Friday, August 31, 2012


But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
    The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:
after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”
    Then he adds:
I will remember no more.”
    And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.
-Hebrews 10:12-18 (NIV)

It wasn’t Harlean Hoffman Vision’s mistake, but she thought she might have to pay for it.
    The overdue library book, a copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray, was originally checked out from the Chicago Public Library by a friend of her mother’s. It was a limited edition of Oscar Wilde’s novel about a man who had to pay for his sins, one of 480 copies of a 14-volume set published in 1911. Somehow, it wound up at Harlean’s mother’s house, and then when Harlean’s mother died, Harlean found it in a box in her attic. She felt bad about having it, but was afraid of the fine she might have to pay. I know: how much could an overdue library book cost?
    Well, one that was due back to the library in 1934 could set you back quite a lot: $5,694.00 at 20 cents a day, in fact. (Harlean wasn’t aware that the Chicago Public Library caps fines at $10.)
    Then, a couple of weeks ago, the library announced an amnesty that ends next Friday. That was just what Harlean wanted to hear, and so this week she returned the 78-year overdue book. The library was thrilled to have it for its historic value. And Harlean finally had it off her conscience.
    “It's a neat story," commented Chicago Public Library Commissioner Brian Bannon. “People feel afraid, no matter how many times we tell them all is forgiven. ... But 78 years? It's hard to beat that.”
    Amnesty. It’s a nice word, isn’t it? Kind of rolls off the tongue. When you and your husband are fighting and he extends an olive branch, that’s an offer of amnesty. When your boss tells you that you won’t be fired for a mistake at work, that’s amnesty. When a prisoner is freed, when an offense is forgiven, when a crime is expunged from a record, that’s amnesty. Wherever someone guilty is restored to innocence, amnesty has occurred.
    The word comes from the same Greek word from which we get our word amnesia. It has to do with a kind of forgetfulness, in which someone in power chooses to “forget” to punish the perpetrator of a crime. In the case of library books, amnesty lets the library retrieve some lost books by essentially excusing the offense of the people that have those books in their possession. In the case of a gun amnesty program, for example, the police get some illegal guns off the streets by not prosecuting those who bring them in. Amnesty works best when, for whatever reason, punishing the guilty might actually serve to make things worse: books out of circulation, guns on the street. Amnesty is for those times when those who are most offended might choose a greater good than would be served by punishing infractions.
    You and I have experienced amnesty, of course. The writer of Hebrews, using some of the words of Jeremiah the prophet, describes the amnesty that God has offered us. He offers it through Jesus’ “for all time one sacrifice” that “makes perfect forever those who are being made holy.” Notice the tenses there: we’re not made perfect because we’re holy, or to the extent that we become holy. It’s the other way around, in fact: through Jesus, God calls us perfect and then makes us holy.
    That’s where the writer of Hebrews borrows Jeremiah’s language of new covenant. Though God is perfectly just to remember our sins, he chooses to forget. Because of Jesus, he “remembers no more” our offenses. God chooses selective amnesia rather than to punish us for our sins. He offers us amnesty rather than hold us responsible for a debt not one of us can pay.
    Sometimes, like Harlean Vision, it’s hard for us to believe it. We carry our sins around with us, line them up on the bookcases of our hearts and minds and stare at them endlessly. We rehearse them, berate ourselves for them, beat ourselves up over the damage that they do in our lives. While it’s nice to hear about God’s forgiveness, in reality we sometimes struggle to receive it. Nothing in our lives, nothing in our world, nothing in our hearts makes the hope of amnesty an easy one to hold on to.
    In the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the protagonist, Ulysses Everett McGill, is the practical type. When his companion in a prison break, Delmar, happens upon a baptism in the woods and joins in, he comes back to Everett rejoicing in his forgiveness. He believes in the preacher’s assurance that Piggly-Wiggly robbery for which he went to prison, and his subsequent lying about his innocence, are forgiven in God’s eyes. “Neither God nor man’s got nothing on me now,” he exults.
    To which Everett answers, “I suspect the state of Mississippi might be a tad more hard-nosed.”
    For every amnesty, there’s an Everett, sourly claiming that it can’t be so.
    So, when the Everett in you claims that God’s amnesty is too good to be true, remind yourself of his promise: “I will remember no more.” God doesn’t remember those sins you carry around with you. In Jesus, he offers amnesty, and if you’ve received that amnesty in faith then there’s no reason to be afraid. Be responsible for the consequences of your sins, surely. Treat that amnesty bought by Jesus’ blood as the valuable thing it is, not as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. But don’t carry around your guilt, not when God says he’s forgotten your sins. Receive it, thank him for it, and live a life that’s worthy of it.
     “People feel afraid, no matter how many times we tell them all is forgiven...” Please let go of your fear and guilt and receive the amnesty God offers you in Jesus.
    He doesn’t care to remember your sins. Why should you?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Living, Breathing Church

To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ - their Lord and ours....
-1  Corinthians 1:2 (NIV)

On a family trip to Paris this week, one of the things we've enjoyed is seeing churches. Paris is, of course, filled with historic churches. Their architecture is awe-inspiring, and the role they've played in the more than thousand-year story of the city is undeniable. It's been fascinating to tour them, photograph them, and learn their histories. Sacre Couer, St. Michelle, and, of course, Notre Dame: the names draw nods of appreciation and recognition.
     Frankly, though, I expected to find them to be nothing more than interesting historical and architectural sites. I didn't imagine that I'd find thriving Christian communities. 
     And, well, I guess I didn't, exactly. To my surprise, though, I did find that these places are all pilgrimage destinations for some of the more mystical Catholic faithful from all over the world. Believers come from all parts of the globe to light a candle, say a prayer, go to confession or attend Mass. Not everyone is there just as a tourist; some are there to feel closer to God, or to find his healing or forgiveness, or on behalf of someone they care about. They have a sense of place to their faith, an idea that there are physical places where heaven brushes a little closer to earth, that I don't really understand.
     I don't wish to negate those impulses, either, just because I don't necessarily understand them. Through the centuries, many Christians have done many things in the name of their faith that others didn't understand. That didn't mean they were wrong then, and it doesn't mean they're wrong now.
     Still, it's not hard to see where that sense of place goes a little wrong. 
     When you have to push past people lined up at souvenir stands to get into the churches, it's hard not to imagine Jesus scattering rosaries and keychains and railing about turning his Father's house into a den of thieves. But, then again, would he? If that sense of place is so wrong, why would he care? For the same reason he cared at Jerusalem, I guess; merchandising in a cathedral probably makes it harder for some people to come to God, and for his Father to receive the honor he deserves.
     I also wondered about the communities from which all the faithful came to Notre Dame or Sacre Couer. Do those communities, those churches, get the same kind of devotion? It's easier in some ways, isn't it, to devote yourself to a building thousands of miles away than it is to give yourself in love and service to fellow brothers and sisters in Christ right in your own town, your own neighborhood? Stone and wood and precious metals are beautiful and predictable. People are often, well, not. Sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy as they may well be, people often disappoint, and do so on a grand scale. Sometimes it's just easier to think of a beautiful, majestic cathedral on the Seine as the church than it is a band of flawed people - like us - meeting in a storefront or corner lot or suburban strip mall.
     And yet, back before cathedrals or corner lots in northwest Chicago or huge seeker-sensitive buildings in the 'burbs, it was those flawed people who Paul called the church. They owned no property together; some of them just opened their homes to the rest of them. They weren't incorporated, or tax-exempt, and they certainly didn't sell trinkets to tourists who happened by. They were just a band of women and men who "called on the name of Jesus" together. Some of them likely never met a Christian who they didn't worship with on Sundays.
     Ironically, they might have had a better understanding of the larger world of believers than you and I do. Just as they were brothers and sisters with one another, so they were as well with "all those everywhere who call on the name of Jesus." They had a sense of place, but it was bound up with the people in every place who also wore Jesus' name. Where those people were, there was the church. 
     In our individualistic society, it's tempting to just dismiss the church as even relevant, to imagine we'd do just fine on our own. Yet, with no commitment to the church, our faith flags and falters. 
     But it's also tempting to imagine that our little structures, and he people who assemble there, are all there is to the church. It's easy to become arrogant, or narrow, or just unaware of others all over the world and throughout history who share our faith - sometimes in very different circumstances from us. We can learn much from one another.
      Yesterday, we visited a building that was supposed to be a church, built by Louis XVI. Unfortunately for him, just before he finished it the Revolution came. Yet another church didn't seem relevant in Revolutionary France, and this one became the Pantheon - a temple to reason and crypt for some the great French luminaries of history.
      That's what happens, I guess, when believers stop thinking the church to be relevant. We tend to abandon the faith, and deify Humanity.
     Sunday, my family and I will visit yet another church. This one isn't a grand cathedral or beautiful chapel. It's a group of people who meet in just a regular building in Paris. We don't know them, and they don't know us. Yet, when we call on the name of Jesus together, when we share the bread and cup, they'll be family. And that, to me, will be a moment of more significance than anything that happened in any of those other churches. 
     I hope you'll have significant moments of your own this week, with living, breathing churches that serve the Lord, each other, and the world together.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Of Dropped Stones and Chicken Sandwiches

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
    At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
    “No one, sir,” she said.
    “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.1
-John 8:6-11 (NIV)

I just wanted a chicken sandwich.
    That’s all. I like the chicken sandwiches at that place, and there’s not one close to me. So, on a visit to Tennessee, I decided to stop by. But it was Wednesday night, and I didn’t know that supporters of the chain’s stance against gay marriage had planned to show their support by eating there. The line that ran out into the mall discouraged me somewhat. The politics swirling around a chicken sandwich decided me. Having a chicken sandwiches shouldn’t be a political statement or a thought crime. I’d have a chicken sandwich tomorrow, instead.
    The woman could have been a chronic liar. She might have been a thief. That she had been caught in adultery doesn’t make her different from a dishonest executive, a corrupt government official, a violent husband, an abusive father, or an employee who steals time from his employer. We assume sexual sin is somehow worse than other sins, and that certain kinds of sexual sin are worse yet. But whether she was an adulteress, or a liar, or even in a homosexual relationship, the root problem was the same. She was living a life of sin. She was a sinner.
    You may have noticed that the world is full of them. Sinners, that is.
    It’s a label that’s sometimes used as a weapon: to exclude, to condemn, to differentiate between “us” and “them.” When it’s used that way, of course, it’s by people who don’t consider themselves sinners - at least by and large. It’s usually religious people who use the label that way.2 It’s an easy way, I guess, for church people to deal with the fact that there are those in the world who don’t share our moral compasses. The exclusion and judgment that “sinners” sometimes associate with the church is the path of least resistance. It allows us to hold on to the moral high ground without having to help people wrestle with faith, or without the inconvenience of being a part of the Holy Spirit’s work in transforming human lives. Just call them “sinners,” feign a little sorrow that “small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to salvation,” and tell yourself that you’ve done everything you can. Or at least everything you have to do.
    The fact is, of course, that many issues of morality in our culture have become political issues. While some of us who are Christians still speak the language of sin and morality, we really mean to talk about who’s in charge, who’s in power, who calls the shots. That’s why gay marriage has become the issue du jour; it’s the perfect blend of politics and morality, the perfect backdrop for the power struggle that we perceive to be going on for “the soul of America,” or whatever we choose to label it.
    That’s the power struggle that the teachers of the Law and Pharisees are fighting when they bring the woman to Jesus. On their face, the facts are easy - as easy as, well, as this woman apparently is. “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women,” they say. And they’re not wrong. Except that they’re really fighting another battle. As far as they’re concerned, it’s them vs. Jesus, with Traditional Values themselves at stake.
    But Jesus isn’t fighting their battle. Their Traditional Values aren’t his, and in the tension of the moment Jesus bends down and writes on the ground. We don’t know what he wrote. The story doesn’t tell us. Some interpreters think he was writing Bible verses. Some think he was jotting down a list of the sins of the assembled mob. Whatever he was writing, by writing it he gave the woman’s accusers room to think about their own sins and motivations. Why are they so concerned with condemning this woman? Why is it so easy for them to see her sin, and so easy for them to dismiss their own? How could morality so easily become so self-serving?
    And it only takes that moment of thought for the moral high ground they were standing on to slip away beneath their feet.
     A moment of thought is exactly what those of us who so easily slip into the role of modern-day Pharisees and teachers of the Law need. A moment to think about our own sins. A moment to think about the mercy our God has shown us, and the mercy he would show all of his creation. A moment to consider how we respond when accusations are heated and those of us who know God’s love best ought to have a redemptive word to speak.
    After the woman’s accusers have left, of course, Jesus says two things to the woman. Two things, and in the correct order. First, he says, “Neither do I condemn you.” And, if we’re serious about following Jesus, we need to show through love and friendship that we don’t condemn those who live sinful lives. We can disagree with them. We can and should let them know of our convictions. But above all they must know we love them, or we’ve missed Jesus’ heart. And they’ll only know when we live with them, when we’re faithful to them, when we stand up for them - when we show them day after day.
    Second, Jesus tells the woman, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” Only after we’ve loved someone do we have the credibility to say this. Only after we’ve shown them that our love for them, like God’s, is unconditional, might they listen to us when we say, “You need to change your life.” Not because we say so, but because their Creator and Lord say so. Not because we’ll stop loving them if they don’t, but because God’s love for them never stops.
    I don’t think Jesus would have lined up Wednesday to eat a chicken sandwich. Neither do I think he’d boycott the whole chain. Somehow, I think he might want to elevate the controversy. To remind people on both sides of the love of his Father and the hope of the kingdom. And to remind those of us who wear his name to think a moment about our own experience of God’s grace before we presume to open our mouths to say anything to a sinner.
    Maybe over a chicken sandwich?

1 I’m aware that current scholarship doesn’t consider this story an original part of the Gospel of John. While I don’t disagree with that position, there are a fair number of scholars who do consider the story a genuine part of the Jesus tradition, whether it belongs in the Gospel of John or not.

2 Non-religious people use other terms to label and marginalize those who disagree with their worldviews. Charges of “intolerance” and “hate” are currently two favorites.