This past week I suggested Tracy and I switch places—I would do all the invoices and she could preach on Sunday. She started laughing and told me that she knew exactly what she would preach—SINNERS! You’re all sinners. Not because she thought we were exceptional as sinners, per se, but because she had been brought up in a family full of Southern Baptists and was the only one to have broken free—and that was the Christian message she had been immersed in all of her life.
Most of us are pretty aware of that message of sin. It’s the starting point for so many of our friends and family and the churches they belong to. It is the way they approach religion and understand their need for God—we are sinners in need of redemption. It’s not necessarily wrong, but I do believe that message has weaponized religion and even harmed many who find no solace or comfort in those words.
We are all sinners in need of redemption. We spend forty days of Lent and four weeks in Advent immersing ourselves in that knowledge. But we also know that we are more than sinners—we are beloved children of God, created in his image, and defined as good:
So God created humankind in his image,
In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and…God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.
Scripture tells us over and over again that God loves us. He said to Abraham, “You will be my people and I will be your God” entering into a relationship for both parties to love one another. Jesus ask Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Not because God needed reassurance of that love, but to impress upon Peter that love was, is, and ever will be the foundation of the relationship we have with God. Paul tells us that of faith, hope, and love—the greatest of these is love.
This morning, we hear the greatest and first commandment and the second one that is like it—love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Everything—the rules, the Torah, the words spoken by the prophets to warn the people of what may come when they fall out of relationship with God, the canons of the church, the rubrics in the Prayer Book, liturgy and music, outreach, pastoral care—everything hangs on this love; is rooted in this love; matters because of this love. Without this love, we are simply noisy gongs and clanging symbols. But to understand how we live out this love is grounded in how we understand our starting point in our relationship with God.
For most Episcopalians, our starting point is as beloved children of God. That doesn’t mean we are better or worse than other Christians, it simply means that we approach our relationship with God from a different perspective. Instead of standing in a place of judgement, we stand in a place of acceptance. We understand our need for reverence and honor and righteousness in our relationship with God, but it is not a reverence or respect based in shame.
When our starting point is that of a sinner in need of redemption, then we approach God from a place of shame and humiliation which limits our ability to love God, much less ourselves. It’s not that we aren’t sinners, or that we don’t need redemption; we are sinners and our redemption happened long ago in a place called Calvary. As Christians, we hold on to that redemption and honor it as the ultimate act of love that God offers his people. Incarnation, death, and resurrection are salvific acts of God not because of our guilt and shame but because of God’s love.
Too often, we project our broken understanding of what it means to be in relationship with each other onto what it means to be in relationship with God. We act like whiny children who believe if we pout and cry enough tears, we can meld God to our will. Or that by apologizing, God will be swayed into coming around to our side of things. We don’t know or understand what it means to be in an honest relationship with one another, some of us don’t even know how to be that way with ourselves—so how could we ever understand how to be in relationship with God? Instead we project onto God our feelings of inadequacy and the guilt we carry in response to all the times we have fallen short of being who we want to be.
But we don’t change God. Our tears, our apologies are not the agents of change when it comes to God. Only God can change God—and God does so out of love, especially love for us. God created us he does not wish to destroy us. God wants only good things for us—he desires our success and joy—and he wants to be a part of that with us. Evelyn Underhill says, “God is the interesting thing about religion.” It’s not us—we are really not that interesting at all—we are not what religion is about.
If we can get ourselves out of the center of our picture and put God there instead—we just might discover that all the ways we fall short, all the sin we are guilty of, all the shame we feel is self-derived and blurs how we see ourselves as Christians and how we see God. But if we can change our picture, putting God in the center, then we just might see how much God loves us and looks beyond our self-pity to see our possibility. That is what it means to have a starting point that says, “I am a beloved child of God.” Imagine all the possibilities when you can claim that status!
There are two starting points in our relationship with God. One of those is as sinners in need of redemption. The other is as a beloved child of God. When we believe and recognize our starting point as our belovedness, we no longer claim judgment on those who start at sinner in need of redemption. We release all need for judgment in favor of acceptance—the acceptance we are offered by God. To live into the love that the greatest commandment offers is to live into a love that accepts God and God’s love as well as accepts neighbor and self with compassion, not judgment.
To practice compassion for yourself and for others is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. That compassion is rooted in our belovedness as children of God. Amen.
21 Pentecost 25A: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6,13-17; I Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Montgomery, AL
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
Sunday, October 25, 2020