Will is a Micah Fellow serving at St. Mary's Dorchester. The following is from a sermon he preached on March 22, 2015.
As we prepare for the great renewal of Easter – the hosannas of Palm Sunday, the anticipation of Holy Week, the closeness of Maundy Thursday, the soulful bareness of Good Friday, the waiting of Holy Saturday, and the joyous celebration of Easter – the theme of this Sunday's Lenten worship is Reconciliation. Reconciliation is a healing of relationship, a bridging of gaps, bringing accounts into order. And reconciliation is deeply meaningful to me, to the ministry I feel called to in myself and in the world – a work of listening, of love, of risk and faith, and of healing.
When I was in college, I took advantage of the free psychological services the campus health center offered and saw a therapist for a year. This is something I would recommend to anyone - the entire experience was healing and taught me much about myself. One thing that my therapist taught me has really stuck. He told me that the difference between shame and embarrassment is that shame is about something that is hidden, while embarrassment is about something, perhaps even the same thing, in the open. That keeping something hidden, making it shameful, distorts it and gives it a deeper power over us. Embarrassment isn't a fun feeling, but it comes, and then it goes. Shame sticks – until what is hidden is brought to light. Hiding something from ourselves, from others, distorts it, gives it power to shape our lives and our relationships. And sin is like that.
Last week at Bible Study, we talked a bit about Sin and Redemption. Our Catechism, the Outline of Faith contained in the Book of Common Prayer, defines sin as seeking our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, other people, and all creation.
Look at the first sin, in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve ate the fruit, realized that they had disobeyed God, and fearing his wrath they hid from him. They first ate the fruit, their own will, and then didn't want God to find them - again, their own will. The sin of seeking their own will distorted their relationship with God - they hid from him, fearful of what their sin would bring, fearful of what their misdeeds would bring. Fearful of a loving God – of a God whom they had only ever known as kind and loving. Sin distorted their relationship with God, just as it distorts our own.
This is a different understanding of sin from other definitions we may be accustomed to: Sin as list of bad things to make sure we don't do. Sin as Us, the people of God, vs. Them, the Sinners. Sin as obeying the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law. These are pernicious notions, distortions in and of themselves, and they are ones that Jesus debunks with the Pharisees and temple authorities throughout the Gospels - and yet they have somehow lasted.
But as the people of Christ we are not called to a covenant of rules, of demerits for doing wrong and gold stars for doing right. We are rather called to a different sort of covenant, written, as the prophet Jeremiah writes, on our hearts.
This is all about an open and loving relationship with God; an open and loving relationship with other people; and an open and loving relationship with creation.
This is scriptural - it goes back to Jesus's commandments: how he reframed the old Law as loving our God with our whole heart, whole soul, whole mind, and loving our neighbor as ourself, and then added his new commandment, to love each other as Jesus loves us. This is radical. This is unconditional love, undying love, love that meets resistance with love, love that goes the extra mile, love that is given more than received. And this is a reconciliation. This is healing. This is the path towards God's Kingdom. It must be. Because our relationship with God, with other people, with creation, is broken.
Wars rage across the world - wars where people are tortured, raped, kidnapped, in staggering brutality. Wars where bombs are dropped on cities, on civilians, at the push of a button. Wars that don't end - that emerge and disappear in bursts of killing.
Religion, even and especially our religion, is used to hurt, to wound, to cast off. Rather than show the unfailing love of Jesus towards all and especially the lowest among us, we turn use it to crucify those we ought to love. The Episcopal Church failed to be an effective witness against slavery, and the staggering number of LGBT youth suicides whose very families used God as a weapon against their children is heartbreaking.
We celebrate and create economic and government systems that enshrine racial and economic inequality, that cause hunger, that create inequalities of wealth and health that mock the vast technological and medical advances we have made towards improving the quality of human life.
We live on a planet where, due to our inexhaustible greed, half of all wildlife has disappeared in the last 40 years, and a dozen species go extinct each day, where our industrial activities heat our planet, upset our climate, and threaten to bring even more misery on those who are least able to take one more monsoon, one more hurricane, one more disaster.
To be healed, to be redeemed from sin of this magnitude, is an extraordinary redemption.
Jesus recognized the urgency of this sin pressing down on world. In chapter five of Matthew's gospel Jesus urges us to be reconciled with each other before we offer worship to God. If sin is distorting your relationship with your fellow humans, preventing you from loving each other as Jesus loves us, then our relationship with God is likewise distorted. How then can we offer our sacrifice, offer our worship, offer our selves in service to God?
This is where we need reconciliation. Because if sin is a distortion, a usurpation by us of what belongs rightly to God, then the answer to our sin is to return what is God's – to take the seeds of faith from where they are hidden away, and give them up to the ground, to bear what fruit they will – a risk of love. Our sins cannot remain hidden, a shame tucked in our hearts, unacknowledged and unaddressed.
If we can be honest, if we can be clear, if we can cast out the distortion and lay our souls bare before God, offering what is the Lord's back to the Lord, planting our hopes in the soil of faith, then we are forgiven. We are assured pardon. Under the new Covenant of Jesus, the one who loves us so much he let us torture him to death, and came back to us loving us, we are forgiven: God will forgive our iniquity, and remember our sin no more.
What wondrous love is this! Everything in our world tells us we are broken, we are poor, we are unworthy. And everything we do tells us that - not good enough. But Jesus heals us. Jesus comes to us, Jesus loves us. And Jesus expects us to share that love, to be that love, to embody that love as we embody Jesus.
Whenever we stand before God and confess our sins - the things that keep us from God's will of Love - whenever we admit our faults of thought, word, and deed, whether out loud, in writing, in the quietness of our heart in prayer - whenever we admit these things, and ask for pardon and the strength to do better, we receive that love. We receive freely and we ought to receive joyfully. Whenever we pray the Our Father, asking to have our trespasses forgiven, we are given the daily bread of forgiveness, that nourishes us to forgive our trespassers, to love them, and to build the Body of Christ with them.
This is risky. It is counter-cultural, to share our hidden brokenness, and to accept the free healing of love. But in today's Gospel, Jesus calls us to take that very risk, to value the Love that God is calling us to over the fear the World expects from us, because by losing that life of fear we gain the life of Love, and bear the fruit of that love in the world, being the Body of Christ - Christ's hands, Christ's feet, Christ's healing powers - in the world. Bringing forth the fruit of love, of community, of healing and wholeness from the seemingly barren seeds of our selves.
And what is that ministry we are called to, as baptized members of Christs, priests according to his royal order? Our catechism in the Book of Common Prayer that gave us the definition of sin goes on to define the ministry of us, the laity: we are to represent Christ and his Church, to bear witness to him wherever we may be, and, according to the gifts given to us, to carry on Christ's work of reconciliation in the world; and to take our place in the life, work, and governance of the Church.
We are called to be the agents of reconciliation in the world. This means risk. This means being honest with ourselves and with God. And this means, when we are given the chance to be healed and be whole, to accept it, and share it with the Beloved Community we are building in the world.