God and the Ungodly

Water comes to the thirsty...

SJF • Lent 3a 2014 • Tobias S Haller BSG
If while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.

We come now to the Third Sunday in Lent, almost the halfway point on our journey to Easter. I want to continue today in reflecting with you on Saint Paul’s message of hope and salvation, what he called “his gospel,” as he laid it out in his Letter to the Romans. How shocking this gospel must have been to the observant Jews and philosophical Gentiles to whom Paul was speaking, especially when he spoke about Christ dying for “the ungodly,” dying for “sinners.” He writes in the passage we heard last week that “God justifies the ungodly” and repeats this idea in the passage we heard today, and tries further to explain it. And I will attempt the same, as it is crucial to our understanding of how God works in the world, and in us, to accomplish his great purpose: not to condemn the world, but that all the world might be saved.

Saint Paul uses two terms that bear further study: justification and reconciliation. Both are acts of God done for us and to us, not for any merit of our own, but because God chooses to do so, because, as John says, God so loves us.

The problem is that we tend to think about justification as if it means “to be found just.” We picture God judging and weighing us and our works, and finding us worthy. But that is not what justification means. It does not mean “to be found or judged just”; rather it means “to be made just” — and only that which is unjust needs to be made just.

Fortunately for us, the word justification has another meaning that can help us understand, and you’ve got an example of it today right in front of you, in the Sunday bulletin! Most of you who have used a word-processor on a computer know that justification means arranging the spacing of the text so that the words all line up along one or both margins. Look at the way our long Gospel reading is printed in the bulletin — and, Paul, I hope your biceps are doing well, for holding up the book for that long! — look at how the Gospel is printed: you’ll notice that the text runs even down the left side of the page, but along the right it’s uneven, it’s ragged. That is called “left justification” and is easily accomplished: in fact, back in the days of typewriters that’s how all typewritten text looked — for those among us who remember typewriters!

But look at the first or the second reading. Notice how the words line up down both sides of the text. In the days of manual typesetting that was very tedious work indeed, and thank goodness the computer can do it now with the touch of a button! The point is that text is not “naturally” justified. It takes work. Naturally speaking, each letter and word take up so much space, so if you make no adjustments — as in our Gospel text — if you start at the same place at the left, the words will go across the page, following their own course, and end up uneven on the right, since the total number of letters and of words is different line by line. But in the fully justified text — and that is what it is called — in the fully justified text extra space is added between the words and sometimes between the letters (and hopefully unperceptibly) to stretch the lines out so that they line up flush — justified — both on the left and on the right. Left to their own devices, they would be as ragged as the other text, but through the intervention of the computer program — the lines are made to stand evenly down the page: they have been justified. And it took work; it took the work of someone — in this case the computer — outside the words themselves to do justify them. Left to their own, they would be ragged still.

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I think perhaps you see where I’m heading with this! But I’d first like to also take up the other word that Saint Paul uses for this process: reconciliation, for it too has a contemporary meaning that can perhaps help us understand what Paul is getting at. I’m sure that many of us here have had the experience of trying to balance your checkbook when the statement from the bank comes in. Sometimes the figures just won’t come out right, and you have to work and work to find where you have made a mistake, either entered the wrong amount in the wrong place or added or subtracted incorrectly, and compare it with the statement that you got from the bank. And this process of examining and comparing the bank’s statement and your record, and correcting any errors, is called reconciliation. If you never got the bank statement, the errors would pile up and accumulate month after month, and you would end up terribly out of balance. It is impossible to “reconcile” your bank account on your own, just from your own perspective: you need that statement from the bank to compare with your record, and it is only through the arrival of that statement that reconciliation is possible.

God’s reconciliation works the same way: God comes to us — God sent us his “statement” — and deals with us in the messed up checkbooks of our lives, where we’ve entered the wrong numbers and done the math wrong — and reconciles us, bringing us into sync with what God and God alone knows is righteous and true.

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Both of these words, justification and reconciliation, show us that it is the unjustified who need justification and the unreconciled who need reconciliation — and that is who we all are; for as I reminded us last week, we are the ones who are not righteous: there is none who is righteous, under his or her own power; no not one — we are all, as the old song goes,“standing in the need of prayer.”

And of more — in need of a savior. It is the ungodly who have the greatest need of God; it is the sinners who require reconciliation. And the great good news of Paul’s Gospel is that God comes to us in our need. As Saint Paul says, “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly... While we were still sinners Christ died for us... and we have been justified by his blood... while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son.”

God’s ultimate “statement” — and you can bank on it! — God’s “Word Incarnate” — is nothing other than Jesus Christ himself, who comes to us in our raggedness and imbalance and pulls us back into alignment and righteousness: he makes the ungodly righteous, by his own saving act, his death on the cross and his coming to life again.

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Some people don’t grasp this powerful message. They want to think we do it on our own. They don’t understand the truth that Christ Jesus came to save sinners: which is to say, all of us who stand in need of justification, who need the nudging of the Spirit to align our ragged edges, who need his overarching perspective to see our faults and reconcile us to his perfect will.

We have a wonderful vision of this in the Gospel reading today, that story of Jesus spending time with someone who on three counts should have been beyond the pale. She is a Samaritan, and Jews have nothing to do with the hated Samaritans. She is a woman, and in those days a Jewish man wouldn’t think of speaking with a strange woman in public — you note how the disciples are astonished that Jesus has done so. And finally this woman is, to use a phrase from way back, “no better than she should be.” Among other things, she’s had as many husbands as a Hollywood celebrity, and she’s working on the next one!

And yet Jesus is there with her — we’ve even got a picture of her in our stained glass window here — he is there with her, holding the longest sustained conversation with any individual in the entire gospel. Think of that! This is the longest recorded conversation with an individual person Jesus has in the entire Gospel: a Samaritan, a woman, and no better than she should be! In spite of her nationality and her religion, in spite of her sex and her role in society, in spite of her personal morality...

— But wait a minute! What am I saying? Have I too so easily forgotten Paul’s Gospel? It is not in spite of these things that Jesus spends all of this time with her, but because of these things! Jesus comes to sinners; he comes to those who need him. He comes to bring living water not to those who are so full of themselves they think they have no need, but to those who know they thirst. He comes to bring word of his Holy Spirit to those who are starved for that breath of fresh air, the wind that blows from where and to where we know not, but which bears the unmistakable scent of new life.

Jesus comes to justify and reconcile the unjustified and the unreconciled, to bring water to the desert, and the wind of the Spirit that carries the scent of green things sprouting even out in the parched land of sin. For it is there that the grace of God is needed, and it is there that the grace of God is shown. As Saint Paul so beautifully said, “If while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”

God has come to us, the unrighteous, to make us righteous; he has come to us, even in the prison of our sin, to bring us into the freedom of his kingdom. In him, and in him alone, are we justified and reconciled — and saved.

May we always give thanks to God our heavenly Father, for that gift of his Son: who lived for us and died for us, and risen from the dead now lives and reigns forever.+

Purposeful Spirit

St James Church • Pentecost A• Tobias Haller BSG
I will give them a new heart, and put a new spirit within them.

Given the options for the readings appointed today, I have chosen to omit the account of the descent of the Spirit from Acts. This passage describes the day on which the Spirit blew through the windows of the house where the apostles were huddled together, appearing as a flame on each, and giving them the gift of miraculous speech. I omit this reading today in part because the story is so familiar, but more importantly so that we can focus on the readings from Ezekiel, Corinthians, and the Gospel. For today I want us to reflect together not about the story of the Spirit’s descent, but its purpose; to focus not on the what, but the why.

Why did God’s Holy Spirit descend in tongues as of fire? Why, after all, does anyone light a fire? Well, might one do so for warmth, for light, as a signal, to clear a field of a rank overgrowth, or destroy a pile of refuse? Or to create a fire-break in a forest or field, to prevent a wild-fire from spreading? In short, what is the use of fire? If we can answer that question, we will gain a better understanding of God’s purpose in sending the Holy Spirit down to earth — a Spirit sent not as a showy display like a fireworks celebration, but sent with a purpose to do God’s work, not to entertain, but to empower.

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In his First Letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul catalogues the uses of the purposeful Spirit. And these uses reflect the fire of the Spirit at its most fruitful and productive. These are the gifts of the Spirit that nourish and build up the church itself, making it grow strong. This is like the fire that bakes the bread and cooks the food that nourishes us; the fire that warms our spiritual home, the church in which we gather; the flame that gives light, that drives away the darkness and gives us the knowledge of God’s presence, and serves as a light to our feet so we may follow in God’s way — — as it has from the days the children of Israel followed that pillar of fire in the nights of their Exodus. The Holy Spirit is called the “Comforter” and here we find the gifts that give comfort — which doesn’t mean “make cozy” but “make strong” — to fortify. The Spirit provides gifts that feed, that protect, that enlighten and encourage. And, as Saint Paul assures us, though there are varieties of gifts, the source is the same, the one Holy and purposeful Spirit of God.

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But what about the other side of fire? For in addition to its comforting ability to provide us food, warm shelter and light, fire can also be used to burn. Fire has two sides: it can build up but it can also tear down. This other side of fire — the destructive side — is reflected in the spiritual mandate described in our other readings. It is the power to find out evil and to expose it to the light and heat of God’s forgiving and yet all-consuming love. This fire burns up and removes all that is detestable, the prophet Ezekiel assures us. This fire is so powerful it can change our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, like the refiner’s fire that takes hard, lumpy and unpromising ore and melts out the precious, ductile gold. This is a fire turning us towards obedience and away from reckless wandering, calling us together like a great flaming lighthouse beacon, assembling us from all the places to which we have been scattered, turning our backs upon our foresworn foolish ways, so that we face the light — and the shadows of darkness lie behind us, and we gather together around the cleansing flame, to unite our transformed and refined hearts with a spirit to obey and love the Lord our God.

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This power is reflected in the gift Jesus gives to his disciples, as he breathes on them and opens their hearts to receive the soon-coming Spirit. In doing this he gives them the power to forgive sins.

The fact is, sin makes good kindling. It burns easily. And the important thing about the burning of sin is where you stand in relation to the fire! If you are caught up in your sins, if you try to hold on to them, you’ll be burned up with them; and we all know the name of the place where that fire burns, the place where soul and body are destroyed. If you’ve ever wondered why hell is so hot, it’s because all the dry wood of sin burning there so easily.

But Jesus offers us the better way, the way out of the destructive fire, so that the sins can be burnt up apart from us, burnt up like the discarded rubbish and trash they are, as we stand free and clear, able to see our past debts cancelled and forgiven, and reduced to ash, never again to harm us.

You know, there used to be a custom — it may still be done this way — that when churches took out loans so as to construct their buildings, when the loan was finally paid off they would have a mortgage-burning ceremony. The fire would consume the paid-off debt as if it never was. The fire of the Spirit can do the same with sin — Christ gave his church the power to do this, to cancel the sins of its members, and make them as if they never were, burnt up like a bill that has been paid off, or better yet, cancelled! We do often speak of a cancelled debt as having been “forgiven.” And surely Jesus calls us to remember this when we pray the prayer he taught us, as we ask God to forgive our debts even as we forgive the debts others owe to us. To forgive a debt doesn’t mean that it’s been paid off, after all — it means it has been set aside, the slate on which the debt was tallied wiped clean, the bills dropped into the fireplace, as the one to whom the debt was owed says, ‘Forget about it.’ That’s what forgiveness means.

This is good and great news, that there is a way to defeat sin, and Christ has committed it to his church. It is the flame of forgiveness that burns sin away, cleansing and purifying and giving life. The original Pentecost — not the one in Acts, but the one God commanded Moses to celebrate — came to be commemorated as the day on which God gave the law from Mount Sinai. But the Pentecost that we celebrate is not about the giving of the law but the giving of the Spirit: for the letter of the law kills, but the Spirit gives life. Some think the way to fight sin is to keep battering people with how bad they are, reminding them how sinful they are, beating them over the head with the law, like a creditor who keeps sending you past due notices. That is the way of the law.

But the way that Jesus shows us is the way of forgiveness, the way of setting sin aside. He takes all those bills and past due notices and drops them in the incinerator of forgiveness, the flame that burns urged on by the breath of our Lord, as he gently blows on that flame to burn up the debts of past sins. That is the way of the Spirit. And it is the way God means us to follow.

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These then are the powerful uses of the fiery Spirit, God’s great gift to the church. It is the beacon that calls us together, reassembling us from wherever we have wandered. It is the giver of the comforting gifts of nourishment, enlightenment, and protection, the gifts that build up the church. It is the fire that gives light to discern the way, to reveal our faults, and then consume them — to liberate us from their power, as we lay our sins upon the fire of God’s love and they are consumed and removed and forgiven forever —
— even as we set aside the sins of others against ourselves, allowing the flame of forgiveness to consume all we might otherwise hold against each other.

May we always respond to the beacon that summons us, rejoice in the light that renews us, be comforted with the warmth of the flame that enfolds us, and be freed from bondage of sin by the promised gift of the purposeful Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

The King and His Cross

Saint James Fordham • Proper 29c • Tobias Haller BSG
The soldier mocked him... saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.”

What does a king look like? We all carry pictures in our heads evoked by words, images that pop up when we hear a word like king. Many people, I’m sure, probably picture a figure like Henry VIII. Though if you’ve seen any of the TV dramas about Henry recently, you might have a very different image in mind. In an effort to promote a younger viewership, they’ve got actors playing Henry who look more like Brad Pitt than Charles Laughton — Henry as a hunk instead of a slab! But perhaps you are familiar with the famous portrait of Henry as a stately monarch standing defiantly arms akimbo vested in splendid and colorful robes.

On the other hand, kings are often more comical figures, subject to ridicule and caricature especially in our democracy. So perhaps instead you might picture one of those comical cartoon kings, the little chubby guys with goatees and tiny crowns perched on their heads, your average Dr. Seuss kind of king. Whatever image first leaps to mind when you hear the word king, I think I can guarantee that it will almost never be the image of a condemned criminal about to be executed.

We expect kings to be seated on thrones, not electric chairs. We expect kings to exercise their power in the freedom of their monarchy, not to be fastened down in the incapacity of bondage and death.

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Yet this is the central paradox of Christianity, the embarrassing scandal that made it and makes it so hard for some people to understand: that our king — and more than a king, the Son of God incarnate, Jesus Christ — that our king died on a cross, executed for insurrection against the Emperor, nailed up and hung out to die in naked agony on a rocky little hill outside the walls of a provincial city in an outpost of the Empire.

This was and is hard to understand. For some it was and is impossible. It was, as Saint Paul told the Corinthians, a scandal to Jews and a folly to Greeks — in short, to the whole world a notion that was absurd and tragic — the very idea that the one through whom all things were created should be so powerless! And that is because in most minds — then as now — kingship was and is associated with showing your power, especially power over others. To be a king is not just to be powerful, but to display that power through control, to have in your hand the power of life and death over others and to use it, to be able to shout out, “Off with his head,” or “I dub thee, Sir Wilfrid.”

At the very least, to be a king means to have complete power of self-determination: no one can judge or forbid the king anything. The King is the boss! As I said before, many people picture someone like Henry the VIII when they hear the word “king” — and Henry certainly was powerful and willful. He enjoyed exercising his power and his will, and nobody, pope, queen, chancellor or archbishop, better get in his way! Henry once wrote a little song about himself, and so we have his own testimony on this matter: “Grudge who will, but none deny; so God be pleased, thus live will I!” Or, to put it in more contemporary language, “Nobody crosses the king.”

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That is why it is so very hard for so many to see the kingship of Christ. Here is a king who is crossed. It is the cross that confounds our notions of kingship. Here on the cross is a man seemingly completely bereft of self-determination, literally nailed down so that he cannot move, stifled and in pain so he can hardly breathe. For those who see control and self-determination as the sign of kingship, it is the powerlessness and immobility of the crucified Christ that render him incomprehensible.

Many don’t understand him now, as they didn’t understand him then. And this is why the voices rang out through our Gospel today, echoing three times. “Save yourself!” cried the religious leaders, the soldiers, and even the criminal at Jesus’ side, three points of view representing the whole world, civilized and uncivilized.


The religious leaders, even while they acknowledged Jesus’ power to heal and save others, called upon him to prove himself Messiah by saving himself. They echoed the doubting words from the very start of his ministry, when the leaders of his hometown challenged him to do for them the same sort of miracles he’d done elsewhere. How ironic that religious leaders should show such a lack of faith!

Those who say, “Prove it and then we will believe!” fail to grasp that the kingdom of God is built upon faith, not evidence. The kingdom of God is based on love, not proof; freedom, not compulsion. The kingdom of God is not about force, but invitation — it is not make believe: no one is made to believe. But all are given the gracious opportunity to come to the banquet; to taste and see, and seeing, then believe. And so those who looked for proofs could not recognize the king when he came to them full of faith in his Father, full of love for them, came not to lord it over them but to set them free. Instead of being lifted up by its astounding and shocking glory, the religious leaders stumbled over the scandal of the cross.


The soldiers mocked Jesus, and said to him, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” These are the worldly wise. They don’t know from religion, but they do know from authority. They know Caesar; they know what kings look like and what kings can do. The soldiers who mocked Jesus as he hung on the cross knew what it meant to have power, to be able to issue orders, and take command. And they knew that this poor, naked, pitiful figure was no more like a king than either of the helpless criminals crucified to his left and his right. And so to these Gentiles the cross was simply foolishness, an absurdity to be laughed at, a sick joke at the expense of a madman who thought he was a king.

And so the civilized world, Jewish and Gentile, rejected the cross and the one who hung upon it, rejected its scandal and its folly.

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And what of the uncivilized world? They have a voice in this drama as well, in the person of the thieves, men who have rejected civilized behavior in return for satisfying their own needs and desires over and against those of society, who have chosen themselves ahead of others, breaking the golden rule of the social fabric.

So it is that finally, one of the criminals, himself condemned to death and hanging on a cross, challenged Jesus to save himself — and him — if he was the Messiah. The irony is that this criminal had it partly right. Jesus was there to save him, to save him and all who had erred and strayed, to save even those who nailed him to the cross, to save the entire world, for that is just how much his Father loved that fallen world, loved it so much that he gave his only Son — not to condemn the world, but that all might be saved. Jesus was there to save them all, but he could only do so by not saving himself.


It was in this act, in his not saving himself that his true kingship was revealed. It was his self-determined self-sacrifice that crowned his divine kingship. The only perfect individual ever born, the Son of God, the firstborn of all creation, for whom and in whom all things were created, made the one possible perfect act of self-determined self-sacrifice — not in showing his power over others, but in revealing his power, his power to choose for others. Only the offering of his perfect self in perfect sacrifice upon the cross could restore the royalty that once belonged to all humankind, made after the likeness of God’s Son, the express image of the invisible God. Only the act of a true king acting in true humility could bring peace to a world gone out of all control, through the misuse of the power to choose, God’s gift to his human children, spent in seeking to control others rather than in loving them.

Humankind had abused the royal power to choose, and robbed itself of its own majesty by choosing selfishly instead of for the sake of others. But one man, one perfect man, showed us there was another way. This, my brothers and sisters, is the royalty of Jesus: that he chose not himself but others, chose completely and utterly to give himself — for all of us. In Christ, and him crucified, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Even if he was unrecognized by those who stood mocking in his presence, taunting him to save himself while he was busy saving them, his kingship is nonetheless real.

It is not the kingship of power, but the kingship of sacrifice, the kingship of the hero who saves someone else at the cost of his own life. Such heroism will be embarrassing or scandalous to those who wouldn’t think of dirtying their hands to help another; such heroism will be foolish to those who see power and control as the only marks of a person’s worth; such heroism will be outrageous to anyone who thinks only of himself at the expense of others.

But such is the heroic kingship of Jesus Christ, the heroism that chooses freely to give up its freedom so that others might be free. This is the kingship of Christ our King, through whom — in this one great act of self-determined self-sacrifice, laying down his life for all of us — God was pleased, as Saint Paul said, to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Do you want to know what a real king looks like? You need look no further to see all might, majesty, power and dominion, than to that cross, that Christ, that King.+

Making Friends and Influencing People

SJF • Proper 20c • Tobias Haller BSG
The steward said, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.”

Today’s gospel contains one of those difficult passages: a parable that doesn’t seem at first to make much sense. Jesus seems to praise a dishonest steward for his dishonesty, and more than that, appears to counsel his disciples to do the same, to “make friends by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” A hard text, it’s true; but if I’ve learned anything from wrestling with the Scripture, it’s that the hard parts provide the richest reward in understanding if you take the time to study them with care. Like Jacob, if we hang onto and wrestle with God’s word — all night if we have to — though we may feel a little out of joint by morning, we will also receive God’s blessing, and a glimpse of God’s wisdom.

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So let’s look at this difficult parable of the rich man and his shifty servant, and the even more difficult conclusion that Jesus draws from it. The main problem with the parable itself isn’t the behavior of the dishonest servant; after all, servants are often dishonest, and this man isn’t the first to have squandered a master’s property, and get the boot because of it. So he sets himself to make friends in the town — because he’s too weak to work by the sweat of his brow and too proud to beg — in order to assure his future. He offers a cut-rate discount to all the people in debt to his master, in the hopes that when he’s out of a job they’ll remember his generosity and take him in.

So far, so bad, we might say! But then comes the surprise: the master, finding out about the dishonest servant’s debt-forgiveness program, far from saying, “You’ve cheated me out of half of what was owed me!” instead praises this man for acting shrewdly!

Now, I have to confess I have wrestled with that part of the text for a long time, but then recently I had an experience that reminded me of how this works in the real world. A few weeks ago I bought a new TV set at a sale price, after a good bit of shopping around. I got it for half price, which to me seemed like a very good deal. I didn’t realize how good until I saw, in another so-called discount store, the same model listed at full price, but then “marked down” by only a third — so still costing more than the same one I bought at another store! And, get this, the “bargain” price at this discount store was for a floor display model, while the one I got for so much less at the other store was new in the box!

And I realize now, of course, in light of this Gospel, that even the price I paid was probably more than the store paid the manufacturer — so that even if they weren’t making a big profit, they were actually making more than the store that kept the same TV set unsold on their shelves because people knew they could get it cheaper elsewhere.

If you look at the gospel’s rich man and his shrewd manager in that light, we can probably guess that the amount the customers owed to him may well have been twice the actual value of the debts — so that even at the discount price of 50 or 20 percent off, the rich man was still probably making a profit — or at least breaking even — and getting the wheat and oil in hand that he could sell elsewhere for even more! Unsold goods on the racks and shelves — and uncollected debts — aren’t money in the bank. So while it looks like our rich man and Circuit City are taking a loss, discount business-people are shrewdly keeping their cash flowing, using the money from what they sell at a discount to buy what they can sell at greater profit. Truly, the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light!

So it is that the shrewd servant in our gospel is not only making friends with those to whom he offers a discount, but earns his master’s praise for bringing in real commodities instead of just accumulating accounts receivable and a pile of unpaid bills.

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Now, of course, Jesus was not interested in offering his disciples an MBA degree from Harvard Business School. This is a parable, remember: a story that stands for something about the life — not of the business world — but of the kingdom of God. And where, in God’s kingdom, do we hear about forgiving others their debts? Where do we hear of the authority and commandment that Jesus committed to his church to offer forgiveness of sins to those who repent and seek to live a new life? Aren’t we assured in the prayer we pray every day, the prayer that he himself taught us, that God will forgive us our sins only when — and to the same extent that — we forgive those who sin against us? Isn’t this the way we are called to “make friends” by means of the shrewd wealth of forgiveness, the forgiveness that seems to give away (for that is what for-give means: because once we’ve forgiven something we can’t hold on to it any longer)? Because we’ve given up control over what was owed to us, we have stored up a wealth of gratitude for this forgiveness of debts, so that we can be welcomed in by those whom we have forgiven.

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None of us, after all, can ever pay God back for all we owe — not only for all we’ve been given, but for all the debt we’ve incurred by the wrong we’ve done. We all need that “discount” of forgiveness that God has committed to his franchise holders here on earth, the leaders and members of the church, to whom God through Christ has committed the mark-down ministry of the forgiveness of sins. This is the only commerce in which the church is called to engage: the shrewd discount sale that spreads the good news of the kingdom, that God in his great generosity is setting aside the cost of sin — which is death — and has nailed it to the cross in Christ Jesus, the one mediator, who gave himself as a ransom for all, that all might be saved. He paid the full price, after all, and the only thing he saved was us.

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The problem is that some church leaders and members don’t always act so generously with the forgiveness committed to them. They hold back on God’s grace; they set conditions and limits on how much forgiveness they will dole out, and are choosey about those to whom they will give it. They will lavish forgiveness on their own sins, thinking them trifles, while holding others to — and judging others by — a standard they themselves are unable to attain.

We see this kind of behavior prefigured in the wicked and deceitful merchants whom the prophet Amos cursed, who use false balances, who make their measuring cups small and put their thumbs on the scales. Far from forgiving debt, far from holding to a square deal, these thieves steal even from the widows and orphans, from the poor and needy.

These are those who not only do not forgive, but who try to hold others to a higher standard than they live by themselves. They reckon their own sins light, but when another of whom they disapprove comes before them, they put their thumb on the scale and shake their heads. “Oh, you couldn’t possibly afford this; you’ll have to make do with a cheaper cut!” So say those who tilt the scales of justice unfairly; and the Lord assures us he will never forget any of their deeds.

The truth is, my friends, Jesus, the friend of sinners, calls us to be friends of sinners too — and that’s good news, for it would be a very lonely world if we could only associate with people who were free from sin. That would be a club with no members, like the one Groucho Marx referred to when he said, “I would never belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member!” Fortunately, we are assured, all of us having sinned and yet been forgiven, that God does welcome us into the fellowship of the church — on the sole condition that we welcome each other as well, forgiving those who trespass against us, as we have been forgiven our trespasses, setting aside the debts of sin, marking-down the cost at a super discount: for Jesus paid the price long ago, on lay-away, once and for all, and it is up to us simply to pass along the savings.

You know the option, my friends; we have no excuse, and we know what will happen if we don’t forgive. This is a fire sale I’m talking about. The world is passing away, and we are called to live each day with the going-out-of-business sale mentality. Do you want to save — and be saved? Well come to God’s great end-of-the-world sale, where he’s slashed the price of sin — put death out of business! — and rejoice in God’s abundant discount, as we forgive each other and so assure that we will be forgiven. So it is we will find at the last that we are welcomed into the eternal homes, where we will forever praise our only mediator and advocate, the friend of sinners and the ransom of the world, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+

The Three R's

SJF • Lent 4c • Tobias Haller BSG

In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ...
About a month ago we ended the Epiphany season and began our Lenten pilgrimage by reflecting on the three virtues: faith, hope and love. This morning, I want to speak about three basic elements of the Christian faith — the three R’s, if you will — repentance, reconciliation, and renewal. These are the actions that put those virtues into practice. Surely they are appropriate subjects for the Lenten season of self-examination, forgiveness, and preparation for the ultimate renewal — Easter. So it is fitting that we all review these “Three R’s” and see what application they have to our lives as Christian disciples.

Repentance has suffered a fate common to often-used words. It has been confused with the similar-sounding words, penitence and penance. So for many today, repentance means feeling sorry over some past action. It is primarily an affair of the heart and mind: a matter of how you feel and what you think — a mental and emotional state.

When we hear the command to “Repent!” we tend to respond by sitting down and, like Fagin in the musical Oliver, “reviewing the situation.” In this process we think about the things we’ve done and left undone. We engage our emotions, and we experience a twinge of regret. Perhaps we say to ourselves we’ll do better in the future, then sigh, get up and go on about our business, feeling pleased with ourselves for being such sensitive, moral persons.

Or perhaps our feelings do go deeper. Perhaps we are conscious of some far weightier matter, some sin that truly troubles and weighs on our hearts — and yet that’s as far as it goes — we feel bad but simply remain in our bad feelings.

The problem with both responses: feeling good about ourselves for feeling humble, or feeling bad about ourselves because we are so awful, is that neither has much to do with the Gospel concept of repentance. In the teaching of Christ, feelings or thoughts, whether in the form of patting ourselves on the back or beating ourselves black-and-blue, do not represent repentance.

Now, I’m not saying we should not use our intellect to review our shortcomings, or that we should not engage our emotions and feel sorry for our failings— but feeling good because we’ve felt sorry is obviously shallow; and feeling so miserable that we are beyond redemption is surely presumptuous! And neither is true repentance.

What then is it to repent? What is Jesus looking for when he calls us to repent? While the repentance described in the Gospel does employ the intellect and engage the emotions, it culminates in another faculty of the human soul altogether: the will. Gospel repentance means not just that you are aware of your guilt, or even sorry for your actions, but that you turn around and act. C.S. Lewis once noted that the best thing to do when you find you’re going the wrong way is to turn around and head back! Or as the old anthem said, “Turn back, O Man, forswear thy foolish ways!” And it is the deliberate act of turning around that is true repentance.

To show us what he means by repentance, Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal Son. At first we appear to be on familiar ground: This young man becomes mindful of what he’s done, stuck in the middle of a pig-sty far from home, he reviews his situation and feels totally miserable.

But — and this is where repentance begins — he doesn’t stop there, with thoughts and feelings, moping to himself and feeling sorry.His sorrow and regret spur and spark him to his true repentance, which consists in getting up and turning around and heading back home.

The young man starts his journey, probably going over his confession in his mind as he goes. And here the story takes a surprising turn. The Father doesn’t wait to hear his son’s confession. He doesn’t wait to find out if the son “feels sorry.” He doesn’t wait on the porch in awful silence for the son to finish the long walk home under his unblinking eye. No, as soon as this loving Father sees his son coming, while yet far off, the Father runs to him and embraces him. For the culmination of repentance is God’s outgoing ingathering. Repentance leads us to reconciliation, our second “R.”

Now just as repentance is more than feeling sorry, so Gospel reconciliation is more than a handshake and a “Let bygones be bygones.” And reconciliation in the Gospel isn’t like reconciliation of a checkbook or an account — where the goal is to have the plusses balance the minuses. No, in Gospel reconciliation, God always tips the balance to the surplus of grace, for God is more ready to give than we are prepared to receive. God would never make it as an accountant! Reconciliation is the act of a gracious and loving God, reaching out to save what has been lost and to set things right, out of the abundance of his grace.

I need to note here, that in Luke’s Gospel, two other parables immediately precede that of the Prodigal Son: The Lost Sheep, and the Lost Coin. In all three, repentance is intimately tied up with God’s gracious perseverance in seeking out that which is lost, going beyond the expected to do the astounding. Whether God is portrayed as Good Shepherd, Careful Housewife, or Loving Father, the power of reconciliation resides with God. The Shepherd could have said of the lost sheep, “Leave him alone and he’ll come home, wagging his tail behind him.” The Housewife could have said of the lost coin, “I’ll probably find it some day down behind the sofa cushions.” And the Father could have stayed on the porch, and when his son finally reached him, said, “Well, I see you’ve finally come to your senses. But since you’ve spent your inheritance, the best I’ll do is take you on as a hired hand. And you’ll have to sleep in the barn; ‘cause we don’t allow the help in the house.”

But that isn’t what happens in any of these parables. In each case the reconciliation is extravagant - it goes well beyond the expected, and tips the balance generously. The Shepherd doesn’t just find the sheep, and doesn’t just lead the sheep home, but carries it home rejoicing! The Housewife doesn’t just find the coin and put it in the sugar bowl and go about her business; she calls the whole neighborhood to celebrate — and probably spends more on the party than the coin was worth. And the Father doesn’t stand in the doorway waiting for his son to apologize; he runs down the road and meets him and embraces him before he can get a word out.

This is the glory of grace, its extravagance, that God comes to us in compassion while we are still on the road home— while we are yet sinners. It is not we who reconcile ourselves with God, it is God who reconciles us, and the whole world, to himself, in Christ Jesus, taking no account of past sins. And this brings us to our third “R”— Renewal.

We’ve turned around, forswearing our foolish ways — that’s repentance. We’ve been met on the road and embraced by our loving God — extravagant in his gracious forgiveneness — that’s reconciliation. But note that the Father in our parable doesn’t seem to pay any attention to his son’s confession; he doesn’t even say, I forgive you. No, he simply takes no account of past sins. I said before, God is no accountant — he always juggles the books in our favor. But we know who’s been keeping account, right? We know whose been keeping careful track of things. The older brother: he’s stewed over this for a long time, he’s made his list and checked it twice, and he rattles off the whole list of offenses to remind his father of how badly his kid brother has acted. But the father isn’t interested in this account of past sins. He’s too busy ordering up the fatted calf, the best robe, the new shoes, the ring. He’s completely caught up in the fact that the lost has been found, the dead restored to life. He is going to strip the dirty coveralls off that boy, hose him down to get rid of the last relics of the pigsty, dress him as a prince and hold a par-tay! — and that’s renewal.

Paul catches the same excitement in the passage we read this morning: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; the old has passed away,
behold the new has come! All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” We too have been reconciled — had our dirty overalls stripped off. We’ve been hosed down and washed clean in the waters of Baptism. And we’ve been dressed up — not as hired hands — but as ambassadors of Christ! We, who once moped in the spiritual pig-sty of sin have been given the ministry of reconciliation. We who once languished in a pigsty in a foreign land, have been commissioned as ambassadors of our true heavenly country!

And, as with repentance, thoughts or feelings are not enough to carry us through in our work as ambassadors. It is not enough to be well-informed about the needs of the world. It is not enough to feel sorry for those who have not yet heard the good news. It is not enough to pity the homeless, the hungry, the poor, and the sick. We are called to action. Just as awareness of and sorrow for our sins is the spur to move us to repentance, so too the pity we feel for the sick, the hungry, or the poor is meant to spur us on to charity.

It is all too easy to feel sorry for someone. We do it when we see a drama on T.V. or at the movies, and those are just fictional characters! Our work as ambassadors of Christ, as ministers of reconciliation, must consist of more than feeling sorry. For just as with repentance, feelings of compassion, unless they are followed by acts of compassion, are worth nothing. If we are to be true to the one whose gracious action, in giving himself to death on the cross, saved us from the power of sin, then we too must act. God has brought us to this fourth “R”— righteousness. In Christ we have the power to become the righteousness of God to people far and near.

This righteousness is ours only as a gift— a gift of grace, which we receive like the prodigal himself, who was restored not because he felt sorry for himself, but because his father loved him so much.

For the Father did love the Son, and loves us too, so much so that he gave his Son to the end that we might not perish, but have everlasting life. By making him to be sin who knew no sin, God canceled the debt of sin, nailing it to the cross, deader than a doornail. God has rolled the stone of our disgrace away, as surely as the stone was rolled from the tomb in which our Lord and Savior lay.

And grace has been with us every step of the way. God’s grace spoke in our hearts, bringing us to repentance. Grace led us on the road of return, and fed us with the manna of reconciliation on the way. Grace renewed us and clothed us in garments of righteousness, and grace will see us through on our mission as ambassadors of Christ. Let us therefore celebrate, and invite everyone, near and far, to the celebration, for that which was dead has come to life, and the lost has been found. +