Sermon for August 26th, 2012

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Micah 7:18-20

18 Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
   and passing over the transgression
   of the remnant of your possession?
He does not retain his anger for ever,
   because he delights in showing clemency.
19 He will again have compassion upon us;
   he will tread our iniquities under foot.
You will cast all our sins
   into the depths of the sea.
20 You will show faithfulness to Jacob
   and unswerving loyalty to Abraham,
as you have sworn to our ancestors
   from the days of old.

John 20:19-23

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

We Gather In God's Name, Part II

Because of all the other really neat things going on in our worship service this morning, today's sermon will be mercifully brief. But that's ok, since I think this is a part of the service that we understand and appreciate intuitively. Last week we started talking about the "emotional roller-coaster ride" that forms the first part of our worship service, labeled in your bulletin each week as "WE GATHER IN GOD'S NAME." We ended halfway through that section, on the "down" side of the roller coaster ride--the prayer of confession--where we are reminded that we are broken and sinful people, in desperate need of God's forgiveness.

Well, this week, we're back "up" again for the second half Gathering in God's Name, and if you look in your bulletin, you'll see three things left: The Assurance of Pardon, the Passsing of the Peace, and Blessing of the Backpacks. The blessing of backpacks is not a regular feature of our worship service, but it is certainly an appropriate thing for us to do as we gather in God's name on "Back to School Sunday," and sometimes this part of the worship service can include blessings, dedications, or recognition of special things happening in the life of the church. When we gather with friends in a public place, we often begin by sharing special news or congratulating one another on milestones and special occasions--so when we gather together with God and each other in church, we do the same.

Anyone notice anything missing from this part of the service today that's usually there? Ordinarily, we sing the Gloria Patri right after the Assurance of Pardon. we left it out today since we're using contemporary instrumentation, and I just didn't think my guitar could do it justice. The tune to the Gloria Patri dates back to the 1830s, but the text (at least, the English Version) is from Thomas Cranmer's 1552 Book of Common Prayer. We're kind of borrowing the Gloria Patri from our Anglican and Episcopalian brothers and sisters--it isn't typically part of most traditional Presbyterian worship services (shhh! don't tell!).

The two things I'd most like to focus our attention on today are the Assurance of Pardon and the Passing of the Peace. The assurance of pardon comes immediately after the confession of sin, and that's a good thing. While it is important for us to remember our sinfulness, it's also important that we don't dwell in it and get stuck there. There are plenty of people in our culture who have a hard time admitting that they could ever possibly be wrong about anything. But I suspect there are just as many people of the opposite sort--people who are too hard on themselves, people with low self-esteem, people for whom guilt and shame are a constant burden.

To these people, and to all of us, the words from today's reading in Micah remind us that God will "cast all our sins into the depths of the sea." This is what the assurance of pardon is--a reminder to let go. A reminder that God is bigger than anything we could possibly do wrong. And these words of assurance are not just in Micah--they can be found throughout the scriptures, in Old Testament and New. In fact, one of the very last things Jesus said before he died was "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."

When Presbyterians say the Lord's Prayer, we say the line "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." I love that language, because as someone who has financed a home...several cars...a college education...a seminary education...I know what debt is. I understand debt. And if someone from Sallie Mae (my loan servicing company) came up to me today and said "your student loans are forgiven," I'd probably start singing the Gloria Patri on the spot--or at least I'd be singing something. And probably dancing, too. And if that same person also said, "here's my card; I'll do the same for anyone else" what do you think I'd do? Throw it away? Of course not. I'd share it. I'd pass it on.

This is why, in our worship service, after we have received the assurance of God's forgiveness, after we have sung our praise and thanks to God in the Gloria Patri, we share what peace with those around us. We "pass the peace." It's not just a time for shaking hands, giving hugs, and saying, "what's up?"--although those things are certainly acceptable and part of it. But when we shake hands and give hugs we actually say the words "Peace be with you," or "May the peace of Christ be with you" or even just "peace, friend."

We do this following the example of Jesus in today's Gospel text, where he says (twice) to his disciples the words "Peace be with you." I have it on excellent authority from a distinguished Bible scholar (Rev. Lynette!) that in the Gospel of John (where today's text is found) sin is not so much about "doing bad things" but about not being "out of relationship" with God. At the beginning of our passage, we find the disciples have locked themselves in a house, hiding in fear from the local authorities. They don't know that Jesus has risen from the dead, that their sins have already been forgiven. They only know about the crucifixion, that their Lord is dead. At this point, they are "out of relationship" with Jesus.

And into this scene bursts the risen Jesus, not even bothering to unlock (or open) the doors! He just comes, and he says, "Peace be with you." And with those words, hope and promise flood back into the room. It takes awhile for things to sink in: It takes some physical contact, touching Jesus' hands and side. He says to them again, "Peace be with you." And now they know it's real; they know that everything he promised is true, that their sins are forgiven, that they are reconciled with God. Then Jesus says, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." In other words, "pass it on." Share what you've been given. And so we pass the peace. Sometimes it takes us awhile to get it, too. We need to hear that word, "peace" a couple of times or more. Sometimes we need the physical contact--a hug or a handshake. And so we pass the peace. We know we are forgiven, we are reconciled with God and with each other. In case you hadn't already guessed, passing the peace is also my own very favorite part of the worship service.

Today is "Back to School Sunday." Tomorrow, many of our students, teachers, and educators will see each other again after the long (though arguably not long enough) absence of the summer vacation. Tomorrow is a time of reunion, catching up, of "reconciliation." For students, teachers, old friends and new acquaintances alike, tomorrow is kind of like a clean slate, a fresh start. The mistakes, and bad habits, and patterns of last year have been (to quote Micah again) "cast into the sea" and the year ahead is filled with hope and promise.

But in order to truly be reconciled tomorrow, in order to really live into the hope and promise not just of a new year, but of a new life, I would encourage all of our students, all of our teachers (and really all of the rest of us as well) to be reconciled first with God, who loves us and has forgiven all of our sins. There is no reconciliation like the reconciliation brought by Jesus. There is no peace like the peace of God that we share with one another on Sunday morning. And having received that promise, that forgiveness, that peace...go and share it with the world on Monday morning, too.

Thanks be to God!