Lent 4 March 14, 2010

1 Corinthians 5:16-21                                                       

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32                                                          

Oh, dear! I do have trouble with sin – and here I have to preach on it. Again. I comfort myself with the thought that all of us have trouble with sin, and that our God wants to help us, not make things worse.

I’ll start with an incident that I can’t get out of my mind, I guess because it seems to dramatize the whole “trouble with sin” thing so powerfully. It happened at an Easter morning service back in the old church years ago. There was a family in Holy Cross back then who owned an auto repair shop. A few weeks before Easter my old pick-up truck had scraped its side against the doorway to the garage. No dent really, just a swipe of white paint. I know I didn’t do it; Anne knew she hadn’t done it. The truck must have gone off on its own while we were asleep. Anyway, I took it into this shop and asked if they could repair it for me.

 

“No problem,” said the young man who worked there. He was a boyhood friend of the guy who owned the shop and Jamie had hired him when his marriage fell apart and he needed a job. He got some sort of cleaning compound and with a little rubbing the truck was as good as new. “How much?” I asked. “No charge,” he said. And off I drove, good as new.

Well, on that Easter morning, there was this young man in church, sitting in the front pew with his employer and the employer’s family. Looking out at them all there, I was moved to put aside the homily I had prepared and instead tell the story of my truck’s little sin and how it had been wiped away clean, no charge. This is what Jesus did for us on the Cross, I said. This is the new life he opened to us on Easter.

As I preached, I saw tears begin to roll down the young man’s face. I was a little surprised, but of course I said nothing. On the way out the door, the man shook my hand with special fervor. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you very much.” I never saw him again, at church or at the auto repair shop. It turned out that the reason his marriage had ended and he’d lost his job was that he’d been sexually abusing his children. And then he’d tried to abuse his new employer’s child, his friend’s child, as well.

Where is he now, I wonder, that young man? In prison, I hope – some place at least where he can’t prey on children ever again. Does he ever think about the pick-up truck incident and my Easter homily? If so, what does he think? How does God’s forgiveness apply to him? How does it apply to us?

The gospel is clear – this well-known story of the “prodigal son” that is really about the “forgiving father”: God always stands ready to wipe our fenders clean, without charge; to welcome us home and serve a banquet in our honor. That’s the very nature of our God.

It’s also clear that God does not send people to hell. People send themselves to hell – or to heaven. As Timothy Keller points out so well in this week’s installment of our on-line Lenten study series, heaven and hell are simply the extensions of the lives that we choose for ourselves here on earth. God leaves us free to make bad choices – like the son who takes his inheritance and spends it all in sinful living.

Another thing is clear: it doesn’t follow from this that good and bad aren’t real, that God’s forgiveness means that there are no consequences for our actions, including eternal consequences. In fact, quite the contrary. God’s forgiving nature is what gives meaning to our human freedom to choose. We can’t blame God for our mistakes.

We don’t know why the young man was a child abuser. Perhaps he had been abused himself as a child. Yes, abuse is a kind of sickness – like alcoholism, like a lot of bad behavior. But that doesn’t remove responsibility. The young man could have got treatment, or removed himself from all situations of temptation. His actions were, at some level, voluntary, and thus sinful, not just sick. It’s important to preserve the moral characterization of our acts – at all levels – because otherwise we lose our distinctiveness as human beings, beings made in the image of God. God still loves that young man, wherever he is. God stands ready to forgive him if he repents. But that doesn’t mean he necessarily gets to return to society or that he hasn’t hurt the children he abused in ways that will affect them all their lives. Our sins have consequences – for ourselves and others – that forgiveness can’t wipe away.

On the other hand, that doesn’t make it all right for us to be judgmental, condemning people. That, too, is a sin. The older brother in the story is guilty of that sin, which really has to do with lack of faith in God. The older brother begrudges the father’s welcome of the younger because he thinks it somehow takes away from the father’s love of him. But, as the father says, it really doesn’t. So the fact that someone has abused children – or committed any other crime – doesn’t allow us to treat them inhumanely in prison or regard them as less than children of God, our brothers and sisters. That’s just a way of pretending to ourselves that we are without sin – condemning others rather than amending our own lives.

That brings us to a final word, about forgiveness of each other. Forgiveness among human beings is even more complex and difficult to get right than forgiveness from God. When we hurt others, we are always called to recognize and acknowledge our faults, apologize for them, and seek reconciliation when it is possible. But the person who has been hurt must not be asked to forgive too easily, as though there had been no hurt. A therapist who specialized in treating abuse victims told me once that victims must not be asked to forgive until they have really dealt with the magnitude of what has been done to them. Even then, any forgiveness must really be to help them in their healing, never to let the abuser off the hook; otherwise it may simply renew the original abuse. No one needs to suffer wrong when it can be avoided. What forgiveness among human beings is about is breaking the chain of revenge and reprisal. By doing this, however damaged we are, we are doing the work of Christ, reconciling the world to God.

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