Isaiah 55:1-9; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
Not about sin, about forgiveness
If you scan the worship aid and hymns this week, you might note, as I did, that they include more language than usual about sin. Yipee! Aren’t you glad you came to worship this week? This is Lent, the preparation period before Easter, an opportunity for look inward.
But the focus this week isn’t about sin, it is about forgiveness.
We sometimes carry guilt around inside ourselves. Maggie talked last week about negative self talk, beating ourselves up when we talk to ourselves. But even if you aren’t a running-commentary kind of person and don’t talk to yourself, you might inwardly feel guilt. Sometimes we carry a burden of thinking we are responsible, or have done wrong and need forgiveness. We feel a darkness and separation, we create our own personal hell. Confession in the Church is intended to release us from these burdens and free us to feel forgiven and be our best selves.
I will admit that some thirty years ago I wasn’t convinced that saying the Confession in Church was needed. In those days, we recited the same confession every week. We said things like:
We have offended against thy holy laws…. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders.
Written in 1559 for the Church of England Common Prayer book, it reflected the thinking of that day, roughly two decades after John Calvin wrote extensively that humanity lives in “total depravity.” I could not buy into “total depravity” in seminary any better that I could behind the idea that “there is no health in us, …miserable offenders.” I see us as create in the image of God, and having the breath, or Spirit of God within us.
Oh, we aren’t perfect. We make mistakes, lots of them. We might speak more harshly than necessary or be too critical. We might feel anger or jealousy or humiliation or betrayal, and the black heartedness or lizard brain that can accompany these feelings. Lizard brain, thank you Carl Sagan, is when we lose all rational thought and have shut down all but survival processes in the most primitive part of our brain. We might lash out. We might say or do things we would never consider when we have our wits about us. We might hurt people.
We aren’t always as pure of heart as we would like to be, and we do things we shouldn’t and maybe even more frequently, we don’t do things we should. The part of the old confession I most related to was that “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.” I should have done more, and I should have done better. I remember coming to church as a youngish mother and praying every week for patience. Patience and efficiency. And stepping up to do the right thing. And patience.
But I was missing a piece. Eventually I learned that what we recite is corporate confession, something we say together as a body, and we say it for the benefit of the gathered body. Maybe someone else needs to say these words this week. I can get on board with that. We come together as community; if we do something as community that will benefit any one in our midst, that something is worth doing.
Also, speaking the words of confession warms us up, gets us in a mental frame to consider confessing. Like vocal warm ups, or shooting around in basketball, or jogging before running, it gets the process started, and gets the juices flowing.
Usually at the end of the corporate confession, there is a pause, a silence, sometimes an invitation to think our own thoughts, express our own misdeeds and regrets, and our own hopes and goals. It is personal between you and God.
The even bigger piece I missed was that is isn’t about sin, it is about forgiveness, the Assurance of Pardon. Maybe it’s the formal language, Assurance of Pardon, maybe if it were titled, in capital letters, GOD LOVES YOU AND FORGIVES YOU, I would have seen that is was the center of the service, the very heart.
Our Second Corinthians reading is all about being forgiven by God. I have distilled and edited slightly the passage from the Message translated by Eugene Peterson:
Now we look inside and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone, a new life burgeons (abounds)! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and God, and then calls us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with Godself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins. …Become friends with God, God is already a friend with you.
Everything becomes fresh and new because God settled our debts, and forgives us. Everything is good. Jesus brought us this Good News.
Our story from Luke is a compelling illustration of God’s love and forgiveness.
The setting is that Jesus has been speaking regularly around town and the reviled tax collectors and other sinners were coming around to listen. Jesus welcomed them and would sit down to eat and talk with them. The leaders of the community—the elders and deacons were grumbling about this—“He is welcoming this riff raff, these undesirable people and becoming friends with them. When Jesus heard the grousing, he told a parable.
There was a man with two sons: The younger son had the temerity, the gall to ask his father for his inheritance now. It would be like saying, “Dad, I can’t wait for you to die, so just hurry up and give me your money, now.” Almost a holdup, a robbery. If not breaking the law, it was breaking all acceptable behavior and tradition and breaking the parent’s heart. Those listening to Jesus would have gasped! The younger son goes to another country and lives beyond his means, spending wildly, and goes broke. Every dime is gone. A Dust Bowl comes, times are hard, a job is hard to come by, and he finds himself starving. The lowest job imaginable for a nice Jewish boy was working with pigs, which are forbidden in Jewish law, and he isn’t eating as well as the pigs. He is alone and lost, feeling almost worse than dead, in his own personal hell. He realizes that at his father’s ranch, the hired hands are treated better than he is now, so he makes the journey back home, figuring he will ask to he hired on as a ranch hand. He knows he has no right to ask to return as a son, having disgraced the family and particularly his father.
The father, who may have waited, scanning the horizon, spots the bedraggle son while he is still far in the distance. Abandoning all decorum and expected behavior for a distinguished older man, the father doesn’t delay for explanations or even for his son to walk the path up to the house. He runs out and gives him a bear hug and kisses this son he has desperately missed. He calls for some good clothes and a ring and a fatted calf so that they can celebrate the son’s return with a big barbeque and dance.
At this point, we know this story is all about God’s love for us, that whatever we say or do, God loves us still, and wants us back in the family. The parent rushing out with open arms overjoyed to see the son: This is a perfect personification of God. God loves you like this, extravagantly, generously, openly and freely, and will forgive and welcome you back into the family.
The piece about the elder brother feeling disappointed and jealous? Remember that this parable was told after the scribes and Pharisees, the obedient, faithful elder brothers of the town had complained about Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus is gently reminding the respected folk, that they are already in the family and know God’s love, and they aren’t losing anything. But those people, the outsiders whose lives have taken them away from the community, and God, if they return and come back into the family, this is cause for celebration. Jesus should eat and drink and celebrate their coming back into God’s circle. They have realized that they always belonged to God and have returned to participate. Let’s have a party!
This story is about abundant grace; God’s boundless love and forgiveness is an amazing thing to contemplate.
The Season of Lent leading up to Easter is a fine time to consider if we have anything we want God to forgive, or if we need reassurance of God’s love. Name it… Say it in your heart… Acknowledge that there is something you want to be forgiven for, or some piece of your life you want to do better… And then let God’s grace encircle you, and empower you. Once we have settled our relationship with God, we are in a better place to settle our relationships with our own selves and with other people. It isn’t about sin; it is about forgiveness. Be empowered by the amazing embrace of God’s love, be forgiven and forgive.
St. Andrew Sermons