Thursday, August 31, 2006

labor day weekend

Some random thoughts heading into the holiday weekend: my second sermon for Day One/The Protestant Hour will be broadcast this Sunday, September 3. You can access it, and see the listing of stations at the Day One link to the right...Amy Laura Hall has an excellent essay in the current Christianity Today on the stigma of "unwanted" children, and why the church would be more Christian in wanting to welcome all the same issue there is an interview with Nicholas Kristof about evangelicalism, and he makes an interesting comment, that the church is re-branding what it means to be self-conciously evangelical in North America, and this includes a significant response to the AIDS pandemic in Africa...and in the same issue, an excellent feature on Dallas Williard...I don't read every issue of Christianity Today (they have it at the YMCA where I exercise), but this one was pretty extraordinary...although I did not quite concur with their analysis of the recent Barack Obama speech (linked on the blog a few days ago)...I recently concluded a series of summer sermons on the Lord's Prayer, and have been revising them into a little e-booklet entitled "Learning To Pray: The Teaching of Jesus". If you want a copy via email, write me at

Anne, a wonderful soul in our congregation, died late last night...we are searching for a director of music...we are completing a major capital campaign...and we are getting started with the fall three-headed monster (a good and friendly monster) of Christian education, stewardship and nominations. Once Labor Day has come and gone, it is full-speed ahead until Christmas day...I am watching alot of volleyball these days, as our younger daughter concludes her last year of high school...I am trying to follow Andre Agassi in the U.S. Open... a dream of mine is to take that in one of these years...I am finishing up a manuscript on Easter for Abingdon Press---it is due too soon...and I am looking forward to seeing our older daughter at some point this weekend...she is canvassing for a political candidate in the western part of the state...I spent some time this week on the Brevard College campus, where I have had the good fortune to go on the trustees; it is a beautiful campus in one of the most inspiring settings on the planet (twenty minutes below Asheville in the Pisgah Forest). And earlier this evening I listened to a fascinating interview by Terri Gross on Fresh Air with Darrell and Wayne Scott. Darrell is the songwriter ("Long Time Gone" was performed by the Dixie Chicks, and others by Garth, etc.) and Wayne is his father. They grew up really poor in eastern Kentucky, and music was both life-giving in that setting, and a way out for Darrell. I heard them both at Merlefest this past spring, and they were pretty amazing. I highly recommend The Invisible Man...As we enter into the Labor Day weekend, I have been reflecting on the labor of those whom I encounter...Susan, the waitress at a restaurant where my wife and I often have breakfast...the guy who changed my oil this week...the women who serve in the adult daycare center on our church campus...the nurses and nursing assistants who served Anne when she was in Hospice...the guy who coaches (part-time) my daughter's volleyball team...Frank, who owns my favorite chinese restaurant...the guy who vacuums the floor at the Y...people who spend their vocational lives working in church-related colleges...and I am thinking of the flood of those coming from the south, whose food I love, who build the condominiums and football stadiums and basketball coliseums and shopping centers in our area, whom our culture both despises and needs...we are connected by the labor that we give and receive, the works of our hands...and on this weekend I always feel awfully fortunate, even blessed, to do the work that I do.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

sermon on "day one" tomorrow

My sermon, taken from one of my favorite Psalms, 84 and entitled "A Survival Strategy For The Spiritually Homeless", will be broadcast on Day One/The Protestant Hour tomorrow. You can locate a radio station in your area by going to Day One. I am grateful to my friend, Peter Wallace of Day One for the ministry he has in getting the word out!

Friday, August 25, 2006


iPods must be one of most amazing inventions, ever...a birthday gift from my wife on my 49th...

Van Morrison, Quality Street
Julie Miller, I Know Why The River Runs
Ray Charles and James Taylor, Sweet Potato Pie
Willie Nelson, Don't Be Ashamed Of Your Age
Steve Earle, The Galway Girl
Nanci Griffith, Wall Of Death
Josh Ritter, Girl In The War
Jim Lauderdale, Tales From The Sad Hotel
Ben Harper and The Blind Boys of Alabama, Well, Well, Well
Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas, Back In Love Again
Darrell Scott, Hank Williams' Ghost
Keb Mo, More Than One Way Home
Bruce Cockburn, The Trouble With Normal
Lucinda Williams, Crescent City (in remembrance of Katrina)

and almost one hundred more!

Sunday, August 20, 2006


Which means, literally, "good gathering". It is the name of an a.r.p. conference center, and also the name of a good gathering that is an annual pilgrimage + rehearsal+family reunion for our chancel choir. This year's gathering was very different--the director of music, after a tenure of twenty-seven years, had retired, and an interim director, Charlotte, led the music. All went well, I think.

We headed that way on Friday afternoon, going by Junaluska, which is not on the way, but another group from our church was attending a conference there (it does sometimes seem that many of our congregants are in the mountains for most of the summer, and who can blame them). While there we also got to have a (too brief) conversation with two special friends from a former church, Ellen and Ernie. We then had lasagna in a home overlooking the lake, that Joe and Kay rent each summer, and then Pam and I drove to Bon Clarcken.

Bonclarcken is situated in Flat Rock, North Carolina, which is best known as the home of Carl Sandburg, which he named "Connemara", and now also the location of the State Theatre of North Carolina. Flat Rock was also a summer haven for the gentry of Charleston, South Carolina, who wanted to escape the summer heat and the malaria of the low country. It is near Kanuga, the Episcopal Conference Center, and I did make my way to their bookstore over the weekend, during the Saturday afternoon break. They have a very fine bookstore.

My role at Bonclarcken was basically pastoral--I tried to sit at a different table each meal (over one hundred were in attendance), and I had a several extended conversations with parisioners I had really only known in passing.

I would occasionally go into the chapel, and there I would take a seat in the very back pew and listen to the choir as they rehearsed music that they would sing later into the fall and even into Advent. This morning I led a service of word and Holy Communion. I preached on Psalm 150 ("Let everything that breathes praise the Lord"). Abe served the bread and I served the cup. Then we had the last meal, and I caught a ride back with Abe, who is our retired minister of visitation (and one of the saints of this world). We stopped at a peach orchard in South Carolina (I wish I knew the name of it, for it is worth knowing about), and I bought a basket of peaches for the staff and a few neighbors. Abe and I also each had a homemade peach ice cream cone. It was superb!

And now, down from the mountain once again. There is a beloved church member who has just received the bad news of a cancer diagnosis. There is our older daughter, now returned to Chapel Hill, and we already miss her. There is the beginning of high school in a few days. There is mail to sort through, and some emails waiting at the office. There is a sermon next week.

Bonclarcken is indeed a "good gathering", and it marks the year well. Being there reminded me that life is really a series of ritual events, journeys to special and out of the way places, and afterward the return to normalcy, one hopes.

I am grateful, once again, for Bonclarcken.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

as the summer ends

The biggest news from these parts is that our oldest daughter has returned from her seven month internship in Beijing. She experienced an immersion in the chinese language and served with a women's center, doing some translation and leading camps for children. Today she gave a presentation to the senior adults of our church...and her mom and I were very proud. It is great to have her home, although she departs soon for Chapel Hill.

Otherwise, I must confess that I have seen the Will Farrell movie, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby...and as an act of full disclosure, I have actually seen it twice, once with my younger daughter and her friend, and second with my wife and older daughter. I am not surprised to report that the movie has already made 92 million dollars...and while it is not Citizen Kane, there is much to commend in the movie. My favorites: the scene where his wife is speaking with his physician, the table blessings, the Steve Earle music, the Halliburton humor, the throwaway gags after the movie ends, and the constant and relentless product placement. If you see this movie you are watching an extended commercial for a variety of products. But you will enjoy it, I predict. Then again, maybe not.

Last week I heard Bono speak, by videoconference at the Willow Creek Leadership Conference (I attended at a Methodist Church in Greensboro). I will post about Bono soon. In the meantime, suffice it to say that he was amazing...and since then I have been reading The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs, for which he wrote a preface. A powerful book...

School cranks up soon, the time slips away, and the fall, with its stewardship campaign, staff evaluations, charge conference reports, and ramp up to Advent cannot be far behind. For tonight, however, it is nice just to have all of us on the same continent, and even resting under one roof. For these and many other blessings I give thanks.

Therefore, my recommendations for making the most of the summer's end:

Go see a really stupid movie.
Read a really challenging and profound book.
Enjoy times with family.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

lead us not into temptation...a reflection on the lord's prayer

We are reflecting on the Lord’s Prayer, in particular the phrase “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”. This portion of the Lord’s Prayer contains two crucial ideas that have given rise to questions among Christians for twenty centuries.

The first question lies in the request of God: “lead us not into temptation”. Does God tempt us? Does God test us? This would seem to be one implication of the prayer we recite each Sunday. In the Bible temptation is portrayed in a variety of ways: as a testing to prove who we are as people; as a seduction by the devil; as just one dimension of human experience; as the result of abuse or misuse of freedom.

But back to the question: does God tempt or test us? The earliest Christians reflected on this question. James writes to the first followers of Jesus:

No one, when tempted, should say,

I am being tempted by God, for God cannot be tempted by evil,

And He himself tempts no one.

But one is tempted by one’s own desire (1. 13-14)

Temptation is related to the gift of freedom. We are not puppets and God is not a puppet master. We are all on a journey from slavery to freedom, from childhood to adulthood, from immaturity to maturity, from unbelief to faith. And along the journey there are temptations. We are tempted by our own desires. Sometimes these are pretty obvious: as with the prodigal son. At other times they are more subtle: as with the serpent in the creation passages of the Bible.

Temptations always sidetrack us from our mission in life. Imagine that you are one of the elite soccer players in the world. Your team is on the verge of capturing the greatest prize in our sport, the World Cup. It is a prize you have dreamt about, trained for, obsessed about for most of your life. In the midst of the contest words are exchanged between you and your opponent. Before you know it you have responded, retaliated by “head-butting” your opponent. It is noticed by the referee and by the cameras of the world. You are removed from the match. Your team loses.

You have been sidetracked from your mission in life. The temptation is there for all of us. The temptation was there for Jesus.

You’ll remember the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness, the focus of the season of Lent. Those temptations—to turn stones into bread, to throw himself from the temple, to bow down before Satan----were the temptations to be relevant, to be spectacular, to be powerful. But Jesus’ mission was not to be relevant, to be spectacular, to be powerful. His mission had to do with the words he taught us to pray:

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.

When we pray lead us not into temptation, we are asking God to keep us focused on what would be pleasing to him. The other great passage about temptation in the life of Jesus was the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus said, to his disciples,

Pray that you may not come into the time of trial

The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Jesus was tempted, he was tested, in every respect as we have been, according to the writer of Hebrews, except without sin. It helps to remember that: temptation is a natural part of being a Christian. If we are not being tempted, not being tested, it may be a sign that our spiritual life has become stale. The reality of temptation makes us aware that we are vulnerable---there but by the grace of God go I, we have heard. Or, as the bumper sticker had it, “Lead me not into temptation, I know the way already”.

There is a powerful story in Greek mythology about the Island of the Sirens, which was inhabited by beautiful women who sang such alluring songs that sailors going by the island were never heard from again. This was portrayed in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Ulysses had himself tied to the mast of the ship and his crew’s ears filled with wax so that, no matter how strongly they wanted to give into temptation, they would be held to the ship. Orpheus, in contrast, was a musician who played the lyre. He made such beautiful music that when he sailed by the island, he was not tempted by the sound of the Sirens.

How do you withstand temptation? It helps to remember your mission in life, to keep within your heart the song of life, to cling to the Lord of life.

It will also help to complete the phrase: Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Most biblical scholars agree that a better translation than the King James (evil) is found in the NIV and the NRSV (evil one). Jesus prayed, deliver us from the evil one.

Gerald May, a Christian psychiatrist, talked about the experience of evil as an obsession or a possession. In obsession we become preoccupied with the forces of darkness. This is Satanism in our culture. In possession it is as if we become another person. Either way, with obsession or possession, there is radical evil. And it is usually understood to be in opposition to God’s will, desire, dream for us. When we pray deliver us from the evil one, we are saying in a negative way what we also express positively: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.

The “evil one” can be understood in a number of ways in the life and teaching of Jesus. The evil one can refer to the devil. A common tendency among modern Christians has been captured by C.S. Lewis. We either make too much of the devil, and get caught up in the magic, or we do not believe in the devil, and become materialistic, believing only what we see. Now we do not know, from scripture, what a devil looks like, probably not something we see from the sidelines of a Duke basketball game, but the scripture teaches us that the evil one often takes personal form.

I heard it this way once. When we think of love, or grace, or beauty, we don’t often think of those qualities in the abstract—we think of a person who loves, a person of grace, a person of beauty. And when we think of evil, or hate, or harassment, we don’t think of those qualities in the abstract either---we think of a person who hates, who does evil things, who harasses.

Second, we also have a tendency to locate evil out there. If I grew up in the south, the evil ones are the northerners. If I was white, the evil ones were people of a different color. If I went to Duke, the evil ones were those people over in Chapel Hill. Evil, understood in this way, is always somewhere else! Jesus taught, just a little later in the Sermon on the Mount, that we are all prone to see the speck in our neighbor’s eye, but not the log in our own.

We are tempted to locate evil somewhere else. But in my heart, I know that evil is not always out there. A part of the realization came when I met some folks from Chapel Hill, and they were good people. Then my daughter ended up there, and it was all over! I met people of different races, and really came to know them. I did some of my education up north. They really weren’t so evil, once I learned to appreciate their accents!

Evil is not only out there. Evil is in here. Do you know the spiritual,

It’s not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me,

O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.

The prophet Isaiah in the temple knew it when he said,

Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips,

And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. (Isaiah 6)

Evil is not only out there. In the early church devout men and women went out into the desert to pray, to struggle with demons, to memorize scripture, to enter into the life of temptation. One of the desert fathers taught,

“This is the great work of a human being

Always to take the blame for his own sins

And to expect temptation to his last breath

Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter the kingdom of God”.

I want you to take away two important concepts from this prayer, which I want to state in their simplest form. First, temptation is a natural part of what it means to be a Christian: you’re going to want to give up; distractions will come along; another path will look more promising. Be clear about your mission in life, be very clear about it, and you will see the temptations for what they are.

Second, there is a reality, sometimes taking personal form, called evil. You will encounter evil if you live long enough, sometimes even in the guise of something that is good. And if you live long enough, and God gives you the clarity to see it, you will discover evil within yourself.

If you know these two truths---temptation is real, evil is real---you will want to pray these words, as often as you can, as passionately as you can. You will want to boldly pray these words, as if your very life depended on it: lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Monday, August 07, 2006

intercession for churches

I met last week with my friend Hank, who has served as a spiritual guide for at least the past twelve years, off and on. We met through Cursillo, as it was called then. I always appreciated his intellect (he had degrees from Princeton and Yale, and had taught at Converse for a good portion of his adult life), but also his openness to the mystical (and he truly gave some of the more bizarre and stream of conciousness talks I had ever heard on these weekends). We have met on a somewhat regular basis since then....he preached my service of installation at Mount Tabor in Winston-Salem.... and we meet these days either in Charlotte, or in Davidson, or in Winston-Salem.

Much of Hank's ministry since his retirement has been in attending to global ministries of which he has been a part, especially in Eastern Europe and Africa, and, increasingly, it is all about intercession, prayer for others. I have had an interest in intercession, trying to practice that more faithfully in our congregation, following through when I tell people I will pray for them, trying to understand what that means (and I have written about that on this blog and in some essays circulated with friends, and with a manuscript that is in search of a home).

My intention of late, shared with Hank, and following his example, has been to try to pray for particular churches. And so here is my list. I served a few of these churches as pastor. Some are the churches of relatives and friends. Some are on the list because of mission experiences. And some are there because the Spirit leads me to bring them to mind.

I invite you to pray for these churches as well:

Providence UMC, Charlotte
Mount Tabor UMC, Winston-Salem
Saint Timothy's UMC, Greensboro
Christ UMC, Greensboro
Smithtown UMC (Prospect, New Home, Shady Grove, Mount Pleasant)
Trinity UMC, Kannapolis
Cap Haitien Methodist, Haiti
El Salvador Methodist, Cochabamba, Bolivia
The Church of The Saviour, Washington, DC
The House Church, Winston-Salem
Mount Zion Baptist Church, Columbus, Ga
The Anglican Communion
Haitien Church of The Nazarene, Charlotte

Saturday, August 05, 2006

God and politics: faithful speech

My friend Ron heard the speech earlier in the summer, in Washington, D.C., and another friend in our church, Bill, forwarded an abbreviated version to me. The speaker is Barack Abama, and the subject is keeping faith with God in a highly politicized and polarized environment. It is one of the most uplifting and illuminating statements of personal faith and social responsibility I have heard in memory.

Read it all.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

a summer prayer

O God of every time and season
we give thanks for rhythms of work and rest
for places apart that mark our years
for the eternal return of ocean waves
for the defiant posture of mountains
for the hiddenness of favorite coves
for pilgrimages made and then homecomings.
O God, in this season we are grateful
for sanity regained
for blessings discovered
for those who return to us
and for those who leave.
Teach us, God of wonder and creation
that your presence is woven into
the comings and goings of our lives
and having fled to our own lonely places
let us return, with Jesus
to live and work
to heal and pray
to worship and love.

Ken Carter

(published in Alive Now, July/August, 2000)

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

an inconvenient truth

Tonight I went to see Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. I have read a fair amount about global warming, most recently Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes From A Catastrophe (which appeared first as a three-part series in The New Yorker), and Jim Hansen's review essay, "The Threat To The Planet" in The New York Review of Books (July 13, 2006). I had heard that the movie was depressing, and this is exactly the type of movie I tend to enjoy, so I picked a time when my wife was away, painting our daughter's college residence in Chapel Hill.

An Inconvenient Truth is essentially a "slide show" that Gore has given to perhaps a thousand different groups. It succeeds in conveying some fairly complex information in an understandable way. The movie intersperses data (one side of the brain) with human experience (the other side of the brain). And so the movie is about shrinking arctic glaciers, warming surface waters and disappearing lakes, but also Gore the college student, father, brother, almost president.

I genuinely wanted to like this movie. I am persuaded that the planet is warming at a rate that threatens the future of my children's children, and I can connect the dots that those who cast doubt on global warming do so for economic/political reasons. It is a subject I would choose to avoid, and certainly gain nothing by thinking or reading about it, except a sense of gloom about the human future.

The movie succeeds in some ways---it focuses on an important subject--but it fails in others. At times it has the feel of a science report, delivered in a dry and plodding manner, and at other times it is moralistic, even grandiouse (Gore studied with the professor who first measured carbon emissions...this reminded me of the comment that he had invented the internet). That the subject matter is so stunningly interesting---the planet's most extreme geography, the marginalized people who inhabit these spaces, the wildlife and vegetation that are threatened, the lack of political will as scandal---and that this subject matter comes across in such a boring way was, for me, a missed opportunity.

In addition, the movie at times has the feel of a rather long political speech. Maybe I am guilty of wanting to be entertained, but I could have benefitted from some action, some movement, some music. The emotion was always tied up with Gore the person, while the rationality was limited to the subject of global warming.

As I said, I wanted to like this movie. I do believe Al Gore was elected president in 2000. I concur with Jim Hansen, writing in the NYRB, who looks back on the sad possibility that "the country came close to having the leadership it needed to deal with a grave threat to the planet, but did not realize it".

Maybe the movie was a reminder of all of that, too. Maybe the lost opportunities, and the subsequent havoc visited on our country and world, are simply brought to mind in the presence of Gore. And maybe his own personal style contributed to all of this---for example, he is the sole authority on the subject in this movie, and his brilliance again becomes a weakness...he has no need to consult others (at least not in this movie), and, of course, this surely contributed to his political outcome in 2000. He certainly must have suffered enough for the near miss of that political appointment, and merits no blame for it. The point is that the movie portrays Gore in ways that are consistent with the past, and is in a way as much about Gore the person as it is about global warming. The movie, finally conveys the personal strengths and weaknesses of Al Gore. Generally the weaknesses are excised from the final product.

The issue might also have been my own expectations. Maybe I was looking for a theological account for what is happening that was not going to emerge. For Christians who want to dig into the subject matter, I commend Bill McKibben's essay on global warming and hurricanes in the current National Geographic (as we approach the anniversary of Katrina"; my sermon, "Creation and The Labor of God", that will be aired on Day One/The Protestant Hour on September 3; and the writings of Wendell Berry.

Meanwhile, tomorrow will be, in the words of the weather folks, a "scorcher".

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

forgive us our sins: a reflection on the lord's prayer

You’ve heard sermons about forgiveness before. I’ve preached sermons about forgiveness before. It might be good at the outset to let you in on what this sermon is not. It’s not a sermon that conveys “I understand forgiveness and I want to share what I know with you”. It ‘s not a sermon that says “I’ve arrived in the practice of forgiveness, like a guru coming down from the mountain”. It’s not a sermon that insists “If we just worked harder at forgiveness, we would be happier”. It is not a sermon that suggests “Some people get it, about forgiveness, and some don’t”.

It might also be good to ask a question at the outset. So much is written, preached, taught about forgiveness, and where has it gotten us? I want to attempt something more modest today. I want to say that forgiveness is a process that has three steps. And I want to say that all of us are somewhere in the journey of forgiveness. We’re not yet there. We’re on the way. I am convinced that these three steps are the way to forgiveness.

Jesus teaches us to pray, forgive us our trespasses/sins, as we forgive those who trespass/sin against us.

First, forgiveness is our need. This is the therapeutic meaning of forgiveness. We need to forgive others, for our own sake. When we do not forgive others, we are the primary casualties. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “hate is a cancer, and it is capable of destroying the person who hates”. It is not all about what the other person deserves---we’ll get to that later. It is about our need to forgive.

Jesus is saying that there is something about forgiveness, our capacity to forgive, that is connected with his forgiveness of us. There is something about our grace toward others that is related to our living a grace-full life.

But how do we forgive, practically? John Patton teaches pastoral counseling in Atlanta, and he has an insight that has been startling for me. He insists that forgiveness is not something we can achieve by trying harder. Forgiveness is not something we do. Forgiveness is something we discover.

If we focus on our own decision to forgive or not to forgive another person, it is likely that we will never do so. Patton says, “forgiveness is the discovery that I am more like the person who has hurt me than different from them. I am able to forgive when I discover that I am in no position to forgive.”

Our inability to forgive holds us captive. . If you want to see this in scripture, turn to Matthew 18. 23, the parable of the unforgiving servant. The Latin word for mercy is eleison, related to our english word liaison or bond. Christians around the world chant the prayer “Kyrie Eleison”, “Lord have mercy”. When we refuse to forgive we hold others and ourselves in bondage. When we forgive, we loosen the attachments, freeing the other person and ourselves in the process.

Jesus spoke the Aramaic language, and in a series of meditations on the aramaic version of the Lord’s Prayer, we hear this familiar prayer in a new way:

Loose the cords of mistakes binding us

as we release the strands we hold of others’ guilt.

Lighten our load of secret debts

as we relieve others of their need to repay.

Forgive our hidden past, the secret shames,

as we consistently forgive what others hide.

When we forgive we release the other person, and in the process we are released. As we understand our own forgiveness, we discover a forgiveness for others. The bonds are loosened. The hate is tossed to the winds. We forgive because God forgives our sins. We are not God. We are forgiven sinners. All of us. Forgiveness is our need.

Second, forgiveness is our witness. Forgiveness is an essential dimension of the Christian faith is that it makes our witness as a community possible. Without forgiveness there is no family, no community, no church. None of us is perfect. At First United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City the congregation gathered for worship on the Sunday after the horrible bombing. In addition to the enormous human travesty, their beautiful sanctuary, on the historic registry, was in a shambles; a massive renovation would be ahead. In the midst of death, grief, fear and loss, the people were in shock. Nick Harris, the pastor, made this statement in a sermon: We have to pray for the people who did this. If we don’t we’re not a church; we’re a social club.

Providence United Methodist Church is not a social club. We are a community of forgiven and forgiving sinners, saved by the grace of God. This is the evangelical value of forgiveness. Now the common stereotype of an evangelical in our culture is someone who is judgmental, maybe someone who has conservative political convictions, maybe someone who is mean-spirited. If you don’t believe me, ask a stranger this week, someone you’re waiting in line with at the grocery store, or someone you are standing near as you go into a movie, ask them about the first thing that comes to their mind when they hear the word “evangelical Christian”. Authentic evangelical witness is all about the good news of forgiveness, and how we are compelled to share that good news with others.

At the end of Luke’s’ gospel, Jesus says,

It is written that the Messiah

is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day

and that repentance and forgiveness of sins

is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations

beginning in Jerusalem. (24.46-47)

Do you think forgiveness can be a witness? In the aftermath of the civil war, Abraham Lincoln was overheard to speak of the south in a kind way. How can you say that?”, he was asked. He responded, “madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

We forgive because we have a need to forgive. This is truth, and it is truth you might hear from Oprah or Dr. Phil. It is one step in the journey, but it is not the fullness of forgiveness.

We forgive because this is our witness. Here it gets more difficult. Here followers of Jesus depart from the practices of insurgents and diplomats, here followers of Jesus would read the Sermon on The Mount and realize that we forgive before the other party is worthy of our forgiveness. Jesus taught this very prayer to people who lived in the precise location on our planet where retaliation had replaced forgiveness, where the innocents suffer from the decisions of those who live great distances away, in Tehran and Washington and Jerusalem.

Why did Jesus teach his disciples to pray these words? It turns out, these would be words he would not only speak, but live. And that leads to another basic truth.

Forgiveness is our need.

Forgiveness is our witness.

Third, forgiveness is our gospel. In Jesus Christ, God has forgiven our sins. Paul writes to the Romans, in 5.8:

God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.

None of us is so far along that we do not need to be reminded of this basic truth. We are forgiven, reconciled sinners, saved by the grace of God. I love the verse in Charles Wesley’s hymn,

He breaks the power of cancelled sin
He sets the prisoner free!

That is what it means to be a Christian: to know that I have been released from my own sin, my own guilt, my own failures, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that is our starting place: we all stand in need of God’s forgiveness. As a Sunday School teacher once said to me, along the way, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross”. That is the mind-altering, conciousness-shaping, ego-reducing reality of what it means to be a Christian: to know that I am not perfect, just forgiven.

The years come and go for our family, and at times we find ourselves in the emergency room. Kidney stones, allergic reactions, injuries playing softball and basketball and running through the house…you could add your own experiences to the list. When I’m there I look around the emergency room waiting area. Some of the folks are young, some are old. Some are rich, some are poor. Some speak English, some speak Spanish. Some are black, some are white. You can look at some of the people and immediately you know what is wrong. You can look at others are you aren’t so sure. But you know, beneath the surface, that they all have some need, or they wouldn’t be there.

A good friend recently reminded me that the church is not a school for saints, but a hospital for sinners. Could it be that many, many of us today have made our way to this hospital for sinners because we have something wrong with us, and it will not go away, and it has to do with forgiveness…

Maybe we need to forgive someone else?

Maybe we need to ask someone for forgiveness?

Maybe we need to forgive ourselves?

Maybe we need to hear that God has forgiven us?

And so I want to say it the way I heard it so often, in the church of my childhood:

Don’t leave this place unless you have wrestled with this prayer of Jesus, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Don’t leave this place unless you know, deep within, that you are forgiven, through the grace of God that is greater than all your sin.

Don’t leave this place unless you have begun to loose the cords that connect you with someone who needs your forgiveness.

The church is a hospital for sinners. We forgive because we need to forgive. We forgive because that is our witness. Indeed, the world has never been in more need of Christians who bear witness to forgiveness. And we forgive because that is the heart of the gospel. God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Brothers and sisters, in the name of Jesus Christ, and through the power of His cross, we are forgiven!

Sources: John Patton, Is Human Forgiveness Possible?; Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?