SERMON Lent 1B 2018
Mark: Temptation of Jesus/Rimbo Resignation
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
Do you know where you were baptized? And when? The date, the town, the church or maybe at home, some of you. The name of the pastor? I had to look it up in my Baby Book; I never knew the man. It’s a good thing to know; a good thing to remember: where we were baptized, and when.
This is because of what happened to us when we were baptized: our lives as Christians began that day with the bath of forgiveness, with a wet water bath of grace. It’s how we began, and it’s how every service begins – how this one began – before we dare to sing a note of praise we return to our baptism, we go to God with our sins, and the pastor announces God’s forgiveness. We come clean; we take a bath of grace, of forgiveness. Really. It’s a right-here-right-now real-time kind of thing, the forgiveness of sins. And God is not playing with us. Forgiveness first. Grace first.
In today’s gospel, we meet Jesus on the day he begins his ministry when he is baptized by his cousin John in the River Jordan. His ministry starts as ours did, with a bath of forgiveness,.
Forgiveness first. Grace first. Some people today like to proclaim “America first!” With Christians, it is always “Forgiveness first.”
That forgiveness doesn’t come cheap; we are taught to believe that forgiveness has something to do with the cross and an astonishing abundance of divine love. But it’s not really so complicated:
Jesus taught us to pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” How much more do we need? How hard is that?
It can be pretty hard, actually, and this takes me to what I want to talk about today. Pretty serious business, it seems to me, when the church, faced with serious sin, forgets to forgive …
Here goes: the pastors of the synod and other rostered leaders met on Thursday with the presiding bishop of our denomination, Pastor Elizabeth Eaton. Our purpose was to process together the sudden resignation of our own bishop because of an extramarital affair with a consenting adult. Of course what he did was very wrong; he broke his marriage vows, and it really is part of our Christian thing that we keep our marriage vows if we’re going to bother to take them in the first place. I know that. But don’t think for a hot New York minute that I mean to excuse his adultery. It’s serious sin. It’s not an excuse that he needs.
But I am having a very hard time with how this is playing out. He lost his job, he lost his ministry, but he didn’t lose his baptism. He is still our brother in Christ.
Over the past several years, along with many others I noticed that our bishop was … how shall I say? … fading into indifference, losing interest in the very hard work that the ministry of bishop entails. He was also becoming increasingly disabled, unable to walk or stand for any length of time. At the cathedral service in November, our Trinity group happened to sit directly behind him, and he was obviously in deep pain the whole time. Even knowing just that much, this pastor frankly is not surprised that he drifted into an extramarital affair. He was struggling with his job and with his body. Big job. Big body.
Now: sin has consequences; Bob lost his job and his ministry; under the circumstances that is as it should be. It’s like a disability; he broken and he needs time to heal before he can think about doing ministry again. He’s damaged, his family is damaged; they have work to do. God bless them.
Here’s my point: the first thing he needs, and the first thing we need for ourselves as we seek our own healing of the wrongs he has done to us, is repentance and forgiveness, exactly as John the Baptist dispensed it to Jesus himself in this morning’s gospel: a bath of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. Forgiveness first. Grace first. That’s what it means to be the church.
What I see happening here, however, is that we have to pretend that Bob fell into a volcano and burned up, never to be seen or heard from again. That means that our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – instead of behaving like the church with a sinner on its hands, is choosing to behave like a soulless corporation whose chief executive has put the company at a serious legal and/or financial risk. He’s gone. Pretend he’s dead.
That is not cool.
I understand that it is very hard to be the church in our modern world, for lots of reasons. From a legal standpoint, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, our denomination, is a 501(c)3 corporation registered in Minnesota, and we can be sued or have our insurance revoked like any public corporation in America. Our leaders have a responsibility to take all of that into consideration.
But corporate convenience and economy is not their whole task. Our greatest moral imperative as the church – and no civil court or government agency can help us with this – is maintaining the human fabric, the integrity of God’s church with the power of God’s love. To that end the church has to keep hosing us sinners down with grace. We need a good hosing right now.
I am not speaking against Bishop Eaton or any of the officers of our church who are faithfully working through this matter. Nevertheless it seems to me that taking repentance and forgiveness entirely out of the equation is a monstrous betrayal of the very nature of the church. It is outrageous that in the family of God there should be no room, no opportunity, for precisely the response to sin that Jesus commands and embodies: repentance and forgiveness, the bath of grace, of radical, unconditional healing love.
As for Bob, he was never my personal friend, but I think I love him more now, knowing what I know, that I ever did before. He is a sinner. I am a sinner. You, dear ones, are all sinners, every last one of you. If you don’t think so, think again.
Don’t worry: there’s good news. God loves you and so do I.
Just one more thing if you will indulge me for one more minute: At the Reformation, followers of Luther took on the awesome power of the Roman Church and rejected the way that God’s grace was monetized in the sale of indulgences: fake grace sold for money. Today it seems to me that we do the same thing when our use of the Means of Grace is restricted or denied by corporate lawyers and insurance companies. Whether grace is monetized to obtain money, or withheld in order to retain money, it is still monetized grace, the same vile blasphemy that trades in fake grace for money. That’s messed up.
Enough already. I had to say what was on my heart. Forgiveness first. Grace first. Actually, Luther taught, grace alone.
Let us pray.