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God’s “Manifold and Great Mercies”

Sermon for the 21st Sunday of Pentecost, October 24, 2004

The Episcopal Church of the Holy Family, Jasper Georgia

The Rev. Mary P. Johnson, Rector

 

Texts:  Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22; Psalm 84:1-6; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14.

 

The shadow side of the Lutheran Church’s emphasis on the centrality of God’s grace is the teaching that, apart from God’s grace, there is no hope, ever, of pleasing God on one’s own. A Lutheran friend of mine says that the only proof he needs to demonstrate that Episcopalians are less guilt-ridden than Lutherans is the wording of the first of the two versions of the confession of sin that appears in our prayer book in Holy Eucharist Rite I:  “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed.”  However, in spite of the apparent escape valve those four little words, “from time to time” give us Episcopalians, the language and theology of Rite I can feel very heavy and burdensome.  That confession of sin, on p. 331 of your prayer book, goes on to say: “We do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable.”  And, even after we’ve received absolution for our sins just before the Peace, when we come to the eucharistic prayer, we pray:  “…although we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service…” And in our 21st century reading of those words, it can sound as if even the Eucharist itself is not a joy, but a burden to which we are duty bound.  Some people have said of this prayer that it makes them feel so much like a worm that they describe its underlying theology as “vermicular.”

 

But the fact is, sin is no laughing matter.  Some people find the idea of talking about sin distasteful.  Others find it offensive or counter-productive or meaningless, or uncomfortable because it puts them in touch with childhood memories of being forced to apologize or to carry around vast loads of false guilt, while their elders were getting away with greater evils like hypocrisy, cruelty, and arrogance.

 Today’s scripture lessons force us, however, to confront the realities of sin and brokenness and failed relationships.  And once again we see that the principle of allowing a lectionary to guide the reading and meditation of the Churches of our Communion is wise. Through this practice of intentionally reading the whole Bible, not just our favorite parts, the Holy Spirit speaks words to the gathered community that we need to hear.  I would never have picked these lessons to preach on my second Sunday in a new parish, especially after the joyous and uplifting worship we had together last week.  And yet, there they are, for us to struggle with.  And they are altogether fitting, for this past week the Anglican Communion has seen the publication of the Windsor Report. This document  is the culmination of the work of a committee of bishops, priests, and lay people charged with responding to the rifts in our communion that deepened considerably after the Episcopal Church in the United States consecrated Gene Robinson to be Bishop of New Hampshire and authorized the development of liturgies for the blessing of committed same-sex unions; and after some (primarily African) bishops have felt compelled to respond to these developments  by offering their oversight and sacramental services in dioceses other than their own.  Sin and brokenness pervade not only our own personal lives, but also the life of the churches of the Anglican communion. The Windsor Report, in its conclusion, asks the Episcopal Church of the United States:

 to be invited to express its regret that the proper constraints of the bonds of affection were breached in the events surrounding the election and consecration of a bishop for the See of New Hampshire, and for the consequences which followed, and that such an expression of regret would represent the desire of the Episcopal Church (USA) to remain within the Communion.[1]

 

Regardless of where we all stand on the issues of human sexuality that brought about the present unrest in the Anglican Communion, we feel the tension and we see the deep pain of some in our midst as they struggle with the issues.  The Windsor Report offers guidelines for conserving the communion of the Anglican Communion. It is a document that is worthy of our further close attention.  But it is more than sixty pages long.  We will make time for our congregation to consider this document together.  Keep your eyes open for announcements in Family Notes and Touchstone. 

We need to hear the witness of the Bible as a whole to sin: to acts and attitudes and failures to act that do not promote love and truth and justice in our dealings with one another.

·        The reading from the prophet Jeremiah is classic.  It virtually gives us the definition of a “jeremiad,” which the dictionary characterizes as: “A fierce denunciation of a particular evil, or the evils of society in general, in which current misfortunes are considered a just penalty for past misdeeds and repentance extolled as the only road to a happier, more secure future.”  And yet, however terrible the circumstances for the people of Judah in Jeremiah’s day, Jeremiah does, indeed, point with hope to the road, the Way of the Lord.  And, however absent God sometimes seems, however inscrutable God’s ways in light of the human tendency to stray away, Jeremiah clings to his conviction that God is present and merciful: “You, O Lord, are in the midst of us,” he writes. “…we set our hope on you.”

·        The reading from the Second Letter to Timothy gives us a candid look at the broken relationships and the profound disappointment that even as great a leader as the Apostle Paul experienced from time to time: “No one came to my support, but all deserted me…” he writes.  But there is also a note of triumph.  Paul says: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”  At this crossroads of Anglican history where we stand today, it is reassuring to hear that it is possible to fight a GOOD fight.  There is, perhaps, some hope in these words that Christians of good will can fight and struggle, sometimes on two sides of an issue, and finish the race, and find that our faith is intact.

·        The Gospel lesson is one of the shortest and most pointed parables of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Luke.  It is a classic parable of the tables being turned in the Kingdom of God, so the last are first and the first are last. The conscientious, respectable Pharisee is so busy campaigning for the office of Most Blameless and Most Worthy Israelite that he fails to notice that instead the Almighty is bestowing his favor on a tax collector.  A tax collector: one of the most despised roles in Roman Judea. A Jew who collected taxes for the Roman occupation, and who extorted vast overpayments in order to line his own coffers was the lowest of the low.  But his prayer was heard: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  Here is the promise that no past is too terrible to be redeemed by a merciful God.  No sin is too big for God to forgive. This is really a summary or distillation of the theme running through the whole Gospel of Luke: no lost sheep wanders so far from the fold that the Shepherd cannot find it and carry it lovingly back home. 

 

Today, I suggest to you that we should not be afraid to deal with the concept of sin.  In fact, it is only when we begin to acknowledge that something is broken that we can start to fix it; it is only when we begin to acknowledge that we are sick that we can seek healing and do what it takes to get well again.  I used to love it when I’d take my kids to the doctor with a sore throat and they tested positive for strep.  I knew then that there was an antibiotic that would have the sick child feeling better in about 24 hours.  Sin, similarly, is tangible evidence of a separation between us human beings and God.  And the very center of the Christian story is the promise of restoration of unity in place of alienation.  Jesus’ whole life and ministry center around reconciliation and forgiveness, grounded in love.  

 

            Today, I challenge you to re-think those old Rite I words.  Reconsider them. Don’t throw them out until you look at them again.  Some Sunday soon, most likely during Advent, we will even try these Rite I words at the 10:30 service.  There is a frank and almost old-fashioned identification of our state of sin.  This we cannot deny.  But all that sin language pales in comparison with the hope and joy expressed in light of God’s reconciling love, a love that brought Jesus into the world.  Today, even at the 10:30, rite II celebration of the Eucharist, I will invite people to bookmark p. 337 of the Book of Common Prayer, so we may pray the old Prayer of Humble Access together.   In that prayer are the amazing words: “Thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”  Bask in the streams of God’s amazing mercy.  And let any fears you may have for the unity and communion of our beloved Episcopal Church in the Anglican communion just wash away.  Our loving and merciful—and just and truthful—God will take care of his Church and every member of it.

 


 

[1] The Windsor Report, 2004, p.53.

 

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