July 15, 2018
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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 his 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 our 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 and seal of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
“Risen Christ, your miracle in us is your constant forgiveness.” That’s one of the prayers that Brother Roger of the Taizé Community in France used to offer during their daily worship services. Sometimes he prayed it in English, or German, or French, or Spanish, or Polish. The prayer was somehow always a request to God, as well as a reassurance to everyone gathered around him. The way Brother Roger said it, it was as if he were asking, “forgive us” to the Lord, and reminding everyone else, “In Christ, you are forgiven.”
It’s a prayer that can almost flit past the ear because of its simplicity, like the table blessing my dad has murmured as a mantra with bowed head and folded hands over our family dinners my entire life: “Blessthisfoodtoouruseandustothyserviceandmakeusevermindfuloftheneedsofothersamen.”
But, like those words of grace that some of you may also know bone-deep, Brother Roger’s prayer says something that’s as powerful as it is familiar. Listen to it again: “Risen Christ, your miracle in us is your constant forgiveness.”
That prayer has been on my mind because Len and I recently returned with a group of graduate students from a week in Taizé, France. The Taizé Community is an ecumenical monastery of brothers that welcomes pilgrims to worship and work together toward Christ’s reconciliation and peace. Last June, we arrived in the hillsides of Burgundy to spend a week with the brothers of Taizé and a little under a thousand pilgrims from around the world. Some of us were from the United States, others from Germany, Palestine, Kenya, South Korea. We gathered for daily Bible study in a small group with a dozen other adults to read Scripture together. In that group, we worked through language barriers, and sometimes rubbed each other the wrong way with different theological perspectives.
As the week went on at Taizé, despite the close living quarters and our significant differences, we came to love each other. We learned how to live with and for one another as fellow Christians. The give and take of common life together in meals and worship made us into a community where we had once been strangers. At the center of that life was a common ground: we had come to Taizé to spend time with Jesus, to see what he would do with all these people from all over the world.
“Risen Christ, your miracle in us is your constant forgiveness.” That simple prayer is similar to what Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, too. Paul’s opening words to this early Christian community say that God has blessed the entire world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is Jesus’ forgiveness of our sins, the redemption through his blood that reconciles us to God. Forgiveness is the way that God saves the whole world in Jesus Christ.
What a lovely idea: forgiveness is at the heart of our salvation. Like Brother Roger’s prayer, we can listen to words like that and nod our heads but still let them pass by without sinking in. Yes, it’s true, and yet, it sounds vaguely true. The words, on their own, stand high up in the heavenly realms when they’re detached from any context. We crane our necks to look at them, like the billboards that shout “JESUS SAVES” in white letters against a black background over the open cornfields along I-70 where I grew up in Indiana. True, Jesus saves. But whom? When? Today? Forgiveness is at the heart of our salvation. For whom? When? Today?
Maybe the word “forgiveness” is what throws us off. Forgiveness sounds strange, lofty, alien, because it is so rare in our daily lives. Forgiveness seldom intrudes into the real life of loud neighbors and backstabbing coworkers and family members whose phone calls you’ve been letting go to voicemail for the last month or so.
If you asked me at the door after worship, “Do you think forgiveness is an important part of the Christian life?” I would say, “Oh, yes, it’s at the heart of the Gospel.” But, as I was writing this sermon earlier this week, I tried to imagine someone coming up to me on the street and asking me point blank, “Question one: When’s the last time you forgave someone when they really hurt you? Question two: When’s the last time you asked someone to forgive you when you really hurt them?” I’d look around wildeyed for a Starbucks or something, anything to duck into and hide.
Forgiveness doesn’t fit into our plans for the day. My to-do list is: gotta run to Target, pick up my dry cleaning. But forgiving someone isn’t on my list! Because when we are wounded, we run away. When we wound someone else, we give reasons why being cruel was the reasonable thing to do. Our unwillingness to forgive and be forgiven hardens us, it cuts us off from one another. And now, especially now, when everyone is shouting at each other about our country’s future and tearing one another apart, forgiveness seems impossible.
But forgiveness is not impossible. Well, maybe it’s impossible if we’re really on our own; but Jesus says in the Gospels that with God, all things are possible. When I was a pastor in North Carolina, I learned about a church tradition called Homecoming Sunday. Homecoming in the South is when a congregation makes a special point to open its doors wide and invite people back to church whom they haven’t seen in a while. It’s a time when former pastors are invited back to worship. Church members invite neighbors as a way of letting them see what the community’s all about. But especially, Homecoming is a time when former members who maybe have stopped coming and feel a little embarrassed or bashful have a graceful opportunity to come back to the community. Plus, there’s fried chicken, so some people just show up for that…
I didn’t understand what Homecoming was until I was a pastor in the South, it’s kind of a regional thing, but it was a major theme on the hit TV show on Netflix called Queer Eye. The episode “God Bless Gay” in the new season of Queer Eye is set in a tiny town called Gay, Georgia, and it focuses on an African American congregation just before the church’s homecoming service. One of the mothers of the church, Tammye, is planning Homecoming Sunday, and she desperately hopes that her adult son Myles will come to church. Myles had grown distant over the years since he came out as gay, and faced rejection from his family and church afterward.
Because Queer Eye is a reality makeover show, there’s lots of big reveals of new outfits, a remodeled community center, moments of being seen and heard between people who haven’t spoken in years. There’s one moment in the episode that I find particularly beautiful, when Tammye tells the group at her kitchen table about a moment she and Myles had a few years ago. She sat Myles down and said, “Baby, Mama needs to apologize because Mama hasn’t loved you unconditionally.” The remembering of that moment between mother and son is a catalyst for Myles to think about coming back to church. On Homecoming Sunday, Miles finds that not only has he changed, his home church community has become a congregation that can welcome and love him as he is. The acts of asking for forgiveness, receiving forgiveness, and then working at loving each other transforms the whole body of believers in this small town.
“Risen Christ, your miracle in us is your constant forgiveness.” Ephesians reminds us that forgiveness is the way that God opens the door to a new Creation. When we make room for forgiving and asking for forgiveness, we discover that God has already been at work doing something new. God surprises us in the face of the other when we give and receive this love; love that is possible where there was only animosity, separation, even hatred beforehand.
What would happen if we saw forgiveness as the difficult and life-giving road to work through the crises that we’re experiencing together as a Church, as a nation? I believe that we are living through a time when we must continue to grow into the miracle of Christ’s constant forgiveness.
Because I look at the pictures in the newspaper of small children in detention centers: behind chain-link barriers, sleeping in flimsy foil blankets, crying out for their moms and dads, and I can’t help but think that what we’re doing to these children is beyond forgiveness. And if we are beyond forgiveness, I fear we may be beyond redemption as well.
So I search. I search for a word of comfort for myself late at night, while I’m lying in my bed at home, and those children are crammed together on a concrete floor beside armed guards. The words that come to my mind are not Brother Roger’s prayer, but the warning of the modern prophet Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. When a grave evil arises in our midst, Heschel says that few are guilty, but all are responsible.
It is at this here, at this time, when the prayer of Brother Roger becomes an invitation for this day. “Risen Christ, your miracle in us is your constant forgiveness.” It is again the call to discipleship, to a costly grace where Jesus asks for everything that we have, everything we are, to follow him. We are his witnesses, that in Christ, God has forgiven our sins, and gathered up all things in him with the promise of redemption.
Redemption! A word that, like forgiveness, must not, cannot stand detached from this world, high on a billboard above us, hanging in the air without ever touching down in our lives. No! It is a word of freedom, in the heavenly realms and for today, this day, in real life of flesh and blood, in the lives of every frightened child in a detention center. In Christ we call for freedom for the captives today, a day for oppressed people to go free, a demand that this day these children be set free and united with their parents.
Forgiveness and redemption go together in Christ, they follow one another, the one cannot be true without the other. Because Christ is here in the faces of these children, Christ cries out with their parents who grieve, desperate for reunion. They are members of his Body, no matter how much we lock them away or try to make them disappear. We must seek forgiveness and live out that responsibility through our time, our money, our protest, our civic duties to demand a world where this does not happen. If you are wondering where and how to get involved, I recommend learning about what Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is doing to help families seeking asylum, or LALDEF (Latin American Legal Defense Fund) and its partnership with Nassau, or RAICES, a nonprofit in Texas that works with unaccompanied immigrant children facing trial. There’s no single way to get involved, but the call remains: we have to find a way to love the neighbor together.
It is in this impossible moment—when it seems that whatever we do cannot be enough—that Christ is here, promising a redemption we cannot imagine, speaking his constant call: “Follow me. Follow me through the valley of shadows and into a new world of justice and peace. Follow me and lose your life for my sake, and you will find it.” The transformation we need through forgiveness and redemption is impossible without Christ; with Christ it will surely come.
“Risen Christ, your miracle in us is your constant forgiveness.”
© 2018 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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