“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Luke 18: 9-14
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.
This fall we will be taking up the theme “Growing together for good” and during worship we will be exploring what it is to cultivate different practices, and values that help us to grow in a life lived in alignment with Jesus’ Way of love.
Today we start with a foundational, essential practice through which all the other practices flow and are able to come into being. This is the practice of forgiveness with its close sister repentance.
This central, essential practice is also one of the most difficult and it is one that for many of us is fraught with ambivalence if not downright negativity.
Say the word repent and many of us begin to twitch. For many of the call to repentance has been twisted and used in ways that have been hurtful. For some of us the call to repent has been wounding — not healing, enslaving — not freeing. For some of us, the call to repent has been used as a weapon of blame and shame, a way to tell us how inadequate we really are.
Forgiveness can also be problematic. It is often framed as an obligation of faith. We are told we have to forgive. And yet, forgiveness is not something that can just be willed. It is not something we can just decide to do. It is something that instead awakens within us in its own time, and sometimes not at all.
These core practices of repentance and forgiveness are not easy, but they are central and I would even say they are at the core of what Jesus came to teach us.
So as we prepare to explore them, be assured. I am not going to tell you to repent. I am not going to demand that you forgive.
What I am going to do instead is to suggest that exploring more deeply God’s forgiveness of us, our forgiveness of each other and our forgiveness of ourselves can be a gateway of transformation that can set us free from the burden of shame and guilt. Forgiveness can be a doorway to our own homecoming as beloved children of God.
And I am going to suggest that forgiveness is the practice that tills and turns the soil of our souls, so to speak, aerating and nourishing that soul so that the grace that God has seeded there may grow and flourish.
But before we dive in, let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen
There is a remarkable passage in the third chapter of the book of Genesis. Adam and Eve are in the garden. They have just eaten the fruit from the tree that was forbidden to them. They look at themselves and realize for the first time that they are naked and then in the next instant they hear the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.
And what do Adam and Eve do next? Do you remember? It is so poignant and powerful I think. They hide themselves from the presence of the Lord. They duck under some shrubbery and hope God won’t see them. God, meanwhile, wanting their companionship and to share in the beauty of the evening is calling out “Where are you?”
This story, while not an eye witness, documentary account about our beginnings, nonetheless speaks truth about something that is at the core of who we are. And that within us as individuals and as a species there is within us a place of hiding. It is a place of shame, guilt and fear. For some this place of hiding is cavernous. For others, it does not loom so large but nonetheless it is there. This is the place where fear dwells and were we are watchful for any sign of the rejection, hurt or condemnation that we fear may be coming. The only human to walk this planet, I think, that fully came out of hiding and fully walked in the light of God, allowing himself to be seen in all his vulnerability was Jesus.
And that is why he came to us. To show us that God offers us reconciliation not condemnation, restoration not alienation. God invites us to come out of our places of hiding so that we too may share in the big, bold abundant, life giving life of God.
That is really the good news at the heart of the gospel. We can trust that God’s grace will meet us in our places of need and work in us for our own healing and wholeness. Jesus came into the world not to condemn it but to find us in our places of hiding and lead us out into the healing and transformative power of God’s love.
But, Coming out of our places of hiding, is not easy. It is can make us feel vulnerable and exposed. For so often what we experience is the harsh judgment not of God but of each other. God may be ready to forgive but we humans find it harder to do so. Judgment is what we know. Judgement is what we do.
Those neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville? They were wrong. What they were doing was harmful and bad. They are responsible for the pain, terror and death that they caused and should be held accountable. Their actions should be adjudicated.
But we tend not to stop there. We feel our anger, our hurt, our feeling of impotence at not being able to stop them rise, and soon we see not just what they did as bad but we see them as bad. They are just bad people. right? Wouldn’t we be irresponsible or complicit even in not saying so! It not that they have a problem but they are the problem.
And then, can you see it? Our judgment of them not only makes that place of fear, shame, and guilt that much more cavernous within them, but stirs our own vulnerability and fear as well. And instead of participating in the generative love of God that is working for our healing and the healing of the world we become more and more walled off from it.
So what are we to do? How can we enter more fully into our own brokenness and the brokenness of those around us? What is required?
Two people went up to the temple to pray,
One had done good things, but his heart was full of judgment.
The other had done bad things, but his heart was full of sorrow.
Two people went up to the temple to pray.
One went up needing nothing really so sure was he that he had it all figured out. The other went up needing everything, so sure was he that he had lost it all.
Which one went down from the temple that day, justified, acquitted by God?
Jesus says it was the one who did not judge the brokenness of others, but instead humbly brought his own brokenness before God.
Now, while that broken tax collector may have went down from the temple that day justified, I do not think that that means he just gets to doing whatever he wants. God forgives not just so that we can feel good and rest assured? God forgives because God is about relationship and that means that God needs partners. Lovers of life who will share in the life of God and work with God on the plans that God has for us.
Grace that does not ask anything of us is cheap grace and not the grace that comes from God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, (German Pastor, Theologian and anti-Nazi activist who was arrested by the Gestapo, later killed) writes that cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
The grace we are given by God as a forgiven people, is not cheap grace. It is costly grace. It is grace that will does not conform to what is but that challenges us to lean into what can be. It is a grace that asks for partnership, participation and the courage to change and be changed so that our lives may more and more fully take on the radiance of the one who walked in Love and bids us walk in that way. The grace that forgiveness awakens in us is a grace whose fruits are humility, generosity, wisdom, trust, service, compassion – practice that help us to move out of our places of hiding and into the work and life of God, practices we will be exploring this fall.
So, as our walk together into this new year begins, let us begin with a courageous examination of our own places of hiding. Where do we need God’s grace to free and forgive us? Can we like that tax collector give ourselves permission to come before God just as we are? Can we set down the mantel of judgment and find the courage to step into the brokenness within ourselves and accept the brokenness of others?
I wonder this and pray this not because we should, or must, or ought to. I ask this not to shame or wound or blame.
I wonder this and pray this because this, I believe, is where the new day is dawning and the healing that is so needed is pouring forth.
So can we simply do our part? Can we step into the freedom that forgiveness brings so that we can partner with God and with one another to do what the Lord requires – to love kindness, do justice and walk humbly with our God. I think we can. May it be so. Amen