Eighth Sunday After Pentecost – August 4, 2019
Before I share today’s epistle reading, and before I preach, I need to acknowledge something that permeates the room in which we find ourselves today, and that is the wonton, senseless violence by which our great nation is destroying itself. Since I became your lead pastor on July 1, 2014, if one only counts incidents with three or more deaths, mass shootings have claimed the lives of 505 people in this land. That number is more than the total number of people who will worship at our church on any Sunday that is not Easter. Applying the same criteria of only counting mass shootings with three or more deaths, the number of injured is 748, which is almost the capacity of our sanctuary.
Each year, Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School celebrates their baccalaureate service in our sanctuary, and each year since 2015, they have asked me to be one of the local faith leaders who speaks at this occasion. I would like to share with you this morning a bit of what I said to them:
I am the father of two strong and wonderful daughters, one seventeen and the other ten. More than they realize, they already hold me accountable for being kind of Christian, the kind of pastor, and the kind of man that I am and will be going forward. They have not yet done so, but I know them well enough to know that someday they will look back, and they ask me about these current years of my life and ministry, and how I utilized the resources, the life, that God has entrusted to me.
I know that someday they will ask me about my days here at Reveille. They will ask me about the days when it seemed the world was falling apart, and I had this tall pulpit in this great sanctuary, when I had a large budget and hundreds of people each week who would give me a listen, and they will ask me “What did you say, and what did you do?”
I then listed causes that our faith deems important, and I said to these soon-to-be graduates. “What will [your causes] be? Indifference is a luxury of privilege and each of you has a pulpit in the world, for each of you has a voice.
Here is the thing: it is not merely my children who will ask these questions, it is God, who in the fullness of time, who will ask me, and ask you, and ask all of us together these two questions as well: “What did you say? What did you do?”
I would like for those questions to hang in the air for a moment as we explore today’s text from Hebrews 10:11-25, a text about God, about us, about what to remember, and about what to forget. Let us listen together to the word of God.
And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God’, and since then has been waiting ‘until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.’ For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,
‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,’ he also adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
During the Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday night, former vice president Joe Biden made a comment in passing that drew my mind to this morning’s text. In response to New York City mayor Bill De Blasio, Biden remarked about how then-candidate Barack Obama “had ten lawyers do a background check on everything about me.”[i]
Ten lawyers, I thought. That is a lot of lawyers, almost a third of the number of lawyers who come to Reveille.
Biden’s comment may me spend time wondering to myself what would happen if ten lawyers were tasked with exploring me, exploring the choices I have made in my forty-eight years on this earth. I wonder what people in my past would say about me, say about things I said and did when I was much younger and very much less wise. I wonder what they would say about the things I chose to prioritize, as well as the ways in which I treated others. I remember hearing some time ago that these presidential investigations begin with questions such as “Tell me everything your spouse does not know about you,” and only gets worse from there.
This past week, I got a little taste of this, and it was not pretty.
Friday a week ago, I was driving to Winchester to attend the viewing for the father of a friend and colleague who had died. I was in the mood for some driving, so I exited the interstate in Gum Spring and took route 522 the rest of the way. This is how I learned that route 522, just off Main Street in Culpeper, where it becomes Sperryville Road, has a speed limit of twenty-five miles an hour. A kind uniformed gentleman named T.W. Sisk cared enough to stop my car and point this out to me. He even wrote down a reminder for me on a yellow sheet of paper that I was allowed to keep.
When I went online to the Virginia courts website to explore how much this reminder was going to cost me, I neglected to select a specific jurisdiction, which meant I searched all of the jurisdictions in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and as I did, I saw on my computer screen the last decade of my criminal history laid out before me.
And, of course, it does not include the three years I lived outside of Virginia.
And I am not even a lawyer. I imagine what those ten attorneys could find if they really started digging around my past.
Unlike any other time in human history, out past has a way of following us around forever. Last year, the day after he won college football’s Heisman Trophy, Kyler Murray found himself answering for comments he had made on Twitter more than six years prior when he was fifteen years old.[ii] The ability of the internet to permanently archive things from our past, combined with our modern “gotcha” culture of personal attacks has created a world where the past is never truly past, where each and every mistake we make is easily searchable and discoverable. Like a painting without a sense of perspective, what we wish was far behind us actually appears to be beside us, waiting for someone else to call it out in a world that never forgets.
And friends, this is where the world is different from God, and this morning’s text proves it.
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes in the middle of today’s reading the following: “’This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days,’ says the Lord: ‘I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,’ he also adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.”
It is one thing to believe in a God who forgives our sins. It is one thing because it is relatively easy for us to imagine a God who thinks and acts like we do. You have forgiven transgressions committed against you. I have forgiven transgressions committed against me. Yet chances are, neither you nor I have actually forgotten these transgressions, these sins, these mistakes, these deeds done to us. In these cases, we believe, memory is a gift, an adaptation our species has developed in order to protect us, to keep us from being re-victimized, to keep that person or persons from ever harming us again.
“Fool me once…” we think.
This is true for you, and it is true for me. As such, it is very easy for us to project this way of thinking and acting; this way of remembering upon the divine. How can God who by definition inherently knows everything about us, not remember everything we have done against each other, against creation, and against God? At my worst, I imagine God as a tyrant with a video camera, capturing footage of all my mistakes, all of my failures, all of my sins, and who will someday sit me in an uncomfortable chair and make my watch the whole film.
The most awful description of Hell I have ever read, one that keeps me up at night, is that it is the place where the person you are meets the person you could have been. I suppose this is volume two of the terrible film God forces us to watch in the world to come.
Even as I near my best, I find myself believing in a highly self-disciplined God, one who remembers all the wrong I have done but, who is gracious enough to not hold it against me.
And here is the thing: both of these conceptions of God are but idols, idols because they do not truly exist, because this simply is not who God is, and it is certainly not who the author of Hebrews is describing here in the tenth chapter of this epistle. Instead, the God we have is a God of very selective yet very willful amnesia. Ours is the God who honestly, truly, fully forgets.
It is a strange concept, one difficult to wrap our minds around. It is difficult because it means that there is one thing in this life that you and I can do better than God can, and that thing is remembering. The thing or things in your past that you cannot forgive yourself for, those things that you cannot forget; all of those things in your mental film library that your brain and my brain, at its worst, loves to load time and again into the projector at the most inopportune times (when you are trying to sleep, when you need your courage the most), all of those things have been erased.
They are gone. As difficult as this is to believe or accept, this is the God we have.
There is a saying in the art of homiletics that prior to preaching any sermon you have written; you must ask the following question: “Did Jesus Christ have to die and rise again for what you are saying to be true?” Without question, this morning’s text is a prime example of this old adage. This morning’s epistle reading confirms it, strangely enough, by using posture.
Today’s text opens thusly, saying: “And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God.’” Did you hear that? The priest stands, yet the risen Christ sits. The priest stands because heretofore, his work never ends; it is a day-to-day “tedium of ineffectiveness.” Christ, on the other hand, sits because by his sacrificial death and resurrection, he has completed the task. Christ has solved the problem of sin, once and for all.[iii]
It is, therefore, by the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that our God, completely and forever, forgets. It is, therefore, by the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that our God has freed us to live, not lives burdened my memories we cannot shake or pain we cannot release, but to live lives that are free, liberated, unencumbered by our sins. It is because of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that you and I can dare to even dream of being in relationship with a holy and perfect God.
According to this morning’s text, were it not for Christ’s sacrificial death, you and I could only approach God with the utmost fear and trembling. Without Christ’s sacrifice, we would only gather in this worship space, would gather at the steps of the house of God on our hands and knees, eyes averted, heads covered, so that we could put on the sackcloth and sit in our ashes and repent and beg for God’s mercy.
The author of Hebrews writes, “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”
Christian discipleship is always more about what God has done that what we can do or have done. Christian discipleship is about a God who loved God’s guilty children when we were at our worst enough to do for us what we could never have done for ourselves. Christian discipleship is not about forever being shackled to what we cannot forget, it is gratitude for all God, by God’s grace has willingly and permanently forgotten.
So then, to provide one answer for the question this sermon series poses, the question “What is faith?” it is hope that the sins we have committed, the things we have done, the things we have left undone, the things over which we ruminate, the things of which we cannot let go have been forgotten forever by the one for whom those things should matter the most. And that is why we gather, that is why we worship, that is why we enter this sacred room standing straight, heads high, eyes open, hearts grateful, lips freed to praise, giving thanks for this holy amnesia by which all God’s children have been given life, in this world, and in the world to come.
All of which brings me back to the two questions I left hanging in the air at the outset of this message, the questions I asked the class of 2019 at the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School baccalaureate:
“What did you say?” and “What did you do?”
Indifference is indeed a luxury of privilege, and none of us can rightfully turn our heads again. In his letter from Birmingham City Jail, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes, “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Friends, sisters and brothers, when we consider the God we have, the Savior who died for us, and when we consider the things we have done that this God refuses to use against us because God has willfully forgotten them, can we not give the whole of our being, our lives, choices, persistence, and purpose to this God, doing the things that are important to God, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God; beating weapons into plowshares, and loving our neighbors as ourselves?
During Sunday School, Andy Glascott, our new director of youth ministries shared a story from his time living in Ireland. He told us about the Four Corners Festival, and how it was designed to draw people together from the four corners of Belfast to do the hard work of reconciliation.
He told us about the time when a convicted IRA bomber shared a stage with the daughter of one of his victims.
Friends, if they can do that in Ireland, we in this nation can get out of our idolatrous, tribal, political camps and make this a better nation and solve this terrible problem now before us.
When we consider what God has done for us, does it not propel us to actively give our lives to those things that matter, so that when this nascent generation comes to maturity and asks of us “What did you say?” and “What did you do?” we will be able to, with courage and conviction “All that we could?”
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.
[iii] New Interpreter’s Bible, “Hebrews.”