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Sermon for August 22, 2021

I was looking for a funny story to begin my sermon but I found this instead.  Once upon a time two friends were walking through the desert.  During some point in the journey, the two had an argument and one friend slapped the other in the face.  The one who got slapped was hurt, but without saying anything he wrote in the sand:  Today my best friend slapped me in the face.  They kept walking until they found an oasis where they decided to take a bath.  The one who had been slapped in the face got stuck in the mire beneath the water’s surface and started drowning, but the friend saved him.  

After he recovered from the near drowning, he wrote on a stone: Today my best friend saved my life.  The friend who had slapped and saved his best friend asked him, “After I hurt you you wrote in the sand and now you write in the stone. Why?”  The other friend replied, “When someone hurts us we should write it down in sand where winds of forgiveness can erase it away.  But when someone does something good for us, we must engrave it in stone  where no wind can ever erase it”  Let us write our hurts in the sand and to carve our benefits in stone.  For Life is too short to waste time hating anyone.

There are two passages that speak about our commitment to God.  In Hebrew Scripture, Joshua called on all the people of Israel, “revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord”.  Those words could be said to us today. We wouldn’t choose to worship the Canaanite god Baal or the Egyptian sun god Ra.  Our gods are more earthbound than that.  We might be led astray by the desire for money or fame or acceptance by others.  It is so easy to be fooled by the so called gods of today’s society, thinking that happiness and peace come from the things of this earth.  But deep down inside, we know that true happiness is found in the love God gives us and in the love that we give to others.

The gospel offers a teaching from Jesus that many struggled with and some left Jesus because of it.   We hear again today that Jesus is the living bread.  His detailed description caused some to doubt.  They decided to follow the teaching of someone else.  So many disciples left Jesus that he asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”   Simon Peter gave the words that speak for us, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

We know that other food we eat will give us sustenance for a short period of time but Jesus gives us bread that brings eternal life.  We receive the gift of spirit and life from the words of Jesus, his love and his sacrifice.  It is a kind of life that many seek and are unable find it because they are looking in the wrong place.  We do believe in the words of Jesus and we commit ourselves to following his teaching.  We dedicate ourselves to serve the Lord.  Clare of Assisi, a contemporary of Francis said it well, "Love God, serve God; everything is in that.”  We serve because we are thankful for all that we have been given.  

I wonder if the contemporary Christian leader Rick Warren was speaking to me when he wrote, “Faithful servants never retire. You can retire from your career, but you will never retire from serving God.”  Our service to God and to God’s people does not really end.  Our chance to serve God often comes in the small things we do every day.  Saint Francis de Sales said, “Great occasions for serving God come seldom, but little ones surround us daily.

Yesterday, I participated in a Zoom meeting with folks who support the Cursillo movement throughout the United States. We had over 300 people on the Zoom session.  I wish that it had happened in person but it was a joyous occasion nonetheless.  Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, gave an introductory message.  He reminded all of us that Jesus called his followers into action.  When he first met Peter he said, “follow me”.  Later he said of those who were unsure to come and see.  Much later, he asked his apostles to go and proclaim the good news.  I say that serving God is an action.  For some time I have been thinking about forgiveness as a way to serve God.  Jesus gave us three messages that help us come closer to God and to other people. Jesus called us to repent, to forgive and to reconcile.  Repentance brings us closer to God, forgiveness heals our souls and reconciliation brings us closer to our neighbor.  

From the earliest parts of his public ministry, Jesus encouraged people to “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.”  In Luke’s gospel Jesus invited a tax collector named Levi to join his group of followers.  Then he came to dinner hosted by Levi with other tax collectors. The religious leaders complained that Jesus spent time with sinners.  Jesus said, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”  These are words that speak to me.  For I am a sinner and many of us have times when we sin  It is good news that Jesus came to call us to repentance, to be with us even when we have erred.   God is always waiting for us to turn from sin and welcome God into our life.  Repentance includes sorrow and regret but it also means we turn from sin to God and that we surrender ourselves to God as our Lord.  

If we are sinners who seek God’s forgiveness and if we love our neighbors,  it seems like a natural next step to forgive those who have wronged us.  Forgiveness can be a difficult thing to deal with.  Forgiveness does not mean forgetting and it does not mean that we should put ourselves in harms way.  Forgiveness to me is more about realizing that people do wrong things and they can change their ways. There have been times when I have not done everything right and offering forgiveness to another creates an opportunity for me to change my own ways.  Forgiveness means letting go of things that have happened.  It can help us to heal from bad experiences.   We need to get rid of the anger, the desire for revenge and maybe even the sense of self righteousness, for when we harbor those feelings we won’t find a way to move on.  Those feelings can keep us from finding peace in our lives. And forgiveness is something Jesus expected of his followers.   In Matthew, chapter 6 we read about the message Jesus gave, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”.

Forgiveness is something we do as individuals but it can also be something we do as a society.  What a person has done in the past is often an indication of what they do now.  But sometimes I think our society judges people on things a person has done a long time ago without considering whether they have repented for their wrongdoing or asked for forgiveness or sought to change their ways.  

I also have thought lately about our view of the penal system in the United States.  We incarcerate a larger percent of the population in the US than another other country.  I am not sure that our system has made us safer than other countries.  And the way we treat people in prison has not led to a significant reduction in the possibility that they will not commit another crime in the future.  There are other ways that have been shown to help a convicted person find repentance and to help that person become a productive member of society.  

The final step in repairing relationships is reconciliation.  Reconciliation is the concept of finding a way to resolve our differences, to be united again with a person with whom we have had some sort of falling out.  Jesus called us to reconcile in some pretty straightforward terms.  Jesus said, “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.”  Our relationship with God is dependent on having a good relationship with our fellow humans.  

Jesus taught us things that are not always easy.  We accept Jesus as the living bread.  It is a calling to bring the peoples of the world together.  We seek to reconcile with those we have disagreed with.  We make progress when we let the winds of forgiveness work in our lives and we remember the good that others have done for us.  We work to bring people together, to find forgiveness and reconciliation for all.  It is possible because of the love that God has given us and the love we have for each other.  May God bless us all and help us live our lives in peace and unity.  Amen.