Note: right now, we currently cannot update our audio page. I will add a link when it is working again.
Reveille United Methodist Church
10th Sunday After Pentecost – July 29, 2018
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: For your sake I will send to Babylon and break down all the bars, and the shouting of the Chaldeans will be turned to lamentation. I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King. Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.
Yet you did not call upon me, O Jacob; but you have been weary of me, O Israel! You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings, or honored me with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with offerings, or wearied you with frankincense. You have not bought me sweet cane with money, or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities. I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
When I was serving in my first pastoral appointment after seminary, I was serving a congregation in the Denbigh area of Newport News. While there, I befriended a Newport News police officer named Jeff whose wife taught with Tracy in Hampton. One night, at a barbecue, he was telling me about his work, about the challenges of it, and how he sometimes wished he had become a firefighter (because everyone loves firefighters).
Jeff went on to describe for me how difficult it was for him to be a police officer, even when he was off duty. Although he was on the force in Newport News, he lived in the neighboring town of Poquoson. And even though he had no jurisdiction there, the residents had no qualms about seeing him off-duty, still in uniform, and telling him how to do his job. Jeff told me that he would stop to pick up milk on the way home from work at a store near his house, and how he would almost always be accosted by a resident of Poquoson filled with unsolicited advice. The conversation almost always would go like this:
“You know, you really need to patrol this neighborhood near my house. There are too many speeders!”
“Sir, I am out of my jurisdiction. I serve in Newport News.”
“Yeah, but you really should set up a speed trap on this road. People drive way too fast.”
“I understand, sir, but I am out of my jurisdiction. I serve in Newport News.”
“And another thing you guys need to do is…”
And so on.
I thought about what he said for a moment before telling him about my experiences of being in public when I am wearing my black clergy shirt with a clergy collar. “Unlike you,” I said, “I can go anywhere I want, and not only will no one speak to me, they do not even look me in the eyes. They see me, and they quickly look away. It is as if they think I can see right through them, that I can read their minds. It is as if they think because I know every bad thing that they have ever done, and that I am secretly judging them for it.”
On the way home that night, I was thinking about our conversation, about the difference in how people respond to the collar and the badge, and it made me wonder if one of our modern problems with the Christian faith is that we regard God in the same way it appears that people regard me when I am in public in my clergy uniform: as a silent judge, a scorekeeper, one who maintains a running tally of everything we have ever done, circling every time we have ever fallen short, a God who talks a good game about forgiveness, even commanding it of us, yet who is forever shaking his head at our latest failure to be who we were created to be.
I mean, we believe that God knows everything, right? So then, with that information forever available, how could God resist checking the list of sins committed that God keeps on each one of us? How can God truly forgive us? How can our judge also be our redeemer and friend?
All of which brings me to this morning’s text. In it, God lists a litany, a checklist of disappointments with Israel, one after another, saying “You did not call upon me, O Jacob; but you have been weary of me, O Israel! You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings, or honored me with your sacrifices…You have not bought me sweet cane with money, or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities.” Check, check, check.
And there you have it: the God who keeps tabs, the God who sees right through us, the God who knows what we did, the God who remembers, the God who never, ever forgets. Right?
When I have conversations with people about forgiveness, whether in a Bible study or in pastoral care, the conversation inevitably comes to the issue of memory. In fact, for many of us, if not all of us, our ability to remember transgressions committed against us represents the great loophole in God’s commandments to forgive: “I can forgive, pastor, but I cannot forget!”
We had a discussion about this on Wednesday at Reveille’s noon Bible study and Communion. A point was made, and it is a fair point, that our remembering wrongs perpetrated against us is a gift, a good thing that keeps other people from re-victimizing, or at least taking advantage of us. We remember because we believe that it will keep us safe. We remember because it provides us with some measure of control over our circumstances. We sometimes remember because we believe remembering allows us to maintain power over the one who has wronged us, and we sometimes remember because remembering enables us to claim forgiveness when we really have not forgiven at all.
On Wednesday, this discussion made me wonder aloud how we can truly forgive another, how we can actually start over with someone who has wronged us, knowing that we both need to learn from the past and how difficult it is for us to forget the sinful things done to us. For some reason it made me think of the old “Peanuts” cartoons, about how Charlie Brown tries again and again and again and again to kick the football held by Lucy Van Pelt, and how again and again and again and again, Lucy pulls the ball away at the last second, sending Charlie Brown flying through the air to painfully land on his back.
It makes me wonder if it is possible in that situation, and in our own situations, for us to forgive in such a way that it balances our need to remember with God’s mandate to forgive, and if it could look something like this: “Lucy, I forgive you for pulling away the football and causing me to get hurt. We can still be friends. We can walk to school together, do our homework together, play on the ballfield together, but I am never, ever going to try to kick that ball again, so don’t ask me. That is no longer going to be a part of our relationship.”
I realize that would be the least funny Peanuts cartoon ever, but hopefully you see my point.
Again, in this morning’s text, God gives that long litany of sins and disappointments: “saying “You did not call upon me, O Jacob; but you have been weary of me, O Israel! You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings, or honored me with your sacrifices…You have not bought me sweet cane with money, or satisfied me with the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities.” And then, in a 180 degree shift that is enough to give one whiplash, God says this: “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”
“I blot out your transgressions, and I will not remember your sins.” It is one thing to believe that God forgives. It is quite another to believe that God forgets.
It is so difficult for me to get my mind around this aspect of God, and it is even more difficult for me to accept it. Perhaps it is because I am such a perfectionist, because I try to exist within my own impossible standards. Perhaps it is because I have such a good memory, because my brain just loves, especially when I am trying to sleep, to show on the screen behind my eyes slow-motion replays of mistakes I have made. Perhaps it is because my brain contains such an extensive archive of my failures, a veritable warehouse of film dating back as far as I can remember, and how with regularity, my mental archivist will discover a new reel and say something like, “Tonight, we are going back to eighth grade, and that time you realized everyone in French class was staring at you. Now let’s watch it again!”
If your mind works that way, and you start projecting that kind of thinking on God, no wonder it can be so difficult to feel forgiven by God. No wonder it is so difficult to conceive of the God who forgets.
When I was a boy, I was one of those kids who loved to take things apart and then put them back together again. On Christmas morning, I would assemble the toys that needed assembling, and on Christmas night, I would take them all apart, put them back in their respective boxes, and assemble them again. As an adult, I have always loved opportunities to fix or upgrade my cell phone or my computers, because doing so gave me opportunities to disassemble and reassemble things. On Thursday night, I took my dryer apart in an (ill-fated) attempt to replace the high-temperature thermostat and the heating element, because I am cheap and because I like taking things apart and putting them back together again.
My dryer notwithstanding, being a person who like to dismantle things, to pick them apart has served me well, but there is one area in my life where this as absolutely, positively not been the case: in my faith life, especially in my relationship with God. This is because my brain likes to look at things I have done, mistakes I have made, all of my failures, and pick at them, take them apart and put them back together again. My mind likes to ruminate, it struggles to let go; “If only this, if only that, what was I thinking, if only I could do this or that over again.” Take it apart, put it together again.
All of which brings me to church, to the true goodness of religion, the very best of our life together, and all of the good that we can offer to one another.
Of all the churches I have been a part of in my life and ministry, Reveille is the only one who has a prayer of confession in worship each and every week, along with a time of silent confession. The other interesting fact about Reveille that you have no doubt noticed is that our time of silent confession is rather long. Before my first worship service here, I was warned about this facet of our congregational life: “Just be prepared, Doug. When it comes time for the silent confession, Stephen really goes long.”
I have to admit that at first, I found this a bit jarring. In the past, I have experienced churches where the time of silent confession was so short that it was barely long enough to be ceremonial, before the liturgist broke the silence and carried on with the liturgy.
But Reveille is different. The silent time begins, the shuffling of paper and the occasional coughs cease, the babies are silent, and I stand there before God, naked and vulnerable, my sinfulness ever before me.
And it feels like this: “Hello God. It’s me again. Pastor Doug, well, Doug. Once again I have failed you. Once again I have not been the man, the husband and father, the pastor you have called me to be, in my day-to-day struggle to by truly human.” I stand there, in the silence, and I take apart the week and I put it back together again. I pick at every piece of it, and if I am honest, there are parts of the previous week that are nearly impossible to let go of, parts of the week that I keep turning over in my mind, picking at in an ill-fated attempt to fix what is broken in my life, in my relationships, and in my standing with God.
And then, all at once, Stephen or Kelly speaks, breaking the silence, saying words that have brought me so much hope since I was a child, words of renewal, words that are rivers in the desert and God doing a new thing in our midst: “Hear the good news. Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. That proves God’s love for us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!”
And the congregation responds back to the liturgist, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!” before we all say together “Glory to God. Amen.”
And in that holy moment, often the holiest moment of my week, I put down my tools, I put down my weapons. I stop my mental dismantling and reassembling, I stop reminding God of all that is imperfect in me, and I allow God to forget, just as God, in this morning’s text, promises to do. I stand here in the chancel and earnestly listen for your words of grace: “In the name of Jesus Christ, YOU are forgiven,” and in your grace and pardon, I find my life again, and my ability to take it out of the doors of the church and into the world.
It is a challenge to believe in a God who forgets. Our minds have been so conditioned by images of Saint Peter at the pearly gates reading aloud long scrolls of all our sins and failures. And into all of the noise of all that is wrong with us, individually and collectively, God is silent. God is silent because of God’s gracious, willing holy amnesia, rivers in the desert, God’s new thing in our midst.
In the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John, a woman is caught in the act of adultery. She is dragged before Jesus by the Pharisees and the scribes who ask what they should do, since the law of Moses says she should be stoned, hoping he would say something that could be used against him. Jesus famously tells the crowd that the sinless among them should throw the first stone, and each person, one by one, departs. After this happens, Jesus stands, looks at the woman and says, “Woman, where are they? Does no one condemn you?”
She replies, “No one, Master.”
And Jesus says “Neither do I. “Go on your way. From now on, don’t sin.”
This is the kind of God who scripture reveals and our communal life makes real. Jesus could have easily said to this woman, the moment that the crowd was out of earshot “Now let me tell you something, you harlot, you sure are fortunate I was here to save you from yourself. You had better believe I will remember this the next time you need something!”
But that is not who Jesus is. It is not who God is. “I, I am He,” says the God of Israel, “Who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”
Remember this, the next time God seems to you to be the great, cosmic scorekeeper who is always turning in his mind the litany of your sins. Remember this, the next time you feel your life is reduced to the last bad thing you did. Remember this as the antidote to perfectionism. Remember this, when your mind wants to show you replays of everything you could have done. Remember this, when you catch yourself disassembling and reassembling elements of your past. Remember that you are designed, redeemed, and claimed by the God who forgets.
Lily Tomlin famously said that forgiveness means “giving up all hope for a better past.” As we come to the end of our month-long “Summer of Forgiveness” sermon series, I hope that we have made some space for you, for me, for all of us to let go of some of the past, to lose a little hope, as it were, to make room for God’s new thing in our midst.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.