Enjoy Your Forgiveness
- a sermon on prisons and empty promises
(So much of the meaning in sermons comes in the way they are proclaimed…if you have 13 minutes, click above and watch - the sermon begins at 6:09)
Grace Peace and Mercy are yours from the Triune God, Amen.
Happy Baptism of Our Lord Sunday.
Not sure how your morning went, but I woke up at 3:30 and re-wrote this entire sermon.
When my sermons have no inherent structure to them, I arbitrarily impose one with numbered points. So I just want to wish us all luck.
1. I may not be remembering this exactly right, but it feels to me like in the conservative church I was raised in, most of the sermons I heard growing up were about how God set life up to be like a moral reward and punishment system. Like we are all rats in some kind of cruel cosmic lab experiment – receiving shocks from God for going the wrong way and little reward pellets for going the right way in an existential maze. And if the preacher wanted to outline some take-aways about how to receive God’s rewards and avoid God’s punishments while in God’s existential maze, I’m pretty sure he used numbered points to do this.
2. Last month I saw a production of the musical Godspell – which was one of the most full-throatedly joyful things I have ever witnessed. For those who are familiar – it’s a Steven Swartz musical based in the gospel of Matthew and the first number is John the Baptist and the entire ensemble singing prepare ye the way of the Lord at the river Jordon and in this production the baptismal “water” on stage was glitter and it was everywhere and I was there for it. I did check the cathedral’s font – they are going with traditional water today for the baptisms. In this production I saw the entire cast were men. And in this production I saw the audience had to navigate through a maze of metal detectors and locked doors and razor wire before finding our seats. Because in this production I saw the entire cast and crew and band were the children of God incarcerated inside a maximum security prison in Canyon City Colorado. If you don’t know about the work of Denver University’s Prison Arts Initiative I encourage you to familiarize yourself. It is powerful stuff.
(Click below to read the liturgy I wrote and led for the men involved in the play)
3. Recently in a Q and A someone asked me what I thought Jesus would think of the church were he to return today – assuming I’d answer with something like he’d say what’s up with those fancy vestments and organ music? – but instead I answered “I think he’d be curious why his church doesn't talk about forgiveness of sins nearly as much as he did”
4. The more I thought about it this week, the more I realized that while I still don’t think God sets up an existential reward and punishment maze for us – I am pretty sure the devil does. Because sometimes I feel trapped in an invisible maze of the if-then propositions.
Like he’s whispering through the air vents psst … If you have done something bad then you are something bad.
If you really belong to God, then why is your life so hard?
If you just buy this map, or say this prayer, or “Manifest” this desire, then you can get yourself free.
But it never works. And I say this maze of if-then propositions and empty promises is of the devil not to be overly dramatic but because in our Gospel reading, Jesus comes up out of the waters of his own baptism and the heavens open and God speaks of belongingness to God and belovedness by God – and in the very next verse Jesus is driven into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil – the waters of baptism are still glistening on his forehead and Satan whispers “if you are who God says you are THEN call down some power and cash and prizes for yourself. . . you deserve it.
In other words, the glitter of baptism was still shimmering on his forehead and Satan was like, can I interest you in a maze?
Which is why I love that moment in the Lutheran baptismal liturgy –when right before the water touches them, those being baptized are asked “do you renounce the devil and all his empty promises” I mean, I may or may not believe in a literal devil but I sure renounce his empty promises at any opportunity, except that is, when I am searching for them in a maze like they are something I deserve.
5. It was only after his time in the wilderness telling Satan to talk to the hand that Jesus began to proclaim the Gospel – that Jesus began to proclaim a reality that is more real than the maze we trap ourselves in –that Jesus began to proclaim a reality of our belongingness and our belovedness – that Jesus began to speak of reality he called The Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God is like a landowner who was just as outrageously generous to those who worked all day as he was to those who, like me, took so many smoke breaks they worked only what amounted to a couple hours. The kingdom of God is like a father who had every right to reject his greedy manipulative no-good son but instead ran out into the road to embrace him as if his no-goodness was no-matter. In the kingdom of God the last shall be first and the enemies shall be loved and I am forgiven and none of the rules and policies and guidelines of the maze apply. And I am pretty sure Jesus paired talk of God’s kingdom with talk of forgiveness of sins for a reason.
6. Sometimes at the center of my own maze I get stuck in tide pools of resentment toward myself and others - stuck swirling in an eddy of my own remorse. Caught in the shame of both what I have done, and what has been done to me. Trapped in thinking that I will never be more than who I was in my worst moment. And those who have harmed me will always be who they were in their worst moment.
But Jesus of Nazareth comes along and says to us and to all who are trapped, you do not belong to the maze –because you cannot belong to what is only an illusion. You belong to God and are beloved by God and in his kingdom there is forgiveness of sin which means the maze may try and tell you that your failings are inescapable, but that is a lie because no offense, but if Jesus can defeat sin, death and the devil, I’m pretty sure forgiving your sin isn’t going to be that hard for him.
The point is, you are more than what you have done. Good or bad. The people I have grown to love inside of our Colorado prisons have proven this to me.
They stayed close to the original Godspell script, by the way - but one moment I loved in the prison production was when they changed the line “pray for those who persecute you” to “pray for those who prosecute you.”
And the kingdom of God is like such as this.
And just to get it out there, if the metaphorical maze of which I am referring had a metaphorical basilica it would be our literal prisons. Where thousands of people for years upon end are seen as only what they did in their worst moment. Not for nothing, but Martin Luther once said that it is not God but the devil who rummages through our garbage looking for already forgiven sins to rub our noses in to say “this is who you really are”.
But in Christ who they really are is forgiven and who you really are is forgiven. And I’m so sorry to be the one to say it, but so is everyone you resent. Which at first sounds awful. But to know that in the kingdom of God there is pardon for you and for me and for everyone who has ever hurt us is true freedom…because we can just stop thinking an eye for an eye is going to help us, we are free to stop re-litigating decades old crimes of our siblings and our parents, we are free to stop beating ourselves and everyone else up for stuff in the past.
What I am trying to say is that a reward and punishment system may be effective for behavior management, but Christianity isn’t supposed to be about controlling the masses, Christianity is supposed to be about raising the dead. I’ve started to think that maybe forgiveness of sins is the alchemical process by which we are raised. Because to follow the crucified and resurrected one is to live as a people who get to be wrong – we get to be wrong and muck things up and die to our old ideas and be re-born as often as we need it. So I can only hope you are wrong as often as I am …so that you might know deeply this grace of God which makes all things new.
So friends, I invite you to enjoy your forgiveness –it will not be taken away as a punishment and it will not be granted as a reward, it is your inheritance as a freed child of God’s kingdom.
And in closing, I want to offer you the same absolution I give in the women’s prison:
God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, loves you as you are. As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ and by his authority, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sin in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
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To learn more about New Beginnings, the congregation I serve inside the walls of the women’s prison, click here: New Beginnings Worshipping Community