when asked why he kept answered the phone, the preacher said, “I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear from Jesus in the next.”
Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
I am convinced that the crucible of Sunday morning worship doesn’t actually happen in this space, but takes place in the 5-10 minutes immediately following the service, and the email inbox on Monday mornings.
Yes, what we do in our hour together is powerful and faithful and transformative. We gather, we proclaim, we respond, we are sent forth. That’s all good and fine.
But it’s in the time after our time in here that really shows what happened during our time together.
The Sunday morning debrief, otherwise known as the receiving line following worship, is wonderful, bewildering, and terrifying.
More often than not someone will make a comment about the weather or about lunch plans. A few of you have noted, as of recent, that it hasn’t rained since I arrived in town, so thanks for trying to pin that on me. Good stuff.
Occasionally I’ll hear something profound like, “I really heard God speak today” or, “You really gave me something to think about.” Good stuff.
But every once in a while I hear a comment that cuts through all the rest. Someone, usually waiting until most people clear out, will step forward and say something like, “I didn’t like it. But I’m not sure which part I enjoyed less, the sermon or the scripture.”
And, frankly, I can’t blame those who feel that way. Have you read the Bible? Be careful! There’s some wild stuff in there.
Two female bears descend from the wilderness and maul 42 young boys for making fun of a bald headed prophet (2 Kings 2).
A preacher goes on a little too long while a young man dozes in a window and then he falls out of said window to his death (Acts 20).
God commands a prophet to walk around naked for three years as a sign against foreign nations (Isaiah 20).
And those are just the first three that come to mind!
But even Jesus has a penchant for strange stories.
God is like a shepherd with 100 sheep. And, when one sheep goes missing, the Good Shepherd delights in leaving the 99 behind in order to find the one who is lost.
That’s a quaint little story, one we teach to our children. But you know what happens when you leave the flock behind to go in search of the one missing? It only guarantees 99 more lost sheep! That’s no way to run a shepherding business.
God is like a sower who sows seeds all over the place regardless of the soil upon which the seeds land.
That’s another nice one, it’s good imagery for those who enjoy gardening. Except, if you ask anyone who has spent any time with agriculture, that’s no way to do it. It’s a tremendous waste of seeds if you toss them onto the sidewalk and what about tiling the soil and moisture management? God, apparently, doesn’t have a very green thumb.
Or how about this one:
Two men enter a temple to pray, one a Pharisee – a man committed to the word of the Law, attentive to the demands of scripture, he gave a tenth of all he had to the poor and needy, prayed, fasted, and kept himself clean. He could’ve run for office without fear of anyone finding a skeleton in his closet. He was proud of being who he was.
The other man was a reprehensible tax collector, a publican, taking money from his own people and giving it to the empire, a political traitor, he was dirty. The kind of man no one made eye contact with.
And that day the Pharisee saw the good for nothing tax collector and declared, in prayer, “Lord, thank you that I am not like him!” Meanwhile, the tax collector, with fear and trembling, prayed, “Please God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” And the tax collector walked away forgiven, justified.
I mean, Jesus, what kind of ship are you running? That’s not fair! You keep telling stories like that and no one will want to do any of this religious stuff. It’s irresponsible. The parable of the publican and the pharisee is all wrong. It’s the Pharisee that should walk away forgiven, he’s done all the right things. And the the publican, he should’ve been thrown in jail, or at the very least, kicked out of town by the very people he swindled.
You know, two weeks ago I decided to retell the parable of the prodigal and one of you came up to me after the service and said, with good intentions I think, “Well, I can’t believe you said the F word in church.”
Friends, I confess that for the briefest of moments I had to think back – Did I, a preacher of the Word, use such a word in my sermon?
But before I had a chance to respond this person said, “Forgiveness. What a dangerous word: forgiveness.”
Paul writes to the budding church in Ephesus about the positive and negative consequences of the great shadow that God casts upon the lives of disciples. When God grabs hold of us, everything changes whether we want it to or not. Somewhere along the line we discover that God, bewilderingly, has given us a sacred and indestructible trust – we are stuck with the body of Christ.
It’s not easy being stuck with people, especially with pharisees and tax collectors. It’s a challenge to be among such individuals, and yet here we are, surrounded by sinners and scoundrels alike.
But it is when discipleship becomes challenging that we know the mercy of God is at work in our lives. The weight of all these weighty expectations that Paul drops on us: put away all your wrath and bitterness and slander and malice, be kind and tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you – the call to this kind of life is for those who know they stand in and on God’s grace alone.
Put another way – It’s only the Spirit of freedom that give us the freedom to forgive.
Why does the publican walk away forgiven while the Pharisee doesn’t? We can try to insert reasons – perhaps the publican was a man of the people, maybe he was kind in spite of all his tax collecting. And maybe the pharisee was a religious bigot, a viper, a terror to the community.
But Jesus doesn’t provide an answer to those sorts of questions.
Forgiveness is an odd thing, and I don’t need to tell you that most of us don’t believe in it. Give us the good ol time religion, we’ll read with kids, and purchase school supplies, and feed the hungry, and all sorts of stuff. But forgive the one who has wronged us?
No thank you.
That’s irresponsible behavior! You can’t just let people get away with stuff, we can’t be too soft on sin!
What makes forgiveness so difficult?
Once, when Jesus was teaching, the disciples said, “Wait a minute JC. What you’re saying is too much for us. We need you to increase our faith!”
And what was the topic of conversation? Going the extra mile? Turning the other cheek? Praying for our enemies? No. Jesus was talking about forgiveness.
So Peter speaks up, “Lord, perhaps we should put some limits on this whole forgiveness thing. How does 7 times sound?”
“No,” the Lord replies, “I tell you: 70 times 7 times.”
And Peter, the rock of the church, says something like, “But Jesus, if we forgive that many times, then we’ll go to our grave forgiving.”
“Right,” Jesus says, “You’ll go to your grave forgiving.”
We can’t do it Lord, increase our faith!
Forgiveness comes at a cost – a cost for the one offering forgiveness and for the one receiving. To offer forgiveness implies a willingness to truly see those who have wronged us as fellow sheep in need of a shepherd. And to receive forgiveness implies a willingness to admit that we are people who have wronged the other sheep in the fold.
Jesus routinely criticized the religious leaders of his day for all sorts of nonsense. They were hypocrites and slanderers and thieves and they kept heaping sins upon the backs of those who kept the faith. And then Jesus, God in the flesh, kept passing out forgiveness to those who asked for it and even for those who didn’t know they needed it!
Why then, do we insist on holding our grudges, big and small, when our Lord, the Good Shepherd, is forever out and about beating the bushes of life looking for some lost sheep, some tax collector, and even a pharisee to bring them back in?
Forgiveness is hard.
And yet, it negates and fulfills all righteousness.
In the end, we’re all publicans and pharisees. We facilitate between lives of honesty and lives of denial. We hold on to our anger toward one another and we also foolishly assume that no one could ever be angry at us.
The worst kind of lostness is not knowing how lost we are at all.
The worst kind of sin is to believe that we are without sin.
The worst kind of unforgiveness is to presume that we don’t need forgiveness.
But we are lost, each and every one of us. We’re stuck in the bushes of life, far removed from our shepherd, for the things we’ve done and the things we’ve failed to do. And yet, God keeps insisting meeting us where we are, in the midst of our sins, and never ever stops.
Forgiveness is dangerous stuff, but it gets even wilder because God forgives us before we even have a chance to repent.
Consider the sheep, it’s probably going to get lost again and again and again. The sheep doesn’t say, “Oh my shepherd, I will never ever get lost again so long as you rescue me.” The sheep just says “Baa!” and the shepherd comes.
Consider the sower, scattering seeds this way and that before the soil has a chance to get itself in shape to receive the seeds that are the Word and God never stops sowing.
Consider the publican, he walks away forgiven but we don’t hearing anything about whether or not he mended his ways. He could go back day after day, 70 times 7 days, and he would walk away forgiven each and every time.
Forgiveness surrounds us in the church, it beats down upon our lives. It’s in the strange new world of the Bible, its in the prayers we pray and the songs we sing, its in the water with which we baptize and it’s in the bread and the cup that we share.
If we ever confess, it is only ever a confession to waking up to what we already have.
In other words, we are forgiven not because we make ourselves forgivable, but only because we have a Forgiver.
And because we have a Forgiver, the only One who can really offer it in the first, we can do impossible things. We can, to borrow the language from Ephesians, put away all malice and anger and strife and fear because we are members of one another, we are one body, we are Christ’s body.
Look at us! We’re different people from different places with different faces – we are unique from one another in unfathomable ways and yet, we are all equal in this – we are sinners who have been forgiven.
In the end, the sheep who stray happen to be all of us, pharisees and publicans alike. Each and every single one of us here are in need of forgiveness, and each and every single one of us have someone we need to forgive.
It isn’t easy – it might even be dangerous. But there is something much much worse than forgiveness – a life of hatred, resentment, and selfishness.
It’s outrageous stuff, forgiveness. It just also happens to be the way Jesus runs the kingdom. Amen.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to the good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set out hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
You learn, after a little while, not to tell people that you’re a preacher.
It doesn’t really matter where the interaction takes place or with whom, the responses are generally the same.
I’ll be at a BBQ and when the beans get spilled everyone starts hiding their beers behind their backs, or I’ll strike up a casual conversation in a grocery store and when the truth gets out the person across from me will confess they haven’t been to church in a very long time, or a fellow parent at a soccer practice, having seen me in my collar, will begin to list off a litany of complaints about the church he/she grew up in.
Right before the pandemic I was introduced to someone as a pastor and the person responded: “Good for you, but I don’t need to go to church.”
I was hooked.
“What do you mean you don’t need to go to church?”
“Well,” he began, “I don’t need someone like you to tell me how I’m supposed to be living my life. I’m a good person already.”
Is that what the church is for? Do we exist to make people into better versions of themselves? Is all of this designed to bring about better moral and ethical behavior?
We put a lot, and by a lot I mean A LOT, of emphasis on self help these days. The pandemic saw immense spike in the sales of Pelotons, designed to make our bodies look the way we really want them to, Diet Programs, designed to make our bellies look the way we want them to, and a whole slew of “How To Be The Best You” books, designed to make us look, think, act, and speak the way we want to.
We like to imagine ourselves as “self-made” individuals and we regularly lift up those who have done so in the greater and wider culture.
And yet Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, speaks not of what we must do, but instead begins by only addressing what God does. And, to really hit the nail on the head, it’s all in the past tense – It’s all already done and decided.
Listen – God has blessed us by choosing us in Jesus Christ. He has made us holy and blameless by bringing us out of bondage to sin and death by the price of his own blood – That’s what redemption means.
Our holiness, whatever it may be, is only because of Christ’s own righteousness. Jesus’ perfect life under the Law has been transferred and credited to us as our own. The Judged judge has come to be judged in our place.
God has done all of this and has made us his children. Children by adoption with an inheritance.
Now, consider – Paul doesn’t say this is all something we must earn by our doing or by our faith – he says its already ours, gifted to us unconditionally and irrevocably by way of Jesus.
This is all God’s work from before the foundation of the world.
And that’s just the first bit of our scripture today!
Paul is emphatic that God is the one who acts, so much so that he strings this entire passage together as one rather long run-on sentence in the Greek. In fact, it’s the longest single sentence in the entire New Testament, and God is the subject of all it’s verbs.
Put simply: It’s all about God.
And yet, we can’t help ourselves, at times, from making church all about us.
Sermons and Sunday school curricula all join the mighty chorus of self-help programs.
We start by telling everyone that God loves them, but before too long we starting dropping lists of expectations if people want God to keep loving them.
We say things like, “God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves so, you might want to write all of this down because it’s important, you all need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten-free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep the sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, give more, complain less, and while you’re at it, STOP DRINKING SO MUCH.”
If people have ever been evangelized by fear mongering or higher moral standards, they might be converted away from something, but not to the Gospel.
To be clear: that long list is, undoubtedly, filled with good things, things we should all probably work on, but Jesus comes not to make us struggle under the weight of additional expectations, he doesn’t wait up on the cross until we’ve righted all of our wrongs, he doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until we have enough faith.
Jesus does what Jesus does for us without us having to do much of anything AT ALL.
Last week, after worship, a lot of you said a lot of things to me. But one of you said something I haven’t been able to get out of my head: “It’s good to know that God is still God no matter who stands in the pulpit.”
That’s some pretty good theology!
And, to be clear, I didn’t actually say that in my sermon, nor was it said in any other part of the service. But if that’s what was conveyed, well then “Thank you Holy Spirit!”
You see, we’re not the Good News. Not pastors, not lay people, not even the church.
It’s actually very Good News that we’re not the good news, because if we were then we’d be doing a terrible job.
We’re not the Good News. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should.
But here’s where the Good News gets really good: we’re the objects of it.
That is: God does for us what we could never, and would never, do on our own.
God, bewilderingly, chooses to come to us, and not the other way around.
Sure, there are plenty of people in scripture who seek the Lord, but not a one of em deserved anything the Lord gave em.
Have you heard about the wee little man up in a tree? The one who stole money from the likes of you and me? Well, Jesus invites himself over to lunch at Zacchaeus’ house and transforms his life forever.
Do you know about the crowds who were hungry after listening to Jesus preach for an entire afternoon? Well, he multiplies some loaves of bread and a handful of fish without even taking the time to discern whether or not the people were really worthy of such a miracle.
Again and again in the strange new world of the Bible, God meets the people of God in the midst of their sins, down in the muck of life, and offers grace.
And grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully puts it, grace isn’t cheap or even expensive, its free.
God says to us, “Look, I don’t care what the world has told you about who you are. That’s not who you are! You are mine and I am thine!”
The thing that makes the church different than any other organization, different from political parties or rotaries or corporations is the Gospel.
The Gospel is what God has chosen to do, from before time!
For us, by the cross.
And through us, by the Spirit.
In the end, we don’t really bring much of anything to church. Sure, we can sing and we can pray, we can even drop some money in the offering plate when it comes around, but all of the pales in comparison to what God has already done for us.
If we bring anything here, week after week, we bring our brokenness in hopes and anticipation that God will make something of our nothing.
Do you see it? Church isn’t about what we do – it’s about being reminded, again and again, of what God has done for us.
And then, and only then, in the knowledge of what is already done, we get to take steps into the adventure that is called faith.
There was a man in one of my churches who I just couldn’t stand.
Now, I know that’s not very pastoral, but I’m a sinner in need of grace just like the rest of you.
Everything about this guy drove me crazy. He was older than dirt, he treated people like dirt, he was extremely racist, and he always felt it necessary to drive over to the church once a week to tell me how I, and the entire church, were failing to do what we were supposed to do.
He was regarded similarly by nearly about everyone I met. Just about once a week some poor soul would stumble into my office having been ripped a new one by the man in question.
I even tried to work the Gospel on him when I had the chance, but it never worked. He stuck to his well-worn path of belittling everyone within earshot, scoffed at the thought of ever needing to change any of his opinions, and rested comfortably knowing he was always the smartest, wisest, and all around best person to ever walk on the face of this earth.
And then he died, and I had to do his funeral.
In the days leading up to the service I lamented the fact that we would have a nearly empty sanctuary for his funeral. Even though he drove me wild, no one should be laid to rest without a church to worship in the midst of it all.
And so it came to pass that I stood at the doors of the church, ready to begin the service for a small gathering of people when, all of the sudden, cars started steaming into our parking lot. I could hardly believe my eyes when, one by one, church members who had been so wronged by the now dead man made their way into the sanctuary.
The last person to cross the threshold was a fiery old woman who was a regular target of the dead man’s insults and I grabbed her my the arm and said, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated the man.”
“Preacher,” she said, “Aren’t you the one who said we have to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?”
“Well, yeah I’m sure I said…”
“And didn’t you also say that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died?”
“Well, that’s certainly one way…”
“And didn’t you declare from the pulpit just last week that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus?”
“Uhh, that might’ve been…”
“Well then so be it!”
And with that she marched right into the sanctuary to worship.
Our forgiveness, offered before the foundation of the cosmos, is the beginning to which we return to over and over again. It’s what we need to be reminded of throughout our lives lest we fall prey to the temptation of believing that we have to save ourselves. And it runs so counter to everything we think we know because it doesn’t make any earthly sense.
But that’s why God is God, and we are not.
We’re told, in ways big and small, that we have to do it all.
The Gospel tells us that it’s all already done.
Paul beckons our attention to the truth of our condition in that God willed our blessing before ALL things.
Put another way, before God said “Let there be light,” God’s first words were, “Let there be Gospel.”
That’s why, as my parishioner so vividly reminded me, Paul can proclaim in another letter that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus because God’s love for us precedes all things.
Which is all just another way of saying, God loves you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. Amen.
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.
I stood up on Sunday morning and led worship for a new church. At least, it’s a new church for me. Methodists are, usually, used to pastors moving around to serve different appointments, but it’s always a little jarring going from one pastor to another in the matter of a week.
When the service was over we all milled about on the front lawn sharing lemonade and I received my first round of Sunday morning comments: “We’ve got some great weather today!” “Got any plans for the afternoon?” and so on.
But there was one comment that really stood out. A woman old enough to be my grandmother waited patiently for an opportunity to step forward, she grabbed me by the hand, and said, “It’s nice to know that God is still God no matter who stands in our pulpit.”
That’s some good theology.
While certain United Methodists are starting over because of new pastoral appointments, we’re all in the process of starting over because, in ways big and small, we’re transitioning to a time called life after Covid. It means we have to relearn what it means to be in physical spaces with one another. It means we have to be cognizant of those who are not ready to return to the way things were. It means the church has the challenge and the opportunity to be the church in a time that is so unknown.
But we’re also all in the process of starting over because that’s what the liturgy does to us. No matter what we have going on in our lives, no matter what we’ve done or failed to do, God speaks truthful words through our worship about who we are and whose we are.
On Sunday, I got to look out at an entirely different congregation than the one the week before and yet I was able to say, with assurance, the same thing: “Now hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!”
Forgiveness is the beginning to which we return to over and over again and it’s what makes the life of faith so exciting in the first place.
And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological claims than mere words alone, here are some tunes to help us think about what it means to start over:
Chris Stapleton’s “Starting Over” is a song made for couples along the road of a relationship. The singer-songwriter’s baritone is met, beautifully, by his wife’s accompanying harmonies as they proclaim a beautiful chorus about holding on to something while everything else seems to change.
Lucy Dacus’ music haunts me. Her voice sounds like she just consumed a cup of cream and her lyricism paints these landscapes of memory. “VBS” is her reflection on growing up in the church and coming to grips now with what it all meant. If nothing else, stick around for the face-melting guitar riff near the end of the song.
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
He boarded the plain, a well dressed 6 foot 8, and hoped for an emergency exit row in which he could stretch out his already too long legs. He was a pastor and professor of theology, and was returning from a conference on the other side of the country and was looking forward to going home.
He loaded his carryon above his head, sighed at the normal sized seat, and reluctantly squeezed himself in. And, of course, on this small plane with only two seat on each side, a man equally as large lumbered down the aisle and sat down right next to him.
The two men fumbled over one another and conversation, as it always does on planes, began awkwardly.
The second man began, “So, what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a preacher.” And just as soon as the words were out of his mouth, his seat partner declared, a little too loudly, “I’m not a believer!”
“That’s fine,” he replied, “Frankly, it doesn’t make much of a difference – Jesus has already gone and done it all for you whether you like it or not.”
The preacher kept his mouth shut after that, and thought about catching some Zs as they made their way to cruising altitude, but the other man started talking. First it was just the usual flying next to a stranger chit chat, but then it turned serious, the man started talking about Vietnam.
He’d been an infantryman, fought in all the awful battles, and now tried to pretend like it never happened.
The man went on and on, talked the entire flight from coast to coast, describing all the terrible things he did for his country and how, when he came back, his country didn’t want him to talk about it. Eventually, he said, “I’ve had a terrible time living with it, living with myself.”
And then the preacher leaned over and said, “Have you confessed all the sins that have been troubling you?”
“What do you mean confessed?! I ain’t confessing!”
“Sure you are, it’s what you’ve been doing the whole flight. And I’ve been commanded by Jesus, that whenever I hear a confession like yours, to hand over the goods and speak a particular word. So, if you have any more burdening you, nows the time to hand them over.”
The man said, “I’m done. That’s the lot of em.”
And suddenly he grabbed the preacher, grabbed him hard like he was about to fall out of the plan and said, “But, I told you – I’m not a believer. I don’t have any faith in me.”
The preacher unbuckled his seat belt and stood up over the man in the sear and declared, “Well, that’s no matter. Jesus says it’s what inside of us that’s wrong with the world. Nobody really has faith inside them – faith alone saves us because it comes from outside of us, from one creature to another. And I’m going to speak faith into you.”
The fasten seat belt sign binged from above and the closest steward came over and ordered the preacher to sit down. But he ignored the command, and instead he placed his hands on the man next to him and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I declare the entire forgiveness of all your sins!”
“But, you can’t do that,” the man whispered.
“Oh yes I did, and I must, and I’ll keep doing it over and over again.”
And he did. Only this time he said it louder, loud enough for the whole plane to hear, and the man became a puddle of tears and wept all over himself like a child.
The steward and everyone else on the plane were silent, reverent even, knowing that something strange and holy was happening.
After the plane landed, the man leaned over the preacher and asked to be absolved one more time, as if he couldn’t get enough of the good news, so that preacher did it one more time and the man started to laugh.
He said, “Hell, if what you said it true, then it’s the best news I’ve ever heard. I just can’t believe it. It’s too good to be true. It would take a miracle for me to believe something so crazy good.”
And the preacher laughed too, and said, “Yep, it takes a miracle for all of us. It takes a miracle for every last one of us.”
I’ve told that story from this pulpit before. It bears repeating, like all good stories, because it’s just so good.
Notice, the preacher didn’t just sit back and merely listen to the other man. He didn’t fill the voids of silence with trite drivel like, “I feel your pain,” or, “I know what you’re going through.” The preacher didn’t minimize the badness with talk of duty and responsibility. He didn’t deflect away or even change the subject.
Instead he offered absolution.
He gave the man the Gospel.
On the evening of the first Easter, the disciples were hiding and cowering behind locked doors in the upper room.
For years Jesus had prepared them for this most momentous occasion and it, apparently, didn’t make a beans worth of a difference.
They betrayed him.
They abandoned him.
They denied him.
Consider these would-be disciples. Terrified and alone. Apparently they didn’t really believe Jesus would do all that he said he would do. I mean, he only predicted his passion and resurrection three different times. He only told them parables about the upturning of the cosmos ever chance he got. He only promised that this is exactly what would happen.
And yet, today, whenever we think of the disciples, if we do at all, we usually imagine them as the paragons of morality, faith, and virtue. We see them as those who were willing to leave it all behind to follow Jesus. But here, in this story, they’ve left everything, namely Jesus, behind just to shake in terror.
The disciples are not the perfect Christians we often imagine them to be.
They are, in fact, just like us.
Sinners without a hope in the world, unless the hope of the world comes back from the dead.
And it’s to these fools, these faithless so-called followers, that the risen Christ first appeared on Easter evening!
And not only just Jesus encounter them, he made his way throughout locked doors to find them! He breathed upon them. He commissioned them to get out and to share the Good News.
You and me and everybody else, we are constantly falling short of Jesus’ hopes and expectations. We lock our doors, we turn our gaze away, we put up walls of separation, and Jesus keeps showing up! Walking through our doors, redirecting our attention, and toppling down our walls.
This story of Jesus appear to the disciples falls of the 2nd Sunday of Easter every single year, if we follow the lectionary. It’s like God wants to remind us over and over again right here, just on the other side of the resurrection, that Jesus ain’t done with us yet and we’ve got a job to do.
Jesus is going to get through whatever barriers and locked doors and walls we’ve erected.
Jesus is going to keep showing up to offer us words of grace even when we know we don’t deserve them.
Jesus is going to appear to the sinners and the doubters and everyone in between because that’s what Jesus does.
The beauty of the gospel is that Jesus never ever shied away from sinners and doubters. Even though, in the church, we often ostracize those very people to the margins of the community. Jesus does his best work, frankly his only work, with the kind of people hiding in the upper room.
Listen – Jesus rewrote and reknit the fabric of reality and then told a bunch of losers to spread the word.
I don’t know about you, but that gives me hope. For, it means that even on my worst days, Jesus is still for me. It means that even in the midst of my sins and my questions, Jesus has a word to share. It means that nothing, not life, death, nor angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, nor anything else in all creation will ever be able to separate me, you, and anyone else from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The world is going down the drain, but we’ve got a Savior who works at the bottom of the drain and he’s the only one who can do anything about it.
And what is the anything our savior does?
He forgives the abandoning, denying, and betraying disciples.
He forgives you.
Life after Easter is defined and made possible by Christ’s rather reckless forgiveness. It is reckless because it runs counter to how we believe the world is supposed to work – namely an eye for an eye. The problem with “an eye for an eye” is that it leaves everyone blind.
Jesus, however, offers a bewildering alternative – a life of mercy, peace, and forgiveness.
Whenever we read about life after Easter, those days between the empty tomb and the Ascension, we tend to focus on the disciples and their reactions. Which means we usually do so at the expense of sitting in the strange news that Jesus is raised from the dead only to return to the people who deserve him the least.
Jesus chooses the unworthy ragtag group of would-be disciples that he’d been dragging around for three years as the people through whom he would changed the world.
On Easter, Jesus returns not to the powers that be, but to people like you and me.
And notice: Jesus’ response to the sins of his followers isn’t to berate them, or judge them, or even damn them. He offers them peace, and commands them to do the same for others.
When you think about it, it’s rather confounding how God keeps coming back to us.
Stuck in captivity in Egypt? God shows up in a burning bush.
Lost in exile? God brings the people home.
Dead in sins? God sets us free.
The preacher from the airplane absolution walked through the airport with his seat partner after their holy experience. And right before they made for an awkward goodbye, the preacher handed his card over to the man and said, “You’re likely not going to believe your forgiveness tomorrow or the next day or even next week. When you stop having faith in it, call me and I’ll bear witness to you all over again and I’ll keep doing it until you do trust it.”
The next day the man called the preacher, and he kept calling the preacher every day thereafter just to hear the Gospel. In fact, he called the preacher once a day until the day he died. When later asked why he kept answering the phone, the preacher said, “I wanted the last words he heard in this life to be the first words he would hear from Jesus in the next.”
Hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven.
Believe it or not, it’s true, and Jesus is going to keep showing up to remind you. Amen.
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Jesus loved to speak in parables.
Perhaps he enjoyed watching his disciples scratch their heads or maybe he knew that parabolic utterances have an uncanny way of allowing the truth to really break through.
Peter wants to know what the forgiveness business really looks like and Jesus basically responds by saying that in the Kingdom of Heaven, there is no end to forgiveness. However, knowing that wouldn’t be enough, he decides to drop a parable on his dozing disciples to send home the message.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the process a slave who owed him ten million dollars was brought forward. And, because he could not pay back the king, he along with his wife and children were ordered to be sold into slavery.
Summary: Don’t break the rules.
But then the slave speaks. Having racked up an impossible debt, he asks for patience.
So how does the king respond? Moments ago he ordered the man and his family to be sold into slavery, but now he, bizarrely, takes pity, releases the man, and forgives ALL his debts.
The parable goes on to describe how the now debt-free servant holds a small debt over the head of another servant and is then punished by torture, but I want to pause on the king.
Because this king is a fool.
He offers forgiveness without spending much time in contemplation – he doesn’t consult with his trusted advisers and he doesn’t even weigh out what the payment on the debt would mean for the kingdom.
Instead, the king chooses to throw away the entirety of the kingdom for one servant.
Now, lest we think that’s an overly dramatic read of the parables – to forgive a debt as great as the servant’s is not merely a matter of being nice. It is a willingness to throw everything away for the man. Without receiving the ten thousand talents (read: ten million dollars), the kingdom would cease to operate accordingly and would thusly be destroyed.
The forgiveness offered by the king is not just a gift – it’s a radically changed life through death.
Jesus is setting Peter up with the story, and all of us who read it all these years later. Jesus is trying to say, yet again, that he is going to fix the world through his dying.
He will destroy death by dying on the cross, by giving up the kingdom for undeserving servants, by going after the one lost sheep and leaving the ninety-nine behind.
He will free us from ourselves by losing everything himself.
Jesus delights in breaking the rules and expectations of the world by showing that things aren’t as they appear.
There is no limit to the forgiveness offered by God through Christ Jesus. It sounds crazy, it sounds unbelievable, but it’s true.
If there was a limit to forgiveness in the Kingdom, then Peter would not have cut it as a disciple, and neither would any of us.
Jesus uses this parable not as a way to explain everything to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous understandings.
Or, to put it another way: the world runs on debt and repayment (at interest), but the Kingdom of God runs on mercy and forgiveness.