June 12, 2016: Fourth Sunday of Pentecost – The Community of the Forgiven

Sermon for June 12, 2016 Fourth Sunday of Pentecost

The Community of the Forgiven

In the Name of God: Our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Comforter. AMEN.

Those of you who have heard me preach before know that I believe that a sermon should grow out of the lessons appointed for the day by the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music.

Now, most days this approach works out pretty well because the lessons we read are hopeful, and uplifting, and consoling. Other days, however, things do not work out so well, because the lessons are really strange. Sometimes they are really strange. Sometimes the lessons are really strange, in ways that remind us of the literally thousands of years that separate us, and our culture, from the people and culture of the ancient near east.

Other times, the lessons are strange because they almost seem to be talking about our world. For example, in the Old Testament lesson we have the very interesting story about Family Values in the palace of King David. About how David arranges for his loyal subject Uriah the Hittite to get killed in battle so that David can continue his affair with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, whom David has gotten pregnant.
This sounds like the plot of an episode of the TV show House of Cards, that show on Netflix with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as a couple who think they are Lord and Lady Macbeth and wind up murdering their way to the Oval Office.

In the Old Testament version, however, God is so upset with what David has done that God murders the child that David and Bathsheba have conceived while Uriah is out fighting King David’s wars. Now that particular plot twist, I suspect, keeps Ethics professors up at night trying to figure out a consistent understanding of biblical ethics and the nature of God.

And – as part of that story – we get another story imbedded inside that story, the prophet Nathan’s story, about the rich man who kills the poor man’s lamb, and about how Nathan tells David this story to trick David into sympathizing with Uriah, whom he has had killed.

In the Gospel reading, which is one of those stories that reminds us of the distance between Jesus’ time and ours, we learn that Luke really likes that story-imbedded-inside-another-story technique, because Luke has Jesus tell a similar story of how there was a rich man who lent money to two guys, one a little bit of money and the other a whole lot of money, then forgave both their debts when they had trouble making payments on the loan.

Luke’s Jesus must have been reading about Nathan’s storytelling technique, because like Nathan, Jesus uses the story to trap the Pharisee into recognizing the worth of the woman whom the Pharisee believes is a sinner, with whom Jesus should not be associating, and if Jesus were really a prophet he would have known the woman was a sinner, and would have known to avoid her.
But to do that, Luke has Jesus appreciate the very strange behavior of this woman – or at least I think it is strange – It may not seem strange to you, and it may not have seemed strange in first-century Palestine, but it has always seemed strange to me.

What’s strange about it is not so much the fact that, at least in Jesus’ telling of the story, she is weeping copiously, and washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, and drying them with her hair, and also anointing Jesus’ feet with ointment — but that she’s doing it all at the same time.

I think that’s remarkable. She’s invented multi-tasking two thousand years ahead of her time.

But, however strange and entertaining these incidents are in these lessons, and however worthy they might be of our deeper consideration, I’m going in another direction this morning.

To go in that direction, I call your attention to the one thing that plays a pivotal role in all these stories, and ties all these lessons together — and that is forgiveness, the act and consequences of forgiveness.
Each of these readings is a series of repeated acts of forgiveness. God, in the end, forgives David for the awful things David has done, and David forgives God for the awful thing God does to David and Bathsheba’s child – and things work out, life does go on, for their second child is named Solomon, who succeeds David on the throne of Israel and continues the chain of events and peoples that lead us from Abraham to Jesus.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus forgives the weeping woman for whatever sins she might have committed, complements her on her skills at multi-tasking, and chastises the Pharisee for not wanting to recognize the common humanity that they all share.

In the Epistle, Paul says that God in Christ Jesus has come as the sign, and the agent, of God’s forgiveness, that God, in Christ Jesus, has overcome everything that separates us from God. So Paul declares that the life he now lives is a life lived by faith, a life lived in the Risen Christ, in the Son of God, who loved Paul, and gave himself that Paul, too, might be forgiven, hence reconciled with God.

Beloved, it is wonderful to be forgiven, or, as the Psalmist puts it, “Happy are they who . . . are forgiven” for “mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.”

So, the Psalmist insists, “Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the Lord; shout for joy, all who are true of heart.”

Beloved, we come together this Sunday, as we do every time we gather at this table, to do all the familiar things we do together on occasions like this, to hear the Bible read, to give thanks in word and song, to offer our intercessions to God, trusting that God accepts our requests, not as we ask in our sinfulness, but as God knows and loves us as members of the Body of Christ, to acknowledge our limits and our failures to God and to each other, and to break the bread we are given to break, and to share the cup of wine.

We come together to do these things, and this is my first point today – we do these things as the community of the forgiven, the community — as we will say in our Eucharistic prayer in just a few minutes – the community of those whom God has “by water and the Holy Spirit . . . made . . . a new people,” a people made new by God’s forgiveness” hence a people – “worthy to stand before God.”

So the hymn we sang as the Gradual hymn today captures for me one way we might respond to what Paul is saying, for Paul too calls us to “come with joy to meet our Lord, Forgiven, Loved, and Free, in awe and wonder to recall his life laid down for me.”

So my first point in this sermon is that we are a community of the forgiven.

My second point is that as a community of the forgiven, we are called to invest a great deal in our life together, a life together lived out in community, and that community is a community of thanksgiving and celebration, of coming together week by week, joyfully, in awe and wonder, to recall and re-experience God’s forgiveness of us, and to reaffirm our belief that our lives are in God, and that our future is with God.

Beloved, we as members of community are dependent on each other. One of the insights we have as Episcopalians into the nature of the Christian life is that in our relationship with God, we are members of community first, and only secondarily are individuals before God.

As one of our intercessory prayers puts it, we ask God for things, and then ask that God receive our requests not as we are in our sinfulness but as God knows us and loves us as members of Christ’s risen body. In another one of these prayers, we ask that God not think about our sins, but about the faith of the Church.

Which is why each week we collectively proclaim our faith using the same words, the words of the Church’s ancient Creed, the statement of faith worked out over 1500 years ago by the Council of Nicaea. We say the same words, and we proclaim the faith as the Church gathered in community has used for all these centuries.

Which is convenient, since that means you don’t have to answer all the time that “Well, what do you really believe?” question.

For the faith that matters is our collective faith. So, if, for example, today, or any day, when we get to that part of the service, you might not find yourself up to affirming this or that part of the Creed – whether it be the Virgin Birth, or God as Three Persons, or maybe, I guess, even, this week, the existence of God at all – since it is the faith of the Church that matters to God, and not your individual faith, that’s OK.

Beloved, we are a community of the Forgiven, enabled by God to “come with joy to meet our Lord, Forgiven, Loved, and Free, in awe and wonder to recall his life laid down for me.” And as a community of the Forgiven, we are called to recognize our dependence on each other for our lives together as God’s people.

My third point – and I know you will be relieved to hear that I will stop today with three – My third point is that as a community of the forgiven who give thanks and celebrate our forgiveness, and who help support each other in our lives together, part of our work as a community is to help each other grow ever more deeply into our relationship with God and with each other.

I’m about to use the word “school,” and I’m aware that the word “school” gets mixed reviews. I admit, I like school. I liked school so much when I was much younger that I worked out a way to stay in school. And I haven’t left yet.

But your response to the word “school” may vary, and so I use the word “”school” advisedly. But I do think that one task of a community of the forgiven is to be a school for Christian living, a school for learning more and more deeply how to live in community, in a community of the Forgiven.

Because the reality of our lives as human beings is that change is our only constant, and that things do not remain the same.

Some of you may remember that in a sermon I preached here earlier this year, in fact back in February, in Lent, I quoted Alan Jones, who said, when he was the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, that the purpose of Lent was to help us see ourselves as God sees us, that when God sees us, God sees angels going before us and behind us, proclaiming, “Behold, a Child of God, Behold, a Child of God.”

But, I will have to admit, even after Lent, and even after Easter, that while I do see myself as a Child of God sometimes, do sometimes feel what the Psalmist calls “the embrace of mercy,” do sometimes feel “forgiven, loved, and free,” I don’t, not always. Maybe if I’m honest, not all that often.

So one way of thinking about our lives together in this community is to see our lives together as an opportunity – even a school – for moving ever more deeply into an awareness of God’s mercy and love and forgiveness, and of the possibilities that love and mercy and forgiveness open up for us in our lives together.

Beloved, our challenge in this school of Christian living is not only to see ourselves as God sees us, but to see each other as God sees each one of us – Children of God, forgiven, loved, and free, people who, each one of us, live in the embrace of God’s mercy.

This does not mean that we are all really all alike, or that we all agree on everything. We only sing in harmony, and as someone told me last week, I have a real problem doing that, too.

I will never forget that Anne Hallmark, one of our previous rectors, once said that the thing about Church is, you can’t control who they are willing to let in the door. So when you come to church you are likely to wind up sitting next to the very last person in the world you wanted to be near, that day.

But as a community of the Forgiven, we are called to remember that, after all, it was God who made us a diverse set of folks – and scientists teach us that there is strength in diversity, that the more diverse a population we are, the stronger we are, and the more likely we are to thrive.

But it does mean, I think, that as God’s people, as a community of the forgiven, we come to terms with our differences inside the context of a mutual recognition that we are all children of God, forgiven, loved, and free, who live in the embrace of God’s mercy.

Beloved, this day, our blessing is to be a community of the forgiven, our opportunity is to support each other in this community of love and prayer, and our challenge is to grow ever more deeply into God’s reconciling work among us, learning to see ourselves and each other, even in our differences, perhaps even because of our differences, learning ever more fully to see each other as Children of God, forgiven, loved, and free, who come together at this table to meet our Lord, the Host of the banquet that we share, to meet our Lord, in joy, and in awe and wonder to recall his life laid down for you and for me.”

That’s the Gospel for me this week, and maybe it is for you, too.