What We Have Left Undone

And this is not something we want to hear. It means that we, too, are responsible for our communal sins, even if we as individuals haven’t committed them.

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Ash Wednesday
Joel 2:1-17
Psalm 51
2 Corinthians 5:20b—6:10
Matthew 6:1-21

Growing up, there was one part of worship I really didn’t like or understand. No, not the sermon. That was my doodling time.

I’m talking about the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness, page 56 and 77 in the Lutheran Book of Worship, the hymnal we used when I was a kid. I never liked that part of worship. I don’t know if it was because it was just a long block of words that were said, or because I didn’t necessarily understand it all, or because it delayed the first hymn and I loved to sing, or what. But wow, what a drag that was. Nothing like beginning your Sunday morning by talking about how bad you were. Woo-hoo, yay Jesus.

Now that I’m grown though, and now that I’ve been exposed to a very different world than I thought existed in my childhood—a world where sin seems to rule and injustice is not only present, but fostered in so many open, public spaces—I find my reaction to Confession and Forgiveness has changed. Now, I think it might be the second most important thing we do on Sunday morning (after Holy Communion). It’s one of the few times we directly confront sin in ourselves and in our midst, and it’s something we don’t do often enough.

But what is sin? You’d think that for something so important to our understanding of, well, everything to do with our faith, there’d be one easy, concise definition of sin. How foolish of me to think so.

It turns out sin is surprisingly hard to define. Everyone seems to define it differently. Probably the most basic definition I recall being taught was that sin was a small, fancy word that meant doing bad things. So of course, I did what I always do when I don’t know or don’t understand something: I looked it up.

The dictionary in the back of the Bibles my wife and I received at our Confirmations defines sin as “An offense or rebellion against God…; deliberate defiance, wickedness; iniquity; ungodliness.” The Master Builder Bibles for Men glossary defines sin as “to break the law of God; the act of not doing what God wants.” Hmmm.

Turning to our liturgy, I took the following from our Confession and Forgiveness out of Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Sin is described as something that comes out in what we think, what we say, and what we do. It’s something we actively choose to do, but it’s also something that happens when we actively choose not to do something. It’s described as not loving God fully, and not loving the people around us fully. It’s a turning away from God and focusing only on ourselves. It’s something we do intentionally and something we do without even knowing it (which is scary, when you think about it).

All of which is, again, kinda unhelpful and confusing. That describes sin, but doesn’t clearly define it. Sin appears to be one of those words we use all the time and just assume everybody knows, but as it turns out, nobody really knows.

So let’s do a little definition work. Given all of the definitions and descriptions above, let’s work with this summary of sin: sin is a word we use to describe the wounding of a relationship. That relationship can be between us and God, or it can be between us and each other. Sin does not exist in a vacuum—it always involves more than one person. So sin is anything we think, say, or do—and even things we choose not to do—that harms our relationship with someone else.

This changes the dimension of sin, doesn’t it? Sin is no longer just something I do that’s bad. It’s something I do that’s bad to or for someone else. It gives a relational dimension to sin that is often missing in our discussions around sin, especially as it regards how our actions or inactions hurt others.

For example. We all know it’s wrong to take money from someone. That’s stealing. That’s sinning. But if we look at sin as something that breaks our relationship with others, then this is also sin: withholding our money from others when we have too much and they have none. Because it causes them harm. Ouch. We haven’t -done- anything to someone else. But by not doing something that would help our neighbor, we are just as guilty.

Martin Luther understood this dual nature of sin when he wrote his explanations of the Ten Commandments for his Small Catechism. For the Seventh Commandment—”You shall not steal”—he writes this:

“What does this mean? We are to fear and love God, so that we neither take our neighbors’ money or property nor acquire them by using shoddy merchandise or crooked deals, but instead help them to improve and protect their property and income.”

So you see, there are two sides to breaking that commandment: taking our neighbors’ money, and failing to help them protect it from others trying to take it. Both hurt our neighbor.

Do you see what I mean when I say that sin is a wounding of our relationship with others?

And it gets even more complicated than that. The contributors to the Disrupt Worship Project, whose work we will be using through the Lenten season, point out that we are very good about pointing out individual sins: -I- did this, or -I- did that. It fits well into our cultural narrative that each person is responsible only for themselves. Sin is something personal, individual, and each person will be judged individually.

But remember, sin is never something that is done or that happens in a vacuum. Sin is a breaking of relationships. And just as sin itself separates us from each other, it also binds us together in its deadly grip. Sin is not just individual sin. It is communal sin.

This is the kind of sin that the prophets of the Old Testament rail against. This is the sin that Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Micah all preach about. In their view, the whole community, the whole nation of Israel and Judah, was guilty of sin as a group. Because even though each person may not have cheated the poor, their society cheated the poor. Even though each person may not have turned away from God’s promises, their community did. Because of this, the whole community suffered the consequences of that sin. The whole community was responsible.

And this is not something we want to hear. It means that we, too, are responsible for our communal sins, even if we as individuals haven’t committed them.

Our society, our church is racist. And even if we don’t individually contribute to that racism, we are responsible for owning that sin. We have let it continue through our inaction. We have left the work of healing undone.

Our society, our church, is sexist. And even if we don’t individually contribute to that sexism, we are responsible for owning that sin. We have let it continue through our inaction. We have left the work of healing undone.

Our society, our church, is homophobic and transphobic. And even if we don’t individually contribute to that homophobia and transphobia, we are responsible for owning that sin. We have let it continue through our inaction. We have left the work of healing undone.

Our society, our church, favors the rich and looks down on the poor. And even if we don’t individually contribute to that classism, we are responsible for owning that sin.

Our society, and even our church, favors the right to shoot and kill 17 adults and children in a school in Parkland, Florida over protecting them. And even if we don’t individually contribute to the gun fetish of our culture that allows mass shooting after mass shooting to happen, we are responsible for owning that sin. We have let it continue through our inaction—we refuse to take any action to stop it, choosing instead to offer quaint and useless “thoughts and prayers”. We have left the work of healing undone, and because of our inaction, more people have died. That mass shooting just happened a few hours ago, by the way; this afternoon.

We confess that the things we have done and the things we have left undone, the communal sins we have allowed to flourish because we won’t address them, are just as deadly as, if not deadlier than, the sins we commit as individuals.

Lent has traditionally been a time of preparation for those seeking to be baptized. It has also been a time to really focus on sin—not to cower in fear before it, but to confront it, name it, challenge it, change it and ourselves, and refocus on the God who forgives.

Because sin can be fought. It already has been. I said that sin not only separates us but ties us together into one big ugly mess. During Lent we look forward to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which broke the ties of sin and death, freeing us from the tyranny of sin. When Jesus told the woman about to stoned to go and sin no more, he didn’t mean that she could be perfect and would never sin. But he gave her freedom from sin that no longer had to be obeyed, sin that no longer held her in its prison without escape. Without Jesus Christ, she wouldn’t be free.

Without Jesus Christ, we wouldn’t be able to name our sins, both the individual ones and the collective ones.
Without Jesus Christ, we would be stuck in an endless cycle of things we have done and things we have left undone, slaves to the constant voice that says, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Without Jesus Christ, sin would still have total mastery and control over us, over our society.
Without Jesus Christ, we wouldn’t be able to challenge our communal sins, repent of our actions and inactions, and change the society around us.

Thanks be to God that Christ broke the power of sin and death, bringing liberation and freedom to those imprisoned by it, and in doing so gave us the strength and power to break sin’s power over our communities. For just as sin wielded power over all in an abusive relationship, the liberation through Jesus Christ brings freedom over all to unite them in a new relationship.

Today, you will receive the sign of the cross,the sign of Christ, on your foreheads. You will bear public witness to your faith. You will show others the liberation you have in Jesus Christ. And through you, as we name aloud tonight our sins and confront them, casting them off, you will bring that freedom and liberation to others.

Featured Image: “Repent Forgive Rebuke” by Jon Worth is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

God Is Unfair

“Is my way unfair?” asks God? Yes! Yes, God, your way is unfair!

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

I know I’m going to regret referencing something like this this early—and I beg your forgiveness now—but growing up, one of my all-time favorite movies was Home Alone starring Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, and Daniel Stern. Back then, I didn’t care that it was *gasp* a Christmas movie. I loved it.

Culkin plays Kevin McCallister, a young kid who is accidentally left home alone when his extended family rushes out the door to go on a Paris vacation. Kevin goes on a number of adventures, including fighting off two criminals who want to rob Kevin’s house and wrongly assume that it will be easy pickings. There’s one scene in the movie that is particularly touching. During Kevin’s wild adventures alone, he decides to stop in a church when he hears singing coming from it. It’s a children’s choir practicing for later that night, and he sits down in a pew to listen for a while.

While he’s listening, his neighbor, Old Man Marley, whom Kevin is afraid of because his older brother told him urban legends about Marley being a murderer, enters the church and asks to sit down. Though Kevin is afraid, he agrees, and Old Man Marley sits, explaining that he’s there to listen to his granddaughter sing. But he has to come and listen to her now, because he won’t be welcome when she sings later that night.

Kevin finds out that years prior, before Kevin’s family moved to the neighborhood, Old Man Marley had a heated argument with his son. It got so bad that he told his son that he never wanted to see him again, and his son said the same. And so it’s been; neither Marley nor his son have spoken to each other since that day, and Marley has been cut out of his children’s and grandchildren’s lives. That’s why he’s not welcome later that night. Marley regrets the argument, and what’s happened because of it.

Kevin asks Marley a question: why don’t you call your son? And Marley answers that he doesn’t think his son would want to talk to him; it’s been too long, and he’s afraid that if he calls, he’ll be rejected. There’s too much bad blood between them. Still, Kevin tells Old Man Marley that he needs to call his son.

At the end of the movie—spoiler alert—Kevin looks out his window toward Marley’s house. And outside, he sees Old Man Marley, his granddaughter in his arms, and his son and daughter-in-law with him. He made the call. And his son was indeed willing to talk to him; and not just talk to him, to see him again. Marley waves to Kevin, tears in his eyes, and the four of them go into the house to celebrate Christmas.

How long is too long for reconciliation to happen? Is there a point of no return, beyond which it is simply impossible to mend a relationship that’s been broken?

It was a question on the minds of the Israelites while they lived in exile in Babylon, away from their homeland and everything they knew. Had they finally reached the tipping point? Had their ancestors built up so much ill-will with God that God finally had enough and was punishing them for the sins of history? This is what they meant when they said, “The parents eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” They were paying for the mistakes of their ancestors, and there was nothing they could do about it.

In response this parable, God uses the prophet Ezekiel to set the record straight. The Israelites are accusing God of being unfair by punishing them for the sins of their parents, but it doesn’t work like that, God says. “Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?” God asks. For according to God, only the wicked themselves will die, not the righteous. If those who used to be righteous turn wicked, then they shall pay for their wickedness; that sounds fair. And indeed, if the wicked regret their wickedness and turn back to God, then they will not die, for they have turned back to God and away from the wicked path.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder if we assume too much if we declare God fair because of this. “Is my way unfair?” asks God, and I think the answer may be, Yes, it is unfair.

It’s unfair because the wicked could live their whole lives wickedly, and at the end turn back to God, and it doesn’t matter how wicked they were before. How is that fair? How is that justice? It sounds like restorative justice, something I talked about last week and the week before, but are we convinced that restorative justice is fair? “Is my way unfair?” asks God?

Is it fair that the son who disrespects his father in Jesus’s parable gets to be the good guy just because he eventually goes and does what his father asks? Is it fair that the Pharisees, the Chief Priests, the elders of the people, who lived their entire lives devoted to the temple and to the teachings of Moses and the Law and serving God—is it fair that they are regarded so poorly by Jesus? Is it fair that Jesus puts tax collectors—people who make a living by cheating their own people out of money—and prostitutes—people who make a living by having sex with other people—are counted higher in Jesus’s eyes than good, hard-working, noble people?

What about this is fair? What about this is right? There should be a point past which reconciliation is simply not possible. Like when family members slam each other on Facebook so much that they get blocked. Like when family members walk out of our lives with no intention of returning. Like when politicians betray our trust. Like when people go to jail for assault and battery, manslaughter, murder, rape.

“Is my way unfair?” asks God? Yes! Yes, God, your way is unfair! Your way is too generous, too loving, too caring, too forgiving, too lenient, too reconciling! How can you call your way fair?!

And the short answer is, we can’t. We can’t call God’s way fair. Fairness dictates that at a certain point, there’s simply nothing one can do to repair the damage they’ve done. There’s no turning back. And yet, that point doesn’t seem to exist for God.

Because as God tells the Israelites, “When the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life. Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die…. For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD.”

And again, “For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him.” Those ugly, no good, filthy people of society, believed. They had faith.

It is human nature to believe that relationships can be broken so badly that they can’t be fixed. And maybe, when it comes to our own relationships, there is. I don’t know. I like to think, and hope, that even our flawed human relationships are never so badly broken that they cannot ever be salvaged. Maybe I’m naive. Maybe I just hope for some fun-loving family members back.

But of this I am certain; when it comes to God, there is no such thing as a hopeless relationship. There is no such thing as a point of no return. There is no such thing as too much wickedness and sin for the relationship between humanity, creation, and God to be restored. The power of God to mend that which is broken and heal that which is hurt goes far and above what we ourselves could possible imagine. It is so very unfair. And thanks be to God.

And just maybe, as I said a few weeks ago, just maybe, that’s all the power we need to mend a few of our own relationships too.

Featured Image: “forgiveness” by scem.info is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

You Are Worth It

We begin worship with forgiveness because we need to know—I need to know, you need to know—that we are not only in need of forgiveness, but that we are worth forgiveness, that we are not beyond hope.

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:1-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Mr. Hinton was at his mother’s house on an otherwise normal day in 1985, helping her around the house as children often do for their mothers.

Except on this day, two police officers came to the yard and arrested Mr. Hinton. They asked if he had a gun, and when he said he didn’t, they asked if his mother did. She did, and they went in the house to retrieve that gun. It was the only piece of evidence used to try Mr. Hinton of murdering two restaurant managers in Birmingham, AL. The expert witness admitted he couldn’t see through the microscope very well because of poor eyesight. Mr. Hinton passed a lie detector test, had a solid, verifiable alibi, and the only incriminating evidence was supplied by the aforementioned deficient expert.

Mr. Hinton was found guilty of the double murder and sentenced to death row.

Years later, Mr. Hinton met a lawyer named Bryan Stevenson, who agreed to take on his case. Mr. Stevenson found three highly credible and well-known experts that testified that there was no way the bullets that killed the restaurant managers came from Mr. Hinton’s mother’s gun. The prosecution actually agreed. Mr. Hinton was innocent! Yet he still spent another sixteen years on death row as appeal after appeal was rejected.

His case eventually reached the Supreme Court which, in an almost unheard of unanimous decision, ordered a retrial. The case against Mr. Hinton quickly crumbled, and thirty years after his arrest, after spending three decades on death row, Mr. Hinton was released a free man.

Mr. Hinton’s life was forever changed by his stay on death row. He still wakes up every morning at 3 am, because that’s when he had to get up in jail. He bought a California King-sized bed to sleep in, but sleeps curled up tight on one corner, because that’s how he slept on death row. But spending three decades on death row couldn’t rip his joy away from him, he says. He still has so much joy.

To this day, Anthony Ray Hinton doesn’t speak ill of the people who falsely put him on death row for thirty years. “I do not hold any hatred for the people who put me there,” he says, “I have seen what hatred can do. What would it profit me to hate? … I forgive them. I forgive them without them asking… I forgive them so they can sleep good at night… I forgive them so that I can sleep good at night.”

Shane Claiborne tells Mr. Hinton’s story in his book Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us. In it, he says that Anthony Ray Hinton “is one of the most incredible faces of grace I have ever met,” even though he endured a thirty year nightmare and has every right to hate the people who falsely accused him of murder because he was black and “looked evil” and the jury that sentenced him to death with no evidence.

Instead, Mr. Hinton forgave those who wronged him.

Mr. Hinton’s story has parallels in the Joseph saga recorded in the book of Genesis. Refresher: Joseph is one of Jacob’s at least thirteen children (twelve sons and at least one daughter), and is Jacob’s favorite. After Jacob gives Joseph an expensive, rich coat, Joseph’s brothers plan to kill him out of jealousy. Instead, they sell him into slavery in Egypt, where Joseph is falsely accused of trying to put moves on his owner’s wife and thrown in jail. There, he earns a reputation as an interpreter of dreams, which comes in handy when the Pharaoh starts having worrisome dreams.

Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams to mean that a big famine is coming, and Pharaoh is so impressed he puts Joseph in charge of administrating the entire country’s supply of food. When the famine hits, Joseph’s brothers who live outside Egypt come to Egypt to buy food because of the famine. They don’t recognize Joseph, who puts them through a few tests to see if they’ve changed, and when he sees that they have, he breaks down in tears because he’s so happy to see them again. He brings his father’s entire family to live with him in Egypt, where they can live comfortably.

Which leads to the part of the story we read this morning, where Joseph assures his brothers that, like Anthony Ray Hinton, he doesn’t harbor any ill feelings toward his brothers, the people who put him through hell. He’s forgiven them.

It’s a practice called “restorative justice”. When we think of the word “justice”, we’re usually thinking of retributive, or criminal justice: a crime is a violation of law. It creates guilt. Justice then is the meting out of punishment to fit the crime so that the offender gets what they deserve. It’s the kind of justice that the slave in Jesus’s parable expects, since he can’t pay his debt; and it’s the justice he gives out when another slave can’t pay his.

Restorative justice, on the other hand, treats crime as a break in relationship between people. It creates an obligation. Justice involves people coming together to make things right and focuses on the needs of the victim and the responsibility of the offender to meet those needs. It’s the kind of justice the king in Jesus’s parable gives out at first, when instead of worrying about the 10,000 talents owed him, he instead focuses on the slave’s life and family, and chooses to erase the debt to avoid hurting him and maintain the relationship.

As Claiborne explains it, criminal justice asks, “What laws have been broken? Who did it? What does the offender deserve?” Restorative justice asks, “Who has been hurt? What are the victim’s needs? Whose obligations are these?” And it involves a lot of forgiveness.

We’ve talked about forgiveness before; just last week, actually. And we talked about how hard it is to forgive. Forgiving once is tough enough. But more than once? I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” It means, “If I trust you and get hurt, that’s your fault. But if I’m stupid enough to let myself trust you and get hurt again, well, then that’s my fault for being so stupid.”

Forgiveness is for the first time, right? Maybe the second? Which leads us directly into Peter’s question to Jesus: just how many times is he supposed to forgive someone who hurts him? Seven times, a rather generous number?

Sometimes, it’s hard enough to forgive just one time, let alone seven or 490! I know it is for me. Every time I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I lie—I don’t want God to forgive me the way I forgive others, because I’m terrible at forgiving others, and I don’t want God to be terrible at forgiving me!

Fortunately, this is something God excels at. And we need to be reminded of that.

Do you ever wonder why, almost every Sunday, we begin worship by confessing our sins? It’s so that, every week, we hear again these words:

When Christ died, he died for sin once and for all. But now he is alive, and he lives only for God. In the same way, you were dead to the power of sin. But Christ Jesus has given life to you, and you live for God. By the mercy of God you are united with Jesus Christ, in whom you are forgiven. Live in the peace of Christ!

When was the last time, outside of Sunday morning, that you heard the words, “you are forgiven”? I don’t know when I last heard them. It’s not because I don’t need forgiveness—I screw up a lot. But I don’t hear them a lot. In the absence of those words, it’s easy to think that, maybe, I’m not worth forgiving. Or that I’m unforgivable.

But God forgives. God forgives more than Anthony Ray Hinton forgave our racist criminal justice system that sentenced him to death on no evidence because he was black. God forgives more than Joseph forgave his brothers for trying to kill him and selling him into slavery. God forgives more than the 490 times Jesus tells Peter he should forgive each person that hurts him.

God forgives because each and every one of us is worth forgiving. Because God values our relationship more than punishment. Because God loves. Because if God was able to boldly proclaim forgiveness to the people around Jesus Christ as they literally drove nails into his arms and hoisted him up on an instrument of torture and execute him, then what do you think can possibly stand in the way of God forgiving you?

We begin our worship the way we do not because it’s the way we’ve always done it. We begin worship with forgiveness because we need to know—I need to know, you need to know—that we are not only in need of forgiveness, but that we are worth forgiveness, that we are not beyond hope. And maybe, in the process, we’ll be able to recognize that those around us who have hurt us too are also in need of and worth forgiveness. Which is the really hard part. Because it means we have to be vulnerable, both victims and offenders, valuing our relationship over our need to be right. Which is, of course, ultimately better for all of us.

Near the end of his book, Shane Claiborne talks about forgiveness. He says, “Forgiveness does not undermine or subvert justice. It creates the possibility for real justice to happen. It casts out the toxic residue of resentment and the desire for revenge. It frees from the inside out.”

Forgiveness heals both the victim and the perpetrator. It restores relationships. And even when we can’t forgive others–or worse, we can’t forgive ourselves–God forgives, more times than we can count, and with a patience that never runs out. Because we’re worth it. We are worth it to God.

You are worth it to God.

Featured Image: “Forgive” by Paul Sableman is licensed under CC BY 2.0.