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Re-Turn (a sermon by Rev. Nathan Hill)

Scripture: Matthew 6:7-15 & James 5:13-16

On Twitter right now, there is a popular hashtag that goes - #StartAnArgumentIn4Words

For example:

- “pineapple belongs on pizza”
- “do I look fat?”
- “cats are better pets”
- “old bay is optional”
- “voting does not matter”

It’s wild how just a few words can raise our blood pressure, isn’t it?

Likewise, as I mentioned in my email to the congregation on Friday, there are a number of phrases in life that are under four words which hold so much meaning that they become difficult to say.

Mary Clark, one of our church members, shared with me that hers is “I need help”. She’s right - it’s hard to ask for help, especially because it seems to put out a message that we are helpless.

Another is to say, “I was wrong.” We don’t like to admit that there are things we don’t know or choices we make that turn out to be less than wise.

One more is “I love you”. I know grown men who still struggle to say “I love you” to people in their lives for all kinds of reasons, but sometimes, for no good reason.

And finally, what I want us to explore today - “I’m sorry.”

This short phrase challenges me to no end. It’s one of the most healing phrases we can learn in life and yet can be so difficult to say when it really matters.

See, if I’m standing in the aisle at a supermarket and someone needs to come by me, I almost reflexively step to the side and say, "Whoops - I'm sorry.”

But when I have said something or done something that has hurt someone in my life, it’s like my vocal cords stop working and my mind gives me a hundred different things to say that aren’t “i’m sorry.” I might deflect or try to explain it away or tell the other people that they are just being too sensitive.

All of which do not lead me or the person I have harmed into a better place and does not allow the relationship to return to where it needs to be.

Each missed apology, each opportunity to mend what was broken, becomes a kind of brick that I end up carrying around.

That’s why I am picking up these bricks as I go - to show you what it must feel like for you sometimes and for me - when we think about our past, the times we have messed up, and the burden it can feel like on our lives.

Name some of these bricks.

And sometimes, when we begin to approach this Communion Table, where Jesus invites us to experience His presence and his forgiveness, these bricks can feel so heavy that they hold us back. Our burden gets in the way of receiving what God has for us.

What does Jesus say about this?

In our first scripture reading, we heard what we call the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus taught his disciples to pray - and he taught them in simple language, far simpler than we often pray. We add a lot of words. I add a lot of fancy words. Seminary taught me to do that. It sounds good and smart and theologically appropriate.

But sometimes, it doesn’t get simpler than -

Your kingdom come, Your will be done.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Forgive us our debts
    As we forgive our debtors

Debt is a very good word to use here and matches closely with the original Greek. Debt implies burdens. Debt happens when we owe someone something or they owe us something. In our world of credit cards and mortgages and car loans and student loans, to have our debt forgiven is a big deal. 

It is an act of liberation.

Remember that in the beginning of Luke, Jesus’ first sermon is to preach the Year of the Lord’s Favor, Jubilee, when debt is to be forgiven, land is restored, and slaves made free.

Jesus teaches his disciples to pray this way because his disciples are to be about the work of freedom. And most importantly, God is interested in freeing us. When we say to God, I’m sorry, when we humble ourselves, when we recognize our mistakes and our burdens, God releases us and frees us and invites us to drop our bricks and live anew.

Followers of Jesus are called then to turn around and free others. That’s why Jesus’ prayer isn’t just about asking for forgiveness when we mess up, but it is practicing forgiveness for others. We receive and we share. Makes sense, right?

This whole dance, in the epistle of James, when we confess our sins, when we pray for each other, leads to healing. I don’t think that means that when we have a physical ailment, it’s because we sinned. Rather, being forgiven can feel like a ton of bricks have been lifted from us. We can straighten our backs and get a good night’s rest for once. We can begin working on tomorrow rather than dwelling solely in yesterday.

I recognize that forgiveness is a tricky thing to be talked about. Forgiveness can be weaponized against women, against people of color - forgive the people who have harmed you and hurt you and abused you. Go back and pretend like nothing ever happened.

Forgiveness is not a “get out of consequences” free card.

Being forgiven can be a step toward reparation and reconciliation of a broken relationship - but it is not all of the work that must be done.

Rather, forgiveness, especially in our pursuit of Jesus, is a choice we make for ourselves. Are we ready to forgive that person? Are we ready to let go of this situation? Are we willing to drop our bricks off on the way to the communion table?

Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his book on Forgiveness says it this way - “Without forgiveness, we have no future.”

Forgiveness is a release of toxic relationships and our haunting past in a way that opens up new possibilities for our lives.

Sometimes, that leads to rekindling and restoring relationships and trust. We might be able to re-turn to places we once thought lost to us, even to this communion table which we may have been told is fenced off to us. Sometimes, it just allows us to move on and turn into a new direction in our own lives, finding healing in our time and way, and lets those who have wronged us face their consequences and move into their own future, whatever that might be.

I believe God wants us to have a transformed future. Each of us carry bricks this morning. Some of us have been carrying them for a long time. Some of us have gotten used to them. What if we let go? What if we dropped them off and tasted a little more of the freedom God has for us?

What if our mission as a church continued to be to help our community, our neighborhood, and our families have a transformed future? Or what if we as a church needed to spend a season, rather than talking at our neighborhood, listening and even offering our own “I’m sorry” to those who have been hurt or ignored by us?

There is an old story that is supposed to be based on a true event at a liberal arts school up in the Northwest. One day on campus, faced often with hostile conversations about faith, one young passionate Christian setup a booth with the words “confession” written on them. But rather than invite people to come confess their sins to the church, the young Christian behind the booth confessed the sins of the church to a skeptical and wounded student body.

If churches in North America have any future, it is a future grounded not in believing we have all the answers but in humility and gentleness and a willingness to confess when we get it wrong.

Friends, core to who we are as a church is our communion table. We practice every week, and I know sometimes that can feel different. We call ourselves Disciples of Christ because we want to sit with Jesus - we want to stay close to Jesus. At the table, Jesus does more than offer us wisdom - Jesus shares his life with us.

And when we see Jesus, we see love, God’s love for us.

God who forgives us. Who invites us to know this love and be loved and share that love. A God who invites us to release and return, finding rest and liberation in him.

Are we you heavy burdened today?

Lay down those burdens. Pull up a chair. Taste the good news. You are forgiven. Thanks be to God!

(posted 11/26/19)

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