Christ Church, Springfield—Genesis 15:12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35
Ten days ago, on Ash Wednesday, Christians gathered in churches all over the world and participated in a liturgy of public penitence. In many of these penitential rites, including those that took place in Episcopal churches, the congregation sang or recited the fifty-first Psalm: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses.” This was King David’s lament upon being held accountable by the prophet Nathan for his adultery with Bathsheba, and his arrangement of her husband’s death. David continues, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”
My sin is ever before me.
For most of us, most of the time, our sins are ever before us. And not only our sins, but all of our inadequacies and fears, those that we are responsible for and those that we are victims of. We call ourselves “persons.” The word “person” is derived, ultimately, from the ancient Greek word for mask. It referred to the mask that actors wore during dramatic productions. So, we are all persons, we all have our masks that enable us to function in the day-to-day world without being hopelessly crippled by the fact that our sins are ever before us.
We put up, more or less, good façades for others (who are also putting up façades for us), but we rarely fool ourselves. Nor, we presume, do we ever fool God. We know that God sees past our façades, and sees what we see, and that’s the problem, that’s the root of a good deal of human spiritual anxiety. We assume that if God sees what we see, then he’s just as disappointed, just as disgusted, with us as we are with ourselves. We picture God as a determined and ambitious district attorney who’s prosecuting the trial of his career and is going to try and get the judge to hand down the maximum possible sentence. Only in this trial, the prosecutor is the judge, so we’re really in trouble! And since our sins are ever before us, and we think they’re also ever before God and we know if that’s the case he is not at all amused or happy about what he sees, we’re willing to accept a plea bargain. I mean, why fight it? We’re willing to settle for second or third or fourth best for ourselves in a whole bunch of ways. When it comes to spiritual or moral or religious experience, we figure the expression “beggars can’t be choosers” was tailor-made just for us.
Do you remember The Beverly Hillbillies, the TV show from the 60s? They were poor backwoods subsistence farmers who struck oil on their land and “loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly … Hills, that is…” They were fabulously wealthy and lived in a huge mansion, but they always thought of themselves as subsistence farmers living in the backwoods. They drove around in a flatbed truck and Granny washed everyone’s clothes in lye soap in a wooden tub. They settled for an impoverished material experience when the top-of-the-line was theirs for the taking. Their inability to grasp the implications of their newfound wealth was the whole comic point of the show—that’s what made it, supposedly, funny.
But you and I are not too unlike the Beverly Hillbillies. We don’t see the implications of the spiritual wealth that God has showered upon us, so we settle for less, much less, than the best, much less than we can “afford.” Very often we mask — here we are being persons again! — very often we mask our acceptance of second-rate spiritual experience by claiming to just not be very “religious,” or saying that we don’t need formal structures like creeds or liturgies or Bible study or prayer. But when we say that we’re “just not very religious” or that we can find God just as easily out in the woods or on the golf course as we can in church, we’re just making a virtue out of perceived necessity. Not real necessity, mind you, but perceived necessity. We don’t believe we really have a choice in the matter. Beggars can’t be choosers.
My friends, our God is too small! God is not too small, but the God we envision is too small. And because the God we envision is too small, God’s love for us is too small. Or so we perceive. But the real love that the real God has for us is wastefully lavish, it’s never-ending, and it’s rock-solid. If our perception of God’s love is like raindrops in a puddle, then God’s real love is like thirty-foot waves crashing on the rocks. If our perception of God’s love is like a battery-operated toy train, then God’s real love is like a diesel locomotive bearing down at full throttle. If our perception of God’s love is like a housecat, then God’s real love is like a roaring lion. True enough, God sees everything we see. Our “persons,” our masks, don’t fool him. But he also sees much more than we see. God overlooks our sins—not in the sense of not seeing them, or pretending that they don’t matter, but in the sense of seeing beyond them. God sees past the sins and fears and inadequacies that are “ever before us.” He knows that his love is bigger than they are, and that his love and not our sins is the last word in the conversation, the final act in the drama.
The distilled essence of the good news for today is this: God wants the best for us. God wanted the best for Abraham, the wandering and prosperous sheep and cattle and camel herder whom God had called away from his native land, and away from his native people, down to the land of Canaan, for the purpose of making him the father of a great nation. Well, Abraham was getting quite old and he still didn’t have a legitimate heir. It looked like he was going to have to adopt one of his own servants as his son in order to perpetuate his name. He wasn’t complaining at all. He was willing to die and be buried in a modest cave and have his wealth pass to his adopted heir. Life had been good to him, and, in this matter, he was willing to settle for second best. Like the Beverly Hillbillies. Like you and me.
But God had other plans, and he took Abraham and said, “Look here, Abraham, I appreciate the faith you’ve had in me. I appreciate your willingness to leave your country and your people behind and come down here to this strange place. I know you’re an old man, but I am going to reward you for your faithfulness in the way that I originally promised. I am going to make of your descendants a great nation that will inhabit the whole expanse of this land, all the way from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates.” If you look on a map, that’s a big bunch of real estate! God was saying to Abraham, “You’ve got to raise your sights. You’re thinking too small. You’re too willing to settle for too much less than I want to give you! I’ve got more love for you than you’re ready to receive.”
I’ve got more love for you than you’re ready to receive. This is essentially the same thing Jesus was saying when he thought of Jerusalem, the holy city of his people that he knew would be the place of his suffering and death: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken.” Jesus oozed with love for Jerusalem, whose people God had loved with more love than they had ever been willing to accept. He knew that their habit of killing the prophets and stoning God’s messengers was their way of saying “I’m just not very religious.” It was their way of settling for second-best, for less than what God wanted to give them, because they didn’t think they had a choice. Their sin was ever before them, and they saw themselves as beggars who couldn’t afford to be choosy.
The theologian and scholar of the last century, Louis Bouyer, said, “It is love itself, by its very presence, that pronounces judgment.” Which is to say, the only unpardonable sin, the only sin that God cannot overlook, cannot see beyond, is our refusal to accept his love.
So we have the opportunity, this Lent, to bring our vision for ourselves in line with God’s vision for us. We have the opportunity to raise our sights along with Abraham and begin to survey the utter expansiveness of what God wants to share with us. It won’t do to remain “spiritual Beverly Hillbillies,” settling for second-best because we don’t think we have a choice. We’re not beggars! We’re adopted daughters and sons of the Most High God and brothers and sisters of Jesus, the one who on the cross bridged the gap between God’s love and our sins. All that is his is ours. We’re rich! It’s time for us to start thinking and acting accordingly.
Let the words of St Paul ring in our ears until we can’t ever forget them: “Our commonwealth is in Heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brethren, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.” Amen.