Years ago I was part of a continuing education course at the University of Toronto. The teacher was a Presbyterian minister named John Bryan, and the topic was appropriate and effective use of power. I learned important things in that class, and still occasionally look back at my notes. But as sometimes happens, the biggest insight I gained was not part of the formal presentation. In one of the last classes, Dr. Bryan reflected on what he looks for when he attends a church. He said the most important thing was the reminder that God loves him, and there is nothing in all the mistakes, and mis-steps, and confusion of life that can change that.
While I rode home on the GO train that evening, I looked around at my fellow commuters, and wondered, “Do they know how much God loves them? How would their lives be different if they did?”
While on that train I wrote the first draft of the assurance of God’s love we have often said in worship. I have been using it for almost 12 years. Some of you seem to know it by heart. I start with, “Let us say these words that each of us need to hear”, and you join in with the response:
God loves me.
God has always loved me.
God will always love me, no matter what.
My sins are forgiven, and I am loved by God.
I have not included it in the service lately. I very much agree we all need reminders of God’s love. I have not been using because it is there is so much more to our relationship with God, and so much more to say about God’s love, than can be expressed in terms of sin and forgiveness. As Marcus Borg says in this week’s chapter of The Heart of Christianity, “When sin becomes the one-size-fits-all designator of the human condition, then forgiveness becomes the one-size-fits-all remedy.”
Borg offers a good illustration. Visiting a church, he had “just preached a sermon on the “closed heart” and our need for an “open heart”. In the pastoral prayer following the sermon, one of the clergy prayed, ‘We ask you, O Lord, to forgive us our closed hearts.” Borg thought to himself, “Well, okay, but it misses the point. If we have closed hearts, we don’t need forgiveness as much as we need to have our hearts opened.”
Abraham Kaplan was a Ukrainian born son of a rabbi, who became a teacher and philosopher. He formulated the law of the instrument, which he expressed this way: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”
I can definitely relate. Two summers ago I borrowed a compressor and an air-powered hammer from a friend, to use while installing baseboard and coving in our house. There are places where I can still see the damage I did, in my enthusiasm to use the “big gun”, where what was needed was something more gentle, more subtle.
The sin and forgiveness talk that dominates many churches can be like using a hammer, when perhaps another tool would be better.
Of course we need to be reminded that forgiveness is part of how God loves us. But there is a lot more to be said. Imagine it this way. What if every time I want to tell my son, or daughter, or my wife that I love them, I say, “I forgive you!”? My guess is that this would fit less than 1 percent of the time. In those times when it is needed, there may be nothing more important than to say and hear the words, “I am sorry,” and “I forgive you.”
But for all the other times I want to show my love, it is about appreciating them, encouraging them, blessing them, cherishing them, praying and hoping for good things for them, comforting them, helping them, letting them know how much they mean to me, and how much better my life is, because they are in it. Often my expressions of love go beyond words, beyond the action of forgiving. My expressions of love include providing shelter, and sustenance, and good and interesting things to do, and life lessons, and laughter, and smiles, and hugs, and tears. Forgiveness only comes into it if a wrong has occurred, or pain has been caused, and we need to get past the hard feelings.
If I said, “I forgive you” every time I wanted to say I love you- people I love might end up feeling they were always in the wrong, always being judged, and they could never do or be anything except in need of forgiveness. There is so much more to relationships than this! After a while, the words “I forgive you” would cease to communicate my love. Those well intentioned words would end up feeling like hammer blows, pounding down the human spirit, and leaving the person broken, bruised, and miserable.
There are churches, past and present, and preachers, well acquainted with the wielding of this heavy duty hammer. There is a particular way of being Christian that seems to be mostly about sin and forgiveness- getting saved. As Borg says, in this kind of Christianity,
“Sin is the problem from which we need deliverance. It is commonly understood as the reason for Jesus’ death: he died for our sins. Indeed, in many forms of Christianity, we could not be forgiven if it were not for Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Sin is thus the reason for the incarnation. If we had not sinned, Jesus’ life and death would not have been necessary.”
When we hear the word sin we may think about actions or thoughts that show us to be breaking the rules, being bad. Another nuance is something called “original sin”- the idea that because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, we are all somehow tainted, and need to be washed clean. These notions of sin fit with the judgement/forgiveness model of our relationship with God. The problem of sin fits with the tool available, the hammer of forgiveness.
But do these ideas of sin, either that we broke a rule, or that we are tainted with original sin really address all the situations humans find themselves in?
Our Old Testament reading this morning is part of the story of the Hebrew people on their long journey away from Egypt, and towards the Promised Land. God sent Moses to lead the people to a new life. The solution to their problem of being slaves in bondage was not forgiveness, but the hope of liberation.
In the kind of Christianity that places almost total emphasis on our sinfulness, and our need to be cleansed, the word salvation is used in a fairly limited sense, to mean whether or not we are personally “saved”- whether or we have accepted Jesus as our personal saviour, and have confidence that we will go to heaven when we die.
As Borg says, “Ancient Israel’s story is a story of the creation of a new people, a nation, a community. Salvation is about life together. Salvation is about peace and justice within community and beyond community. It is about shalom, a word connoting not simply peace as the absence of war, but peace as the wholeness of a community living together in peace and justice. Salvation is never only an individual affair in the Hebrew Bible.”
Borg looks carefully at the word salvation. “The root of the English word is helpful. It comes from a Latin word that means “wholeness” and “healing” (the same root from which we get the word “salve,” a healing agent). In its broadest sense, salvation thus means becoming whole and being healed.”
Salvation is about God’s dream that we embrace the love we are offered, and live transformed lives. Borg points to some beautiful metaphors for salvation that appear in the New Testament, in which Jesus shows us that God’s love is about far more than judging and forgiving us.
For those who feel caught in darkness, Jesus is the light of the world.
For those who are spiritually hungry, Jesus is the bread of life.
For those who are thirsty, Jesus is living water.
For those who feel lost, Jesus is the way.
For those who feel estranged, or cut off from life, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches.
For those seeking re-birth, Jesus is the path of dying to the old life, and rising to the new.
For those seeking healing, Jesus is the one who makes us whole.
For those longing to live in God’s presence, Jesus is the new temple.
The parable we heard this morning about the Prodigal Son contains many of these aspects of salvation. It is a story about a person who tries to make their own way in life, and gets confused and lost. He wanders into darkness, and ends up feeling alone, and afraid, and ashamed. He is physically and spiritually hungry, and longs for re-connection to his family and community. He tries to plan out what actions and words might end up restoring his life, bring him back from the living death which he can no longer endure. Ultimately salvation is found in the love of his father, who does offers him forgiveness, but far more than that.
The prodigal is embraced in the arms of love. He is kissed and shown compassion. His old clothing is stripped away, and he is dressed in clean garments. There is a great celebration, with food and drink, singing and dancing. The community gathers to welcome him home. At the end of the story the father explains that the prodigal “was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
Thanks be to God. Amen