Posted by: dacalu | 11 April 2011

Fear and Forgiveness

My sermon preached at St. Andrew’s, Tucson yesterday (fifth Sunday in Lent)

Readings:

Ezekiel 37:1-14 (the Valley of Dry Bones)

Psalm 130 (Out of the depths, I call to you, O Lord…)

Romans 8:6-11 (if Christ is in you…)

John 11:1-45 (The raising of Lazarus)

Sermon

“For there is forgiveness with you; therefore you shall be feared.”

The psalmist cries out to God and says,

“For there is forgiveness with you; therefore you shall be feared.”

And it begs the question,

“What is to be feared?”

or perhaps

“What’s so fearful about forgiveness?”

It sounds a bit strange in modern English,

and I think this is so for two reasons.

We have tamed forgiveness,

The rather awesome notion

that one might wipe out the consequences of the past,

make new, and whole, and perfect,

what had been lost, or corrupted, or dead –

has been fit into a notion of inconsequence,

that some fault was negligible, or unimportant,

or even forgotten.

We say “forgive and forget,” as though the two always went together.

They do not.

We are Christians after all.

We know that God has forgiven us for deserting, torturing, even killing Christ.

But we never forget.

Forgiveness is far better than forgetfulness,

it is the transformation of an offense into a connection,

the full acceptance in remembrance

of a harm done, embraced, and overcome.

If God had forgotten our sin, Jesus’ life would not have mattered.

God forgave our sin, and Jesus came back to us,

in a new way, that embraced the passion and crucifixion,

in a way it fulfilled them.

I said there were two reasons the phrase sounded strange;

here is the second.

We’ve distanced ourselves from “fear,”

we’ve lost the nuance between the sense of a thing’s greatness

and concern that a thing will do us harm.

The two things are related, certainly, but not the same.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives one definition of fear as:

“a mixed feeling of dread and reverence.”

In the Bible, fear of God has to do with recognizing the immense power

God has in the world.

It has to do with God acting in ways that defy expectation

and the rules we have come to expect.

Fear has to do with a God who does things so profound,

we didn’t think they were possible.

Today’s readings are all about God transcending that greatest of barriers,

the barrier between life and death.

We don’t think of it very often, because it is so easy to kill

and so very difficult to bring back to life –

some would say impossible.

Indeed, the resurrection has been one of the greatest stumbling blocks

in Christianity.

Atheists – and admittedly the occasional bishop – have said that they

can’t believe in the resurrection

because things like that don’t happen.

It doesn’t match up with science, common sense, “the way things are.”

And that, after all, is the point.

God is greater than the rules of the world.

The authors of the Bible are almost painfully clear on this subject.

God does miraculous things.

We should be afraid.  We should be terrified

that such a being exists and takes an interest in our lives.

And yet.

And yet, how often are we reminded that God reaches into the world,

into our hearts to transform a dim past into a brilliant future –

As Eucharistic prayer C says,

“out of error into truth,

out of sin into righteousness,

out of death into life.”

The miracles in Christianity always happen when God

creates out of emptiness.

When the rules of the world tell us

“You will fail.”

“You will die.”

“People will always be selfish and mean.”

“Institutions will only perpetuate themselves –

governments, societies, even churches.”

How many times have you heard these rules?

How many times have you thought these things

in your heart of hearts?

How many times have you despaired?

“There is no free lunch.”

The God of power and might is a God who breaks these rules,

and seems infinitely more interested in doing so,

than in acts of grand-standing.

God doesn’t fly,

or stop bullets,

or immobilize armies.

God heals the sick,

casts out demons,

speaks truth,

builds communities,

fosters love,

mends broken hearts,

and yes,

brings the dead back to life.

Common sense tells us these things are impossible.

Common sense is right

AND

God does impossible things.

We, through God, do impossible things.

*

Everything you do has consequences.

Some things you do have bad consequences.

Call it debt or trespass, falling short, or just plain sin.

It has to do with things we have done or left undone

that were not right

and we know that the world is a worse place for it –

a world of limited resources where falling short

can mean that someone loses their job,

or falls ill,

or even dies.

Forgiveness comes not in eliminating consequences,

but in transforming them.

God makes more where there was less.

You are dry bones.

And I am dry bones.

And the church is dry bones.

I say this not out of judgment or dread.

I say it because it is Lent, and we know that we are made from dust and ashes,

and we know that we have not been all that we could be

or done all that we wanted to do.

Lent is a time for prophets, so I will say this to you:

“Prophesy to these bones, and say to them:

O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.

Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones:

I will cause breath to enter you,

and you shall live.

I will lay sinews on you,

and will cause flesh to come upon you,

and cover you with skin,

and put breath in you, and you shall live.”

AND

“If the Spirit of him

who raised Jesus from the dead

dwells in you,

he who raised Christ from the dead

will give life to your mortal bodies also

through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

AND

Stand in awe,

for the God who does these things in you, and to you, and through you.

This God “reaps where he did not sow.”

This God is unpredictable – and joyous.

God asks very little of dry bones.

They only have to sit there.

God asks ever so much more of the living.

We must live and breathe and work and suffer one another’s falling short.

And suffer our own falling short.

We must continue

healing the sick,

casting out demons,

speaking truth,

building communities,

fostering love,

mending broken hearts,

and yes,

bringing the dead back to life.

though it seems impossible.

And when we stumble and fall, as we will –

when we come to the last of our reserves,

the end of our patience, and energy, and trust –

when we die and turn to bones.

God may

and will

breathe life into us

again.

God forgives us,

and that is a fear-ful, awe-ful, wonder-ful thing.

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