1 Tim 1:12-17
Fifteen years ago, this Sunday fell on the weekend following the terrible events of September 11th, 2001. In 2005 and 2010, this same Sunday fell on September 11th itself. As I looked back on what I preached on those days I realized (again) that, as I said, “…history may be past, but it is hardly over. The wounds of 9/11 still run deep, not only in the lives of the families and friends who lost loved ones on that day, but in the psyche of our nation. In a recent interview about the events of that day, Condoleezza Rice, then the national security advisor, recalled that her secretary wrote a huge X through the date on the calendar in her office. Things would never be the same, she said. There was before 9/11, 9/11, and after 9/11. The date became a dividing line in our nation’s history – and in more ways than one.
It won’t go away. But we do have to move on, also. And we have tried. It’s very hard. In some ways, we probably took the wrong path – I’m sure that Jesus would have wept over the death and destruction that followed on 9/11 as the United States attempted to extract vengeance for the attacks, blaming the wrong people. And it is still too early to tell what we have gained or even learned from all that. One thing is very clear. Sin and death can still assert themselves with force. But the power of love and forgiveness unleashed by the death and resurrection of Jesus has not been extinguished. Hope still lives.
So today’s three readings from the word of God, tell us something important about sin, guilt, and redemption. First off, whether we like it not, people do sin. Good people, and sometimes hugely. And without doubt will continue to. That’s what the first reading from the Book of Exodus reminds us. But it ends, more forcefully, with the promise of forgiveness and redemption. The second reading from the Letter to Timothy makes it clear just how such forgiveness and redemption are guaranteed us: “You can depend on this as worthy of full acceptance: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.” Not the righteous, and especially not the self-righteous, not the vengeful and violent who feel no need of forgiveness, but those who are sinners and know and admit they are sinners and beg for forgiveness. Like Paul himself.
Our one and only claim to the mercy of God is just that: We sin. Strange, isn’t it. Especially the lengths we all go to deny the one thing that qualifies us to receive the grace and forgiveness of God.
In the story of the prodigal, the focus is not on sin, guilt, and shame, which are taken for granted. Jesus wants us to consider something else, even beyond the young man’s coming to his senses, his repentance, and his acknowledgment of sin — all of which, by the way, are guided by self-interest. That doesn’t matter. What does matter is the joy his father experiences just to know that his wayward son has come back home. The personal hurt is forgiven, swallowed up in the old man’s happiness. It is that joy, which doesn’t need words of absolution, that actually guides us into the story of the prodigal. For St. Luke prefaces his most famous and important story about forgiveness and reconciliation with two little parables that tell us in advance what’s important in Jesus’ scheme of values and, you can be sure, God’s.
The punch lines tell it all. And for some reason, it took me a long time to see it: each of the three stories ends with the same words — “Rejoice with me…”, “Rejoice with me…,” and twice in the story of the Prodigal, just in case we didn’t get the first and second time. First: “Let us eat and celebrate because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life.” And then, “We had to celebrate and rejoice!” And then the punch line: “This lost sheep, this lost coin, this lost brother of yours was dead, and has come back to life. He was lost, and is found.”
The failing of the older brother is that he could not bring himself to rejoice in his little brother’s salvation. That’s the moral of the story, plain and simple.”
Fifteen years ago, on the Sunday after 9/11, this same Sunday, I said this, and I wouldn’t change a thing:
“As a people, we stand today humbled by the great disaster that befell on Tuesday, but resolute in our faith and firm in our commitment to heal the wounded, to comfort the grieving, to bury our dead, and to rebuild not only a shattered community, but our moral purpose as a nation. The temptation is powerful to strike out in anger, to violate those we believe to have violated us. But on this day of prayer and mourning, if we listen to the voice of Jesus, even the words from his cross of execution, we will hear both of forgiveness but also a warning: those who take the sword shall perish by the sword. “Beloved,” the great evangelist [Paul] also wrote, “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No,” he adds, “‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” [Rom 12:19-21, citing Deut. 32:35 and Prov. 25:21].”
Fifteen years later, we still have cause to ask ourselves “Am I going to stand outside the party blaming and shaming or go inside to rejoice in the community of love and forgiveness?” For our lost brother was dead, and has come back to life. He was lost and is found. What amazing grace.