“Holy Weeping” A Sermon on Romans 12: 9 -18 and Revelation 21:1-4

CryOur two scripture readings today both speak about crying. The first reading speaks to the church on earth today, what I was taught as a child to call the church militant, and the second reading speaks to the church in heaven, what I was taught to call the church triumphant. Perhaps those terms are too martial for us today, but by whatever names it is the distinction between the church here and the church hereafter.

In the first reading Paul admonishes the Roman Christians on how to be the church now, and one of the things he tells them they need to do is to “rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.”

The second reading is from the Revelation of St John the Divine. I have a soft spot for the writings of St John the Divine, as I was baptized at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York, which is the world’s largest gothic cathedral (so I come by my high church inclinations honestly.)

In this beautiful passage from Revelation, St. John describes the holy city, the New Jerusalem at the end of time and history. He says then there will be no more crying there because God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

So in engaging these two texts about the here and the hereafter, I started thinking about the function of crying in our lives, and especially in the church. I did a little research on crying, and discovered that we don’t know all that much about it. There are several competing theories about why humans cry, including those theories of evolutionary biologists who think it may have some social function. Continue reading

“The God of the Far Off” Toward the Ministry of Inclusion

Prodigal sonWhat an extraordinary week this has been for our country! The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth liked to admonish the church that it must read both the Bible and the newspaper, because we Christians live in the world.

And what a week of news it was! There were two historic Supreme Court decisions that will change our national life in significant, and in my opinion, profoundly positive, ways.

On Thursday, by a 6-3 decision, the Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, which makes health care available to all Americans.

And on Friday, by a 5-4 decision, Marriage Equality became the law of the land.

The reason I am here before you instead of our pastor Brent Damrow is that he is in Cleveland at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, representing the Massachusetts Conference. I am sure he will have stories to tell about the celebrations taking place there, as our national church has been a long and tireless advocate for equal rights for the LGBT community and a supporter  of marriage equality.

I believe that these two historic Supreme Court decisions share a common idea, and that is the idea of “inclusion.”

And a third extraordinary event in our national life also happened on Friday. President Obama climbed into the bully pulpit in Charleston, South Carolina to give the eulogy for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Emmanuel AME Church who, along with eight of his congregants, was murdered by a gunman while attending a Bible study at the church on June 17.

President Obama gave a stirring eulogy for Pastor Pinkney, but he was addressing not only those present, but also the nation. I’d like to share with you some excerpts of his eulogy:

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston . . . .the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond — not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

Blinded by hatred, he (the alleged murderer) failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace . . .

This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace . . .

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

Martha and I were driving to Onota Lake in Pittsfield for a walk on Friday when the President’s eulogy came on the radio. We got to the parking lot at the boat ramp, but we didn’t get out of the car. We sat in the car until it was over, and when it was over I had tears streaming from my eyes.

The President was addressing the painful facts of racial relations in today’s America. He mentioned that in response to the massacre at the church the Confederate flag had been taken down in the South Carolina capitol and elsewhere. That flag, he said, was a symbol of our nation’s “original sin,” slavery.

The president had both the Bible and the newspaper in mind as he gave this incandescent speech. I don’t know of such a theologically astute presidential address since Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural.

And once again I would argue that inclusion is the big idea that binds all these events together. Inclusion.

I believe in the power of ideas to shape societies, and, as my teacher, mentor and friend, Max Stackhouse taught me, to examine where they come from and what they mean. So I want to do a little bit of that with you today about the idea of inclusion. Continue reading

“The Cross and the Church: The Soteriology and Ecclesiology of P. T. Forsyth”

Forsyth(Note: This article first appeared in the Andover Newton Review in 1992 (Vol 3, No. 1). It is the fruit of essays I wrote for my tutor the Revd. Donald Norwood during my 1989 sabbatical at Mansfield College, Oxford. I want to thank Professor Max Stackhouse for inviting me to submit it. This is the first time it is available on the Internet. RLF)

Part 1 The Church and Our Redemption

 The British Congregationalist P. T. Forsyth, 1848-1921, is above all a theologian of the cross, and it is this soteriological focus that dominates his understanding of the church. The church was created by the saving work of Christ, and, therefore, for Forsyth, it has no other principle or foundation. Everything in, of and about the church is informed by the work of Christ; questions of polity, ecumenism, church and state, ethics, the ministry, the sacraments, all these are seen through the lens of Christ’s atonement. Since Forsyth’s view of the atonement is profoundly corporate and universal, so too his understanding of the church is corporate and universal. This understanding of a corporate and universal church created by a divine act in the atoning cross of Christ gives Forsyth’s theology a truly catholic and truly evangelical character and accounts for his continued appeal to several branches of the church as a significant ecumenical theologian for our time. Continue reading

“The Message of the Cross” A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:23-25

Iona crossA minister friend and mentor of mine, Herb Davis, once told me that every preacher has only one sermon in him, or her. According to Herb, every Sunday the preacher serves up that one sermon in a variety of ways. It may look like a different sermon, but at the heart of it, there’s just the one!

When I was growing up my family always had some sort of a roast at Sunday dinner, which was usually served in the middle of the day after we came home from church. Then the remains of that roast would reappear in various guises throughout the week. For example, let’s say it was a pork roast. The roast might reappear on Monday night in a soup, and on Tuesday night as my Dad’s signature roast pork chop suey and so on. So is that really the way it is? Do the people of God get fed leftovers every Sunday?

I hope not. I think what Herb was saying is that every preacher’s one basic sermon provides the core convictions out of which that preacher delivers the Gospel. And if Herb is right about the one-sermon theory, than I suppose today’s epistle lesson would have to be the text for my one sermon. Let’s hear it again: Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger that human strength.” (I Corinthians 1: 23-25)

This is what Paul calls the message of the cross. Paul believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and that God raised him from the dead. The cross on which Jesus had died became for him the symbol of that Good News of God’s vast unconditional love for all humankind. Paul believed that in Christ’s dying and rising two important new things had occurred. First, there was now a new age of God’ activity, and, secondly, there was now a new community, the church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Continue reading

Can the Church Survive the Decline in Worship?

KazMy Massachusetts colleague Kazimierz Bem, Pastor and Teacher of the First Church in Marlboro, doesn’t think so.

He had a wise and thoughtful post yesterday on faith street.com called Christianity Cannot Survive the Decline in Worship.

Here’s an excerpt:

The church is not made holy by the work it does — Protestants should understand that better than anyone. Rather, it is Jesus Christ and his cross that make us holy. Our service can never replace it, copy it, or perfect it. Our service can only be our response in gratitude for what God has done for us. As the great Congregational theologian Peter T. Forsyth once wrote: “The greatest product of the Church is not brotherly love but divine worship. And we shall never worship right nor serve right till we are more engrossed with our God than even with our worship, with His reality than our piety, with his Cross than with our service.”

For the whole article go here. I heartily recommend it. Kaz even quotes P.T. Forsyth. Well done!

“The Cross and Forgiveness”

Lent 2014As we enter Holy Week and look ahead to Easter I would like to reflect on some of the threads of our Lenten study these past few weeks in the light of the cross and resurrection.

You will recall that forgiveness means a wiping away from memory of the offense, so that it is as if it never happened, leading to restoration of the relationship.

At the very first meeting we reflected on how extraordinary the idea of forgiveness is, since the human impulse for retribution and revenge runs very deep.

So if forgiveness is such a hard thing for us, what explains the amazing stories we saw and heard, first about Desmond Tutu and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committees, and then the story of Louis Zamperini forgiving his Japanese captors decades after his imprisonment? (As told in Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book Unbroken). Continue reading

Some Lenten Reflections on Forgiveness

Prodigal son by RembrandtThe idea of forgiveness is so ingrained in our cultural and religious traditions that it is easy for us to overlook what an extraordinary idea it is. Although we tend to separate out “forgiving” and “forgetting” the biblical notion of forgiveness is literally “a forgetting,” in that after the act of forgiveness “it is as if ” the grievance never happened.

It is only the aggrieved party who can do the forgiving, and the act of forgiveness “wipes away” the memory of the grievance so that it no longer has any influence on the relationship. So it is that the phrase “I will remember their sins no more” appears again and again in the Bible, for example, in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hebrews.

Before this idea of forgiveness took hold there was simply “revenge,” in which affronts were met with retribution, often disproportionate to the original wrong. These “family feuds,” if we want to call them that, could go on for generations, and still do, as we see sometimes, for example, in the Middle East, where memories of affronts are long.

A moral advance on such indiscriminate retribution was the lex talionis, the “law of retaliation,” which prescribed that the response had to be equal to the offense, as, for example, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

But the idea of forgiveness moves social relationships into a whole new key, and goes beyond mere justice. Indeed, forgiveness is an affront to justice, which is one of the perpetual accusations made against the Gospel by its critics.

Israel’s God is a god who forgives, but we may recall that the first covenant in the Bible is the covenant with Noah, and in that story God’s forgiveness has limits. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5)

So God does not forgive the people and punishes them with a flood. God shows some mercy, enough to save a remnant in the ark, the blameless Noah and his family, and the several species of animals. But God repents of his action, viewing it as a dry run (if you’ll excuse the pun), and promises never to do it again, laying down his arms (so to speak,) and leaving his bow in the sky to remind him.

In Exodus there’s a seeming change in the character and identity of God, in which mercy becomes a key quality. In preparing for today I took two volumes of the Anchor Bible Dictionary, the M volume for “mercy,” and the F volume for “forgiveness.” When I found the entry for “mercy” it said, “see LOVE.”

In Exodus we have a particularly important passage for subsequent Jewish and Christian understandings of God’s identity and character. It is Exodus 34:6-7, when God tells Moses to go up Mt. Sinai with two stone tablets. As you recall, God descended in the cloud, revealed the divine name to Moses, and then proclaimed to him:

“The Lord, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and fourth generation.”

Now this passage is really packed with things to ponder, but I want to highlight three for you.

1. First, this is a big moment in the history of God and his people. The revealing of the divine name tips us off to it, and right after this is the giving of the law and the Sinai covenant. To reveal one’s name is to be in relationship. God chooses to be in relationship with Israel, and renews the previous covenants.

2. Second, while we in our day tend to focus on the individual, and on individual sins, notice that here the emphasis is collective to the people as a people.

3. Third, the relationship is not only collective it is trans-generational, the promise applying across multiple generations.

I would guess that most of what we talk about in this Lenten study over the next few weeks will be about individual acts of forgiveness applied to willful, intentional sins. But the early understandings of forgiveness in the Bible were almost always collective, and almost always for inadvertent sinning.

So I need to say a word about why divine forgiveness was a necessary condition for God and Israel to be in relationship. This is a little hard for us to get our minds around because we tend to think of sin as a moral category, and it was also for Israel. But sin was frequently, perhaps even more frequently, thought about not as morality, but as purity.

God was understood to be holy and humans were not, the creator and the creatures were in different categories. And so we see the development of the elaborate holiness codes in Leviticus, which were designed to produce ritual purity in people so as not to offend God. Even so, it was impossible to keep all the myriad laws required.

Remember I said most sins that needed to be forgiven were inadvertent. So it wasn’t flagrant sinning like robbery, murder, or adultery, the ones we think of in moral categories, which needed to be forgiven so much as the infractions against ritual purity.

This is part of the backstory behind some of Jesus’ conflict with the scribes and the Pharisees who were zealous for the law, the maintaining of ritual purity.

I don’t think I am stating it too strongly to say that our very humanity makes us in need of forgiveness from the God who is holy. And that is why when God chooses to be a forgiving God it is a precondition for us to be in relationship with God at all.

And again, I think if we look at the grand arc of the whole Christian Story in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments we see how the very identity of God can be understood in terms of forgiveness, the fruits of mercy and love.  So much so that, after Good Friday and Easter, the early disciples of Jesus, all of them Jewish, as he was Jewish, came to call him “Lord,” the name previously reserved for God alone. It is quite remarkable. They saw in his love, mercy, and forgiveness congruence with the character and indenty of their God.

Before I move on to focus on the New Testament I need to mention something else relevant to the idea of forgiveness that will come into play later: that is that the priestly cult in Israel saw one way to blot out the memory of sins was through a blood sacrifice of an animal as an atonement or expiation. The people around Jesus’ had either participated, witnessed, or at least knew about such ritual blood sacrifices from the daily operations of the Jerusalem temple. So when we talk about Jesus’ death as atonement for sin, we are missing the original referent of the metaphor, which is partly why the idea is so hard for us. It’s a dead metaphor. I’ve written a book about all this if you want to know more (see When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement, Wipf and Stock, 2010)

All these understandings about God’s holiness get carried into the Christian era, so the New Testament also understands sin as an offense against God’s holy law or against another human being. As in the Old Testament forgiveness involves the wiping from memory of the offense by the one affronted so as restore harmony in the relationship.

The seriousness of sin is one of the chief preoccupations of the New Testament. Humans cannot by themselves avoid God’s condemnation. So Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees you can not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) And St. Paul flatly declares in his letter to the Romans: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

This is the predicament of the human condition, and the context of Jesus’ ministry. In the retrospective look of the apostolic age it was understood that, as it says in 1Timothy 15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

Our best example of forgiveness at work is in “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” (Luke 15:11-32) which I know some of you have been studying. One of the key features of that story is the father’s eagerness to restore his relationship with his lost son. Notice the father forgives the prodigal before the son even has time to deliver his little repentance speech. We should recall that the whole purpose of forgiveness is the restoration of the broken relationship. And in this parable the older brother, who didn’t leave, didn’t sin, and kept all the rules, thinks it is unfair that his deadbeat brother is restored. And it is unfair, because forgiveness is driven not by justice but by love. The older brother thinks he has earned his father’s love by his own achievements. But you don’t earn love. The father loves the prodigal not because he is good, but because he is his.

I’d like to quickly point to two more features of the New Testament idea of forgiveness. The first I have mentioned already: the death of Jesus, which in miniature focuses the whole gospel story. Here the sinless faithful Messiah, betrayed, denied, and abandoned by sinful humanity, obediently goes to his death with forgiveness on his lips, praying to his Father for forgiveness for those who killed him. It is a loving act of atonement.

The second feature, which will come up in our questions, is the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray about forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses (debts, sins), as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Here, and elsewhere, Jesus is saying that the capacity to receive forgiveness is somehow intimately connected to our capacity to forgive. In Matthew 5:23-24, for example, Jesus says, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” It is as if only those who can forgive can understand it enough to receive it.

( I gave this Lenten Study presentation on March 9, 2014, at the First Congregational Church (UCC), Stockbridge, Massachusetts.)

Picture: The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt