Texts: Ezekiel 14:1-8/Romans 5:1-11
We can’t uncrack an egg. We can’t put spilled milk back in the container. We can’t unsay some damaging word once it has been spoken. We can’t undo a damaging deed once it has been done. Once done our deed is no longer our property to control. Not the deed—-that’s behind us—it’s the consequences with which we must deal.
In the case of my egg or milk examples, the consequences are not severe, it is the kind of mishap that can be addressed with little more than a dishrag. But in the case of the damaging word spoken it’s a whole new ballgame. The dishrag won’t do, in some cases industrial quality solvents and the most high tech cleanup apparatus are likely to be over-matched. Words are powerful, as we are reminded in the book of James: “the tongue [the author writes] is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.” And at one time or another each of us has felt the burn.
The exploits of the rash tongue and the thoughtless deed have been well chronicled in wars waged, families destroyed, and relationships grievously or mortally wounded. There is a word we use, while it’s not the exclusive property of the church, it’s one commonly used around the church to describe the residue created by the undisciplined tongue, the careless deed. The word to which I refer is estrangement, which Webster’s defines as alienation, disaffection, enmity, or indifference. Estrangement is a powerful force.
Estrangement is a nemesis that has plagued humanity from the dawn of time. I’m talking Adam and Eve dawn of time, when the pair, at the instigation of the serpent, estranged themselves from God, their act of disobedience having a catastrophic result. Banished from that beautiful garden where God appointed them to live, they were left to make do on their own.
Would they have undone their deed if they could? In a heartbeat. Unfortunately, the opportunity did not present itself. Their deed done, there was no going back. There would be no re-entry privileges to the garden.
Estrangement is a tragic consequence of human insensitivity and selfishness, and its byproduct is sin. Estrangement is opportunistic, it’s a parasite ever looking for a host, and it doesn’t have to look particularly hard because estrangement operates in what our friends in the military might call a “target rich” environment. The family has gathered to read great aunt Minnie’s will, and ol’ estrangement is right there ready to pounce. Our best friend uses the most transparent excuse to bail out on a trip we have been planning for months. Estrangement is licking its chops. The child’s request for some of her father’s time has been rebuffed yet again. Estrangement need hardly lift a finger.
Estrangement is one of those givens of life we learn to accept with our mother’s milk. Conflicts arise. Feelings get hurt. A breech between offender and offended is opened. Happens all the time.
Estrangement is an issue for the church. Its mission under Christ is to make peace, to do what can be done to eradicate estrangement and the conditions that breed it. People in the pulpit talk endlessly about estrangement, and we don’t have to venture beyond the Bible to find estrangement exhibited in countless varieties.
In the book of Ezekiel from which our first lesson was taken the prophet delivers a withering indictment of the Israelites. Their offense was of the most serious sort, a violation of the very first commandment. The Israelites were worshiping idols, an act so loathsome in the eyes of God that the Lord could barely restrain himself from a destructive act that he might come to regret.
You have to understand that God was too thoroughly invested in his “chosen” to allow for divided loyalties. Divided loyalties, however, was what he got. Idol worship would be a recurring source of estrangement between Israel and her God, an offense that forced God to stretch his patience to the utmost, while forcing the prophets who spoke in his name to take on a mediating role that made near limitless demands on them.
The apostle Paul served in the tradition of the prophets, by and large suffering the prophet’s allotment of grief. And why? The prophet was forced to bear the burden of God’s estrangement from his people. It was he who gave voice to God’s pain and indignation.
Paul spoke for God, and by doing so estranged himself from his brother Jews among whom he once congenially mingled, his reception by the followers of Christ, at least initially, turning out to be equally strained. Though he felt absolutely called to preach in Christ’s name, his personal sense of vocation did not translate into acceptance by others. He was slandered, he was beaten, and he was imprisoned.
Yet, yet, he felt entirely confident to wage battle against estrangement. In fact, he was so confident that he had the goods on estrangement that he could boast about it.
You and I have been repeatedly warned about the dangers of boasting. Can you think of a single circumstance where a boast might be considered good form? We are not only too polite to boast, we are too wise to boast. But in the lesson I read Paul boasts about his boasting.
Paul boasted because he believed he had discovered the perfect antidote to estrangement. What he had come up with was not something Dr. Laura or the psychologists who write for “Family Circle,” “Good Housekeeping,” might concoct. Paul boasted, not because he had discovered some creative interpersonal strategy to reduce conflict, but rather because he maintained utmost confidence in a power that would check estrangement at its root, where the barrier stood separating God from the people he created.
The source of Paul’s confidence, his boast, was summarized in the first verse of the lesson I read: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we boast [there’s that word] in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”
Paul’s antidote to estrangement was founded on one simple word we might in haste past over if we weren’t careful, and that word is “justified.” We are “justified,” Paul writes, “by faith.” That word “justify” warrants closer examination. What Paul in effect is saying is that we have been vindicated, or acquitted, declared innocent of the sin that attached to us as a result of Adam and Eve’s act. By a miracle called grace the breech of estrangement separating us from God has been repaired.
“We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God,” Paul writes, because that which deprived us of us hope has been removed. We have been justified in the sight of God. Imagine that by some miracle we could uncrack the egg, return the milk to the pitcher without losing a drop, retrieve that word in midair before it had a chance to harm, undo a deed before it caused suffering. What grief we could save ourselves. God, in Christ, however, has chosen to withhold miracles of that sort, instead he justifies us in spite of the harm we do. He declares us innocent.
Let us examine once again that greatest of all gifts God bestows: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” That’s justification in its most ostentatious display. We can be excused, of course, for thinking the gift is too good to be true, or too remote from our experience to be true. It’s a leap for us to consider a sacrifice of that scale. But Jesus made that sacrifice, and Paul was emboldened by the Holy Spirit to trace out what the implications of Jesus’ sacrifice meant, and continues to mean, for those who are willing to consider his argument.
We are justified, our sins remitted in the eyes of God by virtue of Jesus’ sacrifice. No, Jesus never asked his followers if they were worthy of his blood. Nor does he ask us. Instead, we are declared worthy, we are justified. That, friends, is what you would call an act of grace, grace which Professor David Bartlett defines as “both amnesty for old sins and the promise of new life.” [Repeat].
Fact of the matter is, however, the reality of amnesty requires our acceptance, and that is something we often stubbornly withhold, largely because we can’t conceive ourselves to be worthy recipients of such a gift. If, however, we are to enjoy the benefits of amnesty, something must happen, not within God—that has already happened in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross—but [something must happen] within us. We must be willing to accept God’s freely given grace. And how do we do that? We first praise God for opening his heart to us, and then we open our hearts to God through the act of repentance.
Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner describes repentance as “coming to our senses.” Then he says something that is very provocation, “[Repentance] is not so much something you do, as something that happens. True repentance [he continues] spends less time looking at the past and saying, “I’m sorry,” than to the future and saying ‘wow.’” In a similar vein theologian John Douglas Hall writes, “Repentance is a consequence of Gospel, not of law.”
While the importance of apology and contrition in the act of repentance cannot be denied, Buechner and Hall wisely urge us not to get so bogged down in apologies that we deprive ourselves of the liberating freedom God confers upon us through his unconditional love—gospel, good news.
Estrangement is too pervasive to be ignored. We perpetuate estrangement through sins of both omission and commission. But the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, gives us a way out. Though we be up to our necks in estrangement, estranged from our neighbor, estranged even from ourselves, Christ does not require us to get well before we come to him, rather he says, “‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Each of us has passed sleepless nights struggling with the mess we have made of a particular situation. Regret and contrition have their place, but let us not get so thoroughly bogged down in contrition and regret that we forget about grace, the second chance God in Christ has destined us to have.
We encounter God in grace, not in sentimentalized devotion. If we are ever to reach the point where we are ready to boast about God, it will be because we have felt ourselves encountered by God, and, friends, God, not us, establishes the terms for our encounter. We encounter God in prayer, study, and repentance, which is just another way of saying that we encounter God through Christ, whose his death on our behalf confers perfect freedom.
Boast, by all means. Boast, for God in Christ has given us something to boast about, nothing less than a new life and perfect freedom. Boast, by all means. The past is finished and gone. Estrangement is yesterday’s news. There is no power that exists that can interpose itself between us and the perfect freedom that is ours in Christ. Boast, friends, Christ has given us the best possible reason to do it. AMEN.
Heavenly Father, whose love for us was perfected in the most costly sacrifice, the sacrifice of your son on the cross. As we open ourselves to you in prayer we know facts about ourselves that we would conceal from you if we could.
We are saddened and embarrassed as we recall things we have down, or left undone. Yet you bid us come to you, assuring us in the words of the scriptures that though our sins be as scarlet, you will make them white as snow. You bid us to accept forgiveness, even as you call us
to forgive those who have sinned against us. O God, help us to do you bidding, to allow your will to shape our thinking and our doing.
We enter another Lenten season, a time the church has allotted for self-appraisal, self-examination, and spiritual renewal, confessing that we have shorted the disciples of faith. O God, help us, we pray, become better grounded in the spiritual practices of the church, more frequent in the disciples that generations of Christians have used to promote new faith encounters. Remove those impediments of time, concentration, and will, O God, that prevent us from making the new discoveries that you have prepared for us. May our journey these forty days be for us a time to encounter you in new fresh and challenging ways.
We pray for those who are deprived of leisure to worship as we do this morning, lifting up workers in the hospitality industry, doctors and nurses, sales people, police, firefighters, bus and cab drivers, and those who maintain city services. Deprived of the gift of Christian community this day, may they not become so accustomed to the loss that they withdraw from community or cease to seek it out.
Lord, estrangement continues to blight our politics. Great divisions exist within our land with seemingly no way to means to overcome them. Lord, help us to find in our common history as Americans, and the wisdom of our nation’s founders new enthusiasm for accommodation and consensus. Abide with our nation’s representatives who find themselves in the crosshairs of the nation’s discontent, that they may not become embittered or discouraged by what they hear but be motivated to take seriously the deep alienation from the political process so many citizens are feeling. We insist that our representatives be accountable, may we also, Lord, learn to accept our accountability for the climate that pertains in our nation today. Forgive us for the hypocrisy by which we demean others for the very behaviors and shortcoming for which we ourselves are guilty.
Finally, we pray for the immigrants within our land, particularly those who have not obtained legal status. Abide with them during these anxious and uncertain times, even as you remind us native Americans that most of our ancestors arrived on these shores as immigrants. O Lord, who never withheld sanctuary from those in need, may the compassion you modeled inspire us to stand with the immigrant and oppose the policies of those who preach division and try to convince us that our security can be maintained by the fences we build.
Lord of our lives, head of the church, hear our prayers, O Christ, and continue to shepherd in the ways that make for righteousness and peace, this we pray in your holy name…