I have always been a firm believer in hope. I believe the best way to overcome loss, is to remind ourselves of all that we have been blessed with. I believe that the best way to combat failure is to look at what can be learned from that failure to achieve success. I believe that the best way to combat depression is by looking to the future with faith in a God who promises to sustain us. And, of course, I believe the best way to overcome hate is by responding with love.
Last week we commemorated the 18th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001. And each year when we reach this anniversary, we are presented with a choice. We can choose whether we will mark this anniversary with resentment, anger, bitterness, and wishes for vengeance; or, we can mark this anniversary with appropriate feelings of loss, sadness, and remorse, but also with hope, which God shows us is always attainable when people come together and try to understand each others’ pain. Hope for the transformation of people’s hearts and minds that is often rooted in one of the most difficult things we are asked to do in this life, which is to forgive each other. Because through understanding and forgiveness, we can, with God’s help, work to change the memory of painful events and transform them into moments shaped by God’s grace that are opportunities to show what it really means to build up the kingdom of God.
Our readings today show us God is quite willing to do just that. And they challenge us to do the same. To take another look at a situation or a person and consider how things might be different.
We began this morning with the story of Moses. In the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, we heard about Moses’ extraordinary religious experience on top of Mount Sinai! If you’ve ever had a moment or time when God has seemed breathtakingly real—when God has felt so close to you that God feels part of you, then you’ll understand the feeling of exaltation that possessed Moses after he’d met God on the mountain top. But if you’ve had that kind of experience, you also know how easy it can be to develop a confidence that you are the one who “knows” what is right. You know how God wants us to live and what God wants us to do because you feel like you’ve been closer to God than anyone else could possibly have been. Well, that’s probably how Moses felt. And it would have been just that easy for Moses to feel special, better than others, and ready to judge and exclude.
So, imagine how Moses might have reacted when he heard that the people had gone back to worshiping their idols and seeing that God was ready to destroy them all. Moses must have been embarrassed, disappointed, and full of shame. It would have been easy for him to strike out, to agree with God that the Israelites had no place among the chosen people. But Moses didn’t do that. Instead, Moses looked to what the possibilities might be if he changed his mind about the people’s behavior. Moses looked for the grace in the moment. And so, instead of condemning the people, Moses implored God to show mercy. He reminded God that these were the people who were brought out of Egypt. He reminded God that these people were the chosen-ones, the heirs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These people, with all their flaws, were the hope of the future.
And, the scripture says, the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Then, in the second reading, Paul reminds young Timothy that God changed his mind about Paul himself. Paul’s fault was that he had been a self-righteous zealot ready to persecute and strike down anyone thought to be doctrinally unsound or impure. He even held the coats of those who stoned Stephen to death. But Paul says,
But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Based on some of his other writings, you might easily think that Paul didn’t change much that day, but that would be to judge him on only part of his record and to ignore the breadth and depth of Paul’s God-given love that grew throughout his own journey of faith. And at least this morning Paul’s words overflow with thanksgiving because God had changed his mind and delivered Paul from being a stiff, unforgiving religious zealot.
Then, in the Gospel today, we see yet another example of condemnation when the religious leaders criticize Jesus because he ate meals with religious and social outcasts, those who had offended God in thought, word, and deed. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not trivializing the faults of these outcasts. Like the people in the story of Moses, and like St. Paul, these people were living self-destructive lives, hurting themselves as they hurt others. It’s not that the Pharisees were wrong about them. They were just wrong about God’s ability to turn a situation around.
To illustrate this, Jesus tells two simple stories, one about a shepherd who has lost a lamb, and the other about a woman who has lost what we would now call a wedding ring, but also her dowry. Both search frantically for the thing they prize most. Jesus says that the point is that the person you despise most, perhaps with great cause, [in our case, perhaps even those who brought about so much death and destruction 18 years ago] that even that person is still prized by God and is within the reach of God’s redemptive and transformative love. No matter our transgression, God is always ready to change God’s mind and change our hearts, and in the process to change destruction and despair into holiness and hope.
I am often reminded of the amazing story from back in 2007 when an Amish community in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania was rocked by a horrendous crime. Early one morning, a man stormed into a one-room schoolhouse in that community and shot 10 young girls, killing five of them. He then killed himself. The response of the Amish community to that tragedy was truly holy. They could not extend their forgiveness to the killer, so they expressed forgiveness to the killer’s family. The killer wasn’t Amish but Amish families knew him as the milk truck driver who made deliveries. Because they knew that without his income the killer’s family would be struggling financially, the community donated money to the killer’s widow and her three young children. Members of the Amish community even went to the killer’s burial service. Several families who had buried their own daughters just the day before were in attendance and they hugged the widow and hugged other members of the killer’s family. Forgiveness is not easy. But it is what God calls us to do.
There is no question that we live in troubled times. Our religious, political, and social divisions seem greater now than at any time in my life. And that makes it easy for us to take sides and to damn those who don’t believe as we do. Unfortunately, some churches are the worst offenders, with religious leaders who seem to freely and easily condemn those they believe are in error and who they would readily drive out of our fellowship, or break communion with because they are too “conservative” or too “liberal.”
But God always wants to change God’s mind in favor of hope and love. And God wants us to change our minds and hearts about each other in the same way. That’s what love means. Judging is easy. Changing our minds about people is NOT. God has changed God’s mind about each one of us over and over and over again. That’s what repentance and forgiveness is all about. And this morning God will change God’s mind about each one of us, yet again, with enormous patience and love. And so we prayed in the collect for today that the love of the changed-mind of God might fill us and redeem us.
O God, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee, mercifully grant that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the same Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
That is our prayer this morning for ourselves, and it is our prayer for all of God’s creation. Amen.