CHURCH OF A FORGIVING GOD (Matthew 21:23-32)
On Friday mornings I go up to Holy Cross Monastery for the morning service and then working on my sermon. This past Friday I was late, and walked in at the Peace – which is a marvelous time to walk into a service, particularly at Holy cross, and here, where everyone greets everyone else with the sign of Peace – a handshake or a hug because sometimes a handshake just isn’t enough when we exchange the Love from God that we all feel.
The Peace is a very Episcopal part of the service, this explosion of welcome we all feel.
Then we continued with Eucharist and welcome into the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven, which was just as welcoming to me as if I’d been on time for the service.
So arriving late to God is all right, for God is always waiting and ready to nourish us and bless us, whether we arrive late or early, worthy or unworthy.
The first son in the parable today arrives late to obedience with his father. His father sends the two boys out on a job for him, and the first one says ‘I will not;’ and the second says ‘I go sir.’ Then they both go about their day, they both change their minds, and the first one does the will of his father after all, and the second one does not, and we learn later that the first one was more acceptable to God. He is late to obedience. He is late to church. He is late to righteousness. He has missed a lot of opportunities, but at least he is there. He is in time for blessing, because he showed up.
And he showed up because he had a fundamentally correct understanding of the will of his father. The will of his father is not just that we should do this or that or the other thing. It is not just that we should do acts of righteousness. The scribes and the Pharisees understood that they should do acts of righteousness, and they did them well. No one was more righteous than they. What the will of the Father is, at a deeper level, is this. It is to understand that he is a forgiving God, a loving God, a God who always wants you back. This is the will the son understands, and the will he obeys when he shows up late for work but at least he shows up. At least he’s there, because he understands God is a loving God, a forgiving God.
If we think like parents for a minute, this makes more than enough sense. How awful it would be if our kids thought we were hard nosed, unforgiving people. How much better if they know how much we love them.
This is the church, this is the family, we baptize Andrew D’Ambrosio into at the 9 o’clock service. It is the church of a forgiving God. Certainly we hope that he will be a good kid and will grow up making all the right decisions in his life; but we know that he will probably not. He will probably fall short. He will probably make some wrong decisions. We know this because we have all done the same.
When that time comes, we hope that he will know that he belongs to a Church of the Forgiving God, the God who always takes him back, the God of Second Chances. This is the lesson we struggle to teach him in Sunday School. It is the church we struggle to live out on Sunday mornings, inviting and welcoming people who may not have been invited and welcomed anywhere else, because they have blown it too many times. They have come up short too many times.
They are always welcome here.
This is a very countercultural message. We live in a culture here that is dominated by West Point and IBM. They are both, as far as I can tell, enlightened organizations set up to get certain good jobs done. But in the end, they depend on rules being followed to get those jobs done and if someone messes up too many times, they can no longer be a part of that organization.
Not so the church, for we serve a God of Second Chances, a God who is constantly welcoming us back and back and back, a God who is constantly giving us a job to do and if we fail, and turn away from his bounty countless times, he offers his bounty another time. He offers his work another time. All we have to do is show up, because he values us as much as the work.
It is the story of the Prodigal Son all over again. God values us all and wants us all back, no matter when we show up.
Today is a day of beginnings. Today we begin Andrew’s Christian life and we begin again our own Christian life. We recite again our own Baptismal covenant or the Nicene Creed, and we dedicate ourselves again to the forgiving God who loves us all.
We also will be given the Parish Survey that has been worked on so hard by the Search Committee and passed by the Vestry. It will be your chance to weigh in on the kind of church we have and the kind of church we want.
The kind of church we want is one that approximates the Kingdom of God, the Promised Land.
The People of Israel in the Old Testament lesson were on their way to the Promised Land. Half way there, they complained. They were thirsty. So God spoke to Moses and had him strike the rock and it brought forth water.
So it is okay in the survey to say what we don’t have and want. It is okay to lift up before God in this sacrament of paper what we don’t have and want so you can then narrow in on the kind of priest who will help lead you there, to that Promised Land. It is okay to identify those things because then we can lift them up to God.
This is something Moses does not understand. He thinks God will be mad at the people. He says: “why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the Lord steps in and provides for the people.
When we set our needs before God, when we make clear we are not yet in the Promised Land, God can provide for those needs. If we don’t, he can’t. It’s not that the vestry or the new priest alone provide for those needs. They simply show where to turn.
They know – we all know – the will of the Father – that we know that we all live under a forgiving God, a loving God, a God of second chances, a God who receives us and Andrew into the arms of his mercy and always takes us back when we stray.
The only question is, do we take advantage of this knowledge? Do we come back, to the God who takes us back? Do we ask our questions, and name our needs, to the God who listens?