Monday, February 18, 2019

Love For Love's Sake

Yesterday, in Luke 6:17-26, we heard Jesus begin his Sermon on the Plain by encouraging the poor, the hungry, and the weeping that the time of their plenty will come, and we heard him warn the rich, the full, and the happy that they've already received their consolation. It seems that you can either be rich in heaven or on earth but not both. This Sunday, in Luke 6:27-38, we will hear Jesus continue his sermon with a different message that follows the same logic: "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return." Jesus seems to be asking whether we want to reap the benefits of loving and lending in this life or the next because we can't have both.

Why do we love other people? Do we love them because we want to be loved in return? Do we love them simply because we do? Do we lend someone money because we want to borrow from them in the future? Or is the practice of lending and borrowing with a close friend a reflection of a relationship that blurs the lines of possession? Do we do good toward those who treat us similarly in a gesture of mandated reciprocation, or do we act kindly toward those who aren't our kin? I suppose that it depends.

For the purpose of this blog post, I want to leave the lending and good-doing behind and focus on love. Why do we love the people we love? We may not love them with the calculated purpose of receiving love back, but we typically love those who share love with us. We love our children even before they know what love is, but we are fostering in them a relationship that we anticipate will produce reciprocal love. We love our spouses not only when they are delightful, helpful, attentive people, but we love them for better or for worse. Still, the marital relationship is typically one of reciprocal love. Friends, coworkers, distant relatives, even strangers on the street--when we offer them love, we may not do so strictly because we expect something in return, but our love of them opens the path to something in return. Jesus asks, "What credit is that to you?"

Jesus urges us to love those who will not or cannot love us back. To do that, Jesus singles out our enemies: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." Jesus asks us to love those from whom we receive no earthly benefit. Why? For love's sake. "Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful." Notice that the Most High is kind not to those who love for no reason at all. God is kind to the ungrateful. We are not asked to love for the sake of receiving our heavenly Father's esteem. We are asked to love for love's sake because that's how God loves us. Our reward, therefore, is not a prize in heaven but the opportunity to know and experience God's love.

We love to know love. We love those who do not love us back to know the love that God has for us--a love that is not reciprocal in any way, a love that loves for love's sake. There is no more powerful force in the universe than love like that.

Friday, February 15, 2019

When Is Your Trust?

The line between preaching faith and preaching fear is thinner than you might think. In Luke 6, Jesus says, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God...But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation." Is he trying to scare rich people into thinking that they will be left out of the reign of God? Is he trying to comfort those who lack resources in this life? Or is he trying to convince all of us how to believe in God?

It's Friday, and I don't usually post on Friday, but I didn't get a chance to write yesterday, and I am headed to diocesan Convention today, so I'm working. Plus, as my friend Steve Pankey noted on Monday, the opportunity to write on Luke's version of the Beatitudes doesn't come around very often. Matthew's version of these counter-cultural sayings only contains the "blessed" statements--the good news for the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. On top of that, as you can see in that brief summary, Luke also shifts the focus of the blessings from spiritual to material: "Blessed are the poor" vs. "Blessed are the poor in spirit." All of that to say, Luke takes the gloves off and pushes Jesus' preaching from a radical message of inclusion to an ultra-radical message of redistribution. Not only are the traditionally underprivileged people given a leg up in God's reign. The advantages that the privileged people have enjoyed evaporate.

The unusual sharpness of this message is reflected in the social media traffic I've seen among clergy colleagues. One asked a peer group how preachers in "rich" churches handle a gospel lesson like this one. Funny, I've always thought Jesus had tough words for rich people, but there's something about Luke's Beatitudes and the fact that it doesn't come up in the lectionary cycle very often that should make all of us who have a steady paycheck, a roof over our heads, and enough food to eat a little nervous.

It should make us nervous not because God is threatening to damn anyone who is financially secure but because having wealth makes it much, much harder to put our trust in God. After all, it's easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God's reign. The redistribution envisioned by Luke's Beatitudes isn't an earthly reset but a heavenly one. The point becomes clearer when we look at these parallel verses next to each other:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Blessed are you when people hate you...for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
What is the point? The point is that those who suffer in this life are blessed by God because God knows them and loves them and will remember them in God's reign. Jesus asks those who live on the margins of life to have hope and put their trust in God's promise. The challenge for those who are lacking, it seems, is to trust that things won't always be hard--that God will remember them and take care of them. Likewise, Jesus warns those who have plenty in this life that they have already received their compensation. A simple reading is that Jesus is telling us that you can either be rich in this life or in the next but not both. Simple is usually right. Maybe it's my privilege showing, but I wonder whether Jesus is telling the rich that temporal blessings are just that--temporal. If your consolation, reward, and hope are the benefits you receive in this life, you can't understand what it means to hope for God's treasure in the next. The challenge for those who enjoy earthly blessings, therefore, is to believe that God is their only true hope.

Yes, that sounds a lot like a stewardship sermon. I'm convinced that the most important spiritual thing that most of us can do is let go of our claim on wealth. I have good company, though, as Jesus seems to share that concern. You can't get into the reign of God if your hope is in your bank account, your paycheck, your insurance policy, or your 401(k). That much is plain. Do you have to sell it all and become poor? Maybe. Must you be willing to do that for the kingdom's sake? If you want to be among the blessed in God's reign, the answer seems to be yes.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

A People Who Love

February 13, 2019 - Absalom Jones

Church splits are hard on everyone. When a large part of the congregation is unhappy with the minister and walks out. When the rector and most of the parish break away because they are angry with the denomination. When an affair or abuse or fraud occurs and a congregation divides between the resentful and the sympathetic. Whatever the reason, when a congregation is split in two, it is painful. Church is supposed to be the place where we can leave our differences behind and be united as followers of Jesus. Following the example of the first Christians, listening to the admonitions of the apostle Paul, striving to accept Jesus' commandment to love one another, we want our congregations to be places of unity, and, when they are not, the pain and disappointment and anger and embarrassment pile up and sometimes spill over in hateful ways.

Jesus said to his disciples, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." He said those words to Thomas the doubter, Peter the denier, John the naive, and Matthew the tax collector. Jesus shows us what love is. He demonstrates a love that does not depend on liking someone, agreeing with someone, being treated nicely by someone. The love that unites us as the followers of Jesus, as the people of God, is a love that must transcend our arguments, our disappointments, our theological disputes, and the differences between us. That's who we are as followers of Jesus. So what happens when we can no longer love each other like that?

In 1784 Absalom Jones and his colleague Richard Allen were the first African-Americans to be licensed as lay ministers and preachers in the Methodist Church. They ministered primarily to the black congregation at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church, drawing more and more worshippers with their clear, evangelical call for the abolition of slavery. Uncomfortable with Jones and Allen's growing popularity, in 1792 the vestry of St. George's decided to require black members to move to segregated seating, first along the wall and later in the balcony. Fed up with this racism, Jones and Allen led the black members of the congregation in prayer and then a walk-out on a Sunday morning. The disaffected worshippers built their own church and applied for admission in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania under the conditions that they be accepted as a parish, allowed to govern their own affairs, and that Absalom Jones be licensed as a lay minister and, if qualified, ordained as an Episcopal clergyman. In 1795, Jones became the first African-American deacon and priest in the Episcopal Church.

What do you do when you look around the church and realize that it is impossible to obey Jesus' commandment and love one another as he has loved us? What is the faithful response when the thing that makes you Christians--the thing that defines you as a church--no longer exists in your community of faith?

Sometimes preachers like me appeal to John Calvin's definition of the church as the place where the word of God is faithfully preached and heard and where the sacraments are administered according to Christ's institution. But who gets to decide whether the word is faithfully preached in a congregation that endorses segregation or that embraces marriage equality? It seems that Calvin actually had something more basic in mind than doctrinal definitions. Calvin meant wherever the proclaimed word and administered sacraments are provided to and received by the congregation together--as in not separated--then the church is faithful. In other words, as Jesus said, it's our job, our duty, to love one another as he loved us regardless of our disagreements and to let Christ himself be the thing that unites us despite our differences. Usually, it's easier to run away from painful disputes and go somewhere else or start a new church, but are such moves an effort to be faithful to Jesus' love commandment or avoid it?

Sometimes, a faith community becomes so plagued with self-interest, idolatry, and sin that love becomes impossible. When members are pushed to the fringe or asked to sit upstairs because their political aspirations make the majority congregation uncomfortable, the word is no longer able to be preached and received by a congregation, nor are the sacraments being administered according to Christ's ordinance when all the white disciples receive first and the black disciples get what's left over. In cases like that, those who leave aren't leaving because they disagree with the preacher or because they don't like the direction that the denomination is taking. They're leaving because you cannot love someone as Jesus loves them when you treat as less than human, as less than yourself.

Ironically, perhaps, Absalom Jones' witness to us--his boldness and his courage--is not an invitation to split away from those whom we find to be close-minded but to stay connected to one another in love. But that love isn't something you or I get to define. It is the love that Jesus has shown us. It is the love that defines who we are. We must always love one another as we have been loved, even when it costs us dearly. Thus, we cannot fracture the body of Christ because of our disagreements. Instead, we must be willing to give up everything we value for the sake of loving those who are different, those who disagree, those we find repugnant. If someone will not love us like that, they have pulled away, but, as followers of Jesus, as disciples obedient to his commandment, we still love them just the same.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Really Real Resurrection

Although a deeply Pauline Christian, I find the apostle to be a little wordy from time to time, but I don't recall Paul ever being as redundantly repetitious as he is in Sunday's reading from 1 Corinthians 15: "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain...For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins." Over and over and over, Paul holds a rhetorical mirror up to the Corinthian church as if to say, "You do understand what you're saying, right? You can't believe in the resurrection unless you believe in the resurrection."

I can imagine Paul receiving word that some of the leaders among the Corinthian Christians had begun to question whether the resurrection of the body is a reasonable hope. "Sure, we believe in Jesus' resurrection. That's central to our faith, but the resurrection of the rest of us...well, maybe it isn't that important." Over the years, Christians were dying. Their bodies were placed in the ground. Jesus had been gone for a decade or more, and the corpses, although not piling up, were collecting in graves. Everyone knew what happened to a dead body. You don't need to know about cell structure and decomposition to know that a body stinks after a day or two. By the end of a week, what is left is in the kind of condition that no one wants to inhabit for eternity. After a month or a year or ten years, the only thing left to be raised from the earth is a collection of zombie-like remains. Yuck!

For a first-century Christian, the resurrection of the body had its problems. How will God put everything back? When will that happen? How will we live forever? For a Greek-minded believer, it's easier to imagine God welcoming the spirit or soul of the believer into a non-physical realm, leaving behind the earthly matter-suit one doesn't need for the afterlife. Maybe Jesus' resurrection was physical because his followers needed to see it and know it in order to believe it. Maybe we can believe in the resurrection of Jesus without needing to believe in our own resurrection. Sound familiar?

At the risk of being labelled out-of-touch, scientifically illiterate, old-fashioned, close-minded, and spiritually naive, I want the record to show that I believe in an actual, real, physical resurrection. Like all beliefs that are worth having and sharing with others, a claim like that needs careful consideration and should be based on something more than "my mama told me so" or "I read it in the Bible." How do all the body's cells get put back together? If I am an organ donor, do I get my organs back, and, if so, what happens to the poor person who needed them? What sort of body will I have when I come back--the over-the-hill, out-of-shape, tired body that most of us have when we die or something fresher than that? Where will we all go? The earth is already crowded with the people who are living today. What about the billions of people who have believed in Jesus and who have died? And what about the people who haven't believed? If you are a universalist, you've got to find room for them, too, and, if you're not, where is the physical hell? And what happens to the physical universe? It won't go on for ever. Sure, it can exist for a long, long, long time, but, compared with forever, that still isn't very long at all. If we are resurrected in a physical body, where will that body last forever when the sun swells and swallows up the earth, when all of energy of all of the stars in the universe dissipates into a big sigh or collapses back together in a big crunch? The answer? I don't know.

I don't know how all of that happens. I can't explain the bodily resurrection. I can appeal to alternate planes of existence (Kathryn Tanner) or to some other fundamental change in reality, but I don't know how to explain the physical resurrection in a physically limited/defined universe. But neither could Paul. And Paul wasn't worried about it either.

Paul's response is not to explain away all of the questions or concerns or unanswerables of the Corinthian Christians. Instead, he wants to remind them of the importance of the bodily resurrection and encourage them to believe even in things they cannot understand. We are not merely spirits in mortal flesh. We are mind-body-spirit beings whose existence cannot be real without our physical bits. Paul wants his readers to know that the resurrection is not a metaphor for resting in peace. He wants them to remember that following Jesus is not (only) about living a good life, standing up for justice, and being the hands and feet of the Incarnate One after his ascension. Following Jesus is about new life, everlasting life, living forever in God's reign. Jesus wasn't making this stuff up, and we don't follow him because he told nice stories. We follow him because doing so leads us through death and beyond--into God's victory even over the physical realities we inhabit.

No, I don't know how that works in a twenty-first-century, scientifically informed mindset. Neither did Paul. Of course I might be wrong about it, but dismissing something because I can't explain it isn't good epistemology. And there are too many important reasons to believe that which we cannot prove.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

By God's Grace, We Are Who We Are

 February 10, 2019 – The 5th Sunday after the Epiphany

© 2019 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.

It’s flu season, and that means that it’s a good time to know the difference between a symptom and a sickness. Fatigue, runny nose, headache, body aches—is it the flu? A cold? Or are you just run down after a hard week? You can’t catch exhaustion, but you can catch the flu, and, if you get the flu, there’s nothing you can take to make the sickness go away. Tamiflu, if you take it early on, may help make symptoms less severe and shorten your recovery time, but, ultimately, with the flu, the body has to heal itself. You can treat the symptoms, but you can’t treat the sickness. And, as we see in all three of today’s lessons, the same is true for sin: we might be able to treat the symptoms, but the sickness itself is another issue.

In these three readings, the prophet Isaiah, the apostle Paul, and Simon Peter all have encounters with the holy that call them up short. When he saw a vision of Israel’s God sitting on a throne and the hem of God’s robe filling the temple, Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Reflecting on his unworthiness, Paul described himself as “the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle because [he] persecuted the church of God.” And, when Simon saw the miraculous catch of fish that he and his companions had taken after letting down the nets where Jesus had told them to, he threw himself down on the ground at the rabbi’s feet and begged, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

Since all three of these passages contain stories of sinfulness and inadequacy, you might expect our worship today to have a somber, perhaps even Lenten tone, but that is not the case. Instead, each of these passages is a story of joy, of forgiveness, of newfound fruitfulness. Likewise, when we hear a preacher start a sermon about sin, we expect to hear something that will either make us feel bad about ourselves or make us angry at the preacher’s hypocrisy. I hope you’ll find that isn’t the case either. And the reason that we harbor those expectations is because so often we are asked to feel guilty about the symptoms without ever being invited to address the underlying issue.

In that imprecise way that is so often indicative of church-speak, we use the word “sin” to describe two different things. It is both the laundry list of things done and left undone that we call “sins,” and it is also the inherent imperfection of our lives—the gap between our will and God’s will that we call “sin.” But don’t get caught up in the religious jargon. It doesn’t really matter what we call it. You don’t have to be religious to know that things aren’t the way that they could be—that, no matter how hard people try, the lives and communities we create aren’t perfect. In society, we’ve dealt with disease and poverty and exploitation and death for all of human history. And every single one of us, in one way or another, has dealt with dishonesty and infidelity and greed and self-centeredness in real and personal ways. That dishonesty is a sin, but the inevitability of it is also sin. One is a symptom, and the other is a sickness, and today readings, as well as the collect for the day, are all about finding a way to deal with the underlying problem.

When Isaiah lamented his uncleanness, when Paul explained his unworthiness, and when Simon fell down at Jesus’ feet, it wasn’t because they were overcome with guilt over something that they had done. It was because they recognized their inadequacy—their fundamental inability to reflect in their lives the perfection embodied by the one who had made them. When each one was brought into the presence of the divine, he crumpled in weakness not in fear that some secret misdeed might be discovered by God but because the presence of God had brought into stark relief the unworthiness that they embodied. And, in each case, what was God’s response? God took whatever was lacking and made it whole, commissioning each one for holy work.

“Now that this [coal] has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out,” the seraph said to Isaiah so that, when God spoke and asked, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” the would-be prophet could answer boldly, “Here am I; send me!” Paul might have been the most zealous persecutor of the church, but Jesus appeared to him not to condemn him to the same death to which he had condemned so many Christians but to redirect his zealotry and commission him as an apostle to the Gentiles. When Simon Peter cried out to Jesus, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man,” I suppose that Jesus could have taken him at his word and thrown him overboard, but he didn’t. Instead, he said to him and to all who had witnessed the miraculous catch of fish, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Those aren’t stories of shameful people being comforted despite their mistakes. They are moments when imperfect people are granted wholeness by the one who sought each of them out in love.

Much like the flu, we can treat the symptoms of sin, but there isn’t much we can do about the underlying sickness. We can say that we’re sorry when we do something wrong, but how long will it be before we need to apologize again? We can forsake the misdeeds of our past even before the photographs from our medical school yearbooks have been made public, but is that enough to remove every stain of prejudice from our hearts and minds as well as the institutions that have made us who we are? When we come to church and say the words of the confession and hear the priest pronounce God’s absolution, we start over with a clean slate, but do we really believe that God desires a people who will yo-yo-diet their way through sin and forgiveness week after week? Treating the symptoms is fine—even beneficial—but God wants more than that. God wants to heal us and make us whole.

God isn’t looking for perfect people who are able to make this world the place that God dreams it could be. Instead, God is looking for ordinary, broken, sinful people like you and me who are willing to be made perfect so that this world might become the place that God dreams it could be one person at a time. That is the power that God’s unconditional love has in our lives. The world needs all the goodness we can give it. We can and must fight injustice and poverty and disease over and over and over again. But our hope isn’t merely that we might add a little goodness to a cold and broken world every time we encounter sin. Instead, in order to truly transform this world, we must be set free from that part of ourselves that time and again stands in the way. We must be made perfect in love so that we might love others perfectly. And, when we love the world like that, we find that it isn’t we who are loving it but God who is loving it through us.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Releasing Everything

People who have given up everything for the sake of a particular cause fascinate us. How could that Roman Catholic priest give up children, family, sex! for the church? How could that activist abandon all hope of a stable income by filling her resume with arrests instead of jobs? What compels a person to give up fame and fortune to spend more time with his family? The counter-intuitive, counter-human-instinct decision to let go of obvious self-interest for the sake of a more subtle self-interest confuses us and delights us. Some of what we feel is admiration. Some is bewilderment. Some is a fundamental recognition that we don't have what it takes to follow their example.

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 5:1-11), after a compelling sermon, a miraculous catch of fish, and a dramatic confession, we run the risk of missing the most amazing detail of all: "When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him." Luke didn't have to include the detail about what they left behind. Luke could have written, "They decided to follow him," or "Having made arrangements for their extended absence, they followed him," or "Certain that their families and jobs would be waiting for them if the disciple business proved to be unsustainable, they agreed to giving following him a chance." I joke, of course, but the significance of leaving everything is real.

Most Greek manuscripts record the act of leaving everything as "ἀφέντες πάντα." The verb ἀφίημι comes from the words "apo," which is a prefix or preposition that means "away" and "heimi," which is a verb that means "to send." Of course, the disciples didn't pack up their stuff and send it away. They left it behind. In this context, a better sense might be "release" or "discharge" or even "remit" or "forgive" as in a financial obligation. In a real way, therefore, the disciples decision to leave everything behind wasn't just a drop-the-nets-and-go mentality but a relinquishing of their obligations and relationships. They were letting go of everything, showing their families and friends and colleagues that they were out of the fishing business.

That might be an overstatement. We see in John's account of the gospel that, after Jesus has been raised from the dead, Peter takes the disciples fishing again, suggesting, perhaps, that, before Jesus had commissioned him to carry on the work of an apostle, he went back to his old way of life. Maybe the life of a fisherman was never that far from Peter the disciple. Maybe, when they needed some money to fund the work of Jesus the itinerant preacher, they all spent a few days fishing. Who knows? But, what we do know, is that Luke wants us to realize how much they gave up. They didn't just put their nets in storage. They released everything. They walked away in the fullest sense. And they invite us to do the same.

Following Jesus will cost you everything--your career, your family, your income, your hopes, your plans. In order to follow Jesus, you have to let go of all of that. You may still get to be a teacher, doctor, banker, or gardener. You may still go home every night to your spouse and children. You may continue to save money for retirement. But, for a follower of Jesus, those things are no longer hers or his or ours. They are the Lord's. It isn't our career anymore. It belongs to Jesus. It isn't even our family. Even that becomes God's. When we follow Jesus, We let go, relinquish, send away everything.

The truly compelling part, the part of the gospel lesson we are likely to miss, is that they did it willingly and joyfully. Jesus didn't tell them, "If you want to follow me, you have to abandon everything first." Instead, Jesus said, "Do not be afraid; from now on, you will be catching people!" And the disciples got out of their boats, left everything behind, and followed him. The true fruitfulness of their lives was found not on the sea but by following him. It is that true fruitfulness that sets us free from our grip even on our own lives.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Forsaking Sin

When I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, I was a member of the Kiwanis Club that was responsible for hosting the Alabama National Fair. Kind of like a state fair that wanted to brag about itself, the Alabama National Fair was a typical conglomeration of amusement park rides, street food vendors, animal husbandry and horticulture competitions, circus acts, and exhibitors. Several of the exhibitors were religious in nature, and one had a display that included three riddles about God. Designed to teach passers by about Christianity, there were three questions about God stenciled above three hinged wooden flaps under which the answers were written. I don't remember all three, but one of the questions was, "What is one thing that God has never seen?" The answer, which quoted some out-of-context Bible verse, was "sin."

I can't remember the Bible verse either, but I suppose that, in one way, that makes sense. Sin seems like the kind of thing that God has not seen. I think the point of the display was to encourage the viewer to forsake sin and turn to God, but I found it to be an invitation to contemplate the nature of sin. What is sin? Although I wasn't willing to accept the exhibitor's claim on the surface, why might sin be something God has not seen? What is God's attitude toward sin? When God "looks" down from heaven and "sees" me preparing to sin, does God avert God's "eyes," withdrawing the divine presence from my general vicinity until the sinning is over? Is this similar to the Augustinian claim that the Holy Spirit withdraws from the bedroom during the procreative act in order not to witness the transmission of original sin?

This Sunday, we have three different lessons that in one way or another deal with sin. In Isaiah 6, the prophet cries out, "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" In response, the angel brings a coal and touches his lips, declaring, "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes, "For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain." In Luke 5, when Peter recognizes that the man in his boat is a representative of the divine, he falls down on his knees and confesses, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" In all three cases, sin seems to be something that threatens to keep the individual away from God's presence, out of God's commission, apart from God's plan. Of course, in all three cases, that isn't the end of the story.

This Sunday's collect is a little different in structure from a typical collect. There is no address or acknowledgment--no "Almighty God, who in creation has declared all things good..." Instead, we jump right to the petition: "Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life." It's as if the collect anticipates our need to get right down to business. There's no prelude, no spiritual foreplay, just our need. The lessons this Sunday reflect that urgency. Three people who, upon encountering the holy, need to be set free from their sin. I don't take a lot of comfort in considering a God who does not see sin, but I desperately need God to set me free from it so that I can dwell securely in God's presence. The problem isn't God's but mine, and the answer comes from God. That's where I'm headed in this Sunday's sermon--back to the basics.