Come home to Calvary
I grew up in the Bible Belt, in a Korean immigrant church that valued language and cultural connections more than denominational differences. So it was quite common that we’d work ecumenically with the Korean Methodist or Baptist or Pentecostal churches in the city.
As a result, I grew up going to a lot of revivals that culminated in a weepy altar call. Our church never held those ourselves, but we sometimes attended them together as a youth group.
And if I had a penny for every time I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, I probably wouldn’t have gotten caught stealing from Claire’s at the mall because I could’ve afforded those hair clips!
A youth pastor actually once told me, “You’ve gone up a lot of times for these altar calls. I think at least one of them has stuck.”
I can joke about it now. But as a thirteen-year-old who sometimes stole things, and sometimes lied, and sometimes let my eye wander to that cute highschooler, I was convinced that my sins tainted all of who I was. And if was indeed forgiven and “saved,” why did I continue to do things they told me I shouldn’t be doing?
And so, with the music playing, and the preacher calling, and tears streaming down my face, as my young mind obsessed over every little thing I’d done wrong since the last revival, I would accept Jesus into my heart once again, vowing that this time, things would be different. I wouldn’t backslide. I wouldn’t keep sinning those same sins.
But of course, I would. Because we’re human. And we’re not perfect. And because at thirteen it’s completely developmentally-appropriate to have crushes.
As an adult who has embraced a different kind of Christianity now, I recognize how very emotionally manipulative some of those revivals were. We once had a guest speaker come to a retreat and yell at us that we were spoiled brats living in sin. Now, that may have been true. But religious experiences where you’re berated for how bad you are, and then coerced through guilt to ask for forgiveness and redemption, are not, in my opinion, sustainable.
That’s not to say, God cannot be found in those moments, or that the spiritual experiences of those transformed at these events are invalid. God is everywhere and can use anything to be revealed.
But it’s just to say, that when I think of forgiveness and my faith, that’s what first comes to mind for me. And that is troubling to me.
We live in a world where the phrase, “begging for forgiveness” is a thing; where punitive justice is used so much more than restorative justice; and where religion is too often a means of control with guilt as its weapon; rather than a way of life with love as its goal.
James Baldwin once said, “I conceive of God, in fact, as a means of liberation and not a means to control others.”
How refreshing is that? And how different would our political and social landscape be if that’s how we all understood God?
But sadly, it’s not.
Now, I will say that I do believe in John Calvin’s theological premise of “total depravity” because have you seen this world? But what he was trying to say is not that we are incapable of goodness. He was saying that no matter how much good we do, it still won’t earn us God’s love or grace.
Because there’s nothing we can or cannot do to earn it. But the good news of the gospel is this: that God’s love and grace are freely given. To borrow the words of St. Paul, “It is a gift of God and not a result of works,” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Now, confession and repentance are and should be a part of our life and faith. The Hebrew word for repentance is shuv, and shuv literally means to turn – to turn away from that which pulls us away from God, and to turn towards God once again.
Psalm 51 is a moment when we experience the King of Israel, when faced with his own sin, repenting and confessing and turning once again to God. This psalm is said to have been written by King David after the prophet Nathan confronts him of the evil he has committed by taking and raping Bathsheba.
It is David’s prayer of confession – his shuv, his turn back to God. Without this moment, David could not have the legacy of faithfulness that he does. But these penitential psalms are actually quite rare in the book, only 7 out of 150!
And I think that has something to do with what Richard Rohr says. He writes, “Jesus tried to change people by loving and healing them. His harshest words of judgment were reserved for those who perpetuated systems of inequality and oppression and who, through religion itself, thought they were sinless and untouchable.”
God lifts up the brokenhearted and penitent but brings down the mighty and self-righteous.
God doesn’t kick you while you’re down; God doesn’t hate you or expect you to fail. And contrary to popular opinion, guilt is not God’s main MO.
God delights in you.
And here’s the thing: repentance that comes – not from guilt or self-hatred – but from gratitude, belonging, and love is what, I believe, ultimately transforms us.
Yes, we mess up, all the time, as individuals and as a people. And, honestly, if we could just collectively repent and confess of our sins of misogyny, xenophobia, fear, and hate, or as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described as “the three evils of society: racism, militarism, and materialism,” we would all be in a far better place to begin the journey towards true peace and reconciliation.
So yes, there is absolutely a need to recognize and confess and repent, to pull up Psalm 51 and pray it on our own behalf as our prayer of confession. Sometimes we need a good confession to cleanse us of all that binds us, be it our sins, debts, or trespasses.
Now, we’re gonna take a quick detour into biblical Gree and the most common translations of The Lord’s Prayer. It’s probably a preaching faux pas to do so, but I think you can handle it!
The word Jesus uses in Matthew is opheilemata, and it is used only twice in all of scripture – here when Jesus teaches us to pray and in Romans 4:4 where it’s translated as “something due.”
Everywhere else, the word for sin in Greek is harmatia which means to err or quite literally “miss the mark.”
Opheilemata, on the other hand, is much closer to the English words that mean debt or obligation or what is due to someone.
So forgive us our opheilemata rather than harmatia means more: forgive us what we owe to you, O God; than it means forgive us our sins.
Now, considering how abundant and gracious God is with us, there is certainly a lot we owe back to God. But we don’t need to punish ourselves every time we fall short of what God deserves.
There’s a great quote on social media that says, “When God put a calling on your life; God already factored in your stupidity.” That’s the most comforting thing I’ve heard in a long time!
So here’s the thing: Trauma is not a necessity to experience goodness. And self-hatred is not the pathway to God’s love.
God’s grace abounds.
The Psalmist writes: “The Lord does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is God’s steadfast love … as far as the east is from the west, so far does God remove our transgressions from us.”
This is God’s assurance of pardon. We are forgiven. And it’s not about what we can do or will do. It’s about God.
Monsignor Eric Barr writes this:
How does the thief on the cross fit into your theology?
No baptism, no communion, no confirmation, no speaking in tongues, no mission trip, no volunteerism, and no church clothes.
He couldn’t even bend his knees to pray.
He didn’t say the sinner’s prayer, and among other things, he was a thief.
Jesus didn’t take away his pain, heal his body, or smite the scoffers.
Yet it was a thief who walked into heaven the same hour as Jesus simply by believing. He had nothing more to offer than his belief that Jesus was who he said he was.
No spin from brilliant theologians. No ego or arrogance.
No shiny lights, skinny jeans, or crafty words.
No haze machine, donuts, or coffee in the entrance.
Just a naked, dying man on a cross unable to even fold his hands to pray.
What do we make of forgiveness like that?
That is the way of Jesus; the wideness and depth of God’s forgiveness.
And friends, do you remember the story of the prodigal son? If not, you can read up on it this week in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15.
What did his father make him do to rejoin the family and take his place back on the farm? How did the wayward son prove himself and show his regret?
He simply turned to go back home. Nothing else. No penance, no “hail marys”.
He was received with open arms, and a party was thrown for him. Even before he could utter the words for an apology, he was embraced.
God does not give out a carefully rationed apportionment of grace. It is freely given, prodigiously and abundantly until our cups overflow. That’s what God’s forgiveness is like.
Sure, changed behavior is expected, but not as a requirement for forgiveness, but rather, as a result and a response to grace.
On the first Sundays of the month, Calvary celebrates communion. And at Calvary, we believe that all are invited to the Table, regardless of how often we’ve been to church, what church we’ve been to, what we’ve believed or what we’ve failed to believe.
You, each and every one of you, are welcome at this Table. Because this table is not my table or the church’s table. It is Jesus’s table.
And on that first Maundy Thursday, when Jesus shared this meal with his disciples, he didn’t withhold it from Judas whom he knew would betray him.
Even Judas ate. Forgiveness offered even before the betrayal.
That is the way of Christ. It is a radical inclusion. A radical forgiveness. A radical welcome. And a radical hospitality.
This week, as I grappled with what it means for God to forgive us, a poem by Mary Oliver came to mind. “Wild Geese” – the first few lines of the poem say this:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
To me, that’s what sounds like forgiveness from God, a gentle but firm loving into who we are created to be. Not a fire and brimstone, fear-based guilt trip. But a love that softly and with purpose allows us to grow.
In a version of The Lord’s Prayer translated directly from the Aramaic, sent to the pastors this week by Jamia Konrad, the line “forgive us our sins” says this instead: “Untie the tangled threads of destiny that bind us.”
Forgiveness is for the sake of unbinding and untangling ourselves for the sake of our growth and flourishing, to cleanse and release us of all that binds us to a small and stunted way of life.
Beloved children of God, all of who you are is loved by your creator. Perfection – not required, just a willing heart and a commitment to love deeply, albeit not always well.
You are offered grace today in the form of bread and juice. Perhaps tomorrow it will be in the form of a thoughtful text or coffee with a friend.
But today, just like the prodigal who has returned home, a feast has been prepared for you.
So come and eat at the welcome table.
Thanks be to God, Amen.
For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.