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Thursday, March 22, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12 OR Psalm 119:9-16, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

In many religious traditions, including that of our forefathers and mothers in Judaism, it is through a priest that one receives forgiveness.  Even into the time of Jesus, forgiveness required a sacrifice to be offered on the altar.  We moved on to a time when various forms of confession and penance were required.  Protestants of many stripes are familiar with a prayer of confession as part of the liturgy.  Today confession is sometimes part of pastoral counseling.  We are worried about something, want help getting our lives and/or relationships straight, feel like we’re carrying a burden, so we go to the pastor to get some counsel.  Maybe we even hear from him or her a healing word of forgiveness.

Perhaps our lectionary readings for this Sunday are a call to think again about the place of forgiveness in our relationships with God and one another.

Psalm 51 is one of the all-time great prayers of confession, a plea for forgiveness.  It is presented to us as a prayer of King David at the time of his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba.  It is not just his adultery, however, that is at issue.  David had Bathsheba’s husband sent to the front lines of battle where he was sure to be killed.  There was a lot of premeditation and “collateral” damage involved here.

The prayer assumes God’s love and mercy.  “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.”  (Psalm 51:1) The image is that of washing and cleansing.  “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin . . . wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”  (vss. 2 & 7) “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”  (vs. 10)

Are we able to identify with the depth of David’s cry?  Probably many are not.  I was struck by a short article by Pastor M. Craig Barnes in The Christian Century for March 21.  Entitled, “The Prodigal’s Brother,” it begins with these words, “When I preach on the parable of the prodigal son, I always get stuck on the older brother.  I wish there were a fifth gospel in the New Testament devoted to reaching out to that guy because he’s everywhere in the congregation I serve, wearing many names and faces.”  In some churches the approach has been to make him feel bad, “convict” him of his “sin,” make him wallow in it.  I’m not happy with confession and forgiveness that proceeds from forced wallowing.  It reminds me of the day one of my daughters asked if I was feeling bad.  I said, “Not particularly.”  “Well, Dad, just say you’re feeling bad.”  “But, I’m not really.”  “Well, just say it anyway.”  “Okay, I feel bad.”  She leapt in like a cat with a mouse trapped in the corner.  “Good!  I have good news to cheer you up!”  Her good news was a good report card.  I think I probably could have handled the good news with great joy without going into the pit first.

Many of us are probably that way when it comes to our “sins,” our shortcomings.  Mostly they are minor and our “good works” outweigh our evil deeds.  Few of us have sent a man into battle to be killed so we could have his wife.

At the same time, many are weighed down, feel like they are drowning in a pit.  There are those who carry a burden of guilt, who have, in fact, lived a life they, and quite likely others, consider to be “prodigal.”  And we all find ways, intentionally or unintentionally, to rupture relationships.  The novel, Love Story, contained the line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  The fact is that most relationships require a fair amount of owning up to the things we do to one another, asking for and receiving forgiveness.

At a broader, social, level, we feel ourselves implicated in the atrocities and injustices that governments and businesses often heap upon the weak of the world.  We cannot escape some level of responsibility, yet we feel frustrated and helpless.

Whether our “sins” seem large or small, most of us find comfort and strength in the experience of God’s love and mercy.  Both Jeremiah and David knew that forgiveness was an inward matter, that it began in the heart.  Forgiveness may reach out to touch all manner of relationships, small and large, but the heart is the starting point.  Jeremiah proclaims it in terms of a new covenant.  “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord, for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”  (Jeremiah 31:33-34)  In the midst of David’s prayer, he says to God, “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.”  (Psalm 51:5)  Even the alternative Psalm (#119), while part of a very long chapter (the longest in the Bible) in praise of God’s Law, emphasizes the “heart.”  “With my whole heart I seek you; . . . I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you.”  (Psalm 199:10-11)   One may read Psalm 119 as a catalog of right and wrong behavior, leading to guilt which drives one to a priest for confession and sacrifice.  We must never forget, though, that both righteousness and confession begin in the heart.

Christians came to believe that the promise in Jeremiah 31 was fulfilled in Jesus, although, after 2000 plus years we’re still trying to understand and interpret what that means.  Our two New Testament readings, written some years into the life of the early church are part of an attempt to define who Jesus was/is and did/does and how that relates to the ups and downs of our lives.

The letter to the Hebrews presents Jesus as a high priest offering himself as the sacrifice in place of all the sacrifices offered by the many priests in the past.  We no longer need to offer sacrifices and Jesus is the only priest we need.  It’s an argument and image that is difficult for us to follow, coming, as it does, from a set of cultural assumptions and practices that are alien to our experience.  It is made more complicated by the introduction of Melchizedek.  Jesus, we are told, has “been designated a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.”  (Hebrews 5:10.  See also vs. 6)   Melchizedek (“King of Righteousness”) was a king and priest from Salem (Jerusalem) who bestowed a blessing on Abraham.  (See Genesis 14:17 and following).  Rather than getting bogged down in all that, however, our basic focus is upon Jesus as the one to whom we look as priest, Jesus who “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears . . .” who “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”  (Hebrews 5:7 & 9)

Lutheran Pastor F. Dean Lueking, interpreting John 12:20-33 (this week’s Gospel lesson) in The Christian Century for March 21, says, “ . . . the verses of the passage come one after the other in a disconnected jumble.”  It is basically another look at relationship rather than legalism.  Meaning is found in following and serving, i.e., joining “the Son of Man” in self-giving.  (John 12:23-26)   Pastor Lueking focuses on verse 32 where Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  “Jesus does not force, bribe, or dazzle;” Lueking argues, “he draws people to know and love him . . . From his uplifted cross, the place where suffering love put him, he draws to himself all who will come . . . this scandal is the good news of Christ’s eternal priesthood: he forgives our sins . . . We’re drawn into the healing community of the forgiven—not yanked or cajoled or sweet-talked.”

I come from, and exist and worship in, a tradition which says we are all priests to one another.  The quote above talks about being part of a “healing community of the forgiven.”  We all need support as we face the challenges and temptations, the opportunities and choices, of this life.  That support is as close as our neighbor.  It is in and through him or her that Christ may breathe new life into our hearts and spirits when we our steps seem faltering.

I leave you with yet another quote from Pastor Lueking: “God never gets tired—never tires of the heartbroken nor of those who are exasperatingly adrift.”

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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