The readings for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost are
Old Testament Jeremiah 4:11–12, 22–28
Psalm Psalm 14
Old Testament & Psalm, Option I
Old Testament & Psalm, Option II
Old Testament Exodus 32:7–14
Psalm Psalm 51:1–10
New Testament 1 Timothy 1:12–17
Gospel Luke 15:1–10
I remember a banner from anti-war days of the early 70s: “We make war like giants and peace like pygmies.”
There is some degree of truth also to those who complain about the insidious side of the “cancel culture.” We are pros at piling on blame and amateurs at taking it off.
Of course, there is the other side of things: We may love laying blame on others, but allergic to accepting responsibility for our own guilt. we are expert at avoiding and denying when it comes to our own guilt.
This Sunday’s readings are lessons about the Christian’s role in the time of cancel culture. First, we must be constant advocates for God’s reputation for mercy. Second, the church must be constant servants of the only productive way of dealing with sin and evil.
God’s brand is at stake in Exodus 32. Surely those who point the finger of blame want God to exact justice and smite the evildoers of this world. God must uphold justice. But Moses intercedes. He refuses to pile on and allow God to cancel backsliding Israel and start over with a new breed of Moses’ own offspring. Instead, he reasons rightly that if God wipes out Israel at this point then the Egyptians would be able to say, “You are no better than others. By your violent cancelling you will show yourself as evil. There is no ultimate good in cancelling, but only in mercy.”
It is a perennial temptation for the church to pile on in the cause of morality. If there is too much sexuality, greed for power, hunger for wealth, or social injustice in this world, then we must plant our flag for the cause of moral reform. But, while the God of the Bible is a God of justice, even more so is God merciful. There is forgiveness with God that God should be feared. God looks not to cancel, but to restore.
There is good reason the three parables of Luke 15 are among the most memorable of the Bible. The lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son stories have one common lesson: God and all heaven are defined not by judgment, but by joy over repentant sinners.
But that brings us to a key point. If the world around us is so bad at restoration, who will show the way? It is up to the church.
The God the church worships rejoices over repentant sinners, but repentance is a forgotten art. Society is of two minds and needs a third. On the one hand, cancel culture is nothing new. People have always loved to point out the specks in others eyes and demand that a price be paid. On the other hand people are terribly practiced at strategies for avoiding and hiding their own faults. The same people who want senators and celebrities cancelled over their sexual harassment, may be keen consumers of pornography. I am reminded often of words of Tom Lehrer as he introduced his satirical song about National Brotherhood Week: “I’m sure we all agree that we ought to love one another, and I know there are people in the world that do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that.”
Restoration cannot happen unless people do something constructive with both their moral lapses and their lack of trust in God’s love that is the origin of sin. Racism, sexism, selfishness, greed, irrational hatred and fear, and all the rest, are endemic. As Genesis 6 says, the wickedness of humankind is great, and the inclinations of human hearts is evil. And the root of it all is bad belief. But there is a Way to deal with both sin and its root cause.
The “Way” begins with an essential realization. We cannot deal with sin by making ourselves better. We find our Way not as a continuation of our own path of systematic moral improvement, either with the help of our own sheer grit, or with the help of churchly cheerleaders. We find our Way as a new thing. With Psalm 51 we look to the Lord to “create a clean heart” within us and to “restore a right spirit” within us. We look to the God who finds and loves sinners when they dead in their sin. Coming alive from death is the most frightful thing, because it requires a new heart, new spirit, and new orientation to life. But we open ourselves to that dangerous fury of God in cross and apocalypse, because only then will we find ourselves returning to the God who breaks out in joy at the sight of us coming up the lane. Only then are we eager to celebrate in the Great Party of restoration that that merciful God sets for us.
This Way takes shape in the life of the church, but it is no way controlled by it. The church cannot and shall not commodify it, but must only serve it. It is ritualized in confession and absolution, and the sacraments, and takes on flesh and blood in the way Christians welcome and have fellowship with one another.
We Christians and our church can no longer let God or ourselves be branded as those who blame and punish. Instead of pointing the finger of blame at others we join 1 Timothy in pointing to ourselves as champion sinners whom God has restored. We are the ones who turn from cancelling others, and instead invite them to the Great Party of restoration.
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